Reduced payments mean environmental schemes are at risk
By Alistair Driver
DRASTIC spending cuts threaten to thwart attempts by ministers to encourage farmers to take part in government initiatives aimed at boosting environmental farming.
Payments for agri-environment schemes, which compensate producers who lose money by farming less intensively, have been slashed to reflect the slump in farm incomes.
The schemes, seen by many as a way of surviving the farming crisis, have been championed by junior farm minister Elliot Morley. This week, he unveiled the biggest Countryside Stewardship Scheme yet in a bid to restore over 2000ha (5000 acres) of land at Crosby Ravensworth, Cumbria. Mr Morley said: "I would strongly urge all those who think that stewardship might be of help to apply now."
A similar scheme, covering 3500ha of the South Downs, was initially a success with farmers when it was launched last year. But payments are part-funded by the European Union, which insists they are based on farm incomes. As incomes have fallen, payments have been cut and some farmers are now thinking of pulling out.
John Goring, an arable farmer near Worthing, Sussex, has seen his payments for growing winter stubbles without undersowing reduced from £90/ha to £53/ha. He plans to withdraw 65ha (160 acres) from the scheme. Mr Goring told farmers weekly: "I know of four or five other farmers who are going to do the same. [The lower pay-ments mean] I will be losing money." Conservationists such as Dick Potts, director general of the Game Conservancy Trust, described the situation as perverse. The Royal Society for the Protection also criticised the move, saying the scheme had significantly boosted local bird numbers.
Some payments have been slightly increased. But many have drastically reduced. Payments for "buffer strip supplements", which pay farmers for leaving an unproductive strip between crops to boost wildlife, have dropped from £190/ha to £110/ha. Subsidies for other environmental measures such as grass field margins, beetle banks and uncropped strips have also been cut.
Andrew Clark, NFU environment adviser, suggested MAFF may have reduced the payments when it decided that enough farmers had joined the schemes. Dr Clark will now meet ministry officials to pursue the "fundamental issue" of the basis on which agri-environment scheme payments are calculated.
Cutting the payments had created uncertainty among farmers who were thinking of taking part in the initiatives, he said.
But uptake of the schemes is unlikely to be affected by lower payments because many initiatives are oversubscribed anyway, said Peter Ogden, who works in MAFFs conservation management division. He added: "I do not expect farmers to drop out. There is a perceived adverse reaction among farmers rather than an actual one." *