Farming leaders have hit back at a new report which blames ‘policy driven’ agriculture for the decrease of wildlife in the UK.
The State of Nature report assessed 8,000 UK species and found one in 10 were threatened with extinction, with more than half of all British wildlife suffering long-term declines.
It adds fuel to the fire for conservationists who will use the report’s findings to push the Government into formulating a new British agricultural policy with more wildlife friendly farm payments at its heart.
Dr Mark Eaton, principal conservation scientist, at the RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science said: ”The science reveals that agricultural management and climate change have been the two major drivers of wildlife change in the UK in recent decades.
“Modern farming approaches, including increased use of pesticides, loss of hedgerows and other non-cropped habitats, the loss of mixed farming and a change in sowing seasons, have been the key drivers of wildlife decline affecting farmland birds such as the turtle dove and yellowhammer.”
Sir David Attenborough said while the causes of the decline were varied, ’we are using our land and seas and their natural resources, often with little regard for the wildlife with which we share them’.
“The impact on plants and animals has been profound,” he added.
But farming and countryside groups hit back at the report, which they said ignored the progress made by farmers in the last 25 years, including major environmental gains such as planting or restoring 30,000km of hedgerows.
NFU vice president Guy Smith also highlighted RSPB figures from this year’s Big Farmland Bird Count which saw more than 130 different bird species recorded by more than 1,000 participating farmers on their own farms.
According to RSPB figures about half these species have increased in number in the UK in recent decades.
Mr Smith said: “As the report acknowledges, agricultural policies of the past did focus on maximising food production resulting in the intensification of farming in the years after World War II. However, since the early 1990s, in terms of inputs and in terms of numbers of livestock and area of crops grown British agriculture has not intensified in fact it’s the reverse.
"Therefore it makes little sense to attribute cause and effect to ’the intensification of agriculture’ in the UK in the last quarter of a century when there hasn’t been any. Other causes acknowledged in the report, such as urbanisation, climate change or increasing predator pressure need greater attention.”
He highlighted UK agriculture’s role as not only a food producer delivering for the economy, but also an industry which took responsibility for Britain’s iconic countryside.
“Farmers have planted or restored 30,000km of hedgerows, they reserve the borders of their fields to plant wildflowers for birds and bees, they are ensuring cleaner water and they are using less fertiliser and pesticides than ever.
“Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture have fallen by 16 per cent since 1990. Two thirds of farmers have signed up for Britain’s trail-blazing and world renowned agri-environment schemes.”
Where species are in decline, farmers are keen to reverse these trends, he said.
The CLA said it encouraged green groups to acknowledge farmers were best placed to continue to deliver biodiversity improvements, and to share their ideas and experience in formulating policy to deliver ‘a better state of nature’ for the UK.
NFU Scotland deputy director of policy Andrew Bauer said Scotland’s biodiversity plan and its Route Map to 2020 showed the majority of actions were on track to achieve their targets.
“Scotland’s biodiversity is affected by many different factors - climate change, predation, and land use amongst others,” he added.
“Singling out agricultural practice for particular criticism is unmerited given the strides being taken by Scotland’s farmers and crofters and it risks leaving those food producers actively managing our landscape feeling under-valued and less willing to engage.”