The European Union will not reach the goal of halting species loss by 2010 if it does not do more to prevent the decline of its most nature-rich areas of farmland, the European Environment Agency (EEA) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned today.
High nature value farmland - usually characterised by low-intensity agriculture that allows wildlife to flourish - is recognised as having a crucial role to play if the 2010 goal of stopping the loss of biodiversity is to be met.
Environment ministers from across Europe agreed last year to identify all high nature value farmland by 2006. They also committed themselves to support its economic and ecological viability by covering a substantial proportion with rural development measures by 2008.
A joint EEA/UNEP report to support the process estimates that high nature value farmland covers 15-25 % of the EU countryside, with the largest areas being found in eastern and southern Europe and northern Britain. The situation outside the EU is not known as data are not easy to obtain.
The report warns that high nature value farmland is under severe pressure from two contrasting trends: increasing intensity of agriculture in some areas and abandonment of farming in others.
With nature protection sites accounting for less than one third of EU high nature value farmland, its conservation depends largely on the rural development measures that can be taken under the EU common agricultural policy.
The most relevant of these are payments to support farmers in less favoured areas - such as hilly or mountainous terrain - and special environmental measures known as agri-environment schemes.
However, although less favoured areas and high nature value farmland areas cover much of the same territory, actual spending on less favoured areas bears no relation to how much high nature value farmland a country has, the study finds.
Nor do agri-environment schemes appear to be well targeted: agri-environment expenditure in countries with a high share of high nature value farmland, especially in southern Europe, is relatively low.
Prof. Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director, said:
\"Current policy measures appear insufficient to prevent further decline in high nature value farmland areas and reach the 2010 biodiversity target. Consideration needs to be given to improving the geographical targeting of agricultural subsidies, especially of less favoured area support and agri-environment schemes.\"
\"At the same time, a major effort is needed to fill gaps in data on the targeting and effectiveness of support measures as well as on the distribution of habitats and species.\"
Frits Schlingemann, Director of UNEP\'s regional office for Europe, added:
\"Over recent decades biodiversity on farmland across Europe has declined seriously. Large scale rationalisation and intensification of agricultural production has taken its toll.\"
\"With the common agricultural policy increasingly focused on non-trade concerns, and sustainability now a guiding principle, we hope this report will spur the policy debate and encourage countries and institutions to refine the high nature value farmland concept and further focus their conservation efforts.\"
High nature value farmland areas include habitats such as semi-natural grasslands, dehesas, montados, steppe areas, grazed uplands and alpine pastures and meadows. Little precise information exists on how well these areas are conserved, but overall the population of bird species found on them, such as the great bustard, black grouse and corncrake, is declining.
Prof. McGlade and Mr Schlingemann launched the report, or \"joint message,\" at a Dublin conference on the role of environmental information co-organised by the Irish government and EEA.
The report, High nature value farmland: Characteristics, trends and policy challenges, is available at http://reports.eea.eu.int/report_2004_1
Notes to editors
The EU has committed itself to halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010. The same target has been adopted under the \'Environment for Europe\' process by environment ministers from across Europe, who met in May 2003 in Kiev, Ukraine.
Agri-environment schemes reward farmers for environmental commitments that go beyond good agricultural practice.
About the EEA
The European Environment Agency is the leading public body in Europe dedicated to providing sound, independent information on the environment to policy-makers and the public. Established by the European Union in 1990 and operational in Copenhagen since 1994, the EEA is the hub of the European environment information and observation network (Eionet), a network of around 300 bodies across Europe through which it both collects and disseminates environment-related data and information. The Agency is open to all nations that share its objectives and currently has 31 member countries: the 15 EU Member States, the 13 acceding and candidate countries, and Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. Membership negotiations are under way with Switzerland.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the environmental voice of the United Nations system. With the slogan \"Environment for Development\", UNEP aims to provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations. For more information see www.unep.org
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