Tom Lancaster, RSPB Head of Land Use Policy Team, looks at the Agriculture Bill and a new report that highlights gaps in the basic protections for wildlife post-Brexit ... 

Today is the first working day for the UK outside the European Union. 

It is also the day that the recently tabled Agriculture Bill receives its ‘second reading’ in Parliament – the first opportunity for MPs to debate the bill in detail.  

For nature, this is a crucial moment. The Agriculture Bill will, in time, replace much of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in England. The CAP has long been a source of great controversy. With subsidies that drove overproduction – and the creation of the infamous butter mountains and milk lakes – and associated environmental degradation, it has long been one of the environmental villains of the EU. More recently, the majority of payments have been made to farmers simply for owning of managing land, with billions of pounds paid out, with little in in return for the public purse. All the while, wildlife has continued to decline.  

 The Agriculture Bill presents an opportunity to address this, and the RSPB has welcomed the proposed shift toward “public money for public “goods” – the wider benefits society needs from farmers, but which cannot be paid for at the till, such as wildlife, carbon storage and clean water.  

This approach builds on the strong record that many farmers have of working to restore nature through ‘agri-environment schemes’ such as the farmers the RSPB has worked with for decades to secure the recovery of the cirl bunting in South Devon 

However, these land management schemes will be voluntary, and it will also be essential that in the future, a new set of common rules and standards are developed that apply to all farmers, whether they choose to receive public money or not.  

This is a significant problem and poses a significant risk that gaps in crucial environmental protections may emerge in the next few years.  

As Ellie Brodie, The Wildlife Trusts’ senior policy manager, says: “We’re really concerned that the Agriculture Bill does not contain the regulation that’s so desperately needed, and nature will continue to take the rap. It’s absolutely vital that all new regulations apply to every single farmer – not just those who sign up to the schemes designed to help wildlife”. 

A new report published today – commissioned by The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and WWF – highlights the problem and argues that a new system of regulation is needed to maintain and improve farming and environmental standards.    

Produced by the Institute of European Environmental Policy (IEEP), it examines the risks to nature of losing the current conditions that are attached to farming support, and makes the case for a new approach to farm regulation, with investment from Government in advice to make this genuinely effective. It also reveals the gaps in domestic legislation that need filling.  

Without additional legislation in the Agriculture Bill, the report states, we stand to lose regulations which ensure that hedgerows are not cut during the bird nesting season, protecting birds like yellowhammers and small mammals such as hedgehogs. We will lose the rules that ensure wild ‘buffer’ strips alongside hedgerows are not ploughed or sprayed with pesticides, protecting bees and other pollinating insects. There are also existing gaps, such as a lack of any meaningful protection for ponds that provide important stepping-stones for wildlife including frogs and dragonflies. 

We would also lose basic universal protection for soil blowing away or draining into rivers, preserving our ability to grow crops in the future and locking in carbon. 

For these reasons, the three wildlife charities are today calling on the Government to close the gaps in regulation and include a power in the Agriculture Bill to introduce and enforce a new regulatory framework for agriculture which addresses the gaps.   

Action is crucial too to ensure that nature-friendly farmers can engage with confidence in future environmental farming schemes, safe in the knowledge that there is a comprehensive foundation of common rules and standards that apply to all. With the RSPB joining the National Farmers Union (NFU) and many other farming organisations recently to argue that UK farmers should be protected from food imports produced to lower standards than our own, ensuring that we have genuinely high standards, properly enforced, will be crucial to making this argument with any credibility.  

As Debbie Tripley, Director of Environmental Policy and Advocacy at WWF, says: “Unless the Government starts plugging the gaps left by leaving EU regulation, our soils, hedgerows and the wildlife that depends on them are at risk. We need firm but fair enforcement and advice that ensure food is produced to high environmental standards across the country.”