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Plummeting butterflies and falling farming profits highlight the urgent need to support nature-friendly farming – warn charities

21 June 2018

Seventeen nature charities [1], coordinated by Wildlife and Countryside Link and Greener UK, are highlighting new figures published by Defra today, which show that butterfly populations in England have nose-dived by 27% on farmland and 58% in woodland since 1990. The charities are calling for urgent action in the Agriculture Bill to encourage radical change to farming and land management practices which are causing butterflies to disappear and widespread environmental damage.

Butterfly populations fluctuate widely each year, but figures for 2017 showed little shift from 2016 – which was one of the worst years on record, with particularly bad weather for butterflies. The five worst years ever for butterfly populations have all been in the last decade. [2] The campaigners are warning that this adds yet more weight to the evidence of decline in our natural world and shows the urgent need to prioritise environmental action in the forthcoming Agriculture Bill and a specific Environment Act.

Nature is vital to our own wellbeing and a countryside without butterflies is unthinkable. Restoring our environment is also in the interest of the farmers who rely on our struggling wildlife and other natural resources. Insect pollination is vital to 84% of our crops, worth £690 million each year, with bees being the most important pollinators. Without urgent intervention to change the industrialised agriculture system which is killing them off, British butterflies, bees and other insects will continue to vanish. As insects disappear so does our main source of crop pollination, natural pest control, and a huge source of food for wildlife.

The decline in the environment is matched by falling farming profits, with total income from farming in England also having fallen sharply - more than 36% since its peak at almost £4 billion in 2013, to 2.53 billion in 2016. [3]

To demonstrate the need for a switch to nature friendly farming, and the appetite for this from farmers, the organisations are holding a farmers’ market in Parliament on Wednesday 27 June, involving over 100 MPs and Peers in addition to a range of stakeholders. This event will showcase nature friendly UK farming produce, explore the reasons why it is essential for the environment to thrive if farming is to do the same, and demonstrate that we can have a productive countryside which is also bursting with nature.

Nigel Bourn, Director of Science at Butterfly Conservation said: ‘Our butterflies, moths and other pollinators are at crisis point. Without urgent intervention to change the industrialised agriculture system British butterflies and bees will continue to vanish. As they disappear so does our main source of crop pollination and a huge source of food for wildlife. The Government must grab the chance to fix our farming system with both hands now, before it’s too late.’

Jenna Hegarty, Head of Land Use at RSPB, said: ‘The legacy of the Common Agricultural Policy is a broken farming system that doesn’t work for farmers, the public who want sustainably produced food, or for our wildlife which is still in decline. The Agriculture Bill gives us a unique chance to put agriculture and our environment back on track. If our wildlife is to ever recover and if farming is to have a profitable future, the Government must follow through on the radical proposals in its Agriculture Command Paper including prioritising the environment in future payments to farmers.’

Hilary McGrady, Director-General of the National Trust, said: ‘This dramatic decline in butterflies is yet further proof that urgent action is needed to restore the alarming decline in nature across the UK. Recent Government proposals are a positive step towards a new future for the countryside, but we need to see ideas enshrined in law. Sustainable and profitable farming is underpinned by a healthy natural environment, which in turn is dependent upon a farming system that is sensitive to its needs. The National Trust believes they are inextricably linked.’

Dr Elaine King, Director of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: ‘Farming feeds the nation’s stomach, but its lifeblood, the natural resources that farming relies on, is becoming ever weaker. We all see fewer butterflies, birds and bees, and we have to act on these warning signs. The Agriculture Bill is a pivotal moment for the future of our environment. Unless it includes binding targets, subsidies with the environment at their heart, strong regulation and enforcement measures, and a collaborative UK approach, nature will be left flatlining.’

Further comment from Friends of the Earth, WWF-UK and the Rivers Trust can be found here.

The Government announced ambitious plans in its Agriculture Command Paper, particularly on subsidy incentives for environmental improvements, but there are fears these plans could be watered down. Environment and animal welfare experts are calling on the Government to stick to its guns and:

  • outline ambitious and binding targets in the Agriculture Bill to: put UK nature back on track; protect the welfare of farmed animals; and strengthen public access to our treasured landscapes. These targets must be backed up with funding and clear mechanisms to make them effective
  • put the environment and animal welfare at the heart of public-funded farming payments to ensure the public feel the benefit of an enhanced environment and more sustainable food production• develop strong regulations, an effective enforcement regime, and ensure the new environment watchdog has the resources, expertise and independence to hold the Government and public authorities to account on their responsibilities
  • work collaboratively with the devolved administrations to ensure farming and land-management policies across the UK are joined-up and fair to farmers, the environment, wildlife and the public

Further key facts and figures showing farming-related environmental decline include:
Pollinators: half our bumblebee species are in decline, three are now extinct, and seven have more than halved in the last 25 years. Two-thirds of moths and 71% of butterflies are in long term decline . Pesticides have become more toxic and the number of times crops are treated has soared - 55% of cereals were treated in 2016 more than four times compared to 30% in 1990.
Wildlife: More than half of UK species have suffered declines in recent years and almost one in six species (one in five mammals) are at risk of vanishing.
Soils: Soil is being lost at around 10 times the rate it is created, with around 2.9 million tonnes of soil lost from fields in England and Wales every yea (Defra). Soil degradation costs the economy around £1.2bn a year including: reducing output of food production, increased flooding and reduced water quality.
Water: Only 14% of rivers in England are classed as healthy. The highest proportion (31%) of pressures causing poor water health can be attributed to agriculture and land management.
Trees: Ancient woodlands support over 200 of our rarest and most threatened wildlife species, yet around half of our ancient woodlands have been lost in the past 90 years (Woodland Trust).
Hedgerows: 50% of UK hedgerows have disappeared since 1947 as a result of changes in farmland management, most that remain are in ‘poor condition’. Dependant wildlife has been severely affected by habitat loss with half of our hedgehog population having disappeared since 2000.
Air: Agriculture accounts for 88% of ammonia emissions in the UK, contributing to wildlife loss and climate change, as well as damaging public health.
Landscape: Since only 1990, 60% of the English landscape has changed in ways which are ‘inconsistent’ with its traditional character, such as removing hedgerows, heathland, wildflower meadows, orchards and ponds. This is in part due to agricultural practices.


Notes to editors:

1. Nature and animal welfare organisations, members of Wildlife and Countryside Link and environmental coalition Greener UK, are campaigning for environmental measures in the Agriculture Bill: Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Butterfly Conservation, Campaign for National Parks, Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, National Trust, Plantlife, The Rivers Trust, RSPB, RSPCA, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, and WWF-UK

2. Butterfly population index statistics from Defra

Farmland butterflies10063619192825210399896473
Woodland butterflies1004037576256285650473442

3. The table below summarises the most recent figures on total income from farming in England from
Defra’s Agriculture in the English regions dataset

Total income from farming3993389128932530

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