Environmental schemes must remain a fundamental part of DEFRA policy, the government’s landscape and wildlife watchdog has warned.
With just four years until funding expires, the government must ensure that the benefits of schemes such as environmental stewardship are sustained once the current programme ends in 2013, said Natural England.
An estimated two-thirds of England’s farmland is now managed under agri-enviroment schemes – including some of the country’s most sensitive and best-loved landscapes, confirms a wide-ranging review by the agency.
Farmers are helping to protect and restore threatened habitats, boost bird numbers, reduce the impact of climate change, preserve water supplies and defend communities against flooding, it said in a report.
The most comprehensive analysis of environmental schemes yet undertaken draws on research from the entire 22-year history of initiatives and analyses the impact they have made on England’s farmed environment.
Some £400m was paid to England’s farmers through environmental schemes last year. Natural England said spin-off benefits in the wider rural community helped sustain up to 15,000 jobs and generated additional spending of up to £850m.
Poul Christensen, Natural England acting chairman, said the report provided conclusive proof that agri-environment schemes had repeatedly demonstrated their value as a fundamental part of the farmed landscape.
Schemes had successfully combined the twin goals of caring for the environment and maintaining food production. They had sustained wildlife and heritage, helped combat climate change, educated the wider public and delivered local investment and jobs.
“With the current funding programme for AES due to end in 2013, it is important that we understand the benefits that agri-environment schemes have delivered. We need to ensure that these achievements can be sustained and built on after 2013.”
Some 41% of hedgerows (101,665 miles) are now managed through environmental schemes and around 13,000 miles of hedgerows have been restored in the last 10 years, the report states.
While overall farmland bird numbers have suffered declines in recent decades, targeted initiatives have delivered notable successes, with skylarks, cirl buntings, and choughs experienced significant population increases on target sites.
Junior DEFRA minister Jim Fitzpatrick said local habitats and wildlife were being protected and rural landscapes enhanced better than ever before. “Everyone can benefit from the work farmers do to look after the countryside.”