It’s been a while since I have written anything on this blog, and there’s been so much to write about! Hopefully I can bring you up to date a bit on what’s been going on in the strange world of Euro grasslands.
Back in mid-May I helped organise a seminar in Brussels where we, alongside our partners at EFNCP and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, presented evidence to the European Commission, pointing out how badly semi-natural grasslands were faring under the Common Agricultural Policy. We also set out some proposals for improving the situation. You can read more about it here. It was a good, but very frustrating seminar – there were strong case studies from across Europe highlighting the mad rules that govern the CAP, yet the EC bureaucrats only turned up after the case studies had been presented, then proceeded to read out the rules to us – rules we were all depressingly familiar with. This led to some very heated exchanges, and the EC reps went away with several fleas in their ears.
One particular example of this madnees is that millions of hectares of semi-natural grassland across the EU are excluded from the main CAP fund – Single Payment (or its equivalent in the newer EU countries, SAPS), because they have some trees or scrub on them, or are mosaics of grazed pasture and browsed woody vegetation. This is even though these pastures produce high quality food, indeed some of the best and most sustainable food in Europe. Meanwhile farmers elsewhere, including the UK, can get the full single payment just by topping (ie mowing but not making hay or silage) the land they have (or even land they rent off others purely to get the subsidy – they are called “subsidy farmers” because they farm the subsidy.) but producing no food. An EC agriculture officer explained to us that good environmental condition, which land needs to be in to be eligible for single payment, means topping to prevent plants from flowering!
We are proposing, as part of the current CAP reform discussions, that the definition of eligible grassland should be revised to allow land with trees and shrubs, or land which is more browsed than grazed, to be eligible for single payments. As part of the “greening pillar 1” debate, we are also pushing for a new permanent pasture premium to be payable to farmers (especially those with semi-natural grasslands) who agree not to cultivate or fertilise heavily.
The European Court of Auditors, who do have a big influence over how EU budget money is spent, have just issued a report on the Single Payment. They have cottoned on to the subsidy farming thing and are recommending it is stopped. Here is a list of their recommendations (paraphrased):
- Single Payment Scheme (SPS) should only be paid to active farmers and not to those with “insignificant agricultural activities”
- SPS should only be paid to “increase agricultural productivity” or “actively maintaining the environmental value of the land”
- recalculate SPS to better reflect costs of environmental and other externalities
- Good agricultural and Environmental conditions (GAEC) standards should require concrete and regular activities to be carried out by farmers
- more balanced redistribution of aid by further modulation or capping
- payment rates based on current farming conditions in different regions
There are some sensible ideas in here, but also some worrying ones. Across Europe, small farmers struggle to make a living, yet these are the farmers who contribute most to the fabric of the countryside and often have the best wildlife, the best grasslands. They often have to take on other work to make ends meet. They have traditionally received less of the single payment pot than big farms which tend to be more intensivly managed. Could these small part time farms be penalised because their activities are deemed insignificant?
Late last night the EC announced their proposals for the EU budget 2014-2020. This includes proposals to make 30% of the single payment budget conditional on greening measures, so our grassland proposal could fit into this idea very well. The rumours of agri-environment funding getting slashed, turned out to be justified and, thanks to the efforts of RSPB and others, for the moment, Agri Environment funding is secure.
There’s still all to play for in the CAP reform circus – it’s now being suggested the negotiations on the new CAP will run on for another year, maybe two. And this time the EC, the European Parliament and the Councils of Ministers all have a say in the final outcome. So roll up roll up and play your part in choosing how Europe supports its farmers, and its environment. Get in touch with your MEP, lobby the Commission and get stuck in. After all, it’s your money that’s being doled out.