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Fears for farm conservation schemes

PUBLISHED: 11:29 10 November 2012 | UPDATED: 10:42 12 November 2012

Chris Skinner, farmer from High Ash farm Caistor St Edmund who has made vast swathes of his farmland wildlife-friendly. Photo: Steve Adams

Chris Skinner, farmer from High Ash farm Caistor St Edmund who has made vast swathes of his farmland wildlife-friendly. Photo: Steve Adams

East Anglian farmers and conservationists have urged the prime minister to use a forthcoming visit to Brussels to protect a vital lifeline for the region’s wildlife.

EU payments for wildlife-friendly farming have been credited with helping to reverse the population crashes of many vulnerable and farming-dependent species.

But just as these agri-environment schemes are celebrating their 25th anniversary, the people behind them fear cuts to European and domestic budgets could mean slashing the largest single budget for wildlife conservation in the UK.

Groups including the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have written to David Cameron asking him to defend these schemes when he attends a European heads of state meeting in Brussels later this month.

Simon Tonkin, farmland conservation officer for the RSPB in the East of England, said: “We know that budgets are tight, but we believe that rewarding farmers for helping to keep wildlife on their land is excellent value for money, especially when less than £7 out of every £100 paid to farmers currently goes towards wildlife conservation.

“This isn’t about needing more money, but about making sure that the existing money is spent in the right way, to deliver real public benefits for the continued public investment.

“The CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) has long been criticised for inefficiency and waste. It would be scandalous if cuts were targeted at the one part of this policy that is actually delivering serious benefits to wildlife.

“Any reduction in this money will remove the lifeline on which many of our most-loved species depend and will risk decades of effort being needed to bring many farmland species back from the brink.”

Farmers, landowners and agronomists from across East Anglia have also expressed their concerns.

Chris Skinner is a conservation farmer who manages a square mile of countryside at High Ash Farm, two miles south of Norwich at Caistor St Edmund.

In 2006, he entered a large-scale Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme, monitored by Natural England, which provides funding for him to farm the vast majority of the land for biodiversity benefits, as long as he meets strict criteria for species growth.

He said: “The public wants us to farm in an environmentally and wildlife-friendly way, but that does cost money.

“Without these funds I cannot afford to farm my land to the benefit of wildlife and have to go back to more conventional ways of farming which would be disastrous for the farm wildlife and the taxpayers who come to enjoy it.”

chris.hill@archant.co.uk

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