Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence




  1.  Increased pressures to produce more livestock from a given area of land have come from a range of sources including changes in technology, the structure of farming and consumer demands. Increased stocking densities, however, have been dramatically accelerated by the support payments for cattle and sheep under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) livestock regime[27]. All direct sheep and cattle subsidies are paid on a headage basis, thereby encouraging increased stocking as farmers try to maximise income from subsidies. For example the number of breeding ewes in the uplands of England increased by around 35 per cent between 1980 and 2000. Overgrazing is the principal environmental concern in the uplands and is widespread across a range of habitats. The impact of overgrazing on the quality of upland habitats is illustrated by the condition of upland Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). There are 1.1 million ha of SSSI in England, of which 448,000 ha is in the uplands. A higher proportion of upland SSSI (67 per cent) is in unfavourable condition compared to lowland SSSI (33 per cent) and considerable investment in these will be required if the Government is to meet its PSA target. Most upland SSSIs require agricultural grazing, but at significantly lower stocking rates than those adopted by conventional commercial upland sheep farms.

  2.  Addressing the impact of the CAP on upland habitats will be a key factor in achieving the Government's Public Service Agreement (PSA) target for SSSIs, which aims to have 95 per cent of SSSIs in favourable condition by 2010.


  3.  Substantial losses of lowland unimproved, species-rich grassland in England have occurred over the last 50 years. The main causes of the losses have been the post-war intensification of agriculture. Species-rich grasslands have either been improved by a combination of ploughing and reseeding with high yielding strains of rye grass, under-drainage, the use of herbicides and inorganic fertilisers or conversion to arable.

  4.  It has been estimated that 97 per cent of lowland unimproved grassland was lost between 1930 and 1984 in England and Wales[28]. More recent studies have shown that losses have continued in the last two decades of the 20th Century. In the Peak District, comparison of data from the mid-1980s and mid-1990s showed a 76 per cent loss or decline in the conversion value of species-rich grassland[29]. In Worcestershire, 6 per cent of species-rich neutral grasslands per annum were lost or damaged between 1980 and 1991/92[30].

  5.  Agricultural intensification over the last 50 years has been driven by a combination of technological advancement in farming supported by grants and national and European policy that has commodity support as prominent feature. These include livestock subsidies based on headage payments and price support for products such as milk and arable regimes involving price support and more recently area payments.

  6.  These regimes have encouraged overall increases in agricultural production in both the livestock and arable sectors and an increase in the area under arable cultivation at the expense of permanent grassland. In addition shifts in the nature and type of farming systems have occurred, particularly specialisation. Although the impacts of production subsidies on the environment are extremely complex, there is no doubt that they have led to an overall impoverishment of biodiversity in the farmed countryside[31].

  7.  Despite the increased greening of European agricultural policy in the last two decades, losses of species-rich grassland have continued although an increasing issue for remaining areas is neglect as maintenance of biodiversity value of species-rich grassland is dependent on continuation of low-intensity grazing and mowing regimes.


  8.  By encouraging farmers to increase stock numbers and increasing the need for more productive and intensively managed grassland and fodder crops or by providing area based subsidies for producing arable crops with no environmental conditions on the receipt of support, the current support system provides an incentive to maximise fertiliser and agro-chemical inputs beyond economically optimal levels.

  9.  Research by the Home Grown Cereals Authority[32], has shown that using integrated farming systems pesticide and nitrogen use could be substantially reduced compared to conventional systems (30 per cent less cost and 18 per cent less active ingredient for pesticides and 20 per cent reduction in nitrogen) without any reduction in the economic viability of the system. Nitrate loss from agricultural land to surface groundwater is a significant proportion of average application rates and high nitrate concentrations in surface and groundwater means that some drinking water supplies cannot be used without additional pre-treatment or blending. The contribution of agriculture to the problem of water quality is becoming proportionally greater as discharges of nitrogen and phosphorous from point sources, principally sewage treatment works, is addressed under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.

  10.  Addressing the agricultural sources of diffuse water pollution that will enable the Government to meet its PSA targets on River Quality Objectives, SSSIs, UK Biodiversity Action Plan targets and environmental targets under the habitats and Species Directive and Water Framework Directive will require a comprehensive strategy of measures. Removing production related subsidies would, however, remove the underpinning incentives that encourage maximisation, rather than minimisation, of fertiliser and agro-chemical use.

27   English Nature, State of Nature: the upland challenge, 2001. Back

28   Fuller, RM 1987 The changing extent and conservation interest of lowland grasslands in England and Wales: a review of grassland surveys 1930-1984. Biological Conservation, 40: 281-300. Back

29   Peak District National Park 1999 Hay Meadows project update January 1999. A4 leaflet. Bakewell: Peak District National Park. Back

30   Jefferson, RG, Robertson, HJ, Marsden, J & Fraser AJL 1994. Lowland grassland in England. Conservation of a declining resource in Worcestershire. In: RJ Haggar, ed Grassland Management and nature conservation. British Grassland Society Occasional Symposium No. 28, Reading: British Grassland Society. Pp 200-204. Back

31   Lowe, P, Hubbard, L, Ward, N, Whitby, M, Winter, M & Moxey, A 1998 CAP and the environment in the United Kingdom. Centre for Rural Economy Research Report. Newcastle: Centre for Rural Economy, University of Newcastle. Back

32   HGCA, Project Report No. 173, LINK Integrated Farming Systems: a field scale comparison of arable rotations, February 2000. Back

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