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Tuesday, 2 May, 2000, 23:12 GMT 00:12 UK
Farmers 'need cash to nurture nature'
Meadow WWF
Organic pasture in England: Going green costs money
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says subsidising farmers to protect wild species and their habitats makes sound economic sense.

WWF says the United Kingdom should be spending five times more than it does to encourage environmentally-sensitive farming.

It says this would help to resolve the farming crisis, and would meet the demands of farmers themselves.

And it believes investing in nature-sensitive farming would create jobs and also help rural tourism.

In a report, "Money makes the countryside go round", WWF says a lack of money is stopping farmers eager to take up agri-environment subsidies from being able to implement their plans.

Set to double

The annual budget for two of the main subsidies available, Countryside Stewardship and the Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme, is 78 million. This is set to rise to 164m by 2006/7.

At present, only 13% of farm holdings in England fall under one of the schemes.

WWF says the government should set a target for 70% of UK holdings to be included under some form of agri-environment scheme.

Cattle WWF
Cattle make little profit
And funding for them should increase to at least 410m annually for England, 128m for Wales, 46m for Scotland, and 31m for Northern Ireland.

But more than this annual total would be needed overall, because of what WWF calls the need "to restore, manage and enhance the countryside fabric" - trees, hedges and other features which make the country wildlife-friendly and attractive.

For the UK, it says, this would require 1.6bn annually for the indefinite future.

Stuart White, who heads WWF's living countryside campaign, said: "Investing in stewardship of the countryside is a way of tackling the economic downturn in the farming industry."

'Reinventing the farmer'

One of the report's authors, Richard Perkins of WWF, told BBC News Online: "We're trying to reinvent the British farmer.

"In the past the farmer's role has been food production. If we want modern farmers to deliver the environment we want, we have to pay them to do so.

"And in the UK we're relatively parsimonious, compared with what some of our European partners pay in agri-environment support."

The report insists that agri-environment subsidies make good economic sense.

Stream WWF
Countrside upkeep is expensive
Assessments of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme found that 30 full-time jobs were created for each 1m spent on managing the countryside.

Other studies showed similar subsidy schemes creating jobs, and a healthier countryside producing benefits for tourism.

What is needed, WWF says, amounts to "a new contract between farmers and taxpayers. This must make farming that cares for nature a profitable enterprise".

Research on 16 case-study farms across the UK showed that a wide range of species benefited, from lapwings to otters. Many habitats also stood to gain.

Buying time

WWF says many of the measures announced by the government in the last six months "are short-term fixes that will not encourage or enable farmers to adopt profitable farming practices that are also more environmentally sensitive".

It says the 200m action plan announced by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in March "sacrifices the environment in favour of short-term support to farmers".

The plan involves "a failure to use the opportunity to introduce simple low-level cross-compliance conditions, where farmers must meet minimum environmental standards in order to receive subsidy payments".

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See also:

01 Feb 00 | Business
No quick fix, Blair tells farmers
31 Jan 00 | Business
Farmers win sympathy but no cash
12 Aug 99 | Sci/Tech
Farmland birds in crisis
02 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Plea to save farm wildlife
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