Brexit could see an end to the EU's wildlife-hostile farming practices says BENEDICT VANHEEMS of the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust

LOOK across stark farmland on a frigid winter’s day and it’s hard to imagine there’s life out there. All is quiet and still, as if frozen in time. Hedgerows lie bare. The cold furrows stand silent witness to short, dim days.

But appearances can be deceptive.

In fact, even winter fields are home to all manner of wild creatures: birds, mammals and a universe of invertebrates like worms, spiders and beetles. Together they weave a remarkable tapestry of life that keeps the land healthy and our food supply safe.

Much of this life isn’t exactly obvious. Most insects lie in a state of torpor or suspended in time as eggs or larvae till spring’s arrival. Hibernating mammals like hedgehogs and dormice remain hunkered down, while many birds maintain a low profile to conserve energy.

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One group of birds you might see out and about are hardy souls like fieldfares and redwings. These so-called farmland birds are often seen in open fields, along hedgerows or at woodland edges making the most of wild berries. Other farmland species rely on an abundance of seeds to see them through the lean months.

Farmland birds sit near the top of the food chain, making them an excellent indicator of the general health of the wildlife population at large.

Every year the British Trust for Ornithology and RSPB produces a series of bird indicators drawing on data collected mainly by volunteers. The indicators reveal the state of the country’s birds, and the picture for farmland species isn’t pretty; the breeding farmland bird index continues to decline, having dropped by more than half since 1970.

Around 70 per cent of the UK is farmed, and here in Oxfordshire we have more than our fair share. How this land is managed has an obvious impact on the natural world.

So much of the driving force behind these alarming declines stems from the way farmers are paid.

Oxford Mail: Fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) feeds on rowan berries to sustain themselves over winter. Picture: Richard Steel/2020VISIONFieldfares (Turdus pilaris) feeds on rowan berries to sustain themselves over winter. Picture: Richard Steel/2020VISION

For years the EU-wide Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) prioritised production at the expense of the environment, resulting in wildlife-hostile practices such as increased pesticide use, larger fields, better drainage and the loss of seed-rich winter stubble.

More recent agricultural subsidies have been based on little more than size of landholding. Where’s the incentive to do what is right for local wildlife?

Our departure from the EU offers a chance to redesign agricultural policies to enable wildlife to recover, while still supporting hard-working farmers. The new Agriculture Bill appears set to give farmers the resources they need to do this.

From next year farmers enter a transition period as subsidy payments move from the old CAP system to its replacement, the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. Currently in development, the scheme will reward farmers for delivering environmental gains that benefit all of society – and the natural world on which we depend – with payments for outcomes such as clean air and water, thriving wildlife and tackling the effects of climate change.

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This move towards a more environmentally minded approach to how we manage the land presents a golden opportunity for conservationists and farmers to come together.

BBOWT is keen to play its part, building on our long history of working with farmers and landowners to help them manage their land for the benefit of nature.

This autumn we were thrilled to launch our new Land Advice Service to deliver farmers and landowners the targeted advice they need to change their land management practices to benefit wildlife. The service will help farmers transition to the new world of sustainable agriculture by tapping into opportunities to finance more sustainable and environmentally friendly methods of managing their land.

Farmland wildlife has had a tough time, but in this bleak midwinter the seeds are being sown for a truly green revolution, where food production and thriving landscapes, rich in wildlife, go hand in hand.

Find out more about our Wildlife and Farm Advisory Service at