Muckspreader 17 october

Private Eye

On all sides we hear how the future of Europe's farming lies in root-and-branch reform of the common agricultural policy (CAP). The parrot cry of the reformers (including Britain's Rosa Klebb, aka Margaret Beckett) is that we must shift subsidies away from production (fat cheques for barley barons) and towards looking after the 'environment'. Farmers must be paid not for over-producing barley and sheep but as 'stewards of the countryside'. In this way, argue Rosa and her pals, such as the Green ex-social worker Renate Kunast who is Germany's farm minister, the birds, bees and flowers will be brought back to our poison-drenched prairie fields and even hardened city dwellers will accept that there might after all be a case for continuing to lavish £30 billion a year of taxpayers' money on the EU's farmers.

Like everything else about the EU, it may sound fine in theory. But what about the practice?

As it happens, we at last have hard evidence as to what happens when EU farm subsidies are directed towards enhancing the environment, in the shape of a confidential report drawn up for the Scottish Executive and leaked to Kirsty Macleod, a farmer who helps run Fresh Air: a new magazine devoted to exposing the devastating effects of bureaucracy on Scotland's countryside.

The Scottish farm ministry, Serad, commissioned a bevy of organisations headed by the Macaulay land use research institute to look into the ecological record of Scotland's Environmentally Sensitive Areas (Esa's). Under two EU directives vast tracts of Scotland, from the Borders to the Cairngorms, from Loch Lomond to the Western Isles, have in the past 15 years been designated as Esa's, where landowners receive EU subsidies to look after their land in a way which protects or enhances the environment.

As such, Esa's provide a model for how Rosa and her fellow-reformers would like to see almost all EU farm subsidies spent in the future. Under headings covering the main habitat-types the system is designed to protect, Serad's experts, including the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, report on just how effective it has been in practice, by comparing the record of land covered by Esa's with land outside them.

On 'herb-rich grassland', they found the Esa scheme had produced "no significant increases" in the number of species.

On heather, "there is little to suggest that the scheme is producing any pronounced improvement".

On wetlands, the reduction in grazing required by the scheme is rendering land "rank", which "will probably result in reduced plant biodiversity". On woodlands, land outside the scheme has produced more tree-regeneration than that inside.

On blanket-bog, there was no obvious difference between Esa land and non-Esa land.

On birds, the numbers, after 15 years of Esa's, "had changed little, if at all".

On the threatened machairs of the western Isles, grass-rich sand-dunes, the Esa scheme had produced "no detectable overall enhancements". In other words, the net effect of a scheme designed to improve the quantity and diversity of wildlife over several million acres of Scotland has been insigificant.

After spending hundreds of millions of pounds on paying farmers to comply with all the strict bureaucratic rules dreamed up by Brussels's environmental experts, not only is there no discernible improvement. In several respects land outside the scheme has performed better than that it is meant to protect. Yet such is the model which Rosa and her friends want all the EU to follow. (copies of Fresh Air can be obtained by emailing imitchell@ukonline.co.uk)