A series of WWF studies on the economic and environmental impacts of environmentally beneficial farming practices across the UK show that subsidies for such practices bring significant economic benefits and should be increased to meet the needs of farmers in the UK.

A number of schemes are currently available to help UK farmers improve the environmental performance of their farms. However, the eagerness of farmers to join these schemes means that many are oversubscribed (see related story).

“Farmers’ attitudes have been changing very rapidly,” Richard Perkins, WWF’s Agriculture and Rural Development Policy Officer told edie. “There has been a growing constituency of interest in environmental management for a long time. Farmers are beginning to see that what society wants from them is not just food production, but also management of the environment. That’s got to be the basis of a new contract between society and farmers. But society hasn’t realised that’s going to cost a lot of money and farmers can’t do it for nothing.”

WWF therefore believes the UK Government should aim to bring 70% of farm holdings under some form of agri-environment scheme and to increase the funding of these schemes to at least £410 million per year for England, and £615 million per year for the whole of the UK.

“The total expenditure at the moment is £111 million, increasing until 2006,” Richard Perkins said. “We are proposing a much faster rate of increase than the Government. We don’t yet know what the Government’s projected total for the whole of UK in 2006 will be, but it will be much less than £615 million.”

In England, the Countryside Stewardship and Environmentally Sensitive Areas schemes offer farmers a range of incentives for reducing the intensity of their farming practices and to improve wildlife habitat. However, only 13% of farm holdings in England are currently under one of these schemes.

The Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme has enabled around 4,500 farmers in Northern Ireland to improve approximately 146,000 ha of farmland since its inception in 1988. A new scheme, the Countryside Management Scheme (CMS), which would allow farmers outside areas designated as environmentally sensitive to take advantage of agri-environment funding, was announced in 1999. The CMS, which is expected to provide incentives to 500 farmers in the first year, will prioritise ecologically important habitats. This scheme is already over-subscribed, with in excess of 1,000 applicants.

In Wales, the principal agri-environment scheme, Tir Gofal, was introduced in 1999. Although funding for this scheme was increased to £5.5 million in December 1999, only 600 agreements of the 1,380 applicants will be made in the first year. The budget for Tir Gofal is set to rise to £21.4 million by 2006/07, enabling 2,335 agreements to be made, and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) aims to have at least 10,000 farms in the scheme after 10 years.

In Scotland, the Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme is supplemented by the Countryside Premium Scheme (CPS). Both of these schemes encourage positive management of species-rich grassland, wetlands, water-margins, field boundaries, coastal heath, archaeological sites and moorland, as well as amenity features such as hedges and trees. Despite a high level of interest in the CPS, limited funds have allowed just 40% of applicants to join the scheme.

The studies commissioned by the WWF, known collectively as Money makes the countryside go round, show that the Government’s failure to provide enough funding for agri-environment schemes means the UK is missing out on significant enconomic and environmental benefits.

“The depth of the farming crisis means that farmers are now willing to consider things they hadn’t done,” says Perkins. “But government funding is not keeping up with levels of demand, so to that extent, they have been caught out. That’s unfortunate, because people lose enthusiasm if the resources are not there to support them or if the payment rates are not high enough.”

The four studies – one for each country – compared 16 farms across the UK. Each study compared two farms whose applications to join the schemes have been successful, with two farms that have received no agri-environment funding.

The reports show that, as well as improving the environment, the financial benefits of these schemes to farmers and the countryside economy can be significant. For example, it was found that, under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, 30 full-time jobs – particularly in rural tourism – were created for each £1 million spent on managing the countryside.

Perkins acknowledges that the £1 million could bring greater financial profits elsewhere, but points out that countryside stewardship schemes bring additional benefits not provided by investment in, for example, industry. “The question is, do you want a cheap and ugly countryside? The benefits of agri-environment schemes arise in rural areas, and jobs in rural areas are at a premium. In addition, jobs that arise from these schemes deliver social, environmental and economic benefits, so supporting sustainable development. You may be able to point to schemes that outperform environmental stewardship schemes, but they aren’t going to bring those environmental benefits.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie