Ministers warned over agri-environment funding

Conservationists have joined forces to warn the government against slashing funding for wildlife-friendly farming.

Wildlife and Countryside Link, which represents 25 conservation bodies, painted a grim picture of a countryside starved of money as the government steps up its battle to reduce Britain’s budget deficit.

Agri-environment schemes and other land management grants – which helped land managers to deliver public goods such as an attractive, accessible countryside rich in wildlife – must be protected, it said.

The organisation will share its concerns with MPs at a parliamentary reception on Wednesday (14 July), held to mark 30 years of working together for the natural environment.

Ministers tempted to see cuts in conservation and recreation as an easy win should think hard before making cuts that could have profound and perhaps irreversible consequences, said chairman Paul de Zylva.

“We want to make clear that in the case of conservation, slashing budgets would be a false economy – short-term savings would translate into huge, long-term costs for our economy and our national well-being.”

The loss of agri-environment payments could condemn farmland bird species to extinction within a decade, said Mr de Zylva. Numbers of bittern, black grouse and black-tailed godwit would fall to dangerously low levels.

Loss of the Higher Level Scheme (HLS) would remove the only source of funding for England’s beleaguered heaths, further threatening species such as the sand lizard and smooth snake.

Payment cuts would also endanger bee species, seen as vital in providing £440m of pollination of British crops. Butterfly species, rare grassland and important wildflowers had also benefited from HLS payments.

DEFRA and its agencies, such as Natural England, spent just 0.5% of the government’s budget, claimed Mr de Zylva. Yet investment in the countryside brought huge economic, social and environmental benefits.

“The deputy prime minister has said it would be morally wrong to leave our children and grandchildren with huge debts. It would be just as immoral to bequeath them an impoverished environment.”

Members of Wildlife and Countryside Link include the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Grasslands Trust, Open Spaces Society, Ramblers, RSPB, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and Woodland Trust.