Addressing farmland biodiversity concerns effectively in the Common Agricultural Policy

Published on 19 July 2011 in Sustainability and Communities , Ecosystems and biodiversity

landscape of fields


Farmland is one of the dominant land covers in Europe, covering over 45% (173 million hectares) of the European Union’s 27 Member States. It has been estimated that 50% of all species in Europe depend on agricultural habitats. However, agricultural modernisation and intensification in many areas of Europe over the last 60 years have had significant adverse impacts on the biodiversity value of farmland. Farmers and their farming practices are needed to maintain and improve conditions for habitats and species of European farmland biodiversity concern. However, it is also clear that despite an emphasis on farmland biodiversity concerns, without further major changes to the way that Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) support is targeted, then farmland biodiversity will continue to decline across Europe. This briefing draws on the findings from an EU-funded project which highlighted a range of measures that could be taken to ensure that farmland biodiversity concerns are addressed in the CAP at an appropriate scale to be effective.

Key Points

A range of approaches exist to address the continuing decline in farmland biodiversity, including the Natura 2000 Network of protected sites. Reforms to the CAP, particularly since 2000, have changed the EU system of farm support, with farmers now required to undertake mandatory environmental cross-compliance in order to quality for the Single Farm Payment in what is known as Pillar 1 of the CAP. A focus on agri-environment schemes is also evident in Member States’ Rural Development Programmes (what is known as Pillar 2 of the CAP).

Despite the increasing emphasis placed on addressing farmland biodiversity concerns, Natura 2000 sites only cover a small proportion of farmland. Also, the level of funds available through the CAP’s Pillar 2 has not increased markedly and this money is subject to an ever-increasing range of demands.

High Nature Value (HNV) farming systems across Europe therefore continue to be under threat from both intensification and abandonment, with a subsequent loss in farmland biodiversity. Conversely, already intensified farms have generally not made the large-scale changes to their farming systems which are necessary to produce the conditions required for farmland biodiversity to recover.

A range of measures are needed to ensure that farmland biodiversity concerns are addressed in the CAP at an appropriate scale to be effective, including: the need to raise awareness that changes to CAP are required to adequately address farmland biodiversity concerns; placing more on the farm as the most appropriate scale at which to focus the actions required; establishing broad priorities to help with the targeting of actions, such as, addressing the simplification of landscapes and the increasing pressures being put on HNV farming systems, farmland bird populations and semi-natural vegetation.

Landscape simplification is the key driver of biodiversity declines but it is also clear that this cannot be addressed at the scale required solely by using agri-environment schemes. However, landscape simplification could be addressed and the available limited Pillar 2 funds used more effectively if all farmers were required to do more in order to qualify for Pillar 1 support. This could be achieved by taking a three-tier approach within the CAP, within which:

  • Tier 1 would be used to ensure that all farmers in receipt of CAP support were required to take action on the ground to maintain or improve the basic biodiversity value and potential of the agricultural landscape of their farm;
  • Tier 2 would be used to target support to two main farming systems of proven biodiversity value, namely HNV farming systems and organic farming;
  • Tier 3 would be used to target support to specific measures considered to be important in helping address regionally-distinctive biodiversity concerns at the farm level.

Research Undertaken

A European Commission funded Specific Targeted Research Project (STREP) assessed the exact obligations falling on the European Community with respect to agriculture in the fulfilment of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and the Convention on Biological Diversity (MEACAP: impact of environmental agreements on the CAP). The project was coordinated by the Institute for European Environmental Policy and conducted in partnership with 7 other European Institutes. SRUC (formerly SAC) contributed to this project through a sub-contract to the University of Humboldt in Berlin and together these two institutes were responsible for a workpackage which dealt specifically with Analysis and measures for delivering Convention on Biological Diversity commitments in agriculture. A Policy Briefing highlighting the key findings from the biodiversity-oriented research has recently been published by SRUC’s Rural Policy Centre.

Policy Implications

In Scotland, as elsewhere in Europe, concern about farmland biodiversity declines has raised questions not only about how biodiversity actions on farmland can be better targeted but also about how this can be best achieved and funded. There is therefore a need for a fundamental rethink as to how actions to benefit biodiversity on farmland are targeted and supported. The MEACAP project highlighted a range of measures for ensuring that farmland biodiversity concerns are addressed at an appropriate scale to be effective. However, in addition to any payments for environmental enhancement, there is also an associated need for efficient and effective regulation to ensure that Scotland’s biodiversity is not degraded through agricultural production. Hence, any changes to cross-compliance conditions will only be effective drivers of positive land-use change if these are backed-up by appropriate monitoring and enforcement of those conditions.


Dr Davy McCracken


Sustainability and Communities , Ecosystems and biodiversity

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