The birds and the subsidies: What is the right balance?

In an agricultural reform due this week, the Government must decide how much funding to transfer from farmers to green schemes

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At the start of a 15th-century fable by the poet Robert Henryson, a prudent sparrow gives a flock of jejune fellow birds a stern warning. Unless they are more cautious of the farmer whose land they feast on, says the sparrow, perching on a twig, they will end up dead. The little birds pay no attention. When winter comes, the farmer traps and kills every last one of them – "with some he broke the neck, with some the head" – leaving the sparrow alone alive. Five hundred years later, were she to alight once more on the hawthorn of a modern British farm, the sagacious bird would be struck dumb. Conflict between farmers and birds has escalated precipitously and her kind – foolish chirpers – have not fared well in recent times.

To conservationists, the statistics read like tragedy. The number of farmland birds has dropped by 50 per cent since 1970, with some species – such as the corn bunting, a dumpy, mottled creature – now close to extinction. More dramatic twitchers point to a United Kingdom in which the ecstasies and arpeggios of birdsong are heard rarely, to be recorded and replayed for the most part by dedicated ornithologists. "Some species are falling off the edge of the cliff," says Martin Harper, the conservation director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

This week, however, could mark a turn of the wheel. A decision is expected from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) that will impact on every farmer in the country, a fair proportion of England's fields, and a good number of birds, too. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is up for its septennial reform, and Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for the Environment, is considering a transfer of funds. Currently, the average European household pays £400 a year in taxes simply to keep farmers farming. To the fury of the National Farmers Union, Paterson hinted in October that he supports a 15 per cent shift of the £2.34bn annual subsidy that English farmers will receive from this European pot (referred to as Pillar 1) over to rural-development programmes (Pillar 2) – taking money out of their pockets and making part of it conditional on wildlife-friendly farm practices.

Skylark numbers have fallen dramatically Obscure to anyone whose feet rarely enter galoshes, the CAP is a titan among laws. Its cat's cradle of regulation took hold in 1962 to lessen Europe's reliance on imported food and tie EU markets together, but it also – for decades – had unfortunate side effects.

"We probably did too well at producing food," reflects Kevin Attwood, a third-generation Kent farmer who runs a 4,600-acre estate. By 1992, in fact, after 30 years of furious churning at the ground, parching the earth with pesticides, and turning every available inch of it to the vital work of filling ever-more stomachs, the EU had built up "mountains" and "lakes" of food and drink. The CAP was to blame. It had been incentivising farmers to produce far more than necessary, paying a subsidy proportional to the amount of food they delivered. In 2004, by the time this policy was abandoned, and subsidies were paid instead according to the amount of land owned, the effect on wildlife was clear. "It was disastrous," says Graham Harvey, the author of The Killing of the Countryside. Tree sparrows had plummeted by 93 per cent.

At Hope Farm, a 450-acre plot in Cambridgeshire, Belfast-born Ian Dillon is walking through the fields, pointing out pro-wildlife experiments of the sort that would multiply if CAP funds are redistributed. We pass a beetle bank. "It does what it says on the tin," says Dillon, who manages the farm. Marshalling the fields are rough hedgerows, cropped only every third year, allowing birds to nest within. Yellowhammers explode out of one as we stroll past. By our feet, a rough grass margin has been left to grow, which in spring provides insects for birds. At one point, a grey partridge – vanishingly rare these days – flaps hooting over our heads, breaking cover from a winter seed mix.

Seeing how the land lies: a survey of field margins at Hope Farm Seeing how the land lies: a survey of field margins at Hope Farm

The RSPB oversees Hope Farm as a model of green operation, but one that uses pesticides – like 95 per cent of arable farms – and remains a serious and profitable business. It receives £5,400 in subsidies per year for its so-called agri-environment schemes. Walking back to the farmhouse, Dillon laments that "the majority of farmers have not stepped up as we have here". The farm next door employs no green measures – and looks barren by comparison.

Around 100 miles to the south, in Down Court farm, a 15-minute drive from Sittingbourne, Kevin Attwood outlines his opposition to a 15 per cent subsidy transfer. There's not enough evidence of what the Government will do with the money, he says, and taking land out of production – by encouraging farmers to leave grass margins, or rough fields – will hurt. "We need to get to grips with the balance between food production and the environment. How much environment is sufficient?" he asks. "We might not be able to go back to that level of skylarks in 1960 without reverting the agriculture-production system. And that's not going to happen."

Attwood collects around £450,000 in direct subsidies each year. But although he would accept a transfer of 9 per cent to green schemes, he believes the 15 per cent shift slashes too far. Competitors in the Netherlands, Belgium and even Scotland will have less of their EU subsidy taken away, leaving more money to reinvest in ways that could give them an edge. "You can't go to a supermarket and say, 'I'm 6 per cent worse off [because Owen Paterson has reduced subsidies]'", Attwood adds. "You will just be poorer." On the online British Farming Forum, one discussion thread is simply titled "RSPB putting their hand in your pocket!"

But farmers who take up Defra's environmental schemes – pasture pockets, beetle banks, flower margins – will earn compensation for lost productivity (as they have in the past), and some respond less intemperately to the prospect of a further transfer. John Andrews, whose Devonshire farm houses some cirl buntings, supports the full 15 per cent shift, and travelled to Westminster this year as part of a lobbying group. One-fifth of his turnover already comes from government subsidies for agri-environment schemes. Market forces alone will not protect the cirl bunting, or any other bird, he admits, so "a financial incentive is imperative". For the sake of the unremarkable, endangered bunting, Andrews has put in seedbanks, changed the season in which he ploughs, and left weed-rich stubble around his farm.

Defra calculates a mammoth return on switching money from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2. In its cost-benefit analysis, a 15 per cent transfer would be worth up to £3.3bn to the UK economy, at a cost of £100m in lost farm productivity. Whatever the decision of Owen Paterson, split between offending farmers and offending greens, one thing is abundantly clear. If the Government does not pay farmers to protect birds, nobody else will. Henryson's prudent sparrow had better turn lobbyist.

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