Recently Michael MacDonald examined the impact agri-environmental schemes have had in the UK and, in particular, Wales. Now Associate Editor Peter Manning highlights the need to focus on evidence of these schemes’ effects when considering agricultural policy reform.

There is now overwhelming evidence that agricultural intensification has proven disastrous for wildlife, and that policies encouraging intensification are a key driver in this process. In Europe the main policy culprit is the European Union’s (EU) Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP was formed in the 1950s to protect European farmers and consumers, but its policy of paying to produce via subsidies has had unintended and dramatic impacts on the continents farmland wildlife. Recognition of these impacts led to the diversion of some CAP funds to agri-environment schemes (AES) in which farmers are paid to implement wildlife friendly prescriptions such as hedgerow planting, and maintaining high quality semi-natural habitats. However, the effectiveness of these schemes, which cost billions of Euros every year, has been questioned. In fact, evidence to date has indicated that many AES simply do not deliver the benefits they are intended to. Unfortunately, this evidence is limited as the money spent on monitoring the effectiveness of AES is miniscule compared to that awarded in subsides, which in turn, is a small fraction of total farm subsidies.

The brown hare is one species seen to have declined due to agricultural intensification. Photo: Evelyn Simak / Brown hare (Lepus europaeus) in hay field

This makes the study of MacDonald et al. a very welcome one. In their work a wide range of different organisms, which could potentially respond to AES, were surveyed in farms, or parts of farms, that were under AES and then compared to similar and nearby farms and fields that were not. The study was conducted in Wales, which is part of the United Kingdom but due to its devolved government has its own AES, such as Tir Gofal (translation: ‘Land in Care’), that differ from those of neighbouring England. The study organisms include many well-loved species that have shown strong declines in response to agricultural intensification, including the brown hare, lapwing and several butterfly species, but also some that typically get less attention, like fungi. The results show that in only a few cases did AES seem to benefit the wildlife of interest, and that these were species that use arable habitats, such as yellowhammers (a passerine bird) and brown hares. One reason for this may be because in arable environments the schemes encourage habitat creation, rather than the maintenance of existing habitat, as they do in the grassland and semi-natural habitats that dominate Welsh agricultural land.  Unfortunately, because the prescriptions of AES are applied concurrently, and in a very wide range of combinations and settings, it’s difficult to know which parts of an AES benefit wildlife, and which do not.

Does a lack of response in many organisms suggest that these AES are, in their current form, a waste of money? No, but it does add to an increasing body of evidence that such schemes need revision if they are to reverse damage to the farmed environment and deliver value for tax payers money. Furthermore, the authors stress that assessment of such schemes is clouded by a lack of clear target setting – do we expect species populations to remain stable or increase dramatically? We should also be aware that benefits may take time to manifest, and that funding these schemes can, at the very least, divert funds from other potentially more damaging subsidy schemes. What is clear is that we need more information about which AES prescriptions work, for which species, and where; the re-allocation of even small amount of subsidy money would make a huge difference to developing such a knowledge base.

With the UK looking to leave the EU in the near future (at the time of writing at least!) and consequently, the CAP, there is an opportunity for significant reform of the nation’s AES. The CAP itself also requires reform, as do many other AES schemes around the world. Any new policy should be based on the best available evidence – meaning that lessons learnt from the work of MacDonald et al. and other studies of this type should not be ignored.

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

A more detailed version of the results of this research can be found in the full report to the Welsh Government.