Farm Minister's support for funding of green schemes
Subsidies for environmentally-friendly farming could be protected after a Government minister signalled schemes to increase wildlife and protect the countryside should not be "diminished".
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is deciding how much of the newly-agreed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget to ring-fence for agri-environment schemes.
Whitehall has the power to transfer up to 15% of direct farm payments to farming that helps to do everything from saving under-threat plants and animals to managing hedgerows.
While the National Farmers' Union opposes the full switch, environmentally-friendly farmers were in Westminster yesterday lobbying MPs to ensure the agri-environment deals escape the axe.
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The transfer of funding is significant as the £3 billion a year of farming subsidies Britain will carve up is roughly 13% less than under the existing CAP.
At the event in Parliament, Farming Minister George Eustice spoke of Defra's anxiety to ensure "really good" schemes continue.
Without the cash, hill farmers would struggle to stay in business – having knock-on affects for activities such as walking on Dartmoor and Exmoor, crucial to Westcountry tourism.
At the lobbying event, farmers from the region said "green" schemes running for as long as 20 years could be jeopardised by cuts.
Mr Eustice, Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, admitted the 15% transfer was the "big contentious issue". He said: "We've got a really good track record in this country with both the entry level stewardship scheme, but particularly the higher level stewardship scheme has been a great success. We don't want to see those efforts diminished.
"We are determined that when we are in a difficult situation and budgets are under strain, then we can actually maintain some really good agri-environmental schemes."
He admitted the department was looking to replace parts of the existing deals with a new "environmental land management scheme", but said it would have "more requirements" and be "more meaningful".
After being told in a question-and-answer session the NFU was "not the voice of all the farming industry", Mr Eustice said it was "very important we don't end up with a confrontation between farmers and environment groups".
The event was backed by the National Trust, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts. Mike Rogers, a farmer from Beesands, South Devon, said the subsidy was "helping the environment while not hindering yourself". "It's compensation, not a subsidy, for the work we are doing," he said explaining his fields have been used for everything from supporting bees, to growing organic cauliflowers. Without the money the risk is "ploughing up everything".
Simon Berry, who farms near Bideford, North Devon, said: "The general public want us to protect the countryside. That 15% is vital."