Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Cuts that could silence the skylark

The argument that Britain's wildlife is lamentably impoverished, put forward here last week, produced a strong reaction from readers. Among those reacting was the National Farmers' Union, whose Head of Policy Services, Andrew Clark, sent us a long letter, published on Tuesday, pointing out how wildlife in Britain is crucially dependent on farmland, and how farmers are doing much to promote it.

Well, it's certainly true that in the small, mixed, intimate countryside of Britain and especially of England, farmland and wildlife must indeed co-exist, and how agriculture is managed will largely decide the fate of our biodiversity. For modern agriculture has already robbed us of much of it; the intensification of farming, from the 1960s onwards, slashed our farmland bird populations by half, as hedges were grubbed out, autumn stubbles were replaced by winter-planted crops, flower-rich hay meadows gave way to monoculture grasslands, and a tide of pesticides and artificial fertilisers seethed over the land.

For some much-loved farmland bird species, the consequent figures of decline, documented by the annual surveys of the British Trust for Ornithology, are so astonishing as to be scarcely credible: between 1970 and 2007, tree sparrows in the British countryside declined by 93 per cent, grey partridges by 89 per cent, corn buntings also by 89 per cent, turtle doves by 88 per cent and skylarks by 53 per cent. Remember that these species are more or less at the top of the food chain, so what their vertiginous falls in numbers mean is that the species lower down, the wild plants and insects of the fields, have also gone: turtle doves, for example, have vanished because the flower whose seeds they fed on, fumitory, has largely disappeared. The figures tell us, in effect, that the whole ecosystem is in desperate trouble.

But some things have changed. From the late 1980s onwards, successive governments began to realise that the natural world had paid a terrible price for the intensive farming which membership of the European Union and its crazy Common Agricultural Policy had brought with it, and gradually, farmers themselves began to try to put things right with new wildlife-friendly management schemes.

Yet they didn't do it for nothing. Farmer Giles is by and large a hard-pressed small businessman working with tight cost margins who cannot afford major wildlife projects paid for out of his own pocket, and agri-environment schemes, as they were called, were based around subsidies.

There are now two main ones, under the heading of Environmental Stewardship, the Entry-Level Scheme and the High-Level Scheme. The ELS gives basic payments to about 40,000 farmers to manage their hedgerows better, leave unsown plots for skylarks to nest in, leave unsprayed strips at the field margins for bumblebees, and so on; the HLS pays more to about 5,000 farmers to do more complicated tasks, such as reconverting arable fields to chalk grassland.

Covering about two thirds of the farmland of England, these schemes are terrific: they have made a real difference to our wildlife. But something changed last week which has put an enormous question mark over their future. On Tuesday, 8 June, the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced, in a technical Treasury document, that he was ending Public Service Agreements (PSAs). Brought in several years ago, PSAs have been a sort of contract between the Treasury and other Government departments, promising funding in return for delivering certain policies – they usually involved a target. And two PSA targets in particular, both the responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), vitally concerned British wildlife.

One was the target to get 95 per cent of Sites of Special Scientific Interest – the top wildlife sites – in favourable condition by 2010. The other was to halt the loss of farmland birds by 2020.

These have now been scrapped. Yet they were very much the drivers of the Environmental Stewardship schemes, and the real possibility now is that their disappearance will make it very much easier, in the forthcoming Budget cuts, to slash these agri-environment subsidies, which involve substantial sums: about £1.6bn annually for the ELS in England, and about £500m for the HLS.

If you jib at those figures, well, that's what it costs. If you want to be thrilled by hearing a skylark again on your favourite country walk, that's the cost of restoration; or to put it another, more accurate way, that's the scale of the damage. But if you're Defra and you have no binding official target to chase any more, you'll be a lot less resistant when the Treasury comes knocking on your door looking for cuts and suggesting you take the axe to Environmental Stewardship.

That's what's going to happen. Until last week this country had an official target to restore our decimated farmland bird species, a noble aim by any standards, a mark of a civilised society; George Osborne has just done away with it.

A case of mistaken identity

I turned to this column last Friday and let out an expletive of such explosive force that the cat fled and was not seen for hours: there on the page was a picture caption for the small tortoiseshell butterfly nestling underneath a charming picture of a painted lady instead. A number of readers felt the same irritation, and let me know forcefully. I am sorry. It was what we term an error in the production process. Having just got off a plane from Louisiana and the BP oil spill, I was not in the office to spot it. I hope it won't happen again. If it does, you wouldn't want to be our cat.

For further reading

Core Surveys by the British Trust for Ornithology; 'Silent Fields' by Roger Lovegrove (2007)