Brexit is a ‘once-in-a-generation’ chance to restore our green and pleasant land, conservationists say

Leaving the EU ‘provides an unprecedented opportunity to revitalise our countryside in a way that balances the needs of everyone, for generations to come’

Ian Johnston
Environment Correspondent
Saturday 01 October 2016 00:02 BST
Cows graze in the early morning sunlight in the Cotswolds
Cows graze in the early morning sunlight in the Cotswolds (Getty)

Brexit will be a “once-in-a-generation chance” to reverse the huge decline in Britain's wildlife, according to four of the UK’s leading environmental groups.

The RSPB, WWF UK, National Trust and The Wildlife Trusts said the British countryside was “key to our identity as a nation” and farmers had the ability address the “urgent challenge of restoring nature”.

They called on the Government to replace the much-criticised EU Common Agricultural Policy subsidy system with a British one that pays farmers to maintain “high environmental standards”.

Earlier this month, the State of Nature 2016 report – produced by more than 50 organisations – concluded the UK was one of the “most nature-depleted countries in the world”. More than one in seven species face extinction and more than half are in decline.

However, in its response to the conservation groups’ call, the Government insisted the natural environment was “cleaner and healthier than at any time since the industrial revolution”.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) said its members understood “the importance of protecting the environment” and complained that some organisations were making suggestions about agricultural policy “without speaking to those the policy most affects”.

In a joint statement, called A new policy for our countryside, the four conservation groups said the UK’s departure from the EU “will be one of the most defining events for farming and our environment in living memory”.

“[It] provides an unprecedented opportunity to revitalise our countryside in a way that balances the needs of everyone, for generations to come,” they said.

“Our vision is for a thriving, healthy countryside that delivers multiple benefits for society.

“As well as products such as food and timber, we need the natural environment to provide services like clean water and healthy soils, and the benefits to our wellbeing that contact with abundant and diverse nature brings. In turn, these services play a key role in supporting a prosperous rural economy.”

They warned the situation outlined in the State of Nature report threatened the country’s food security.

“Fundamentally, the long-term future of farming is at stake if the natural systems on which it is based are depleted,” the groups said.

“With farmland covering over three quarters of the UK, farmers and land managers are uniquely placed to help meet the challenge of restoring nature, and to capitalise on the opportunities this brings.

“It is critical therefore that the environment, farming and rural development policies we develop across the UK are focused on this urgent challenge and opportunity.

“This isn’t a choice between food and the environment; the future of food, farming and nature is inextricably linked.

“We need to work together to achieve a countryside rich in nature alongside vibrant communities and a thriving rural economy.”

They also called for an independent commission to be set up to develop policies in this area and for a comprehensive “25-year plan” to be drawn up.

Steve Trotter, director of The Wildlife Trusts in England, said wildlife was “a crucial part” of what makes the British countryside so special.

“The Government needs to be bold and take a radical new approach to the way public payments are used to deliver the things we need from a healthy countryside, like clean water, beautiful landscapes full of wildlife, nutritious food, healthy soils, jobs, room for people to exercise close to nature, as well as practical benefits like reduced flood risk,” he said.

“This is a once-in-a-generation chance to help reverse the huge decline in wildlife and it must not be missed.”

Andrew Clark, director of policy at the NFU, said it planned to publish a report about what its members wanted post-Brexit shortly.

Commenting on the conservationists’ calls, he said: “We’ve seen a raft of organisations in recent weeks publicise what they would like to see from different policies as Brexit negotiations near.

“Many of these offer detailed solutions for the farming and policy without speaking to those the policy most affects.

“Farmers across the country understand the importance of protecting the environment and ensuring we have a thriving countryside.”

He said farmers had planted or restored 30km of hedgerows and increased the “number of nectar and pollen rich areas” by 134 per cent in the past two years.

“These conservation groups have rightly recognised that farming and the environment go hand-in-hand and that producing quality, home-grown food is critical to the future of the country,” Mr Clark added.

“What’s at stake here needs to remain at the front of this debate – our access to safe, affordable, traceable home-grown food and for that we need to have competitive, profitable and progressive farming.”

And Ross Murray, president of the country landowners and business group CLA, said they supported “a more ambitious vision for the countryside”.

“However, any vision for the future of the countryside that does not recognise that a resilient farming sector is critical for environmental improvements is unrealistic,” he said, adding they opposed the creation of a policy commission, saying it could be taken over by “vested interests”.

However Emma Hockridge, head of policy at the Soil Association, which promotes organic farming, said: “We warmly welcome the policy recommendations made by a number of environmental groups which are so supportive of and in tune with organic farming and food.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs painted a rather different picture of the state of nature in Britain to the conservation groups.

“Our natural environment is cleaner and healthier than at any time since the industrial revolution,” a spokesperson for the department said.

“Woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th-century, we have improved water quality in 9,000 miles of rivers since 2010 and in the last five years almost 19,000 miles of hedgerow have been planted.

“Protecting our precious environment and supporting our world-leading farmers, a cornerstone of our economy, will form an important part of our EU exit negotiations. We will work to deliver the best possible outcome for the British people.”

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