This will be a vital decision for our wildlife

A turtle dove pictured at the RSPB's Titchwell nature reserve. Rupert Masefield says it's high time

A turtle dove pictured at the RSPB's Titchwell nature reserve. Rupert Masefield says it's high time the bird was back on Springwatch... - Credit: Archant

Jeff Knott, RSPB regional director, says Michael Gove must listen to concerns over farmland wildlife.

I find it something of a relief from the seemingly-relentless onslaught of Brexit-related media coverage and political commentary to take a step back and reflect that some of the challenges we face are bigger than Brexit alone. Things that people care about. Things that impact on our lives and the world around us that refuse to fit into the oversimplified dichotomy of Leave vs Remain.

I feel encouraged by the thought that it's not costly political campaigns and be-sloganned buses that motivate people to go to the polling booths, it's that people care. We all want to protect the things we love most. We all want the future to be better than today. Thinking about that future, and what it might look like, is at the heart of conservation.

One of the things that I and millions of others care about is the natural world. If we should value and protect anything, surely the very world we live in is it.

Brexit will have deep and far-reaching consequences for nature in the UK. If we get things right, it could set us on the path to a future in which our air is clean, our habitats healthy, and nature thrives. If we get things wrong, it could be disastrous.

Nowhere is this risk vs reward clearer than in the prospects for nature in our farmed landscape. Three-quarters of our land is farmed. More than half of the wildlife that depends on it is declining – some of it at an alarming rate. A few species, such as the turtle dove, are on the verge of being lost altogether.

There are a few thousand pairs of turtle dove breeding in the UK today. Fifty years ago, their total population numbered around half a million individuals. By any measure, this is a decline of catastrophic proportions. The root cause has been the loss of feeding and nesting habitat to the intensification of agriculture over a period of more than 50 years, driven by agricultural policies and subsidies that failed to recognise their own impact on nature.

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Brexit is our best chance in three-quarters of a century to change the fortunes of farmland wildlife including turtle doves.

Replacing the Common Agricultural Policy with a new Agriculture Bill for England (agricultural policy is a devolved issue) means we can swap indiscriminate subsidies for a system of payments of public money for public goods. For the RSPB and millions of people around the country, including many farmers, this means ensuring that new policy and subsidies support farming that benefits nature. That deliver clean air and water, healthy habitats, and restore lost wildlife. That prevent the extinction of the turtle dove.

Since taking office, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has made a lot of positive noises about making the kind of reforms to agricultural policy that would see farming become more sustainable and deliver those public goods in return for subsidies paid out of the public purse. When the draft Agriculture Bill for England is tabled in Parliament later this year, it will be up to all of us who care to ensure Mr Gove is as good as his word.

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