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What will the cuts mean for farmland birds like this Yellowhammer?

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Frontline Online: Biodiversity in Europe hit by “terrible” Euro-budget deal

February 13th, 2013

by Lorna Howarth

The Ecologist's Lorna Howarth reports on news and action from the environmental frontline....

I was only thinking last week that I haven’t seen a yellowhammer since I was a child – back then, they seemed to be as common as sparrows. And whilst I did see a blackcap in my garden in early January, the diversity of birds visiting my feeders over the years seems to have dwindled too: greenfinches are a rarity now as are mistle thrushes. I can’t recall the last time I heard the cuckoo.

So I was really disappointed to find out that the new European Budget agreed on 8th February has cut the amount of money available for wildlife-friendly farming throughout Europe by a staggering 11 billion Euros. “Wildlife across Europe will pay a heavy price for this terribly regressive deal, and we’re bound to see further declines in some bird species whose numbers have crashed. Since the 1980s Europe has lost 300 million farmland birds – how many more will we lose over the next seven years?” says Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Conservation Director. 

I’ve seen first-hand what wildlife-friendly farming practices can achieve. There is a beautiful field near where I live, bounded by hedges and falling-away steeply towards the sea. It has been ‘set-aside’ for several years now and is not grazed, but allowed to develop its own natural ecosystems.

It harbours a variety of wild flowers: ladies smock in early spring, valuable food for the orange-tipped butterflies; swathes of ragged robin and pink campion and later a plethora of umbeliferous plants that attract hoverflies and other beneficial insects.

All around the air is humming with life – skylarks soar above and swallows sweep acrobatically hoovering-up the flies. Stonechats perch and preen and the resident pair of peregrine falcons take aim and pick-off their lunch.  

In the winter the plants die back, leaving tussocks of matted grass like little thatched domes where mice and ground-dwelling birds take shelter. Today, in the driving sleet, I put my hand inside one of these tufts and found it to be dry and warm inside. If this field were to be grazed as short as a golf course by the sheep that have done the same to the surrounding fields, then all this life would be gone. 

Before this budget revision, the UK received about £500m for wildlife-friendly farming payments, but a previous study showed that at best this was only half of the sum needed to fund environmental priorities. The need for concerted action to restore farmland wildlife in the UK remains as great as ever. Some typical farmland species, like the skylark, have shown massive declines.

Since 1978, the UK has lost over 350 skylarks a day; that’s one every four minutes. That is a shockingly sad statistic, not only for the species but also for humanity as the skylark has long been a muse for poets and musicians.

Martin Harper and members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are pinning their hopes on the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, who could still choose to prioritise wildlife-friendly farming. “Owen Paterson, and his counterparts in the devolved administrations, now need to take the necessary decisions to make good on their environmental promises.

This is nothing less than those 30,000 RSPB supporters who contacted David Cameron recently expect. This would require using flexibility to shift as much funding as possible from direct payments into Rural Development, the bit of the Common Agricultural Policy that can really drive more sustainable farming, ” says Harper.

So now the burning question is, will Owen Paterson and his colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland show political leadership and use their powers wisely to ensure that as much funding as possible will go towards those farmers and land managers who provide the greatest benefits for wildlife and the countryside? Other EU leaders certainly need a good example to follow – otherwise the biodiversity of Europe is under serious threat.

Lorna Howarth is a writer and environmentalist. She is a contributing editor to Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and the founder of a small independent publishing agency:

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