By Tony Whitbread
There’s no getting away from the general picture that birds and other wildlife and habitats of nature conservation importance have been declining in our agricultural landscapes more or less continuously for the last 70 years. Sussex is 60% farmland (2,300km2), so it’s inevitable that we’ve suffered the same sort of changes to our wildlife as elsewhere in lowland Britain and indeed across continental Europe.
The late Michael Shrubb, a Sussex farmer and enthusiastic amateur ornithologist (he was a founder of the Sussex Ornithological Society in 1962) dedicated much of his time to understanding the relationships between birds and changing agricultural practices. In his book ‘The Lapwing’ he remarks on its decline linked to farmland drainage and conversion from pasture to arable. A more recent study in the north-east Hampshire Downscharted the local decline and extinction of lapwings over 13 years from 1981, suspecting a mixture of reduced spring tillage (a key lapwing nesting habitat in arable farmland), poor breeding success and absence of recruitment to the population at a time when lapwings were in decline across the country.
The dramatic changes to farming in post-war Britain were fuelled by policies which promoted specialisation and intensive production methods. The consequences were trends in land use, management and production techniques that had a devastating impact on biodiversity in the countryside. This was barely recognised until the sub-lethal effects of organochlorine pesticides on top predators in Britain –notably golden eagles, peregrines and sparrowhawks– were exposed to a global audience in 1967 by a government scientist, Derek Ratcliffe, publishing in Nature. The evidence available now is incontrovertible.
From the 1950s, our national policies on agriculture encouraged intensification; public money supported the infrastructure changes that helped farmers switch to intensive arable cropping in landscapes which were previously dominated by extensive grazing. State aid was used to put drainage systems into low-lying wetlands, incentives resulted in heathlands, scrubland and broadleaved woodland being converted to arable farmland and the grubbing up of hedgerows. The use of chemicals to promote crops and to control pests increased.
So when we joined the European Economic Community on January 1st 1973 and our farmers started to benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), we were already in the grip of land use change that proved harmful to much of our wildlife. The CAP reinforced the trend. Only in the late 1980s and early 1990s did we see a change of direction and the admission of ‘environmentally friendly farming’ into the support mechanisms.
Land use in Europe is dominated by farming. Across the EU member states, 39% of the land (1.7 million km2 – roughly equivalent to the entire combined land area of France, Spain, Germany and Italy) is ‘utilised agricultural area’ - that’s arable land, pasture and meadows, and permanent crops (orchards, vineyards, olive groves). The UK has among the highest proportion of its land in agricultural production at 69% (171,000 km2), similar to Ireland and Denmark. There’s no doubt at all that agricultural policies at national and European levels have been bad news for wildlife in the farmed landscapes across the EU. In the last 25 years we’ve seen progressive change in the CAP towards more beneficial environmental measures. It feels painfully slow, but the reforms are broadly heading in the right direction as we’ve seen in the various agri-environment schemes that have emerged with each reform package, combined with measures invoked through the Water Framework Directive which is reducing contamination of watercourses from agricultural chemicals.
So it was that 25 years ago I really feared we were on the cusp of losing all our chalk grassland in Sussex. It seemed that there was nothing to prevent it all being either ploughed up or abandoned to scrubland. Then along came two positively helpful mechanisms; both of them ‘from Brussels’, as they say. We got ‘Environmentally Sensitive Areas’ (ESAs) as an agri-environment measure which gave financial support to farmers interested in doing their job in way that enhanced wildlife habitats and the countryside. The South Downs ESA was one of the first of the areas designated when the scheme was launched (co-financed by the EU through the CAP) in 1987. Five years later the EU Habitats Directive included chalk grassland as a habitat type of ‘European interest’, and orchid-rich chalk grassland as a European priority habitat. Together these EU-supported initiatives have helped to save the iconic landscape of the South Downs.
So on balance I feel that the future for farmland wildlife –even under the CAP– is reasonably positive.
 T.P. Milsom (2005) Decline of Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus breeding on arable farmland in relation to loss of spring tillage. Bird Study 52 pp.297-306.
 D.A. Ratcliffe (1967) Decrease in eggshell weight in certain birds of prey. Nature 215 pp.208-210 (8 July 1967).