Conservation groups attack subsidies to farmers: Growing nothing 'pays 20 times more than countryside protection schemes'

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S cereal farmers are paid 20 times more to grow nothing than they earn from conserving the countryside, a coalition of environmental and conservation groups said yesterday.

They protested that there is a gross imbalance between subsidies for set-aside - taking land out of production - and payments directly linked to protecting and restoring wildlife and landscapes threatened by modern farming methods.

The Royal Society for Nature Conservation, the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and the Ramblers' Association estimate, using published government figures, that the compensation for growing fewer crops in the coming year works out at an average of pounds 45.39 per hectare across the nation. Farmers are entitled to this compensation in return for taking 15 per cent of their arable land out of production.

But farmers will only be earning an average of pounds 2.31 a hectare under conservation schemes which pay them directly for protecting ponds, hedgerows and dry-stone walls, conserving or restoring semi-natural habitats such as wildflower meadows and delivering other environmental 'goods'.

The figure may be only pounds 1.56 per hectare if a proposed expansion in the longest running and largest of these green farming schemes, Environmentally Sensitive Areas, fails to go ahead. Many observers believe next week's Budget will call a halt to further growth of ESAs.

Paul Wynne, of the CPRE, said: 'The taxpayer is entitled to expect environmental benefits from the vast amounts of money spent on the Common Agricultural Policy. Just think what could be achieved if this imbalance was redressed.'

Cereal farmers are being paid pounds 138m this year to leave just over one-sixth of their fields fallow; it works out as several thousand pounds for the average farm. They will also gain pounds 702m compensation because the price they receive for wheat, barley and other crops is falling due to reforms in the CAP aimed at shifting Europe's inflated prices nearer world market levels.

The total budget for environmental payments in the coming year will be pounds 43m - only pounds 29m if the expansion of ESAs does not go ahead.

The conservation groups argue that the compensation payments for growing less should be much more tightly linked to farmers delivering specified environmental improvements. Farmers do have to make limited environmental undertakings in return for the compensation package, but these only cover the set-aside land, not the entire farm.

In a separate analysis, the World Wide Fund for Nature has worked out that planned expenditure by the average Briton on the reformed CAP in 1994-95 will be pounds 43, with only pounds 1.20 linked directly to environmental measures.

There are now 33 ESAs in Britain covering 15 per cent of land area; they had been expected to expand to 43 in the coming year. Within these areas farmers can earn a large part of their income from conserving wildlife and landscapes, but they often have to sacrifice agricultural production in order to do so.