Agriculture and Conservation

Extensive agriculture is often associated with high biodiversity (EEA 2004; Halada et al. 2011). As a result, the concept of “High Nature Values Farmland” (HNVF) was introduced in the 1990s and now represents 15–25 % of the EU countryside (EEA 2004). High Nature Value Farmland areas typically depend on human activities, which maintain them by blocking the process of natural successions (EEA 2004; Halada et al. 2011; Merckx and Macdonald, in press; and see Chap. 6). In particular, some of the Natura 2000 sites are covered on more than a fourth of their area by extensive farmland (EEA 2004). In a review of the 231 habitats types of the Annex I of the Habitat Directive, Halada et al. (2011) identified 63 habitats depending on agricultural practices for their management, 23 of which are “fully dependent”, while 40 “partly depend” on agriculture, mainly due to the prevention of natural successions.

High Nature Value Farmland areas are currently threatened by two opposing forces, intensification of agriculture on the one hand, and rural depopulation and farmland abandonment on the other hand (EEA 2004, 2009b). In 2003, the Kyiv Resolution on Biodiversity, made the identification and preservation of HNVF a conservation goal (EEA 2009b). This EU conservation strategy was later integrated into the second pillar of the CAP. Agri-environment schemes (AES) and other EU subsidies thus became a tool for High Nature Value Farmland conservation (EEA 2004).

Additionally, though the European Parliament recently stated that the EU biodiversity policies were not well integrated into other sectoral policies such as energy, transport, and agriculture (European Parliament 2009), agri-environmental policies have attempted for quite some times to better integrate agricultural productivity and biodiversity conservation. Currently, EU funds address the relationship between farmers and conservation in two ways. On the one hand, the EU compensates farmers receiving a lower income due to environmental restrictions. On the other hand, the EU created incentives for farmers to develop an environmentally friendly agriculture. Both forms of subsidies are not exclusive. Following the 2003 amendment of the regulation on Rural Development of the EU (1783/2003), farmers will receive monetary compensations for the “costs incurred and income foregone” resulting from the classification of their land as a Natura 2000 site according to Article 16(1). Articles 22–24 of the same regulation directly address AES, and how “support should be granted to farmers who give agri-environmental […] commitment for at least 5 years” (Article 23). The subsidies are destined to cover the “income foregone”, “additional costs resulting from the commitment”, and “the need to provide an incentive” (Article 24). The payment of subsidies and the implementation of agri-environmental policies vary greatly from one Member State to the other (EEA 2009b).

Nonetheless, the consequences of subsidizing nature conservation through the Common Agricultural Policy are debatable. First, a contradiction can emerge when the first pillar of the CAP favors intensive and productive agriculture on one hand, and hence fragments natural habitats (Crofts 2014; EEA 2009b; Henle et al. 2008), while, on the other hand, the second pillar incents farmers to develop environmentally friendly practices. Additionally, the compensations paid to farmers in Least Favored Areas (supported by the second pillar of the CAP to limit farmland abandonment) poses no real limits to intensification and overgrazing, provided that farmers follow country-specific “good farming practices” (EEA 2004). There is also no direct link between the amount spend in CAP subsidies per ha and the level of High Nature Value Farmland in an area (EEA 2004, 2009b; Halada et al. 2011). Finally, the payments of CAP subsidies in remote and less productive areas can appear inadequate so far. The phenomenon of rural depopulation was initiated in the 1950s in Western Europe, driven by socio-economic factors interacting to create a “circle of decline” in those remote areas (MacDonald et al. 2000; Rey Benayas et al. 2007), which is not likely to be interrupted, despite the rural development policies that have been implemented, and the resulting payment of subsidies (see Fig. 1.3 in Chap. 1). The direct consequence of the phenomenon of rural depopulation is the abandonment of farmland in the less productive areas of the EU (see Chap. 1). Agricultural land abandonment is typically perceived negatively in developed countries (Meijaard and Sheil 2011; Queiroz et al. 2014), as a result of, inter alia, observed land encroachment, increased risk of fires, and decreases in populations of farmland birds. Yet, the withdrawal of human activities from those areas is also an (often disregarded) opportunity to increase the area of wilderness in the EU by applying rewilding as a land management policy.

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