Calling all land managers!

24 March 2021 - Published by Francis Buner

Do agri-environment schemes work and how might we improve them?

Agri-environment schemes (AES) have been around now since the early 1990s. These reward farmers for following guidelines on how to manage their land – with the aim to make it more suitable for farmland wildlife. These are funded with public money and can be colossally expensive: the Scottish Agri-Environment Climate Scheme alone cost taxpayers approx. £50 million a year during 2014-2020. But do they work?

There has been a lot of research into this question over the last 10-20 years, with mixed findings. For a long time the consensus was that, by and large, AES don’t make a huge difference. For example, a study in Scotland in the early 2000s showed that those farms in AES did have more wildlife than those that weren’t, but actually this was the case before they got into the scheme. Once in the scheme, there were no improvements in biodiversity over the course of their management agreements.

Over time, AES were revised – and supposedly improved – during each review cycle, but still the research suggested things weren’t always going as expected on the farm. There were some undoubted success stories, like the corncrake – a rare bird now restricted almost exclusively to the islands of north-west Scotland, which increased 2.3-fold when more than 70% of its core area was devoted to measures designed specifically to help this species and paid for by AES, but for much of the more common, widespread species, but which are still in decline, there was little evidence of large-scale changes in fortune. Indeed, the EU’s mid-term review of its biodiversity strategy, concluded that no significant progress had been made toward hitting its target of halting biodiversity loss (despite AES being an integral part of the plan).

So, what is going on? Why aren’t AES delivering the recovery in biodiversity that they are designed to? Well, there have been many reasons suggested. For example, there is no question that some of the options available in the schemes have unforeseen consequences – when rush-cutting to benefit waders leads to an increase in potential nest predation rates, you know there’s something wrong! It is also likely that the measures available are too rigid in how they must be implemented, which won’t suit all situations and so will likely compromise their chance of success.

So how do we improve schemes to make them more likely to enhance farmland biodiversity? Well, the Interreg NSR PARTRIDGE project is exploring this issue via ten demo farms across northern Europe, showcasing some of the better ways of utilising AES measures, but it is also currently running a huge survey of land-managers (farmers and those with a shooting interest) to learn about the experiences and opinions of those who are, or who have been, in an AES, as well as those who have never considered entering a scheme. It is a rare opportunity for end-users to have a say in how future AES might look, so if you have 10 minutes to spare (based mostly on multiple-choice answers), please take a look – you may win a prize!


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Cover Crop Header picture (photo taken by Molly Crookshank)