East Anglian farmers defend subsidies following National Trust criticism

Wildflower margins at High Ash Farm, Caistor St Edmund.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Wildflower margins at High Ash Farm, Caistor St Edmund.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

East Anglian farmers have defended their industry against 'unfair' claims of a countryside ravaged by decades of intensive agriculture, funded by a 'broken' subsidy system.

It comes after the National Trust's director general, Dame Helen Ghosh, said the recent Brexit vote offered an opportunity for a fundamental reform of agricultural subsidies, with British farmers currently paid around £3bn a year through the EU.

She said the current system had fuelled a 'dramatic and disastrous decline in wildlife' and that farmers should only be paid public money for managing the countryside in a wildlife-friendly way after Britain leaves the EU.

She said: 'The current system is broken. The taxpayer should only be buying the things the market cannot provide: payments for nature, for wildlife, for species, for managing the countryside.'

Dame Helen's comments drew angry reactions from the agricultural industry, with the National Farmers' Union (NFU), quick to dispute the image of a desecrated countryside, claiming farmers have planted or restored 30,000km of hedgerows and increased the number of nectar and pollen-rich areas by 134pc in the past two years, with the help of EU agri-environment schemes.

And farmers in East Anglia echoed those sentiments, while making a plea for the economic importance of the region's agricultural industry – and its ability to compete with subsidised countries across the Channel – to be recognised in the government's post-EU policies.

Tony Bambridge, a tenant farmer on National Trust (NT) land at Blicking, said: 'We pride ourselves on our environmental work within a modern farming system to provide the landscape and habitat that people want to see, and high quality food. For anyone to say we have not done what we should be doing for the countryside is extraordinarily disappointing and from my knowledge, lacks foundation and justification.

Most Read

'We actually have a much more diverse landscape and a cleaner environment than we have had for 20 or 30 years, and that's come from the significant efforts of farmers and everyone involved in managing the countryside, to make some very real gains for wildlife.

'I am privileged to be able to walk around a farm on NT property and I am proud of the fact we have got loads of bats flying around, and a diverse level of wildlife and bird life. One of our meadows has three Red List species.

'We are getting blamed for what our forefathers have done, but we are the ones trying to put it right. The current system has not caused the decline. It is patently trying to put it right.'

Mr Bambridge said although the debate on the future of subsidies had only just begun, it was imperative that British agriculture remains viable.

'If we de-intensify we will be putting half the number of loaves on the shelf, so we will import our wheat from somewhere else,' he said. 'We will add to the carbon footprint with the extra transportation, and then eventually the people who sell us the wheat will ask: 'Why are we selling them wheat when we are getting no added value from it?' They will stop doing that and start selling us the bread instead, because then they will retain the milling jobs and the packing jobs and the accounting and marketing jobs and everything that goes with it.

'It is better to have that production in the UK and work harder to mitigate the effects of intensive farming, rather than saying I'm not doing it in my back yard.'

Norfolk NFU chairman Thomas Love, an arable farmer based at Walcott, also 'vehemently disagreed' with Dame Helen's vision of the countryside.

'To say we have desecrated the countryside in the last few years is just unfair,' he said. 'There is a vast acreage of land, especially in environmentally sensitive areas, where considerable work is being done by farmers to improve habitats of many species of birds and animals.

'If there is going to be no subsidy for arable farming, then much of the production in this country will cease. We would not be able to compete on most of our land. Our agriculture would become second class and great tracts of land would not be cropped, and the food we eat would have to be imported, ruining the habitats in other countries.

'We have got to have a suitable balance between the environment and farming. We have all got to be fed.'

Chance for change

While many farmers are making the case for financial support to continue, one Norfolk producer has argued that subsidies may not be necessary after Britain leaves the EU.

Frettenham dairy farmer Emily Norton said a more market-led system could be viable – as long as the cost of providing 'public goods' such as environmental protection were met by consumers.

'What farmers need is fairness,' she said. 'If the British taxpayer wants good environmental standards or welfare standards, then they have to pay for it.

'Fundamentally, the market needs to pay something closer to the true cost of food so we can move away from a system where public money subsidises the cost of food.

'There is a huge opportunity for farmers and land managers to innovate in the way they provide public goods and environmental benefits.

'It is the role of government to ensure it is policed fairly. We need highly effective labelling that differentiate between systems from different countries and legislation to ensure imports to this country meet the same standards that UK consumers expect.

'There is a general feeling that we need to respect food more, and I really see Brexit as an opportunity to bring a lot of these strands together.'

EU subsidies explained

Agricultural subsidies are paid through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which accounts for about 40pc of the entire EU budget.

It is split into two funding 'pillars': Pillar One makes direct payments to farmers based on the acreage of their land, and Pillar Two is used to fund specific environmental and rural development projects.

Currently British farmers receive £3bn a year from Brussels, most of which is through direct payments, with about £600m paid via agri-environment incentive schemes such as Countryside Stewardship, which pays farmers to establish wildlife-friendly measures such as planting wildflower margins, restoring habitats, creating woodland and reducing pollution.

With commodity prices depressed across many farming sectors, it was estimated that 55pc of the average UK farm income came from EU subsidies in 2014.

Leading 'Leave' campaigners made assurances during the referendum campaign that subsidies would be continued under an independent British agricultural policy – but it remains to be seen to what extent, and what criteria will be attached.