‘Farmland birds in Europe fall to lowest levels‘ is a terribly sad headline. And we should be raging that things have got so bad.
The grey (or ‘English’) partridge is in free-fall right across Europe with a decline of two thirds in numbers since 1990, and of 82% since 1980 according to the European Bird Census Council which collates and analyses the data from European bird monitoring schemes.
The RSPB used the release to reinforce the need for Europe-wide investment in a Common Agricultural Policy that helps nature much more. That’s right and that’s what you would expect them to say (but it is right!).
Since it is not really news (!) only a few papers picked up this story even though it represents a fundamental change in the nature of Europe – however you define nature. The Guardian gave it good coverage (Guardian wildlife coverage is improving – but has a bit further to go) and there were pieces in the Sun and Telegraph too (but not online).
To get a different view on wildlife’s need for CAP reform we can always turn to the NFU. Here is what NFU countryside advisor (!), Andrea Graham, says and an annotated version is reproduced below:
“Although these numbers are disappointing, it’s important to remember that the reasons behind the headlines are very complex and not all attributable to farming practices. Other factors at play include extreme weather events, predators and urbanisation. MIA: no, Andrea, it’s not very important to remember that as there is good scientific evidence to show that the way we farm the countryside is the main cause of most of these declines. Could you please point us towards the science that shows that predators are important, at a European level, in these declines? There isn’t any is there? And the NFU certainly do not have a clue on this subject. You are just trying to make this issue seem complicated so that you don’t have to address it, aren’t you?
“While the overall European trend is down, there is a lot of variation depending on which regions of Europe you look at. It’s just too simplistic to pin the blame and indeed the solution only on the need for further CAP reform. MIA: good point here – the variation between countries is related to the intensity of the farming in those countries. That’s why the farmland wildlife declines in the UK, particularly England, are worse than in most other European countries. We’ve dealt with this before in this blog and many other places. It’s not a secret and it’s not difficult to understand. So the point you make reinforces the view that we need to soften the impact of intensive farming on nature by adjusting the CAP funding. Again, you are just trying to make this seem complex and avoiding addressing it.
“It’s important to recognise the good work that has happened, including changes to the CAP which have put a much greater emphasis on the environment in recent years. For example, since 2007, the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) has accounted for a significant £3.9 billion of the CAP for the period 2007 to 2013. The main focus of the RDPE has been to support agri-environment schemes which enable farmers to participate in positive environmental management of the countryside. MIA: yes that is important to remember and no-one has forgotten it. But it’s also important to look at the impact on wildlife, and these figures, updated but telling the same story as usual, show that the CAP spend must be greater and/or better targetted if it is to make a noticeable impact. Most of CAP spend is income support for farmers rather than a lifeline for wildlife. Here you are trying to give the impression that lots o good things are happening so nothing needs to change.
“The uptake and engagement with farmers in these schemes and other voluntary activity has seen an impressive step change since 2005 and the industry is working hard with other industry, wildlife and government partners to understand the reasons for the continued decline in farmland bird populations and to take action to try to turn around the trend. MIA: the investment of public money has increased since 2005 and yet a combination of poor scheme-design (not helped by the NFU) and poor uptake of the best options by farmers has limited the value of that investment. Again, an attempt to say that enough is happening already.
“Improvements to environment schemes such as the Entry Level Stewardship in recent years have helped increase the uptake of options that are tailored specifically at helping farmland birds thrive. MIA: but not enough because farmland birds are not thriving. Urgent improvements to ELS are needed from Defra otherwise we might as well just burn £20 notes for all the good it will do. Another attempt to talk up the action at the moment and talk down the serious loss of wildlife.
“The launch of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment in 2009 also had a real impact in helping farmers and growers decide how they might best retain and increase the environmental benefits provided by their farmland in a targeted and agronomically sensible way. The RSPB are a key partner in the Campaign and we will continue to work positively and constructively with them as a leading conservation organisation.” MIA: yes, we know.
This is the NFU wildlife advisor quoted here – and what she says plays down the scale of wildlife loss and trys to paint a picture that there is nothing to be worried about as far as wildlife is concerned. Any farmer seeing the NFU quoted in this way will begin to believe that conservation organisations are making a fuss about nothing. The NFU is a ‘fundamentally anti-environment‘ organisation.
But many farmers do great things for wildlife and you can show your appreciation by voting for one of them. Today and tomorrow are your last chances to vote for the UK’s most wildlife-friendly farmer – please do! My vote has already gone to Rob Law, and I saw him at the Bird Fair hob-nobbing with Jordan’s cereals and a lot of wildlife conservation groups. But even if you don’t agree with me that this Rob should win, there are other worthwhile farmers in the short list.