By Roger Harrabin, Environment analyst
December 20 2013. Wildlife groups have accused the government of caving in to big farmers over planned changes to farm subsidies in England. The government proposed increasing the proportion of farm payments transferred to protecting wildlife from 9% to 15%. But it backed it down to 12% after farmers said this was not fair. The government said it would be spending a bigger share on the environment despite a smaller overall budget for subsidies.
Farmers get £50bn of taxpayers’ money a year based mainly on the amount of land they own, and the EU set out this year to ensure that they earned their grants by protecting the countryside. Little changed as the plans were fought successfully by farmers across Europe. Environment Secretary Owen Paterson had said he wanted to make a difference by transferring 15% of grants away from direct payments for farmers and into protecting wildlife and helping the rural economy. The Welsh government has stuck to its plan to take 15% off direct farm payments but the Scottish government has shaved off 9.5%.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) said most European counterparts were transferring less. Farmers were relieved but wildlife groups said a crucial chance to bring birds back to the countryside had been missed. Mr Paterson said: “England’s £15bn Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) must deliver real benefits to farming, rural businesses, the countryside and the taxpayer. Today’s decision will see £3.5bn invested in the environment and rural development schemes over the next seven years. This is a significant change in the way we allocate CAP money and even with a smaller overall CAP budget, the government will be spending a bigger share of the budget on the environment than before.”
The NFU lobbied strongly against the maximum cut. But some of its members are unhappy about that stance. Georgina Edge farms in Shropshire in a way that encourages wildlife. She claims to have three times more bird species on her land than on any neighbouring farm. She told BBC News: “Our farm can’t make a profit unless we are rewarded for wildlife and if the NFU has undermined that it won’t be acting in my interest.”
Mike Clarke from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said: “The deal falls short of what nature needs. The government has made its job of meeting its own environmental commitments harder.” The RSPB did say though that the government had planted the seeds for recovery of some threatened species. Friends of the Earth’s Paul de Zylva accused the government of short changing taxpayers. “Farmers already pocket huge amounts of cash without having to farm in ways that reduce their effect on wildlife, water and soils,” he said.
The NFU’s Meurig Raymond said:”I am delighted the environment secretary has decided to keep modulation (grant-switching) below the maximum level.” The Tenant Farmers’ Association chairman Jeremy Walker added: “This shows the benefit of industry lobbying.” A clause in the document will force the issue to resurface after four years when the proposal for taking the full 15% will be reviewed.