BB eye  Agricultural policy – what does it mean for our farmland birds?

I was watching birds before the UK entered the European Economic Community (EEC) and I’m still watching them now that we are disentangling ourselves from nearly 50 years of joint policy making. During that long period, farmland bird numbers have changed considerably and nature conservationists have criticised the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and called for its reform. In a post-Brexit era, the four UK devolved administrations are free to put together their own packages of measures that support agriculture and shape its development with new funding and new goals. What might we hope for and expect?

To imagine the future, we need a decent understanding of the past. It helps to bear in mind three separate but connected things: the wildlife in the countryside (birds, bees, buttercups, etc.) is strongly influenced by farming practices (crops planted, pesticides used, livestock husbandry, etc.), which in turn are strongly influenced by public policy (how public money is spent on subsidies and grants, and what the rules are, etc.). 

A short account of biodiversity loss on farmland

Only those born before the mid 1960s and who have birdwatched through that period will actually remember a countryside much richer in farmland birds; the biggest declines were in the 1970s. But those declines are well documented and we can take them as read. The declines in plants and invertebrates are less well documented, occurred earlier and were even bigger. When a bird called the Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra, a former weed called the Corncockle Agrostemma githago and an insect called the Field Cricket Gryllus campestris have all declined by over 90% in UK farmland in a human lifetime, then no-one can doubt that the changes have been enormous. 

A short account of changes in farming practices

Farming occupies around 70% of our land area and that figure has not changed dramatically in 50 years; there has been a slow, gradual loss of farmed area to urbanisation, transport and forestry, but the major changes have been in how we farm the land. Farming now employs less than 2% of the workforce and has become more intensive and more productive. Mixed farming, where individual farms grow crops as well as raise livestock, is now much rarer, and the landscape has polarised geographically into the arable east and livestock west. In arable farming, new herbicides, insecticides and fungicides have not only reduced losses of yield directly, but have also allowed autumn, instead of spring, sowing of crops, and the stubble field has largely been lost from the land. Grass production is now fed by fertilisers, and silage production has become the norm. Hay meadows are an anachronism.


Ian Newton

142. Prolly Moor, Shropshire, July 2013; with graph showing the overall trend in populations of UK farmland birds, 1970–2018 (from Wild Bird Populations in the UK, 1970 to 2018, Defra 2019; 

A short account of agriculture policy.

When the EEC was formed by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, agriculture was part of the plan for joint policy making. Only 12 years earlier the six founding nations (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) had been at war but now the aim was to forge an economic partnership in which farming would be a part. It took until 1962 to put the CAP in place and it concentrated on food production, coming as it did after a period of food shortage and rationing. Security of food supply was the main aim of the CAP although, even then, policy makers had an eye on rural depopulation and social issues. Environmental protection was seen as separate from farming and the EEC did not have a common environmental policy. The early CAP created a common internal market for farmed products, a common system of payment support to farmers and import barriers to non-EEC farmed products. It is too simplistic to characterise the role of the CAP as a means of transferring German money to French farmers in return for other policy areas ensuring that German industry had access to French consumers, but that was indeed a significant element of the deal.

When the UK joined the EEC in 1973, UK farming came under the CAP. Farming had long been supported by subsidies in the UK, but the nature of those subsidies changed. It became easier to sell our agricultural products within the EEC and for UK consumers to buy the farm products of our new economic partners (the original six members but also Ireland and Denmark) but it was more difficult to import products from our erstwhile close partners across the world (particularly Commonwealth countries) and to export to them.

The CAP was spectacularly successful in encouraging agricultural production and achieved its goal through distorting the market by guaranteeing prices so that farmers didn’t have to worry about the market for their goods. This led to a long period of overproduction – wine lakes, grain and butter mountains – where the taxpayer was paying farmers for unnecessary production. Land use was intensified, to the disbenefit of wildlife, because every grain of wheat and litre of milk had a guaranteed price and so it was worth farming more marginal land and investing in the means to do so whether it be drainage, larger machinery or the newest pesticides.

From the MacSharry reforms of 1992 to the present day, with a European Union (EU) of 27 states (until recently 28), the CAP has changed gradually to reduce agricultural surpluses, reduce payments to farmers, decouple payments from production and transfer more funds to environmental payments, mostly through voluntary schemes. We have seen the slow and incomplete greening of the CAP.

A short primer on the price of food

We spend a smaller proportion of our incomes on food now than we did in the past. Buying food is only one of the three costs of food, although it is by far the most obvious. 

The second cost of food is formed of the public spend on agriculture, including all those subsidies or direct payments to farmers. The CAP comprises nearly 40% of EU expenditure; and EU expenditure comes from EU taxpayers. So you and I have each been paying hundreds of pounds a year, for decades, to farmers as part of the system. Because there are millions of taxpayers and only tens of thousands of farmers, each farm gets a lot of money, usually in the range of tens to hundreds of thousands of pounds of income support without a means test. Most farms are insolvent if not for public subsidy, particularly farms on marginal land such as in the uplands. If we pulled our taxpayer support out of agriculture, UK farming would go bust but non-farmers would all have a few more quid to spend in the pub. 

The third cost of food is in what are called the externalities by economists, and agriculture has externalities like few other industries. My local farmers can’t sell the song of a Skylark Alauda arvensis to me because I can listen to it from a public footpath and enjoy it for free. And, indeed, if you stand next to me, you can enjoy it too; my listening to that song doesn’t deplete it for you. Skylark song is a non-market public good, and although it can’t be bought or sold, it does have a real value; as do landscape beauty, carbon stored in the soil and clean water running off the land. The past three decades of agriculture policy development in the EU have been spent in trying to make the CAP more friendly to these externalities. We can now do that ourselves in a reform of how we support farmers.

A little over half of the food we eat is produced in the UK, but our diet would be very different if we ate only the foods we can grow ourselves. We export £19bn worth of food each year but import £39bn from over 80% of countries on the planet. Thus the externalities of our food consumption include how our imports and exports affect land use in other places. 

The Westminster government has a new Agriculture Bill (currently stalled in its early stages in Parliament) and the mantra is ‘Public money for public goods’. You can explore what’s in the new Agriculture Bill at but it is all quite sketchy at the moment. The devil, as always, is in the detail and details really matter. But the headline of ‘Public money for public goods’ is still clearly the aim. Surely this is where we get agriculture policy right for farmers, taxpayers and wildlife?

Hopes and expectations for the future

Policy is a blunt instrument. If we prioritise the population level of the Linnet Linaria cannabina in future agriculture policy, then we will certainly get more Linnets – we may even get Linnet mountains as we formerly had wine lakes and grain mountains. But Lapwings Vanellus vanellus need different things from the countryside than Linnets and shouldn’t we include them too? And every declining farmland bird? And declining farmland plants and insects? And wildlife is all very well, but what about carbon storage? And flood alleviation? And landscape values? And animal welfare? And land values? And good value for the taxpayer; maybe we should shift support from agriculture to the NHS, or Trident missiles? And what about farmers? What impact on the farming industry will we tolerate in order to engineer different outcomes? And what value will we put on food security and home-grown food, or are we prepared to risk relying on imports from all around the world to feed the UK population? We now have these tricky decisions, often described as opportunities, because we have left the EU. Until now, UK governments have been part of the decision-making process for a large part of the European continent but now we have to go it alone – that’s what taking back control means. We do not yet have an agreed future relationship with the EU. Under Theresa May’s proposals we would have maintained close policy links with the EU and the degree of change might have been small; under the Boris Johnson government we may find imports and exports of food are more constrained and expensive with the EU and that we are looking to the rest of the world for more of our food. It is difficult to imagine any government giving home food production a lower priority in those circumstances. We may find that the chlorinated chicken gets much more consideration in our future agriculture policy than the Linnet.

These are decisions that affect wildlife profoundly and all of us as consumers, taxpayers and citizens. They seem worthy of a major public debate but I doubt we will get one. And if we do, how loud and persuasive will the voices be for wildlife?

Mark Avery


Issue 6
Start Page: 
Mark Avery
Display Image: 

Stay at the forefront of British birding by taking out a subscription to British Birds.

Subscribe Now