An attempt by Brussels to protect wildflower meadows backfired as growers rushed to plough up pasture before legislation could be introduced, a report has suggested.
According to the Natural England report the rate at which grassland was ploughed up during 2012 almost doubled.
The catalyst for this was an EU Commission proposal that suggested farmers would have to retain the area of permanent pasture and other unimproved land at the level indicated on their 2014 Single Payment Scheme form.
See also: Check rules before ploughing
That, fuelled by the prospect of higher grain prices, prompted a number of growers to plough up grassland because they wanted to retain the flexibility to change cropping in the future. Growers were also concerned that being tied in to keeping grassland might affect long-term land values.
The report focused on 2012, when 234 farmers requested permission to plough up long-term pasture compared with the average of 128 requests in the previous decade.
The findings have angered green groups, which accused the government of failing to protect England’s wildlife habitats. The groups blamed the decline on government-imposed cutbacks at Natural England.
In an interview with the BBC, Matt Shardlow, chief executive of the insect charity Buglife, said: “NE’s operating budget has been slashed by 30%, so it is not surprising that where they were struggling to protect wildlife before, it is harder now.
“They have been buffeted by political interference and have seen levels of protection and regulation decided on the basis of political considerations rather than ecological evidence and the law.”
But a Natural England spokesman rejected the accusations. “Lowland meadows and other species-rich grassland have been a top priority for Higher Level Stewardship agreements in the current Environmental Stewardship scheme,” the spokesman said.
He added that more than £120m had been invested in thousands of live HLS agreements, which included requirements for restoration and the creation of species-rich, semi-natural grassland.
And he said that the decline in meadow land between 2005 and 2013 was 1% short of EU limits.
A Defra spokeswoman said: “We have always been clear that the new greening rules introduced by the EU Commission will not deliver significant benefits for nature. This is why we fought successfully during CAP negotiations to be able to invest more CAP funding into improving the environment.”