Redwings, public sector strikes, George Monbiot, and the Common Agricultural Policy


I originally wrote this post almost a year ago, but given the focus of the RSPB’s ‘Stepping Up’ campaign on current plans to dismantle the ‘good’ parts of the Common Agricultural Policy (and that I’m pushed for time to be honest) I thought I’d re-post it as it is perhaps more relevant now that it was then.


  • So, what do Redwings, public sector strikes, George Monbiot, and the Common Agricultural Policy have in common? More than you might think actually.

    This morning I awoke to gale-force winds ripping at the windows, leaves tumbling across the sky, and masses of Redwings and Fieldfares gorging themselves on berries from a 400m long hawthorn hedge dividing two fields here on the Great Chalfield Estate where I live. Nothing too notable about that perhaps – winds blow this time of year, thousands of thrushes have arrived in the last week from the Continent, and those thrushes eat hawthorn berries. However, it IS notable, and the reason is that hedge.

    I spent all day yesterday with Simon Tonkin (@SimonTonkin), the RSPB’s affable and extremely hard-working Senior Farmland Conservation Officer looking at farms on the Fens and Brecks. Simon spends his working days persuading farmers to farm in a more wildlife-friendly way, helping them get into agri-environment schemes like Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) which are paid for by EU taxpayers through the much-derided Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP, which distributes €55bn (£47bn) a year, or 43% of the European budget, is up for major reform at the moment, with financially hard-pressed governments looking to slash their contributions. While everyone would like to see their taxes better spent, it would be disastrous for our wildlife to eliminate some parts of the CAP. Commentators that say that reform of the CAP would at last relieve some of the richest landowners in the UK of subsidies they don’t need (as George Monbiot in an article yesterday seemed to put it) is missing the point by a country mile.

    Let’s back up a little and look again at that hedge here on the Chalfield Estate. An article on the RSPB website says that “An Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE) survey of hedgerow changes revealed that between 1984 and 1990 hedgerow length in England had declined by 20% and in Wales by 25%. While outright removal of hedgerows accounted for 9,500 km per year, almost half of the loss was a result of lack of management.”

    Other estimates say that over 300,000 miles of hedgerow have disappeared since 1945. Many hedges have been cleared to make it easier to farm. Larger fields without ‘obstructions’ like hedges mean more straightforward ploughing or cropping, which has led to ‘prairie-style’ fields in parts of the UK. While this has indeed led to more food production (and increased production is what farmers have been urged to achieve for decades) it has also led to less wildlife, because – as my Redwings and Fieldfares proved this morning – hedges provide vital food in winter when other food sources can be in short supply. Without berries in winter many bird will die. And hedges also of course provide protection, nesting sites in the summer, and the rough grassland cover along their edges that the plough can’t reach is critical for small mammals and insects.

    It all makes great sense to keep hedges therefore. But – and this is where my reference to public sector strikes come in – who is going to pay to keep them there? More pertinently perhaps, why should it be us hard-pressed taxpayers?

    Yesterday, as I was driving back from my day in the Fens, I was listening to an interview on the radio with a public sector worker who said she was going on strike because by changing the T&Cs of her pension what the government was asking her to do was in effect work a day a month for no pay for the next twenty years. Why should she do that? Indeed, but in the same way, why should a farmer keep a hedge in a field if it means he/she loses income through loss of food production?

    I may not like looking at the countryside like that, but that is how many farmers view their farmland. Yes, as I’ve been told many times over the last few months and was told again yesterday, farmers recognise that biodiversity is way down on farmland (but shame on the NFU President Peter Kendall for comments suggesting biodiversity hasn’t declined when data proves so conclusively that it has) and many want to find a way of restoring it. But like the pubic sector worker on the radio, why should they lose money while they do it? Which is where the ELS, HLS and similar agri-environment schemes come in…

    Great Chalfield receives subsidies under HLS, paid for through the CAP. The landowner is paid by us, the taxpayer, to manage the hedges here to be wildlife friendly (Chalfield’s would do it anyway if he could, but not all farms make vast profits and I personally believe he merits some support). He’s not paid much through HLS (several thousand pounds a year), but enough to compensate for NOT farming that strip of land the hedge occupies. In terms of what it costs each taxpayer in the EU it is so small as to be practically unmeasurable (and good value in my opinion). Added up across the countryside as a whole those tiny payments do add up to quite a total, but it also means that there are hedges. And that there are field corners left to go to seed (and along with hedges our birds need seed rich and insect rich habitats), and that farmers leave small squares (or ‘plots’) in crops for Skylarks to nest in. Those payments mean that farmers are helped to create botanically diverse field margins, and that wildlife isn’t squeezed off farmland totally.

    It’s on this last point that George Monbiot – normally a safe pair of hands in term of ‘green’ issues – appears to come unstuck. The CAP certainly needs reform. There is vast waste and funding for many anti-environment ‘improvement schemes’, but before we chuck the baby out with the bathwater and slam into rich farmers for simply getting subsidies, let’s at least first ask whether any of this funding is being used to protect biodiversity. If it is (and it is), then we’ll have to swallow hard, agree to disagree about who owns all the UK’s land and why, and keep paying. If it’s not, then please let’s use the opportunity of CAP reform to find a way to make some of the payments farmers receive conditional on the implementation of measures that will protect biodiversity. Like it or not, simply stripping away the payments would probably mean farmers looking to replace lost income through more intensive agriculture. And that means less wildlife.

    It’s not ideal (not by a long way) but it’s what we’ve got right now, and the situation is simply too urgent not look for practical ways to help farmers stay in business AND help restore farmland biodiversity. Next time you’re out in the countryside or driving from one town to another think about what you’re walking or driving through. Chances are that it will either be land utilised for food production or land adjacent to land utilised for food production. The reality is that more than 70% of the UK is now farmed in one way or another. It’s a vast acreage but let’s not forget it’s us, the ‘consumer’, that buys the food produced, and there are more and more consumers every day of every week of every month. Even so, even now we import food and the demand for increased UK food production is strong (if almost 1 in 4 people in the UK weren’t obese, more of us became vegetarian, and the UK didn’t waste 7.2 million tonnes of food a year that demand could be quashed but that’s another blog).

    The truth, palatable or not, is that if we want wildlife to survive on farms, to see Redwings and Fieldfares eating hawthorn berries from healthy, well-managed hedges, to have arable plants and butterflies and bees, then we are going to have to pay farmers NOT to do what us consumers apparently want them to do: produce ever-increasing amounts of food from a finite area of land.


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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores


  1. Chris Foster says:

    Hi Charlie,
    Thanks for an interesting survey of the issue – wind also rattling the windows in Hampshire this morning, but no so badly perhaps!
    A point of agreement that I found with George Monbiot is that I share his distaste for the amounts recieved by some very wealthy individuals, and in an ideal world I’d prefer land to be owned in the UK more equally – and therefore managed more democratically, which would be another way to solve that particular problem.

    As you know the RSPB has shown at Hope Farm, the GWCT at Loddington, and indeed many farmers all over the place that farmland wildlife and productive farming can coexist with, in fact, little or no dent to profits. I well remember a GWCT scientist speaking to a group of us MSc students kept hammering the point that solutions for wildlife on farmland had to be something a farmer would agree to, or you could never implement it.
    But in the continued absence of my fantasty UK, those of us who want biodiversity to be protected (and I think, when the issue is explained, that covers the majority of people) will have to pay for it, as you rightly say, since rolling out those sorts of projects nationwide, changing practices, all take time – and I particularly agree that we need much more to see whether money is really protecting biodiversity. And where it is, keep paying it! Especially where that is helping struggling small scale farmers to stay in business – I’m sure the Duke of York et al don’t yet own every corner of Britain!

    I don’t know if it is an over-optimistic assessment, but my hope is that a combination of improving stewardship schemes further (particularly ELS, since HLS is already pretty good) to achieve Hope Farm style outcomes on a nationwide scale, backed up by us as taxpayers and consumers in appropriate subsidies where needed (i.e to compensate for loss of production if it should occur) and fair prices for food (i.e. supporting the right sort of British farming with our shopping baskets), combined with a much stronger drive to eliminate both waste and unfair practices from the supermarket supply chain – could see the twin things we like the countryside to produce sit quite comfortably together.
    Now, if we could just have a sustained commitment from government to help the whole thing come together and provide funding, but that’s another issue…

    That’s far too long a comment, but I hope you see where I’m going! I actually tend to think that us and wildlife would be better off reverting to, on the whole, smaller scale mixed agriculture that produces most of the food we need very locally, bypassing big agriculture and supermarkets altogether. But I’m aware my previous suggestion is much more likely to happen, and that some species actually rather like big arable farmland… solution is perfect!

  2. Simon says:

    Good blog and good comment.

    Here is the thing….

    How much extra money do you think we need to put into the CAP to deliver the environmental and nature benefits we as tax payers want to see?

    Answer: £0

    There is enough money in the CAP, lots being spent on wasteful payments that deliver nothing for the taxes that you pay into it. So shift the money in the CAP to pay for public goods and services that aren’t supported by markets i.e. the environment and halting the loss of wildlife.

    This needs to be EU wide – birds in particular don’t know boundaries and we need to have payments and more of them that pay for habitats to be managed and created if we are going to reach the EU’s own recently adopted target to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020.

    I don’t believe it is about small or big, rich or poor but I do believe that is about ensuring a return of public goods i.e. more Skylarks and services i.e. pollinating insects for the public investment that these farms across the EU recieve.

    Those farms that wish to produce solely for the world market – fine! but they don’t get any of my taxes for doing it!

    CAP hasn’t made food cheap, it hasn’t made us efficent, it hasn’t enabled us to produce more (in-fact the opposite is true) but it has palyed its part in creating the biodiversity crisis across the EU today that needs to be rectified……..urgently!

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