25 September 1998

Conservation crucial to future of lowland farms

By Shelley Wright

SWITCHING up to £2bn a year into agri-environment schemes is essential if traditional lowland countryside is to be maintained, according to John Cousins, agricultural policy director of the Wildlife Trusts.

Speaking at the launch of the NFUs Landscape in Peril campaign, which aims to highlight the impact on countryside management of falling incomes in the lowland livestock sector, Mr Cousins said people too often forgot that farming and conservation went hand-in-hand.

"Much of the wildlife we have is due to farming, and the landscape we have is due to farming," he said, welcoming the involvement at the campaign launch of other environmental groups, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group.

"Im tired of antagonism between countryside groups and farmers. We now have this partnership that we want to take forward," Mr Cousins said.

He pointed out that grazing was the key to maintaining a vibrant countryside, but the industrys problems were beginning to affect that. Finding farmers willing to graze trust land was becoming so difficult that, in some areas, the organisation was having to pay graziers to put their stock onto reserves.

"When we hear in some areas that 50% of Countryside Steward-ship applications are being rejected because theres not enough money, that is such a negative message.

"The government talks about wanting to put more money into agri-environment – and we agree – but no figures are being discussed. We should be looking at how much money is needed to manage the countryside. Im talking about £1bn-£2bn – thats the sort of money needed to get the countryside we want," said Mr Cousins.

An NFU survey showed that, over the past three years, 67% of lowland farmers planted trees and 36% laid new hedgerows. But 85% reported a fall in income last year, with more than 40% having reduced investment.

"This illustrates the environmental work done by lowland beef and sheep farmers and the real threat posed to precious wildlife and traditional British landscapes by the financial depression engulfing the livestock industry," said NFU president Ben Gill.

As part of the campaign, Mr Gill launched a postcard which all farmers, wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists will be encouraged to send to their MPs asking what action the government is taking to ensure the survival of lowland livestock farming. &#42