A farm funding overhaul favours nitrogen-fixing crops such as peas and beans, which could increase shooting opportunities

Reforms to farm funding announced by environment secretary Owen Paterson could mean a boost for pollinators and pigeon shooters, but have been greeted with dismay by a number of wildlife and conservation groups.

The minister’s announcement set out how the £15billion of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funds would be distributed for the 2015 period. One of the most controversial of the changes is the fact that farmers will now be eligible for funding to grow nitrogen-fixing crops such as peas and beans in Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs), potentially creating more prime pigeon- shooting opportunities to protect the plants in spring and summer.

Missed opportunities

However, the prospect of pigeon shooting is no consolation for many organisations, which had hoped for a conservation boost and see the latest round of CAP reforms as a missed opportunity. The Woodland Trust, for example, laments the lack of acknowledgement of the importance of trees, and the Wildlife Trusts are disappointed that threatened grasslands didn’t get more consideration.

Director of the Wildlife Trusts for England, Stephen Trotter, said: “It is extraordinary that the Government has decided against protecting wildlife-rich grasslands in England and has decided against a no-plough rule for these most precious places. Our species-rich grasslands
are in steep decline and need all the help they can get. Greening measures have been watered down to the point of being ineffectual.

“The Government’s decision to give public money to farmers to include nitrogen-fixing crops such as peas and beans in these EFAs is clearly not good value for the public taxpayer and of virtually no benefit to wildlife. To make matters worse, there won’t be any additional restrictions on the cultivation of these crops — for example, farmers will be free to use pesticides and fertilisers.”

Pollinator benefits

Others are more open to considering the environmental advantages of peas and beans. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s (GWCT) head of farmland ecology, Dr John Holland, set out the ecological benefits of crops such as peas and beans to MPs in Westminster earlier this year. Dr Holland addressed the All Party Parliamentary Group with Professor Richard Pywell from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) in April, highlighting the fact that growing more peas and beans would not only increase UK food production and reduce reliance on imported soya meal and beans, but would also provide a flower-rich habitat for bees and other pollinating insects, which are vital to crop success.

GWCT research has also shown that healthy insect populations are a pre-requisite for the survival of farmland birds, including the grey partridge, as a food source for newly hatched chicks.

Farmers have welcomed the push towards more peas. Talking to BBC News, the National Farmers Union’s Andrew Clark said: “Comparing nitrogen-fixing crops with permanent pasture, obviously the pasture will have greater biodiversity, but we believe a range of options should be available to farmers. Anyone with broad beans in their garden will see they are full of pollinators at the moment.

“Wildflower meadows tend to have quite a limited flowering season but some legumes are flowering from April to June, and others much later in summer. We think including this measure is very positive for the environment.”