You might have thought the dark days when agricultural subsidies drove the wholesale destruction of Britain’s wildlife, landscape and history, were behind us. You would be wrong.
A set of rules laid down by the European Commission govern which farmers can claim the Single Farm Payment (SFP), the foundation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and how those farmers must manage their farmland in order to be eligible for the payment.
This payment is not peanuts – many farming organisations, eg NFU claim that without single payment farmers would not be able to survive. SFP varies hugely but can be over £200 per hectare per annum. For an average size farm in England (around 60ha) this equals £12000 just to do farming. Bizarrely, SFP is more generous the larger (and more intensive) your farm is.
The EC has been stung by criticism that the CAP is hugely wasteful and they are tightening the rules on what farmland is eligible for single payment. As I have already blogged we have produced a report showing how Single Payment is being refused to farmers who are grazing highly valuable semi-natural grasslands and other habitats across Europe, because of these rules. The rules are biased in favour of farmers who have intensively managed highly productive grasslands.
The big stick that the EC can wave around has two prongs. Firstly inspectors visit farms to assess whether the farmers have correctly filled in their Single Payment forms. Even an accidental error can mean the farmer loses part or all of the SFP. If the inspectors find a systemic problem with the way SFP is being paid in a country, they can threaten that country with massive fines.
This is happening now in Ireland (both parts) and Scotland. As I mentioned last week, farmers are being forced to damage valuable wildlife habitats for fear that they will lose their Single Payment. I’ve just been sent this picture showing what is happening,
Now there are rules within “Cross Compliance” which are supposed to ensure that farmers who receive SFP keep their farmland in “Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition”. In the UK these rules include EIA for Agriculture (GAEC 5), and a requirement to protect landscape features (GAEC 140. Of course the ability to remove single payment from a farmer is a far great incentive than any set of rules for environmental protection, most of which are hardly ever enforced.
We, along with our colleagues in other wildlife organisations believe that Single Farm Payment is an anachronism, left over from the days when Governments paid farmers to increase food production at all costs (mostly environmental, but also historic and social), that does more harm than good. But it appears almost certain that SFP will survive into the next CAP after 2014.
At the very least we need to ensure that the SFP rules do not actively encourage environmental despolation, such as is going on in Northern Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere in Europe, right now.