Sussex County Voice - Paying for the environment
PUBLISHED: 15:36 14 December 2010 | UPDATED: 16:58 20 February 2013
How can landowners afford to provide us with the sort of landscape we all love? Jonathan Lucas considers the options
MANY of the traditional farming activities which lend themselves to the creation of traditional landscapes, such as grazing, are in many circumstances no longer economically viable. Nobody in this country is subsidised on the basis of food production tonnage any longer, but the associations linger, and any mention of farmers receiving payments from the public purse can provoke resentment. The truth is that farmers in Sussex and throughout the country are constantly seeking diversification strategies to keep their businesses in the black. But they also have to balance economic viability with the interests of the environment.
So when you hear of farmers receiving public money these days, it is in all probability for environmental stewardship. There are two levels of stewardship for which farmers can apply Entry Level (ELS) and Higher Level (HLS). There are large areas of Sussex in which farmers are eligible to apply for the more demanding Higher Level Stewardship, because they feature environments and historic buildings which require the care and nurture which only farmers and land managers are in a position to deliver. Some 56 percent of the new South Downs National Park is covered by HLS agreements. Natural England currently funds 575 land managers within the park boundary who manage over 91,000 hectares of farmland, ensuring that the rolling chalk downland and river valleys are preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.
Many farmland bird species have suffered major declines over the last 25 years. One of the main factors is large-scale bird habitat change driven by policies that demanded agricultural intensification.
The RSPBs research has highlighted the key things that farmland birds need, such as particular summer and winter food sources and safe nesting opportunities. The environmental stewardship scheme offers the chance for more land to be managed positively for wildlife.
Where grazing is a loss-making activity, but vital to the preservation of specific habitats, who is to pay? The market will no more pay for the environment than it will a playground. Both are public goods for which public money is required. This is where payments for environmental stewardship are a vital mechanism for conservation from which all of us who appreciate the Sussex countryside benefit.
This is no gravy train for farmers. Estimates suggest that farmers nationally are paid around one third of what it costs them to produce the environmental benefits for which they are responsible.
Fortunately for us, those who have taken the step into HLS are driven by more than money.
So before we condemn handouts, lets reflect on the cost to our environment if we just assume somebody will look after it, with no financial support to do the job.
The road to the hell of a neglected environment is paved with good intentions. If we care for our environment we should back HLS and those prepared to take it on.
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Jonathan Lucas is chairman of the Sussex branch of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA). The CLA has been looking after the interests of its members, as well as promoting the positive aspects of land ownership and land management, for the past 100 years. CLA members own or manage approximately half the rural land in England and Wales. www.cla.org.uk