With the plans for a post-EU Britain still unclear, farmers and conservationists are in the dark about how their income will be affected by the loss of EU subsidies. There has been some welcome news from the Chancellor: funding is guaranteed for all agri-environment schemes drawn up until the UK leaves the EU.
For three decades EU agri-environment schemes have been compensating farmers for loss of income associated with measures that aim to benefit the environment or biodiversity. It’s not clear whether spending on these will be maintained by the UK government, or what new schemes would look like if there are any.
Farmers who are currently applying for agri-environment schemes have confirmation that the projects will be funded until completion, even if this is post-Brexit. Whilst this news helps farmers make short-term decisions, we know nothing of what the long-term future of agri-environment schemes in the UK will be.
Agri-environment schemes are costly, accounting for the highest conservation expenditure in Europe. In England, total expenditure on agri-environment schemes (which includes some with non-biodiversity objectives) was €375 million/year from 2007 to 2013.
Many would argue that overall they have delivered very poor value for money. A 2003 review concluded that about half of EU agri-environment schemes lacked positive effects on biodiversity.
Schemes have changed since then, but the same can’t be said for outcomes. Recent studies conclude that agri-environment schemes generally enhance biodiversity locally, usually with only small increases in species richness or abundance of common species.
Their success is context dependent, and they tend to be effective in simplified but not in complex landscapes. Greater success is also seen with schemes targeted towards particular rare species, rather than untargeted schemes with more general goals.
As the UK government is forced to put its own policies in place, these EU schemes provide a lot to learn from. The recently published State of Nature report 2016 sets a backdrop for discussions about agricultural biodiversity and future ways to protect it. But what will the government take from this?
There are lots of unanswered questions. The emphasis of agri-environment schemes has been shifting to prevention of species loss, especially birds, and to protection of ecosystem services, such as pollination and biocontrol. Will this continue?
How much importance will a post-Brexit Government place on environmental protection? And will funding for conservation focus on agricultural landscapes or will it shift towards less disturbed habitats, protected areas for example?
Time will tell, and perhaps the over-arching question is to what extent will environmental protection schemes be informed by science?