Farming should work in harmony with our precious nature – NGOs’ appeal to decision makers

Intensive agriculture continues to breach the EU’s nature protection laws by destroying habitats and wildlife on protected sites.

Now a group of environmental NGOs is calling on Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella to use the remaining months left of his mandate to leave a lasting legacy for nature by intervening where EU governments are turning a blind eye to this destruction.

The EU’s nature’s laws – the Birds and Habitats Directives – are world-leading and protect threatened wildlife and habitats, but when EU agricultural policy and funds are not used to support farmers to work in harmony with nature the results can be devastating.

Given the collapse of vital pollinators and that so many of our species and habitats remain under threat across Europe as a direct result of intensive agriculture, the European Environmental Bureau, BirdLife Europe, WWF European Policy Office, and Friends of the Earth Europe have outlined the need for an environmentally ambitious reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Tablas de Daimiel © Jorge Sierra-WWF Spain

One protected site where the impact of intensive farming is strongly felt is the Tablas de Daimiel wetland in Spain which has an excessive number of both legal and illegal wells that continue to overexploit the ‘aquifier’ – an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock. Tablas de Daimiel is infamous as the most dramatic and best documented case of wetland degradation in the area. Between 2006 and 2009, the wetland completely dried up causing a severe underground fire. This, combined with eutrophication, have had dramatic consequences on the ecosystem.

The wetland area is renowned for having a high abundance and diversity of both bird and aquatic plant species, and as such the site is supposed to be protected under the EU nature laws. Huge numbers of bird populations can be found there in the winter, including the mallard and the red-crested pochard – and they all need a healthy wetland to survive.

Sergiy Moroz from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said that the European Commission should “bring the infringement case against Spain for the lack of implementation of the EU nature and water legislation and ensure that Spanish authorities put in place management and control measures to address illegal water abstraction in the Tablas de Daimiel wetland”.

Lake Koroneia in Greece, known as ‘Europe’s Aral Lake’

Overabstraction is also a problem for the fourth largest lake in Greece, Lake Koroneia, dubbed ‘Europe’s Aral Lake’, and this is exacerbated by pollution from intensive agriculture. The lake used to be over 45 sq km in size but it has lost a third of its surface water area in 30 years. This is bad news for the fish and birdlife that call the lake home.

Lake Koroneia hosts numerous threatened, endemic and rare habitats, species and breeding, wintering or staging birds (e.g. the squacco heron Ardeola ralloides, white-tailed eagle Heliaetus albicilla, and the pygmy cormorant Phalacrocorax pygmeus) and is a Natura 2000 site protected under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives.

Lake Koroneia is also currently polluted by runoff from a nearby landfill site which has already led to the deaths of thousands of fish. Moroz added that it was crucial to “immediately tackle pollution from all sources including from agriculture” and put in place “an agency to oversee management of all protected nature sites in Greece to ensure all sites are managed”. Currently only 30 out of 400 protected sites in Greece are being properly managed.

On 6 April, all eyes will be on MEPs on the European Parliament’s Agriculture committee who will vote on the European Commission’s proposal for reform of the CAP which will cover the years 2021-2027.

This vote will follow on from a landmark agriculture vote last month in the Parliament’s Environment committee when MEPs voted to ring-fence EUR 15 billion of the EU’s farm subsidies to support farmers to work with nature.

Ariel Brunner, Senior Head of Policy at BirdLife Europe, said:

“With February’s vote, MEPs on the Environment Committee have put the EU’s money where its mouth is. Nature is dying at the hands of intensive farming. Farmers need support to save nature, themselves and all of us. The spotlight is now on the Agriculture Committee to embrace these recommendations and lead the Parliament as a whole to finally take biodiversity seriously through fixing the devastating impact of the CAP.”

An ‘island of nature’ in Castro Verde, Portugal

One example of what can happen when EU CAP money is put behind nature-friendly farming is a scheme in Castro Verde in Portugal, a place locals now describe as an extensive ‘island of nature’ in a sea of intensive agriculture.
The scheme promoted traditional land use with one year of crops followed by several years of extensive grazing by sheep. This ensured that a unique flora and fauna was preserved, including birds of prey and vultures, as well as the little and great bustard. Over the years the scheme had its ups and downs, but overall it was successful, resulting in an increase of great bustard from 300 to 1000. Castro Verde is now internationally renowned and was awarded the status as a UNESCO world heritage site.