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7 May 2001

Don’t trust farmers with our land

Farming subsidies have already done the countryside harm, argues David Cox. Government plans for con

By David Cox

As the smoke from the pyres begins to fade, a stark question presents itself. What happens now? The foot-and-mouth fiasco has laid bare the absurdities of British agricultural practice once and for all. No one thinks we can just go back to pouring taxpayers’ money into the production of surplus food by methods that devastate our landscape and wildlife. The media are demanding a new policy for the countryside. The government has promised to provide one. But what is it to be?

Townie politicians find the rural environment disturbingly unfamiliar. They are wary of provoking the growling farmers who sit at its heart, watchful of their privileges and ready to cause trouble. Ministers know they have to reform the countryside, but they want to keep farmers sweet. Now they think they see how to do this.

Ministers realise that, in the countryside of the future, conservation and recreation will matter more than food production. So why not simply replace farmers’ current subsidies with new ones, designed to reward them for improving the landscape instead of growing crops? That way, everyone can be happy.

But just hold on a minute. It is farmers who have wiped out our skylarks, torn down our hedgerows and ploughed up our footpaths in the quest to enrich themselves. Will giving them yet more public money really produce the kind of countryside we want?

The signs are not encouraging. Pilot schemes that provide compensation to farmers in return for supposed environmental benefits are already up and running. One is called Countryside Stewardship. A report by the firm Land Use Consultants in 1995 found that, on 24 per cent of the sites studied, the farmers involved were simply pocketing the money and ignoring their obligations. Another scheme is called Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA). A National Audit Office study in 1997 found it was doing little to improve already damaged habitats.

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Any environmental benefits that do materialise from subsidies-for-conservation can disappear overnight at the beneficiary’s whim. New Erringham Farm in the South Downs used to be a showpiece of the ESA scheme. Cereal prairies had been magically transformed into wildflower-rich grassland. Then the farm changed hands. The new owner chose to exercise a five-year break clause in the ESA agreement, and ploughed up the downland. Around £25,000 of taxpayers’ money that had been paid out under the scheme went straight down the drain.

We should not be surprised. Farmers like farming, and constantly tell us that they consider acting as mere “park wardens” altogether beneath their dignity. Any efforts they make at environmental improvement are likely to be grudging.

Yet even if subsidies-for-conservation worked, they would be hopelessly wasteful. Under Countryside Stewardship, farmers are paid £280 per hectare per year for grassland they convert from ploughland. They get another £35 per hectare on top of this if they deign to allow taxpayers to walk on the land involved. Since Britain has around 17 million hectares of farmland, such schemes could absorb billions of pounds each year if they were applied throughout the countryside. Yet the system would always be too crude to achieve the subtle effects that successful conservation requires.

Such public funds as we can spare for improving the rural environment could be deployed far more effectively. Instead of doling out money indiscriminately to farmers in return for ill-defined benefits, the state could grant-aid organisations dedicated speci-fically to conservation or recreation. It could also buy land itself and manage it exclusively for wildlife and recreation, as governments already do to great effect in other parts of the world.

We could, however, improve the countryside without spending any public money at all. The withdrawal of food production subsidies would in itself remove some of the incentive for farmers to plough up hedgerows and hay meadows, and to drench fields in poisonous chemicals in order to maximise output.

Without any subsidies, some farmers would probably go out of business. That might be sad for them, but miners and mobile-phone assemblers are expected to cope with changing realities. Why should farmers be any different? Because, they claim, without their efforts the countryside so beloved of the British people would go to rack and ruin. Nasty weeds would overrun the tidy fieldscape to which all of us (they maintain) are so attached.

In fact, land hunger on our crowded island is so great that new users would quickly snap up most redundant farmland. So long as planning restrictions remained in place, this need not mean more building. As land prices, currently bloated by farm subsidy, started to fall, amenity foresters, county wildlife trusts and local authorities seeking to create country parks would readily move in. Suppose, however, that some fields did end up abandoned and left to their own devices. Would this really be such a disaster?

Wildlife would certainly benefit from the natural regeneration of parts of our landscape. Britain is at present extremely short of wilderness, because so much of our countryside has been claimed by agriculture. Around 70 per cent of Britain is farmed, compared with only 55 per cent in France, 48 per cent in Germany and even less in much of the rest of Europe. Allowing some of our farmland to be reclaimed by native flora would be a modest recognition of the obligation to promote biodiversity which we entered into by signing the Rio treaty.

What, though, of the British public? If people saw hawthorn, wild rose and gorse, followed by oak, ash and birch, encroaching on former fields, would they really be as appalled as farmers say they would?

The most authoritative study of national landscape tastes was conducted by Professor David Lowenthal and Hugh Prince of University College London. They did not find much affection for garish oil-seed rape fields or featureless grass monoculture, still less for barbed-wire fences, rusting, abandoned tractors or piles of plastic fertiliser bags. Most people turned out to loathe geometric and carefully planned environments, preferring unkempt hedgerows and peaceful meadowland studded with fine trees – just the sort of countryside that modern agriculture has done so much to devastate.

Dedicated rural enthusiasts, the big-booted ramblers and the all-weather adventurers, have rather different tastes. Yet these people prefer our upland moors and mountains, the wilder the better. Unfortunately for them, Britain’s hill country is being ruined by overgrazing, as sheep farmers overstock to secure higher headage payments. Less farming would enable the hills to recover lost charms.

The real effect of subsidies-for-conservation would be to enable the incumbents who currently control the rural environment to retain this privilege indefinitely at our expense. Marion Shoard, who first documented the environmental damage wreaked by modern farming in The Theft of the Countryside, says: “Conservation subsidies would turn the well-being of our countryside into a product which we’d have to buy from farmers. To protect the built environment, we use regulation, not bribery. We should treat the countryside in the same way.” For the moment, however, the subsidies-for-conservation bandwagon is gathering speed. The Prince of Wales is enthusiastic. Parts of the media are already on side. The government seems to see a clear path ahead.

By the end of 2003, the Common Agricultural Policy will have to be revised, if EU enlargement is to go ahead and if the next round of international trade talks is to have any chance of success. The principle of subsidies-for-conservation has already been intruded into the CAP, largely through British efforts. If the British government pushes the idea further, it can now hope for support from the EU agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, and the German agriculture minister, Renate Kunast, both of whom want some kind of change. Within three years, a decision could have been taken to turn most of Europe’s farmers into taxpayer-funded “custodians of the countryside”.

If this happens, we shall have achieved the considerable feat of turning our current farm subsidy regime into something that could prove even more absurd. It will be an awesome demonstration of the limitations of modern governance.

Can reason yet prevail?

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