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New report reveals major gaps in environmental protections post-EU Exit for soils and hedgerows

Today the Agriculture Bill will be debated in the House of Commons for the first time since it was (re)introduced in January. As this Link blog explains, the bill presents a welcome transformative vision for agriculture in which payments will be made to farmers to tackle the climate and nature crisis. However, the bill is silent on the rules and regulations for farming in the future.

February 2020

A new report released today by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) highlights gaps in environmental protections post-EU Exit and argues that a new system of regulation is needed to maintain and improve farming and environmental standards. Risks and opportunities of a post-EU environmental regulatory regime for agriculture in England, commissioned by WWF, The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB, examines the risks to nature of losing the current conditions that are attached to farming support and proposes a new framework for farm regulation.

How farming is regulated matters. Overall, farming is now the most significant source of water pollution and of ammonia emissions in England. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from farms have been static since 2010, during which time the proportion of UK emissions that come from agriculture has risen to 10%. It is the primary cause of 30% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in England being in an unfavourable condition. And estimates suggest that soil is being lost at 10 times the rate it’s being created, risking our future food security.

Most regulation for the environment and agriculture is based on EU law. For farming, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy makes adherence with certain environmental regulations a condition of receipt of financial support. Upon leaving the EU, this link may disappear. While these present environmental risks, EU Exit is also an opportunity to make the way we regulate more collaborative and effective – and to embed strong environmental principles in English law. However, without additional legislation, as today’s report highlights, regulations may soon disappear which currently ensure that:

  • Hedgerows are not cut during the bird nesting season, protecting birds like yellowhammers and small mammals such as hedgehogs and dormice
  • Wild ‘buffer’ strips alongside and underneath hedgerows are not ploughed or sprayed with pesticides, protecting bees and other pollinating insects
  • Bare soils are protected from blowing away or draining into rivers, preserving our ability to grow crops in future and locking in carbon

As three wildlife charities, WWF, The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB are 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.

The report also notes that:

  • Dame Glenys Stacey’s review of farm regulation included many positive recommendations, but the case for just one farm regulating body is flawed because the environmental strand of farm focused regulation could be watered down if it is blended into a body seeking to combine several different and sometimes competing priorities.
  • The new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which the government plan to introduce via the Environment Bill, should have the power and resources to hold public bodies to account to ensure that environmental regulations relating to agriculture are implemented and enforced effectively.
  • Compliance with environmental regulations should apply to all farmers irrespective of whether they receive public funding.

As two flagship bills – for the environment and for agriculture – make their passage through Parliament, as members of Wildlife and Countryside Link, we will continue to push Government hard to ensure that this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform farming policy is not undermined by gaps in the protections for wildlife across our countryside – and put forward proposals for how environmental regulation as it relates to agriculture could – and should – look in future if we are to reverse nature’s decline and tackle climate change.

Ellie Brodie, Senior Policy Manager, The Wildlife Trusts

Follow @elliebrodie and @WildlifeTrusts

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.