Alongside the British Ecological Society Policy team, Michael MacDonald looks at the future of environmental funding in agricultural landscapes and discusses his new article, Have Welsh agri-environment schemes delivered for focal species? Results from a comprehensive monitoring programme.

Agri-environment schemes (AES) have been European governments’ major attempt to reduce and reverse biodiversity losses on farmland. However, there have been criticisms of the performance of AES, and of the lack of monitoring.

800px-vale_of_llangollenIn our recent article, we report the results of an extensive monitoring programme of Welsh AES. The benefits that were observed were largely for species that use arable habitats (arable plants, yellowhammer, brown hare), where the contrast between AES and conventional management is greater. However, these habitats are rare in Wales, where much agricultural land consists of semi-natural habitats.

We note that AES also tend to be more successful for species where they are ecologically and/or spatially focused. Monitoring AES is key to demonstrating their performance, but this can be difficult for uncommon or declining species when monitoring a national scheme. Related to this is a lack of specific targets for AES in relation to individual species. AES may have general goals to improve biodiversity conservation, but desired levels of population increase or stability are rarely known.

The results of this monitoring programme are especially relevant given the UK’s forthcoming withdrawal from the European Union and the Common Agricultural Policy. In Wales, the recent ‘Brexit and Our Land’ consultation has promoted the idea of public money for public goods, which represents an opportunity for a step-change in the way that the farmed environment is funded and managed. As well as food and timber, agricultural land produces public goods: biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as clean water, healthy soils, and improved human wellbeing. Ecosystem services play a key role in supporting rural economies, and in turn they are underpinned by biodiversity and healthy ecosystems.

However, the exact nature of future environmental funding of the farmed landscape in Wales is uncertain. It is important that biodiversity remains central, and is not overlooked in the desire to maximise ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, though these things are also valuable. This is because we have an obligation towards biodiversity conservation, and because the state of biodiversity in Wales helps to define the ability of the landscape to provide those other services. The results of this monitoring programme can help to shape where public money would be most effectively spent to maximise the public goods that arise from it.

Read the full article, Have Welsh agri-environment schemes delivered for focal species? Results from a comprehensive monitoring programme in Journal of Applied Ecology.

To find out more about the BES Policy team and how you can get involved with their work, follow them on Twitter (@BESPolicy) or head over the BES website.