Fatbirder - linking birders worldwide... Wildlife Travellers see our sister site: WAND

Sugar factory closures leave bitter taste

Birds suffers whilst Brussels bumbles…

The closure of two sugar factories could have a devastating impact on one of England’s most rapidly declining farmland birds.

Lapwings are attracted to farms growing sugar beet, nesting and foraging on the bare earth between plants in the spring and summer and feeding on the winter stubble. But their habitat is under threat following recent reforms to the heavily subsidised EU sugar regime, intended to reduce its high cost and its negative impact on developing countries. As a result, British Sugar has announced the closure of two of its factories, one in York and the other at Allscott in Shropshire. The RSPB supported the reforms but throughout the process had called for them to be accompanied by measures to offset the negative impacts on wildlife like lapwing.Now, as farmers in the affected areas consider giving up on sugar beet completely, the RSPB is again calling on Government to provide them with a viable, lapwing-friendly alternative. A study in Shropshire found that late in the nesting season sugar beet was home to seven times more breeding pairs of lapwings than fields of winter sown cereals. Salvation for the birds could come in the shape of Government grants under the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme (HLS). This would reward farmers for sticking with spring sown crops, for keeping winter stubble and for leaving fields fallow for birds to nest in. Not only would this ensure a future for the lapwings on these farms, it would also boost the incomes of farmers hurt by the factory closures.However, months of wrangling between Brussels and Westminster mean the money for the scheme still has not been secured. Unless it can be found soon, affected farmers are likely to turn their fields over to winter sown crops, to the detriment of England’s lapwings.

Russell Toothill, a sugar beet farmer and County Vice Chairman of the West Riding NFU, said: "If the sugar beet crop disappears from this farm as a result of the economics of growing the crop, we will lose the ground nesting birds that depend on it. We grow just over 26 hectares of sugar beet on this 405 hectare farm and regularly have more than 10 pairs of lapwings breeding and feeding in the crop. We have always had lapwings here and my fear is that if sugar beet goes then we will lose our lapwings too.”Harry Huyton, agricultural policy officer for the RSPB, said: “Farmers who are forced out of growing sugar should not be forced our of looking after wildlife. It is essential that funding is found for Higher Level Stewardship now, instead of being bargained away in the corridors of Whitehall and Brussels.NB Lapwing populations in the UK have declined by 45% between 1970 and 2003 as a result of changes in how we manage our land, including the loss of wet grassland and the replacement of spring sown with winter sown crops. Sugar beet provides important nesting and foraging habitat for birds by virtue of being spring-sown, being broad-leaved and including winter stubbles in the rotation. The European sugar regime has historically been at great expense to the taxpayer, costing c. €1.5 billion each year. Following the reform, most of this money will be used for direct support for farmers who have benefited from the regime in the past through the Single Farm Payment scheme.The RSPB has called for these farmers to receive a similar level of support to that paid for other agricultural land and for the surplus to be used to fund measures to manage the environmental impacts of reform through the targeted use of Environmental Stewardship funded through extra modulation. This has not happened, and it is expected that between 2006 and 2012, some £492 million will be spent on the sugar Single Farm Payment allocation.

Environmental Stewardship is a new scheme that provides funding for farmers in England to practice good environmental management and deliver for wildlife. The scheme has two tiers - Entry Level and Higher Level - and it is the latter that will make the biggest difference for many of our best-loved birds. The re-creation of hay meadows and wet grasslands, and the restoration of upland and lowland heaths will help species such as lapwing, corn bunting, snipe, black grouse and chough. The budget for Higher Level Stewardship has not yet been agreed and depends on Government agreeing with Brussels to reallocate a proportion of our spend on agricultural subsidies and to match this with additional spend. The RSPB estimates that for England to meet its biodiversity targets, an additional £150 million would be required for Stewardship, just 12 per cent of the £1.25 billion a year Single Farm Payment.

4th July 2014