Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by English Nature (H 9)

  Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the Agriculture Committee's inquiry into the implementation of IACS in the EU. Firstly, I would like to briefly outline English Nature's role and statutory functions including as a regulatory body. We would then like to make some specific observations on the operation of IACS as it affects wildlife in England.


  English Nature is the statutory body responsible for advising both central and local Government on nature conservation and for promoting the wildlife and natural features of England. In fulfilling its duties, English Nature:

    —  advises Ministers on the development and implementation of policies for nature conservation;

    —  advises Ministers on other policies affecting nature conservation;

    —  identifies, notifies and safeguards Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs);

    —  establishes, maintains and manages National Nature Reserves;

    —  provides guidance and advice on the principles and practice of nature conservation to a wide constituency; and

    —  commissions and supports research and other projects relevant to nature conservation.

  Through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, English Nature works with sister organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to advise Government on UK and international nature conservation issues.

  Our concern with agriculture relates to the effects that agricultural practices have on the environment and particularly biodiversity. One of our top priorities is to ensure that designated wildlife sites are protected and managed so they are in favourable conservation condition. Outside the special sites we are concerned to see sustainable agriculture pursued so as to meet Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) targets and other sustainable development objectives.


1.   The Attachment of Environmental Conditions to Direct Payments (Cross-Compliance)

  Article 3 of Council Regulation 1259/1999 establishing common rules for direct support schemes under the CAP (the so-called "Horizontal" Regulation), adopted as part of the Agenda 2000 package, provides Member States with the discretion to attach environmental conditions to CAP direct payments to farmers. English Nature is in favour of applying environmental conditions for several reasons. The Agenda 2000 settlement allows the maintenance of very large perverse subsidies at least until 2006. The only way to reduce the environmental damage arising as a result of these subsidies is to make them conditional on environmentally responsible behaviour. English Nature wishes to see a shift of emphasis in spending from commodity to environmental management in the medium term. In the shorter term we feel it is essential to apply environmental conditions to payments to prevent ecological damage.

  We understand that an implementing Regulation for the Horizontal Regulation is due to be published by the European Commission in the next few months. This is likely to require Member States to undertake an environmental assessment of direct payments and to provide detailed justification of their current and planned actions in relation to the environmental effects of direct payments. There is no indication that the implementing Regulation will provide clarification of the monitoring and enforcement standards which the European Commission would require for any environmental conditions attached to direct payments. For example, if Member States were required to undertake the same checks as for IACS for the environmental conditions, field checks would be required on a minimum of 5 per cent of all claims relating to land and 10 per cent relating to livestock. Clarification is needed on this question from the Commission in order to enable a full consideration of cross-compliance options. We have undertaken some initial work on the cost implications for farmers of selected environmental conditions which we shared with MAFF earlier in the year. We were unable to consider the administrative costs of options and the means by which conditions could operate through IACS due to the lack of clarity from the Commission about the monitoring and enforcement requirements.

2.   Forage Area Eligibility

  There are two issues of concern to English Nature regarding the eligibility rules for IACS forage area: woodlands and English Nature management agreements.

(i)  Woodlands

  English Nature supports the evidence submitted to the Committee by Countryside Council for Wales on this issue as we face the same issue. The best woods for wildlife are those that are ancient and semi-natural; many of which occur in the uplands. Grazing and use for shelter is common practice in upland woodlands. However, the numbers of grazing animals in upland woods has increased to the extent that tree regeneration fails, and the plants, animals and structure that make upland woods special are being lost. Allowing farmers to include woodland in their forage hectarage provides an incentive for livestock farmers to maximise their use of woods for grazing. As with the Welsh Tir Mynydd payments, the new Hill Farming Allowance Scheme in England will provide further incentives for farmers to maximise forage hectarage as the payment entitlement will be proportional to the forage area of the farm. Furthermore, one of the environmental enhancement payment criteria is maintenance of at least one ha or 5 per cent (whichever is the smaller) of the LFA land on the holding under woodland cover. It is not clear at this stage from the literature about the England HFA scheme whether this is forage woodland or ungrazed woodland. If the former, we need to be sure that an environmental enhancement payment is not being paid on an overgrazed area of woodland.

  One potential solution to the problem of overgrazing in forage woodlands would be to allow farmers to have up to 10 per cent of their forage hectarage ungrazed provided the remaining 90 per cent is not subsequently overgrazed. There are precedents for this in both the Woodland Grant Scheme, where an area of the land receiving grant can be without trees, and in the new Energy Crops scheme, where 20 per cent of the area on which farmers are receiving payment for Short Rotation Coppice establishment can remain unplanted for operational or environmental reasons.

  Alternatively, grazing restrictions could be applied to woodland without threatening the eligibility of the area as forage. This could be done by allowing exemptions from the IACS rules on the availability of land for forage (see section below on EN management agreements), particularly on woodland designated as SSSI, and through the application of the overgrazing regulations attached to livestock subsidies. Although these overgrazing rules can be employed in theory to prevent the serious overgrazing of woodlands, in practice they are not applied to habitats other than heather moorland as this is the only habitat for which an assessment process has been developed. We encourage MAFF to implement the overgrazing rules where they affect woodlands and would welcome the opportunity to work with MAFF and FRCA to develop an appropriate assessment methodology which we believe can be delivered quickly. Incentives and advice should be available to farmers to pay for stock exclusions and woodland regeneration.

(ii)  EN management agreements

  To be eligible as forage area under IACS, land must be available for grazing, although not necessarily by the applicant's livestock, for a minimum of seven continuous months commencing between 1 January and 31 March and the land must be available to the applicant for at least four months (not necessarily continuously) of those seven months.

  Provision is made to exempt land from these conditions where "land may be temporarily unavailable during the seven month period because . . . of the need to observe a Nitrate Sensitive Area or Environmentally Sensitive Area restriction". Our problem arises from the lack of similar provisions for English Nature's agreements, including any type of Management Agreement, licence, letting, lease, or Nature Reserve Agreement. To give a specific example of the problem, an Agreement under the White Peak Wildlife Enhancement (WES) is up for renewal and includes a grazing prescription with a turn out day of 1 June. Although the turn out date is late, the land is available for forage all year round. However, MAFF has been unable to confirm that the land concerned would remain eligible as forage area under the IACS rules. Consequently, the occupier is not prepared to complete the renewal, thus putting the conservation condition of the site under risk.

  We are dependent upon our agreements with owner/occupiers and graziers to achieve appropriate management and hence favourable condition of special sites and nature reserves, including European sites such as candidate Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. At the same time, owners/occupiers and graziers are dependent upon the eligibility of the land for IACS forage area declaration purposes. We would like the derogation which now exists regarding forage area for NSAs and ESAs to be extended to English Nature management agreements. Allowing forage area to be subject to some grazing restrictions during the seven months could also be used to apply stocking density restrictions on forage woodland suffering from overgrazing.

3.   Geographic Information Systems

  We support the evidence submitted to the inquiry by CCW on the co-ordination of IACS digital data with other government data. We agree that the various GIS data sets (IACS, LFA land classification, SSSI boundaries and open country/common land under the access provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill) should be compatible with each other and could be combined into a single GIS reference system available to farmers. As we have SSSI boundary information in digital form, it should be possible to overlay SSSI boundaries onto digital IACS maps, thereby enabling a link to be made between conservation designations and subsidy payments and emphasising the presence of SSSIs on the land to the farmer concerned. This link may enable English Nature and MAFF to more easily check compliance with the definition of Good Farming Practice which must now apply to agri-environment agreements, LFA payments and which will shortly apply to English Nature management agreements.

4.   Area Payments

  We welcome the move to the payment of subsidies on an area basis in the new Hill Farming Allowance (HFA) scheme as this will reduce the incentive to overstock the land. Overall, English Nature prefers all agricultural payments to be paid on land independent of production levels as this is more environmentally sustainable. Due care is required when changing from headage to area based payments to avoid the danger of farmers changing land cover in order to optimise payments.

  We welcome the approach MAFF is taking to improve the HFA scheme by working in partnership with us. Together we are commissioning a joint research project to explore better ways of classifying hill land in order to develop a more sophisticated area payment structure. This partnership approach is a model for the development of any new schemes.

5.   Integration of Environmental Considerations—Two metre Field Margin Issue

  We have been concerned about the lack of integration of environmental considerations into the IACS system, particularly with regard to the European Commission's moves to change the IACS rules relating to the definition of field boundaries. The EU legislation provides that where a field is fully utilised according to the customary standards of the Member States, its total area can be used as the basis for the claim for Arable Area Payments, rather than the cropped area. In the UK, farmers have been claiming total field areas as shows on Ordnance Survey maps (with appropriate deductions made for land covered by paths, buildings, ponds etc). However, EU auditors expressed concern that the width of field margins, particularly hedgerow, was increasing and argued that farmers should only be claiming the cropped area of the fields. This issue first came to our attention in September 1999 when it became apparent that, as a compromise following the auditors action, MAFF were going to enforce a maximum field margin width of two metres each side of the OS boundary centre line. Consequently, a great many farmers and environmental organisations were worried about the threat to the countryside and its biodiversity which could result from farmers acting to maximise their subsidy claims by cutting back hedgerows wider than the two metres limit, rather than deducting them from the IACS claim.

  The biodiversity and landscape value of wide hedges and hedge/ditch combinations is immense. A host of species, including pipistrelle and barbastelle bat, yellowhammer, bullfinch, corn bunting, linnet, dormouse, spotted flycatcher, bumble bees and others are dependent on tall, wide hedges, or hedges with wide grassy edges, or hedge ditch combinations. The cutting back of a wide tall hedge to two metres would lead, in most cases, to the destruction of the wildlife value of the boundary. As well as jeopardising the achievement of the UK's BAP targets and aspects of the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives, the destruction of the environmental value of wide field margins would be incompatible with the Maastricht Treaty and the EU Agricultural Council's "Strategy on the environment, integration and sustainable development in the CAP" as well as the EC Plan of Action for Biodiversity in Agriculture. It would also undermine the European Commission's efforts to promote a multifunctional European model of agriculture.

  There was much adverse publicity about the issue, particularly against farmers who were already cutting back hedges. However, following appeals from MAFF, ourselves, other environmental organisations and the farming lobby, EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler agreed earlier this year that farmers could continue with existing practice in their 2000 claims. Since then, MAFF have had lengthy discussions with Commissioner Fischler and his officials and appear to be nearing agreement on an approach which would allow hedges and other types of field margins to be treated in broadly the same way as in previous years. The details have yet to be finalised. In the meantime, MAFF's "preliminary" advice to farmers in July 2000 who were preparing their land for next year's harvest was that they should do so "on the basis that they are likely to be able to include hedges and other field margins in next year's claims for area-linked payments in a similar way as in previous years". Although we appreciate that MAFF were unable to be more specific at that time due to the ongoing negotiations, it may well have been the case that some farmers chose to cut back hedgerows rather than risk a penalty at a later date. The initial enforcement of the two metre width limit on field margins followed by ongoing uncertainty about the issue, due to the apparent inability of the European Commission to integrate environmental considerations into agriculture policy, has inevitably resulted in the destruction of some field margins in England.

  This situation could have been averted if the European Commission had undertaken a policy appraisal which would have identified the environmental impacts of enforcing a two metre field margin. Similarly, MAFF could have assessed the environmental impacts of the Commission's moves, in consultation with the countryside agencies, which would have provided early warning of the likely outcome and put the UK in a stronger negotiating position with the Commission.

31 October 2000

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