The post-2020 CAP can play a crucial role in restoring nature

Intensive farming is a major driver of biodiversity loss, but as a series of LIFE projects shows, it is possible to restore intensively farmed land and support the recovery of natural habitats and species. 
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

By Willem Urlings

10 Sep 2019

This autumn, European policymakers negotiating the post-2020 common agricultural policy must ensure that the final policy framework can reward farmers and landowners for nature restoration and the public goods that this provides.

We know that global biodiversity loss is accelerating an unprecedented rate. And despite having the world’s most advanced environmental policy framework, Europe is no exception to this trend.

After decades of agricultural intensification and the associated loss of species and open habitats, we must now better manage our land, and in some cases, work towards restoring nature on former agricultural lands. This means finding a delicate balance between the twin necessities of nature and food production. If we are not to lose our essential nature, we must love it and maintain it.


One of the great achievements of European environmental policy is the creation in 1992 of the Natura 2000 network, the largest and most consistent network of protected areas in the world. Many Natura 2000 sites include farmland and countryside landscapes.

But this adjacent (and often intensively farmed) land often has high levels of nutrients, most notably phosphorous. This an environment in which the species and habitats targeted for conservation cannot thrive. Another issue is the water level – the farmer requires a different water level to grow his crops, than the water level needed for indigenous nature to flourish.

So, nature restoration on agricultural land means working on issues such as water level and quality, nutrient level and landscape structure. Among other factors, the loss of structure of the rural landscape is a major driver for the decline of farmland birds

In my country, the Netherlands, we have a high population density and a lot of intensified agriculture. This means that, if we are to protect and conserve our nature, restoration measures are indispensable. Through my involvement here locally in the LIFE projects on Natura 2000 sites in Dwingelderveld and Drents-Friese Wold, I see how this process of moving away from intensive farming and towards restoring nature is changing the daily lives of people in my local community.

"The loss of structure of the rural landscape is a major driver for the decline of farmland birds"

For example, one of our local farmers provided intensively farmed land to the project Life Going up a level so that the land could be restored and thus increase the size of the nature reserve around Oude Willem, a site within the Drents-Friese Wold. Now that farmer has a new future, and a new livelihood in providing campsite accommodation for tourists and people visiting our nature area.

Of course, at the same time, there is resistance on the part of many farmers and landowners, especially on the issue of how to use pesticides and fertilizers responsibly. It’s challenging to find a solution: this is a hot political item both here locally, and at European level. 

When restoring the soil nutrient level, the phosphorous (from fertilisers) is the most difficult nutrient to tackle. If the land has not been too intensively farmed, simply stopping the use of the fertilisers combined with regular mowing can be enough to allow the land to recover. This is a relatively cheap measure but requires time and consistent effort.

This approach is not workable for land that has been intensively farmed, as in parts of Dwingelderveld and Drents-Friese Wold, because it would simple take too long. In the worse cases, it would be centuries before the land recovered. So here more radical measures are necessary.

In Dwingelderveld, the project team excavated the topsoil to a depth of 34 cm over more than 200 hectares.  And at Oude Willem, another technique, P-mining (or phytoextraction) was tested at scale for the first time on over 200 hectares of intensively farmed land. The approach is to stimulate growth by fertilizing the grass with potassium and nitrogen, mowing as much as possible (three times a year) and removing the cuttings (for hay) in order to reduce the level of phosphate in the soil.  The hay is used by farmers to feed their cattle in the winter.

"In the worse cases, it would be centuries before the land recovered"

These are small successes compared with the scale of challenges we face. We could not have done this work without our local farmers. Nature restoration is often expensive, and the availability of subsidies under the common agricultural policy is a major influencing factor in how we use and manage our land.

With climate change already underway, our farmers are facing many uncertainties. Guaranteed payments under the post-2020 CAP could support those working on restoration of intensified farmland and providing many benefits, including ecosystem services such as food and wood production, better water quality, carbon sequestration and flood protection, whilst also protecting nature.

More Europeans could enjoy nearby nature: birds and other animals, grasslands with many flowers. The new policy framework must ensure that local solutions can be developed at a much larger scale.