A blueprint for the countryside


*Email: w.sutherland@uea.ac.uk


Much of the UK (and some of Western Europe) consists of ancient farmland and thus conservation effort is concentrated on maintaining intermediate levels of intervention. Conservation therefore differs markedly from that in much of the rest of the world. The future of farmland birds depends upon the success of agri-environment schemes and the changes in agriculture resulting from the development of new technologies. The experience of agri-environment schemes shows that they have patchy success. An alternative approach is to align conservation with the other external benefits to society of natural and semi-natural landscapes, such as health, flood protection, water purification and tourism and then restore natural ecosystems. Many of the biodiversity objectives are then produced while achieving other objectives and reducing expenditure. Within this framework it may also be possible, based on use of Vera's interpretation of landscape history, to create a few areas of natural ecosystem functioning. The expected future changes in EU agricultural support could provide the opportunity to achieve this.

Many farmland species, including birds, have declined (Fewster et al. 2000, Robinson & Sutherland 2002, Newton 2004). This appears to be caused by agricultural intensification, especially the use of autumn-sown crops (and hence less overwinter stubble), more efficient herbicides and a decline in mixed farming (Robinson & Sutherland 2002, Shrubb 2003).

In this paper, I will review the current approaches to conservation within the UK (and some other Western Europe countries), describe an alternative option and consider how this may be funded. The logical and probable solution is for current agricultural funding to be directed at producing broad benefits to society, such as biodiversity, flood protection, tourism, enhancing water quality and improving public health. It is then possible to foresee considerable benefits to biodiversity while simultaneously saving public expenditure. The inevitable future changes in EU agricultural support could provide the mechanism to achieve this.


There is a remarkable gulf in conservation practices between the UK (and much of Western Europe) and much of the rest of the world, yet this is rarely appreciated or discussed (Table 1). Conservation in the UK largely consists of maintaining relatively early successional stage habitat, usually by modified farming practices. Visitors from outside Western Europe are frequently astonished to discover that National Parks and nature reserves are often intensively grazed by cattle and sheep; fens are mowed; woodland trees are routinely cut down in coppicing and that a major activity of conservationists is preventing succession by removing sapling trees and bushes.

Table 1.  Differences between the UK (and some other Western European countries) and North America.
UKNorth America
Mainly farmed (70% of UK)Much reasonably natural vegetation left
Ancient landscapeModern landscape
Conservationists focus on preventing successionConservationists focus on creating wilderness
Considerable concern over farmland and GMLittle concern over farmland and GM

The UK emphasis on maintaining early successional habitat probably relates to its ancient landscape. Plough marks in the soil beneath Neolithic Age burial mounds (e.g. South Street long barrow dates to before c. 2800 bc), barrows constructed beneath existing grassland (e.g. Willerby Mold long barrow constructed about 3000 bc) or barrows created on arable soils (e.g. Kilham barrow constructed before about 2880 bc) all indicate that at least parts of the landscape were heavily modified thousands of years ago (Mercer 1981). A few areas remain of this 3000-year-old farmed landscape. Bodmin Moor still has extensive landscapes comprising abandoned Bronze Age round houses, cairns and field systems, and the chaotically irregular Bronze Age field boundaries of West Penwith, Cornwall, are still used by farmers, so providing an astonishing continued pattern of use. It seems likely that the remnants only survive on marginal land as the evidence disappeared elsewhere as a result of ploughing and reorganization of the landscape. Although Bronze Age landscapes are scarce, many landscape features are ancient. For example, Rackham (1986) suggests that ‘much of England of 1945 would have been instantly identifiable by Sir Thomas More, and some areas would have been recognized by the Emperor Claudius’.

The UK has been so extensively modified by humans for so long that we consider farmland as the countryside. Seventy per cent of the UK is farmed, with much of the rest comprising urban habitats. Farmland is the landscape of our calendars, poets, artists, postcards and tourist information. A remarkable proportion of species in the UK require open habitat, such as farmland birds, and so conservationists spend much of their effort in trying to retain this open habitat. Succession is thus a problem in that it destroys these early successional habitats, which explains the emphasis in the UK on finding means of preventing succession.

By contrast, North America is typically considered a recently modified landscape and the main objective of conservationists is to return it to its former pristine state. Although Native Americans modified the landscape by lighting fires, the scale of landscape modification is usually considered to be much smaller (I will return to these European and American histories later in the paper and show how they are being questioned).

The different histories affect the manner in which conservation is carried out. As an example, the conservation programme in the 5000-ha Nature Conservancy's Disney Wilderness Preserve is actively and successfully restoring the wetlands, scrub and woods damaged as a result of cattle ranching. The habitat was still in pristine condition in the 1920s so there are both habitat fragments and photographs that provide a clear target for conservation.

Figure 1 shows a caricature comparing the landscape management intensity between the UK and North America. The UK has most of the landscape under intermediate levels of habitat intervention. North America has areas of reasonably pristine habitat, but also areas of intensive management. The main conservation objective in North America is to increase the area resembling pristine conditions. By contrast, the usual objective of UK conservationists is to try to maintain intermediate management intensity, for example through creating agri-environment schemes and through preventing intensification of agriculture such as the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops. Maintaining intermediate levels of management often applies in nature reserves through practices such as cutting, coppicing and stock grazing.

Figure 1.

A representation of the relative frequency distribution of the intensity of management of rural areas in (a) the UK and (b) North America. In UK (and some parts of Western Europe) most of the landscape is under agricultural practices, including nature reserves and National Parks. In North America there are some areas of more intensive management but others which are in reasonably pristine condition. As shown by arrows a primary aim of conservationists in the UK is to maintain intermediate levels of management. A major objective of North American conservationists is to protect and restore areas to a pristine state.


As illustrated in Figure 1, much of the recent conservation effort in the UK has been involved in finding ways of reducing the intensity of agriculture. The major issue in recent years has been the issue of introducing GM herbicide-tolerant crops. (e.g. Watkinson et al. 2000).

A widely stated benefit (e.g. Firbank & Forcella 2000, Dewar et al. 2003) of GM herbicide-tolerant crops is that it is possible to delay the application of herbicides and thus provide benefits for biodiversity. However, Freckleton et al. (2004) showed that very few of the weed species would set seed before the likely spraying date and models predicted declines in Fat Hen Chenopodium album abundance under such conditions. However, this work did show that stopping spraying earlier could have long-term beneficial effects, by allowing some of the weed species to set seed.

Although virtually all the debate regarding technological intensification centres on the issue of GM technology, this is just one of the many means by which agriculture is becoming more effective. It is likely that the pressures that have historically driven increased efficiency (Shrubb 2003) will continue. There are regular developments in machinery, chemicals, crops and knowledge that result in the more efficient control of weeds and pests. There is a need to develop the capacity to be capable of predicting the consequences of such changes (Stephens et al. 2003).

Increasing intensification is not, however, inevitable. In Denmark, there has been less emphasis on intensification than in the UK, with more emphasis on organic farming, while inorganic fertilizer input has declined since 1983. This has coincided with a period of stability or increase for farmland birds (Fox 2004).


The major component of plans for agricultural landscapes has been to develop agri-environment schemes in which farmers are paid to undertake practices that provide other benefits, such as benefits for biodiversity (Bradbury et al. 2004, Smallshire et al. 2004). Kleijn and Sutherland (2003) analysed all the known studies that examined the effectiveness of agri-environment schemes. Despite 24.3 billion euros having been spent on agri-environment schemes, although not all schemes were for the direct benefit of biodiversity, there were only 62 studies across Europe (from five EU countries plus Switzerland) that examined effectiveness for biodiversity (see Table 2) with most in the UK and The Netherlands. Many of these were scientifically weak; for example, only 58% used controls, replication and statistics.

Table 2.  The experimental design of the agri-environment studies reviewed in Kleijn and Sutherland (2003).
Published in peer-reviewed journals26
In national language (not UK)87
Have control sites90
Have replication77
Use statistical tests of significance69
Analyse changes between two points in time26
Analyse trends in time32
Have paired scheme and control sites16
Have baseline data34
Controls, replication and statistical analysis58
Controls, replication, statistical analysis and reduced bias39

Furthermore, although on balance these schemes were better than conventional agriculture, many showed no difference or a balance of increases and decreases across species (Table 3). It is remarkable that schemes do not show benefits compared with conventional agriculture. How can an agri-environment scheme result in less biodiversity than conventional agriculture? To take an example I know well, in the Brecklands, England, an agri-environment site was established adjacent to an SSSI, and initially resulted in good populations of arable weeds, but owing to a lack of management the site became covered in rank grass with few of the target weeds. In such cases the agri-environment schemes would be worse than conventional farmland. It appears that the schemes that are the most effective are those in which there is commitment from individual farmers, who are using the schemes to benefit biodiversity in the manner that they care about, or commitment from organizations, as illustrated by English Nature, National Trust and RSPB collaborating to restore Cirl Buntings Emberiza cirlus. Schemes that are adopted purely as an income but considered an unwelcome intrusion seem to be less effective. One solution, which might involve expensive monitoring, is to pay for results. It is, however, clear that the development of efficient EU conservation measures clearly requires evidence for effectiveness and evidence for what determines whether they are a success (Sutherland et al. in press).

Table 3.  Summary of the effectiveness of agri-environment schemes (extracted from Kleijn & Sutherland 2003).
 Significant increaseSome significant increases and some declinesSignificant declinesNo significant changes
Plants 6029
Birds 4920


The conventional approach, as outlined many times in this special issue of Ibis, is that the future of farmland birds depends upon the balance between increased intensification (due to developments in technology) and reduction in intensity (due to agri-environment schemes). This is illustrated in Figure 2. Whether farmland bird populations recover will depend on whether the effectiveness of future agri-environment schemes will more than compensate for any harmful aspects of the likely technological developments. It is thus possible to envisage Government paying for the restoration of heaths, saltmarsh, woods, marshes, meadows, hay fields, etc., because they are cost-effective.

Figure 2.

Alternative means of changing agriculture. (a) Attempting to limit the extent of intensification (for example GM crops) and providing agri-environment schemes to make agriculture less intensive. (b) Restoring areas of natural habitat and low-intensity agriculture. Less emphasis might be placed upon preventing agricultural developments in order to encourage competitive agriculture.


An alternative approach is to place the issue of farmland birds within the issue of the wider benefits that can be provided by the landscape. The benefits from the landscape can include the benefits for flood reduction, improving water quality, carbon sequestration, tourism and health.

A number of studies have shown the health benefits of access to the countryside. These include patients with of view of a landscape having more rapid recovery, needing less medication and less likely to have negative comments on their records (Ulrich 1984), and prisoners with a view of nature being 24% less likely to visit the doctor (Moore 1982). There is also accumulating evidence of the beneficial consequences of nature for mental health (Frumkin 2001).

Lack of exercise and obesity is a major health problem. The estimated annual direct cost of obesity in the UK is £480 million with an approximately extra £2 billion of indirect costs (National Audit Office 2001). Providing opportunities for exercise is likely to increase activity levels within the population and thus save on health costs. Pretty et al. (2003) refer to green exercise, the double advantage of exercise and access to nature.

Floods are of considerable economic importance, especially if they become more likely in the presence of global warming. A major objective of engineering works has been to move water away rapidly. Farming practices also reduce water retention, for example through overgrazing and drainage. Absorbing water and releasing it slowly will obviously reduce flood risk. One possibility would be to reduce flood risk in susceptible watersheds by maintaining and creating woods, wetland, floodplains and natural river and stream systems.

The costs of protecting sea walls will increase in the presence of sea-level rise. The cost of maintaining a sea wall drops from £5000/m to £400/m in the presence of 80 m of saltmarsh. Creating natural coastal ecosystems may then be cost effective (National Rivers Authority 1995). Water shortage is potentially a serious issue relating to climate change, increased population and higher water consumption. Maintaining water tables could be a major issue and encouraging land use to achieve that could be important. For example, restoring heathland on light soils might sometimes be more appropriate than growing crops demanding high levels of irrigation.

As a result of declining water quality in New York, it was discovered that the required filtration would cost $6–8 billion, but that protecting the watershed would achieve the same results at a cost of $1.5 billion (Ashendorff et al. 1997). As a result they have undergone a major watershed protection programme that included spending $350 million on land acquisition within the watershed. As well as being cost effective this has benefits for hunting, quality of life and biodiversity. A similar approach could have been adopted on the South Downs, England, to reduce the eutrophication problems in Brighton.

One of the lessons of foot-and-mouth disease was that tourism was more important to the UK economy than agriculture. Tourism is especially important in many rural areas. The funding within National Parks has largely been to maintain extensive agriculture, such as intensive grazing, rather than funding the natural or semi-natural landscapes sought by tourists and conservationists. For example, it is remarkable that species-rich hay meadows are disappearing when they are so easy to maintain, only cover a small area and are such a draw to tourists.

Thus there are numerous reasons why it is in the taxpayer's interest to restore natural and semi-natural ecosystems. These changes would also provide considerable benefits for many aspects of biodiversity. It must be remembered that the farmland bird indicator is an indicator of biodiversity in the wider landscape. Measures aimed directly at specific farmland birds, as they are on the index, are obviously welcome in reversing these declines but means that this group is no longer acting as an index of biodiversity: it could be considered analogous to providing a respirator for the coal miner's canary.


Free trade is widely and justifiably criticized as it can encourage erosion of environmental and social protection (Chichilniski 1994). Free trade is portrayed as being entirely negative, but in reality also provides social and economic benefits (Yu et al. 2002). A major objective of the World Trade Organisation is to remove subsidies, barriers and tariffs as these are economically inefficient on a global scale and cause overfishing, deforestation, poverty and encouragement of inappropriate agriculture. Free trade has thus provided a major benefit to society by helping force reforms of the Common Agriculture Policy.

EU agriculture is about to undergo dramatic reform, with considerable implications for conservation. The basis of the Common Agricultural Policy was to link payments to production. This encouraged intensive agriculture by exaggerating the benefits of producing an extra tonne of crops or keeping another animal. The mid-term review, which will be implemented from 2005, separated (‘decoupled’) payments from production. Farmers will thus receive a standard payment (the ‘single farm payment’) irrespective of what they do, providing they maintain the land in suitable agricultural and envir-onmental condition. If they continue to farm, then the costs and profits will be unsubsidized but additional to the decoupled payments.

What are the likely consequences for UK agricultural production once subsidies, tariffs and barriers are removed in 2005? UK agriculture looks vulnerable once exposed to equal competition on world markets. Low-value products are likely to retain local markets if they are expensive to transport, being bulky (e.g. carrots), easily damaged (e.g. potatoes) or perishable (e.g. milk). The UK will probably be sufficiently competitive for some other crops, such as cereals in the more productive regions. It is probably the UK meat producers, with small farms, high salaries and high overwinter costs, who are likely to face particular difficulties in competing globally. Beef and lamb production can be much cheaper in the various huge enterprises in less seasonal environments elsewhere in the world.

The consequences of decoupling are still unclear but those listed in Table 4 are considered likely.

Table 4.  Planned changes in funding mechanisms across the UK. Historical payments are based on the amount of subsidies claimed under the Common Agricultural Policy. Area payments are based entirely upon the area of agricultural land with a lower rate for severely disadvantaged areas (upland areas).
England 9010  0100
Wales100 0100  0
Scotland100 0100  0
N. Ireland 8020 80 20

If farmers behave rationally then they should consider the decoupled payment separate from the farming enterprise. This is also the economic advice they are being given. They should thus consider the most profitable (or least costly) means of managing the land. This could result in agriculture being less intensive as the benefit of producing an extra tonne of crops or another animal is the real value not a subsided value. This might be particularly important in some upland areas if, as expected, sheep production is often not profitable. Agriculture may cease in areas where it is only marginally productive. As long as the land is kept in favourable environmental and agricultural condition, the single farm payment will still be made.

The means of payment differ across countries but are largely based on previous subsidies (‘historic’ payments) or on the amount of land (‘area’ payments) – see Table 4. This will greatly affect economic decisions. The benefits of carrying out an agricultural activity will be based upon the balance of cost and market price payments. This is most complex for England, where the use of area payments will result in considerable differences in income. The most severe change is likely to be for suckler herds in severely disadvantaged areas, such as Devon and Cornwall where they used to farm reasonably intensively. At the time of writing (April 2004), the details were still not fully resolved.

The changes shown in Table 5 include some likely gains for conservation and some issues of concern. The likely decline in suckler units is likely to be one of the major conservation issues as cattle grazing is often important in providing grazing for conservation, especially as it provides a more diverse sward structure with more bare ground than does sheep grazing. Scotland is likely to provide some means of protection (a redistribution of funds within the ‘National envelope’) for suckler farms in less intensive areas.

Table 5.  Anticipated changes in agriculture expected to result from the decoupling under the mid-term review.
Marginal land removed from agriculture
Less intensive agriculture
Less grazing in uplands
Reduction in sugar beet production
Large dairy units
Suckler units less profitable in global market
Unviable across EU in medium term

The current EU policies are probably not sustainable in the medium term. Almost the entire EU has adopted historical payments, which is politically easiest as it minimizes changes in payments. However, it will lead to some remarkable anomalies. Farmers carrying out identical farming practices will often receive very different payments depending upon previous practices. Thus, land used for vegetable growing will obtain nothing, land previously used for cereals might obtain £260 per hectare while land that finished cattle might obtain £500 per hectare. These payments will be continued irrespective of the use and continue when the land is sold.

A second aspect of decoupling that is likely to result in public disquiet is that the funding is provided irrespective of the use (as long as the land is kept in acceptable agricultural and environmental condition and maintains the cross-compliance requirements). Thus, an active farmer will obtain the same payment as one who has moved to the city for a new career, but arranges for minimal management, such as an annual cut.

It thus seems likely that the mid-term review funding will face criticism as these discrepancies become appreciated. With each successive year the historical payments will appear more arbitrary and unjust. It thus seems unlikely that the proposed funding under decoupling (and especially historical payments) will be sustainable in the medium term and further changes seem inevitable. A removal of subsidies is the most likely next step.

It is widely accepted that farmers should be paid for the public benefits that they produce. A source of current conflict is the farmers are being asked to provide these for free. A sensible solution, which probably follows inevitably from the likely removal of subsidies, is to make direct payments for the services provided. Thus, the funding used for agricultural support could be used instead to fund farmers to provide services such as tourism, flood protection, carbon sequestration and biodiversity (Table 6 illustrates how a diversity of farmers might be funded).

Table 6.  Possible means of financing an illustrative range of farms once subsidies are removed but farmers are paid for producing benefits to society. All figures are the percentage contribution of total income. Farmer A runs a commercially competitive farm. Farmer B also runs a commercially profitable farm but provides some attractive landscape features that also encourage use of the countryside (not necessarily on that farm). Farmer C could be a farmer on the South Downs, who no longer farms using intensive arable production, but instead has restored the chalk grassland community and adopts low-intensity grazing that maintains the water quality for towns such as Brighton. This contributes towards improving the landscape features of the region, thus benefiting public health and tourism to the area. Farmer D is in an upland National Park and farms the area but pays considerable attention to producing the features important to the National Parks, such as diverse hay meadows and wet meadows with breeding waders. Farmer E owns an uplands watershed and has switched from intensive sheep production to restoring forests and restoring water courses with the main aim of flood protection. This area is open to walkers. In addition to the direct payments from providing public benefits, the farmer also runs a bed-and-breakfast and is paid for access by the nearby pony trekking company.
Carbon sequestration   5 15
Flood protection    60
Health maintenance  5 51010
Water quality  50  5
Tourism  5 530 5
Biodiversity   510 5

The UK public has lost much of its confidence and trust in farmers, especially after BSE (mad-cow disease) and foot-and-mouth disease. It is important to restore this trust. One solution is to reconnect the food to the farms, as proposed in the Curry Report (2002) and on a more global scale by Pretty (2002). One very successful way in which this has been achieved is through farmers’ markets, whose numbers have increased rapidly. Another means is through traceability, providing the means for following the food back to its origins. An obvious, yet rarely used means is to have greater emphasis on regional production. The sources of Italian or French products are normally explicit but it is rare for products to be labelled in this way in the UK. Creating markets for local products is an obvious way forward. A well-known chef in the UK, Rick Stein, has had two series about his ‘food heroes’: people who provide good-quality products (Stein 2002, 2004). He has also provided a catalogue listing these sources (Stein 2003). Where compatible with free-trade regulations, supporting the locations, advertisements and websites that facilitate the means of generating these links between producers and consumers is likely to make UK agriculture more viable, especially for meat production.

If trust can be restored then there may be a more relaxed attitude towards agriculture, with greater tolerance of developments such as GM crops. It is then possible to imagine a landscape that provides extensive social and biodiversity benefits but still allows competitive agriculture.


A striking proportion of the species in Western Europe are dependent upon early successional stage habitat. This is surprising given the widespread belief that the area was almost entirely covered in dense forest. In a widely discussed book, Vera (2000) suggested an alternative vision: the European landscape comprised a shifting mosaic of grassland, scrub and woodland maintained by herbivores such as deer, Moose Alces alces, wild Boar Sus scrofa, Bison Bison bonasus, and wild descendants of now domesticated cattle and horses. His main arguments are that oaks Quercus spp. were abundant yet usually require open habitat to regenerate; the pollen record includes abundant Hazel Corylus avellana yet this does not flower in dense forest; and that there is little difference in the pollen rain of dense forest and grazed open wood pasture.

Svenning's (2002) analysis of the pollen record and animal remains in Europe showed that in both the interglacials and the pre-agricultural Holocene there were clearly areas of open or semi-open habitat as well as more closed forest. However, the pattern was complex, with frequent open habitat on chalk, infertile soils, dry and warm areas and floodplains. Closed forest predominated in fertile uplands, although interspersed with open patches.

If this perspective is correct, then agriculture can be viewed as providing the open habitat previously created by herbivores alongside natural disturbances such as ice rubbing, floods, fires and wind. This might then explain the abundance of early successional stage species.

Vera's research is part of the Dutch conservation philosophy. The classic illustration of the new philosophy is the Oostvaardersplassen, a 5600-ha reserve created in 1974–78 in the lowest section of a recently created polder. In contrast to the usual approach, management has been minimized, including allowing the water level to fluctuate within wide limits. A herbivore community has been restored. Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus were already present but beavers and 150 Red Deer Cervus elaphus were introduced. Aurochs and tarpan are both extinct so they were replaced with their nearest relatives, 300 heck cattle and 200 Polish ponies. Furthermore, the Oostvaardersplassen became a moulting site for 60 000 Greylag Geese Anser anser, grazing by which around the wetlands helped maintain open habitat. The herbivores have maintained a habitat mosaic. This site has attracted a striking list of species of European importance. As well as the undoubted ecological successes, the impression of wilderness with a lack of fences and gates provides a welcome change from the managed appearance of many UK nature reserves. Of course, restoring natural processes is only practical in a very limited range of sites. As well as the Oostvaardersplassen, there are a number of other cases both in The Netherlands and the UK where these ideas are being explored.

The purported differences between Western Europe and North America outlined earlier may not be as fundamental as they appear. The common perception is that prior to European settlement there was almost continuous forest between the Atlantic and Great Plains. Grassland habitat and grassland species arrived afterwards. The evidence suggesting that the habitat was actually more open includes three grassland bird species with separate eastern subspecies (Askins 2002) implying they have long occurred in isolation, endemic grassland plants, the observations of early Europeans and the preserved pollen, bird and mammal remains indicating open habitat communities. North Americans are starting to think more seriously about the importance of biodiversity within farmland (Askins 2002) and ways of managing farmland (Freemark et al. 2002). It may be that the differences described in Table 1 might be less marked in the future.


I thank Juliet Vickery for gently haranguing me into producing this paper, the BOU, Richard Brand-Hardy, Phil Grice, Andy Evans and Nicholas Aebischer for organizing the farmland bird conference and two referees for useful comments. I thank Monica Folk for showing me round the Disney Wilderness Preserve.