Rural Development: a lifeline for the environment and the rural countryside
Well-designed and adequately funded rural development measures deliver clear benefits to society and represent a genuine return for the public’s investment in agriculture. Such measures do not only provide the most effective means of conserving biodiversity in farmland habitats that are under threat, they also contribute to wider economic and social goals, including support to maintain viable farming and rural communities.
Agri-environment schemes are the green backbone of the CAP; they include voluntary management schemes at farm level that provide environmental benefits. Good farming practices that deliver public goods do not have to come at the expense of production; on the contrary they can even boost production (Hope Farm project). The schemes are intended to target money at farming practices and measures, which allow wildlife to thrive, maintain clean air and water, and protect cultural landscapes. Targeted agri-environment schemes, containing options designed to reverse the causes of biodiversity loss, can be very efficient in increasing wildlife numbers. The key to successful agri-environment schemes lies in their design, their targeting, science based prescriptions, appropriate funding and the possibility to adjust the scheme to specific contexts (Successful agri-environment schemes).
A stronger support is also needed for High Nature Value (HNV) farming. HNV farming is normally of low intensity (low number of grazing animals, fewer artificial inputs, greater mix of natural features), this means that landscapes dominated by HNV farming systems retain the highest levels of farmland biodiversity. (The value of HNV farming) These systems are under threat due to intensification pressure in fertile areas and abandonment because of the low socio-economic viability of these systems (Land abandonment across the EU). Both abandonment and intensification of land inevitably diminish the quality of grasslands, lead to loss of habitats, pollinators and pose threats to many species and ecosystem services.
The Natura 2000 network is designed to protect key European species and their habitats, it is the EU’s most consistent effort to halt biodiversity decline yet. More on nature conservation and the EU Biodiversity Strategy. Up to 30% of Natura 2000 sites are on agricultural land and depend on appropriate farming practices. Targeting Rural Development spending to farmers actively managing Natura 2000 is therefore a very effective use of EU funds in view of reaching environmental objectives (Natura 2000 management through rural development).
However as many EU Member States have not yet set out concrete management prescriptions for farmers in Natura 2000 (e.g. through the development of site management plans as required by EU Nature legislation) this type of targeted spending is almost non-existent. Even though clearer management prescriptions would improve farmers’ awareness of their role and responsibility within Natura 2000 and would serve the EU Member States by ensuring a better national compliance with the objectives of the Birds and Habitats Directives.
If the CAP is to play its part in creating a more sustainable future, it must substantially increase funding for Rural Development measures, including funding for targeted and well implemented environmental schemes. Despite clear benefits for the environment and wider society, Rural Development Policy currently only receives 25% of the CAP budget. Well targeted environmental schemes (such as agri-environment and Natura 2000 schemes) should receive a minimum of 50% of each Member State’s Rural Development expenditure, to underline their value and importance. These measures have proven their value, not only for biodiversity but also for resource protection, climate change and farm business viability. Such schemes are the embodiment of a ‘public money for public goods’ approach and it is vital that they play a stronger role within the CAP.