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EC campaign to withdraw CAP support from farmland with too much "nature" - Spanish graziers are the latest to be hit

While endless debates take place in Brussels on how to make the CAP greener (or not?), the European Commission and several national governments have been quietly reclassifying farmland to exclude the "greenest" land from receiving CAP payments. Many farmers who graze their stock on semi-natural rough pastures are having their rights to CAP payments taken away, because of a mix of senseless rules, and a political conspiracy to keep CAP money concentrated on the most intensively farmed land.

Farmers and local authorities in León in northern Spain are the latest to protest at what they describe as a "stealthy expropriation" of their rights and the withdrawal of CAP support for 40,000 ha of common pastures. Similar processes have been happening in Navarra and other parts of Spain, with farmers deciding to fight several cases. Most of the grazing land involved is semi-natural common pasture where maintaining grazing is an environmental priority, for landscape conservation and for fire prevention. In some cases these are Natura 2000 sites where the guidance of the Commission's DG Environment is to maintain extensive grazing.

Wood pastures are a traditional land use in Spain, they need grazing to maintain biodiversity and prevent wild fires. Should a "green" CAP punish the farmer and condemn this land to abandonment?

But the DG Agriculture rule-makers have told governments that pastures should not have more than 50 trees per hectare and that hedges should not be more than 2 metres wide. Pasture should be grass only, so heather pastures that have been grazed by sheep for generations should technically not be eligible for CAP support. If rules are broken, farmers should be punished by losing their CAP payments, unless governments can convince the Commission that they have sufficient justification for applying different rules - a complication that many governments choose to avoid for fear of swingeing fines.

Yet in some traditional pastoral landscapes, it is perfectly normal for pastures to have more than 50 trees per hectare, and for hedges to be much wider than 2 metres. Such features are part of the traditional farming system, and are good for the environment. In fact wood pastures used to be widespread all over Europe. Now EU bureaucracy is intent on making farmers stop grazing those that remain, and to let them be taken over by impenetrable scrub.

Hedgerows being cut down to the EU's "standard size" to avoid losing CAP payments. The only winner is bureaucracy.

EFNCP has highlighted this extraordinary story in the past - large areas of grazing land are already excluded from CAP support in Bulgaria, Estonia and Sweden, because governments have applied strictly the EU rules on "too many trees" (Permanent Pastures and Meadows under the CAP: the situation in 6 countries). In Northern Ireland, many farmers have had to cut their hedges down to the "standard size" to meet EU rules, at considerable cost to the farmers and to the detriment of the landscape and wildlife habitats. The UK government was fined over 100 million euros between 2008 and 2010, for allowing farmers to include features like big hedges in their eligible area for CAP payments.

Now it is Spain's turn. Apparently European Commission auditors were shocked at the amount of "nature" on Spanish grazing land. The diverse mosaics of grassland, shrubs and trees that make up much of the rough grazing in Iberia did not fit their idea of farmland. So the Spanish authorities have been reclassifying the land, and anything with too many trees is changed on the official maps from pasture to forest, and at a stroke the land and the farmers lose their rights to CAP payments, even if there is active grazing.

Incredibly, grassland with no trees that is NOT used for grazing can continue to be eligible for CAP payments, just because it is grass. Most incredibly of all, a farmer who stops grazing his pastures and gets an EU subsidy to PLANT trees instead grazing (farmland afforestation) can also get CAP payments on this land! How mad can policy be?

According to the CAP definition of permanent pasture, these heather pastures in the North Yorkshire Moors (England) should not be eligible for Pillar 1 payments. © Copyright Anthony Parkes and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Traditional raising of shepherded livestock on natural pastures is a unique type of farming in Europe. It is as close to a natural system as farming can get. Stock are shepherded across naturally occurring pastures, often rich mosaics of grasses, shrubs and trees that provide livestock with varied and healthy forage, and with shelter from wind, rain and sun. Compared with most farming in Europe, there is very little use of fossil energy, manufactured fertilisers and feeds, or agrochemicals. It is a model of environmental sustainability that also produces food of exceptional quality.

The new "greener" CAP offers nothing positive for these farmers, just plenty of negative rules and financial penalties that will keep driving them out of business. EFNCP believes that all pastures in active grazing use should be eligible for CAP support, and that pastures not in grazing use should not be eligible. Simple. For the Commission to set limits on the numbers of trees and size of hedges is not an effective way to ensure that only genuine farmland receives CAP payments, it is ill-conceived bureaucracy. For more details see "Support the farmers ...".

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European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism
Date: 2020/02/26
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