More Environment less Agri: by Mick Green

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Tue May 25 15:02:41 BST 2004

More Environment – less Agri:  by Mick Green

Published in the latest addition of Ecos [Vol. 25,(2)]
Ecos is the journal of the British Association of Nature Conservation

(references are numbered and listed below article).

Agri-environment schemes are getting promoted as the answer to all our rural ills, yet they are no more than a subsidy by another name, skewing land prices and poor value for money in terms of wildlife ‘production’. We need a new approach to land ownership and the responsibilities that entails.

A walk in the country:
I went for a walk this morning. Down the lane past the nearest farm – they’re in the organic aid scheme and the Tir Gofal Agri-environment scheme. They appear to have used the money to buy an even bigger tractor which must have come in useful when they tore out the hedges. Then across the main road and up the track. There’s a new stile in the hedge with a label telling me its paid for out of public money and I’m graciously allowed access across that field as part of the ‘Tir Gofal’ agri-environment scheme. Trouble is, it doesn’t tell me where the path goes, but it does warn me it may be closed at times. I follow the old public footpath on up the hill, climb the gate across the path that’s been wired closed. Another hedgerow (or what was a hedgerow until it was flailed so close, and grazed so hard from both sides it became a row of shrubs) lies in a smoking pile in the field alongside a new wire fence. Down the lane full of thorns and cuttings from the newly flailed hedge – blackberries ripened early this year, so the hedges have to be massacred early as well. Another day in our countryside, looked after by its custodians. Trouble is, all this ‘looking after’ of the countryside costs money. But never mind. I get back and there’s the new ECOS on the mat with suggestions for another scheme to give the custodians more money in agri-environment payments. (1)

No! Enough! Why should we pay subsidies under the guise of helping the environment to an industry that has proved incapable of basic environmental stewardship of the land it controls? The term ‘agri-environment’ says it all – these are agricultural subsidies with a bit of an environmental gloss to try and make them acceptable. The proposal for an ‘entry level’ scheme only compounds the problem. Hodge and Renwick  propose that the entry level scheme should involve payments for ‘basic land stewardship’. Why should public money pay for this? If the agricultural industry are the custodians of the land they claim to be should we not assume that their custody extends to a good level of basic stewardship? Many of the basic requirements of current schemes involve nothing more than complying with the law and of basic principles of good practice. Why should we pay for these – I do not get paid for obeying the speed limit and following the highway code yet it is expected of me when I exercise my right to drive (and I am prosecuted if I do not). Landowners constantly harp on about their ‘rights’ being threatened by those, like me, separated from the land after centuries of exclusion (2) who dare to comment on how our money is spent, and yet we hear nothing of the responsibilities that go with those rights.  The early ESA payments, where farmers only entered the lowest tier, showed little impact on wildlife (3) and the RSPB have shown that the higher ESA tiers are more cost effective(4), and yet we still talk about an even lower tier of payment. In Wales the Tir Gofal scheme is being fast tracked before there is proof that the prescriptions work and without enough staff time available to properly assess the needs of the individual holding or monitor the results. There is little evidence that agri-environment schemes are effective in delivering more wildlife – despite the millions spent on them there is little monitoring, and where there is some monitoring programmes are poorly designed and generally  ‘inadequate to assess reliably the effectiveness of the schemes’(5). Political pressure is to get money to landowners and not to improve the ecological health of the countryside.

Agri-environment has proved an expensive toffee hammer to try and crack the nut of modern farming and the CAP.  It has failed to even start a change in the overall direction of farming. While intensification payments were taken eagerly, pastures ploughed, hedges removed and stock numbers increased, agri –environment payments are taken more grudgingly, prescriptions are argued over and compliance is poor. A few years ago I visited a farm in a Welsh agri-environment scheme. Hedges were ‘managed for wildlife’ which in reality meant they had been double fenced to protect vegetation in the base of the hedge – the tops were still flailed. A permissive footpath up to a ‘viewpoint’ had been allowed. And that was it. The benefit to the environment was little, and yet the landowner – John Lloyd Jones, then Chair of NFU Wales – thought it was a great improvement. But the attitude of the farmer – that wildlife is vermin – had not changed. John was happy to encourage wildlife in his hedges, but if it dared venture into his closely grazed fields he told me he would ‘zap it’. While production subsidies were successful in persuading landowners to extract the maximum from their land, agri-environment payments have failed to change attitudes to wildlife and to encourage farming with Nature rather than against it. (By the way – John Lloyd Jones is now Chair of the Countryside Council for Wales which spends a lot of its time giving money to landowners)

Agri-environment payments as agricultural subsidies, especially broad based area payments such as those suggested by Hodge and Renwick, also add to the false high value of land, continuing the exclusion of those who would like to sustainably manage land for food production, nature conservation or whatever. The current proposals in England for production subsidies to move to a single farm payment based on the area of the farm will compound this problem – the more land you have the more money you get and never mind the wildlife. The Welsh approach of payments based on historic rates (how much land you had and how much stock) will also make it difficult for new entrants and bias payments to the more intensive holdings.

Payments for environmental works should be treated as grant not subsides, and given with the rigour of grant schemes. If a conservation organisation applies for money for environmental work on a piece of land it is nearly always in the form of a grant. Usually at a maximum of 50% it is assessed, fine tuned, subject to rigorous compliance monitoring and often as not paid in arrears when proof of the work having been done can be given. If I, as an individual try to apply for money there’s little chance of getting it unless I happen to own a registered agricultural holding. 
There should be commitment to ongoing management of the work that receives public money. With current agri schemes at the end of the agreement, the landowner can then plough up the pasture, grub out the wood or whatever.

Agri reform
Some of this may not be possible within the CAP, but we should push the rules as far as is possible to decouple environmental payments from agricultural subsidy – it should be seen as payment for environmental goods, not as an agri-based subsidy scheme. While we are stuck with the CAP agri-environment payments should at least be far better targeted. In particular I suggest:
•	Strict enforcement of current laws on such things as hedgerow regulations, SSSIs, pollution etc.
•	Payments should be dependent on, and not for, basic good stewardship of the land. Landowners should demonstrate good stewardship before they receive any payments.
•	Payments should be by results.
•	Landowners should be required to work together before receiving payments in some cases, such as restoring wetlands across ownership boundaries.
•	Schemes should be specific to each site and not based on broad prescriptions.
•	Payments should include agreements for maintaining work paid for beyond the end of an agreement.
•	Payments to be available to a wider range of occupiers of the land – not just those registered as ‘agricultural’.
•	Much stricter compliance monitoring.
•	Proper research and monitoring programmes to assess the effectiveness of schemes with the ability to change schemes mid term if they are shown to be not working.

Land reform
Longer term we need real reform of land ownership in Britain. There are currently only about 134,000 landowners in England and Wales(6), and, encouraged by Government policy, the number is getting less. Less and less people owning more and more land, receiving more and more subsidy while presiding over the continuing decline of our wildlife. What we need is wider land ownership and more community control of land. If more people could reconnect with the land, reconnecting with Nature, we may find more support for widespread conservation initiatives. At the very least we need wider access to ‘our’ land -  land that has been paid for many times over by public subsidy. The ‘right to roam’ legislation was a start but access to land – real access, to pick the blackberries, swim in the rivers – is vital if we are to help more people understand Nature and see both the damage we have done and the healing we can do. Land reform in Scotland is a start, with communities taking control of their own patch. We also see the start in Wales with local people buying a mountain(7), but there is little sign of encouragement from the Assembly for such initiatives. In the long term purchase of land would be a lot cheaper than continuing to subsidise uneconomic farming practices but there seems to be little political will for anything that could be labelled ‘nationalisation’. 

I have no cunning plan as to how to get from here to there, but here are some suggestions to start:

•	Tax on land. Currently land is one of the few assets untaxed. A tax on land would reduce the incentive to hold large areas and redress the imbalance caused by subsidies. A tax free allowance, plus tax credits for environmental works could be used to encourage smaller land holdings, sustainable enterprises etc.
•	A change in the planning rules for sustainable living on the land.(8)
•	Land use change subject to full planning control.
•	Purchase of land by public bodies for sustainable agriculture to be let at rates that do not require intensive exploitation of the land to make a return – something of a return to the county smallholdings to let people make a start on the land.
•	A proper right to roam giving people access to land everywhere.
•	Apply the ‘polluter pays’ principle to agriculture, with a tax on fertiliser and pesticides to reduce use and pay for clean up of water supplies etc(9).

We need an end to subsidy for land ownership, and a move to where payments are only made if Nature benefits, and where the results can be enjoyed by all those who are paying for it.

Mick Green is a freelance Environmental consultant. He can be contacted via e-mail at: mick at

1.  Hodge I and Renwick A. 2003. Developing agri-environment schemes – towards a rural development policy. ECOS 24 (2)
2. See history in Shoard M. 1987 This Land is Our Land – the struggle for Britain’s Countryside. Paladin.
3. Green M and Orme E. 1992. ESAs – Assessment and Recommendations. FoE.
4.  Merricks P. 2003. Agri-environment – some thoughts from the marsh. ECOS 24 (2)
5. Kleijn D and Sutherland W. 2003. How effective are agi-environment schemes in conserving and promoting biodiversity? Journal of Applied Ecology. 40. 947-969.
6.  Cahill K, 2003. Plots of Money. Guardian 20/8/03
7. Fazey, D. 2003. Seeing over the hill…. A vision for community land ownership in Wales. ECOS 24(2)
8. Farlie S. 2003. A place in the country? ECOS 24(2). But note that PPG7 only applies to England. We need similar reform in the rest of the UK.
9. FoE. 1991. Off the Treadmill – A way forward for Farmers and the Countryside. FoE London.

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