Can the common agricultural policy save England's green and pleasant land?

Grasslands Trust

Rugged robin thrives in marshy grasslands, common to the rainy west of England. Marshy grasslands are rare and declining with less than 22,000 ha left in England.

As reform of the EU's agriculture policy gets underway, Miles King of the Grassland Trust tells Matilda Lee how intensive farming has all but destroyed England's 'rainforests' and why it's time we started asking for more from our farmers

Once upon a time, England's grasslands were wildlife havens, major carbon storage banks, home to a multitude of butterflies and other species and an inspiration for writers and painters from Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare to David Hockney and John Constable. But the multi-coloured grass and wildflower-rich fields and meadows teeming with an unseen army of fungi supporting soil health and fertility, have largely been destroyed.

Today, grasslands, which cover over half the agricultural land in England, some five million hectares, are usually identified through the uniform bright green fields blanketing the landscape. ‘In the last 70 years, grasslands have been commandeered for one singular purpose: to provide cheap food through modern agriculture,' says Miles King, director of the Grasslands Trust (pictured below).

He says that less than three per cent (or 100,000 hectares) of England's lowland grasslands are still rich in wildlife, with most cultivated entirely with rye grass using artificial fertilisers and herbicides and damaged from long-term overgrazing. ‘Grasslands need wild species of flower, moss, grass and fungi. The problem with intensively managed grasslands is there is no diversity,' he says. ‘Because of the inputs and fertilisers, the fungi aren't there, so they are nowhere near as good at sequestering carbon.'

‘England's rainforests'

Grasslands have dominated the landscape since Neolithic farming settlements began to clear England's native tree cover 6,000 years ago. There is a growing, if slow, recognition of the value of the various goods and services grasslands provide. The government's first National Ecosystem Assessment, published earlier this year, details how, among other things, grasslands help mitigate climate change through carbon absorption, purify drinking water, and provide homes for pollinating insects, with the latter alone worth an estimated £440 million a year to agricultural industries.

‘A really well-managed semi-natural grassland [the term used to describe grassland modified by human activity] can store about 80 tonnes a hectare of carbon. If you take an intensively managed grassland and start managing it extensively, with low inputs and low-intensity grazing, it can sequester up to three tons of carbon a year,' King says. This carbon storage capacity is on a par, he says, with broad-leafed woodland. Nature's Tapestry, a in-depth report on the state of England's grasslands by the Grasslands Trust says that the 1.45 million hectares of semi-improved grassland in England is estimated to store around 300 million tonnes of carbon, nearly as much as in the UK's entire forest carbon store. ‘Globally there is as much carbon stored in grasslands as in forests,' says King. ‘Recent research points to the more diverse in species, the better at storing carbon. It is a collaboration - the more plants and more fungi there are, the more effectively carbon is stored,' he says.

Grasslands future tied to CAP reform

The fate of England's grasslands hangs on reforms to the EU's common agricultural policy (CAP), which is still the single biggest influence on farming practices in the country. Since the UK adopted the CAP on entering the European Community in 1973, farmers have been incentivised to increase production, at the expense of the environment and wildlife. Subsequent CAP reforms in 1992 and 2003 have delinked subsidies from production and introduced incentives for farmers to protect and preserve the environment, albeit on a loose system of conditionalities. To date, however, the CAP's environmental stewardship schemes have, ‘largely failed,' says King. The Grasslands Trust is gearing up for the next set of CAP reforms, which start tomorrow and are finalised in 2013.

‘Trying to change agricultural policy is probably one of the most difficult things you could try to do. It means going up against very powerful agricultural lobbies,' says King. The Grasslands Trust lobby both in the UK and in Brussels through the Wildlife and Countryside Link, a network of food and farming organisations set up by Peter Melchett in 1980. ‘After five years of entry-level environment schemes, what evidence that has been collected suggests there has been very little change in terms of increasing biodiversity,' comments King. 'There is also no evidence, because there has been no monitoring, that this has stopped further biodiversity loss. Currently, there is not enough money for farmers to move up to more meaningful high-level stewardship schemes. I am not anti-farmer,' he continues. '99 per cent of grasslands are managed by farmers. The question is how much we are trying to get out of them and what kind of farming we want.'

The sentiments are shared with another veteran CAP reformer, Jack Thurston, co-founder of, which campaigns for more transparency in farm subsidies. 'We need to assert our power in this social contract. As taxpayers, we provide the subsidies for farmers, so we need to demand more as regards public access to land, animal welfare and environmental stewardship. Right now farmers are getting it for nothing.'

Further information:

Grasslands Trust

Pasture Promise TV, a new internet television channel co-founded by food and farming writer Graham Harvey and rural media specialist Trevor Bailey. The first film, The more we graze it can be viewed below.

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