Government offers financial incentives for farmers to create wildlife refuges

New habitats for declining farmland birds and plants are to be created on arable farms through offers of government payments, the Department of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has announced.

Under the three-year pilot scheme, farmers throughout England will be able to apply for payments for creating wildlife areas around their arable fields and extra amounts for sowing wildlife seed mixtures, Countryside Minister Elliot Morley announced on 9 July.

The scheme follows a successful pilot scheme in East Anglia and the West Midlands of the so-called Arable Stewardship scheme in which farmland bird species such as the lapwing, reed bunting, greenfinch, jackdaw, starling, pipits, wagtails and thrushes as well as a number of rare arable plant species were observed to have returned together with an increased population of bumblebees. The need for such a programme was demonstrated by a survey of farmland bird populations late last year revealed an alarming decline in many populations and pointed the finger of blame at current farming techniques (see related story).

Plans for the inclusion of the new arable options in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which offers payments for improving the natural beauty and diversity of the countryside, are being sent for approval to the European Commission later this month and farmers will be able to apply for the scheme from next January. Funding will be allocated from the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which is set for a budget increase from £51 million to £126 million over the next six years.

Subject to EU approval, the Government hopes to offer the Arable Stewardship scheme across England from January 2002. The scheme, which has been developed with the input of English Nature, the RSPB and the Game Conservancy Trust, include options such as overwintered stubbles, conservation headlands and wildlife seed mixtures. It is hoped that the new arable options will help meet a target to reverse the long term decline in the number of farmland birds by 2020.

“This is an important step forward in the drive to increase wildlife on England’s arable farmland,” said Morley, on a visit to an Arable Stewardship agreement site near Newmarket in Suffolk. “It shows what can be achieved when money is diverted away from production subsidies for farmers toward payments for environment work and rural development. The pilot has now finished its three-year trial period and has proved popular with farmers. Results of the ecological evaluation we commissioned have also indicated that the pilot was beneficial to plants, insects and birds.”

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