£330m poured into failing green farming schemes, ENDS investigation reveals

EXCLUSIVE: Hundreds of millions of taxpayer pounds have been poured into green farming schemes in national parks while protected sites in the same places have degraded, a new ENDS Report documentary has revealed, prompting MP calls for ministers to “take their advice from scientists”, not the Tory backbenches.

Oke Tor, on Dartmoor - GettyImages, David Clapp

Exclusive ENDS analysis has found that government funded agri-environment schemes aimed specifically at improving nature in “priority areas”, have seen a total of £331 million paid out to farmers since 2009, while only one quarter of the country’s protected sites in the same places are classed as being in a ‘favourable condition’.

The analysis has been revealed in ENDS Report’s new film WILDERNESS, which documents how a failure to effectively invest in England’s natural heritage and work with farmers has seen one of the country’s best loved and last great wild spaces, Dartmoor, brought to its ecological knees.

It has prompted NGOs and political figures to call for “guarantees that the money paid to farmers to deliver nature’s recovery does just that” and for ministers to take advice from scientists rather than “caving in to the demands of backbench Tory MPs”.

WATCH ENDS’ FILM NOW > WILDERNESS: The wounding of England's Last Great Wild Spaces

Famous for its vast moors, the Dartmoor national park is home to some of the last remaining fragments of Britain’s once widespread and biodiverse temperate rainforests, as well as peatland bogs holding an estimated 10 million tonnes of carbon - equivalent to an entire year of carbon dioxide emissions from UK industry according to the national park authority.

ENDS Report’s analysis has found that £30.3m has been paid out since 2009 under the government's Higher Level Stewardship schemes to Dartmoor farms on which Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are found. These schemes are intended to improve the environment in high priority areas, but more than 80% of the national park’s SSSIs - the supposed jewels in the crown of English nature - are considered in poor health. 

Responding to the findings revealed in WILDERNESS, a DEFRA spokesperson said that its “comprehensive Environmental Improvement Plan sets out renewed ambition to improve the condition of protected sites, including interim targets and measures to achieve favourable condition”.

They continued: “Thriving nature and sustainable food production are inextricably interlinked and we are working with farmers across the country to find solutions that work for both, this includes our new Environmental Land Management agreements which will reward farmers for protecting the environment.”

WATCH ENDS’ FILM NOW > WILDERNESS: The wounding of England's Last Great Wild Spaces

The news comes after farming minister, Mark Spencer, agreed to “an independent evidence review” covering the ecological condition of nationally designated sites on Dartmoor, following a fallout between Natural England and farmers in the national park, which has seen MPs call for the regulator’s remit to be reviewed.

This in turn prompted the RSPB to come out warning against “political interference” in Natural England’s work in Dartmoor. 

The NGO said that it would be “outrageous” for favourable conservation status or appropriate management of Dartmoor’s protected sites to be determined by politics rather than science.

Commenting on the findings in WILDERNESS, Green MP Caroline Lucas said: “This film raises serious questions about how we can protect our precious ecosystem and achieve the critical 30 by 30 nature targets. If the government is to return SSSIs on Dartmoor and elsewhere to ecological strength, and deliver a proper strategy to restore England’s temperate rainforests, ministers should be taking their advice from scientists - not caving in to the demands of backbench Tory MPs.”

Nick Bruce-White, RSPB operations director for southern England said that if the government is to “make good on its promise to protect 30% of our land and to reverse the loss of wildlife then there must be guarantees that the money paid to farmers to deliver nature’s recovery does just that”.  

He added this means “requiring and only paying for management that will genuinely drive nature recovery, monitoring to ensure that it is delivering, and taking action where it is not”.

“The recently announced independent review of SSSI management on Dartmoor, and how its findings are implemented, will be a key test of whether the government and Natural England are serious about turning this around,” he said. 

Harry Barton, chief executive of the Devon Wildlife Trust added that the review "must be evidence based" and focus on "finding real solutions and not pointing fingers of blame or kicking matters into the long grass".

Richard Benwell, the chief executive of the UK’s largest nature NGO coalition, Wildlife and Countryside Link said that WILDERNESS “tells a heartbreaking story of how many notionally-protected national landscapes have been chronically mismanaged for nature. But the story need not end in environmental tragedy.”

In the coming weeks, Parliament will consider an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to implement the proposals in the Glover review, which recommended that national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) be given a statutory duty to restore nature. 

“If the government wants WILDERNESS II to tell a brighter story, accepting the amendment would be a vital first step," Benwell added.

He said that “with so few sites in good condition, ministers will have to make serious changes if they hope to achieve 30x30. That should mean having the courage of scientific convictions in the forthcoming review of farming payments, so that contracts can be updated with better standards. But it should also mean finding funding to positively reward farmers for changes that help to restore these precious landscapes for nature."

The chief executive of the Campaign for National Parks, Dr Rose O’Neill, added that the documentary “shows the nature crisis in England’s National Parks” adding that the groups own analysis shows that in some places, “nature in national parks is doing far worse than the wider countryside”.

Indeed, while just one quarter of SSSIs in national parks are in ‘favourable’ condition, Natural England’s own figures show that this is much poorer than the England average, where 38% of nationally protected sites are classed as being in good condition.

WATCH ENDS’ FILM NOW > WILDERNESS: The wounding of England's Last Great Wild Spaces