Eastern Europe's wildlife could be devastated by EU intensive farming

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The Independent Online

Wildlife in eastern Europe could be devastated by the expansion of the EU because the incoming states are expected to switch to intensive farming, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has warned.

There are fears that farmland, still holding a rich array of creatures and plants not threatened by traditional agricultural practices, will be rendered largely sterile, suffering the same fate as much British land has over the past 30 years.

The deal struck by EU leaders at Copenhagen provides for the 10 newcomers, when they join in 2004, to be able to divert farming subsidies away from environmentally friendly measures into intensive farming. Hannah Bartram, a senior RSPB agricultural policy officer said: "Eastern Europe still has wildlife treasures and landscapes that in western Europe now only largely exist in works of art or the collective memory.

"The scale of intensive farming in western Europe is so massive and so damaging to wildlife that it is even possible to see the boundaries of the Common Agricultural Policy stamped on many bird distribution maps."

She said farmland birds that had been largely lost from mainland Britain, such as the corncrake, red-backed shrike and great bustard, could be found in eastern Europe but questioned how much longer they would thrive.

The RSPB fears higher food subsidies from the EU will dissuade farmers from promoting environmental and rural development schemes, making them less attractive in eastern Europe. This, with the prospect of less money in the rural development budget, may mean some governments opt for minimal agri-environment programmes. The result would be a shrinking of the variety of wildlife.

Miguel Naveso, head of BirdLife International's office in Europe, said new rural development plans should "include a strong emphasis on environmentally friendly farming, and environmental conditions should be attached to all payments."

The British countryside has widespread examples of what happens when the accent is placed solely on maximum crop yield. A century ago, corncrakes could be found nationwide. But modern farming, resulting in earlier crop-cutting times, led to large-scale nesting failure. Excessive hunting wiped out England's former great bustard population by the mid-1830s but with a more positive attitude to wildlife in recent times there could have been a recovery – had it not been for intensive agriculture.

Conservationists fear the loss of such species and are worried there will be a wide-spread decline, in the same way that many once-familiar birds, such as grey partridge, lapwing, skylark, linnet and corn bunting, have suffered in Britain's rural areas.