Improved green farming schemes are vital to save butterflies when we leave the EU

Marsh Frit

Butterfly Conservation Chief Executive Dr Martin Warren explains why improved green farming schemes are vital to save butterflies when the UK leaves the EU.

The Environmental Audit Committee is running an inquiry into the future of the natural environment now we have voted to leave the EU, especially the role of agri-environment schemes in saving our dwindling wildlife. This is a vital issue to Butterfly Conservation as such schemes are the main mechanism for getting sites managed for threatened butterflies and moths.

  • Farmland is a vital habitat for butterflies and moths with over half of all species depending on it for their survival. Many of our threatened species, for which we have international obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity, breed on flower-rich semi-natural habitats that are maintained by traditional, low input farming. Such High Nature Value farmland requires management, often low intensity grazing, to maintain its biodiversity. 
  • Agri-environment Schemes (AES) have been a valuable tool to maintain that management and it is vital that the positive lessons learned from delivering these schemes continues with a payment system to maintain the diversity of Britain’s wildlife.  They need to be replaced by a robust, outcome focussed scheme where public money delivers public goods i.e. biodiversity, specifically targeted at declining species and their habitats.
  • Properly focussed AES have been shown to be highly successful at conserving some of Britain’s most threatened butterflies. The recent State of UK Butterflies report (Fox et al, 2015) shows that they have helped reverse the long term decline of species like the Duke of Burgundy and Pearl-bordered Fritillary. Where correctly targeted they have also helped conserve populations of the Marsh Fritillary, a European threatened species, which relies on low intensity cattle grazing (Bourn et al, 2013; Prescott, 2012).
  • Many other studies have shown that AES have helped halt and reverse the decline of butterflies and moths (e.g. Alison et al., 2016; Brereton et al., 2005, 2007, 2011; Davis et al, 2006; Taylor and Morecroft, 2009).
  • AES have also helped to conserve species at a landscape scale, helping to reverse the fragmentation of habitats and enable long term conservation and resilience to climate change (Ellis et al, 2012). A key ingredient of these successes has been the specialist advice given by Butterfly Conservation staff and other advisors.
  • In contrast, pillar 1 of the CAP has simply provided a subsidy for production without clear public benefits beyond food production. In fact, the payments have directly or indirectly supported intensification of the countryside, leading to loss of wildlife habitats, over-intensification, inefficient use of resources, and pollution. The UK and devolved administrations have a unique opportunity to redistribute support payments so that they are only paid where there are clear public goods, such as biodiversity, flood prevention, clean water, carbon sequestration etc.
  • The conservation of biodiversity requires a long term investment in land management. Many farmers have already made great commitments to achieve this under existing AES so it is especially important that successor schemes are in place quickly to provide continuity of management and allow farmers security of income in an inherently uncertain business. The UK government also needs to ensure equitable distribution of CAP resources to ensure devolved administrations are able to deliver AES benefits across the UK. Without that there is a real risk that hard won gains will be lost.
  • Support for UK agriculture should be structured to ensure that farming continue to thrive in the UK, with restoration of the environment as a central feature of agricultural policy. A critical mechanism to enable this is an improved and expanded Agri-environment Scheme. Maintaining Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) should become automatic in future and payments only made during a transition period while pillar 1 payments are phased out.
  • Successor AESs should take the best evidence-based elements from existing schemes that are running across Europe. This is a unique opportunity for the developed administrations to implement schemes that are world leaders, without the constraints that inevitably had to be imposed by a pan-European scheme.
  • Each farm needs to be assessed for its ability to contribute to public goods such as biodiversity, clean water, carbon sequestration etc. This audit should be used to inform a set of objectives that the payments aim to achieve. Payments should be made to assist with delivery of the objectives with additional top-ups based on the level of the outcome achieved.
  • Some of the negatives of current schemes should be avoided. For example, area based payments should include all important habitats, such as scrub on grassland or thick hedges (more than 2m), which currently have to be excluded. Also capital works should cover all the costs of achieving a task, whereas currently they are either not available or only cover a percentage of the cost.
  • The devolved administrations have different legislative frameworks or are at different stages in reviewing those frameworks. Schemes will have to reflect national priorities and conditions. The biggest challenge is ensuring equitable devolution of resources to ensure adequate schemes can be established in each country. This is a unique opportunity to have flexible schemes that suit local conditions rather than constrained by the uniformity of a pan Europe scheme.
  • There needs to be consideration of the transition from current support schemes to new systems. If the transition led to the loss of farmers and the land management skills they have, particularly on marginal land, it would be difficult for a new system to deliver its objectives.
  • The Committee asked specific questions about rewilding, which is a very broad concept and means different things to different people. To some it means just abandoning land to nature, while to others it means reintroducing extinct animals or planting trees. The UK landscape and habitats have been heavily modified by human activity for thousands of years, and much of our biodiversity, that the public cherish, is associated with actively farmed or managed habitats; many species will not benefit from a return to the wild and many of the large animals that once modified the land before humans arrived have become extinct.
  • Rewilding on any scale in lowland areas would have many losers amongst species associated with man-made habitats such as flower-rich grassland, heathland and managed woodland. Such species include nearly all UK butterflies, a large number of plant pollinators and other insects. Consequently rewilding initiatives need to be careful targeted where they will bring a net gain to biodiversity and not put at risk traditionally managed farmland and woodland. Areas of the uplands and unproductive formerly intensive farmland are the obvious choices. Areas with existing value on semi-natural habitats need support for farming or forestry systems that created them in the first place.
  • Rewilding should also only be supported if it achieves public goods (see above) and nationally set objectives for the natural environment. It could also be argued that many types of rewilding do not need support as their whole rationale is non- intervention. If they are supported it should not be at the expense of maintaining semi-natural habitats that support by far the largest proportion of the UKs biodiversity as well as rural livelihoods.


Alison, J., Duffield, S.J., van Noordwijk, C.G.E., Morecroft, M.D., Marrs, R.H., Saccheri, I.J. and Hodgson, J.A. (2016). Spatial targeting of habitat creation has the potential to improve agri-environment scheme outcomes for macro-moths. Journal Applied Ecology, doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12750.

Bourn, N., Bulman, C., Ellis, S., Plackett, J., Prescott, T. & Warren, M. (2013). Conserving the Marsh Fritillary across the UK – lessons for landscape-scale conservation. British Wildlife, vol. 24, p 408-417.

Brereton, T., Wigglesworth, T., Warren, M.S., Stewart, K., (2005). BD1446: Agri-environment schemes and butterflies: re-assessing the impacts and improving delivery of BAP targets.  Butterfly Conservation Final Project Report, supplied to Defra.

Brereton, T. M., Warren, M. S., Roy, D. B. & Stewart, K. (2007). The changing status of the Chalkhill Blue butterfly Polyommatus coridon in the UK: the impacts of conservation policies and environmental factors. Journal of Insect Conservation 12: 629-638. 

Brereton, T., Roy, D.B., Middlebrook, I., Botham, M. & Warren, M. (2011). The development of butterfly indicators in the United Kingdom and assessments in 2010. Journal of Insect Conservation 15: 139-151.

Davies, Z.G., Wilson, R.J., Coles, S., Thomas, C.D. (2006). Changing habitat associations of a thermally constrained species, the silver-spotted skipper butterfly, in response to climate warming. Journal of Animal Ecology, 75, 247–256. 

Ellis, S., Bourn, N. A. D. and Bulman, C. R. (2012). Landscape-scale conservation for butterflies and moths: lessons from the UK. Butterfly Conservation, Wareham, Dorset. 

Fox, R., Brereton, T.M., Asher, J., August, T.A., Botham, M.S., Bourn, N.A.D., Cruickshanks, K.L., Bulman, C.R., Ellis, S., Harrower, C.A., Middlebrook, I., Noble, D.G., Powney, G.D., Randle, Z., Warren, M.S. & Roy, D.B. (2015). The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2015. Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wareham, Dorset. 

Taylor, M.E. & Morecroft, M.D. (2009). Effects of agri-environment schemes in a long-term ecological time series. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 130, 9–15.

Prescott, T. (2012). Delivering land management advice for the Marsh Fritillary in Scotland. In Ellis et al (2012) Landscape-scale conservation for butterflies and moths: lessons from the UK pp 76-9. Butterfly Conservation, Wareham, Dorset.