The South West environment will be the biggest loser if farming bosses win the battle over EU agriculture subsidies, campaigners have warned.
The Government will shortly decide whether it transfers 15% of direct farm payments given to all farmers – based on acreage – to environmental and rural development measures such as building dry stone walls and creating wildlife habitats.
But ministers have come under pressure from the National Farmers' Union and the Rural Affairs Select Committee to scale back their proposal by 6%, warning the move would otherwise put farmers at risk of going out of business.
Yet such is the importance of the decision that Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has been forced to cede control to the coalition Government's influential "quad": Tories David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, and Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
In a last-ditch plea, wildlife charity the RSPB has warned the South West would face the biggest cut to money to look after the countryside as one-fifth of all cash committed to "environmental stewardship" goes to the region – higher than any other part of the country.
They argue around £800 million would be cut from rural development projects over the seven years of the next round of the Common Agricultural Policy if the NFU gets its way. The new regime begins in 2015.
British farmers will get £20 billion of subsidy over the period – less than perviously – which costs each household £400 a year on average.
Campaigners say so-called "agri-environment schemes" get hundreds of children on to farms, restore hedgerows and help keep traditional breeds – such as the Red Ruby and South Devon cow and Dartmoor and Exmoor pony – on the landscape.
Ministers have defended plans to make the full 15% transfer to the environmental "pillar 2" budget as taxpayers want to see more value for their money by boosting jobs or maintaining the countryside. But farmers argue that direct payments – needed to invest in vital equipment such as tractors – ensure they are producing food amid global shortages and fears over food security.
Mark Robins, RSPB South West senior policy officer, told the Western Morning News: "We all know how tough it is out there for farmers in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset.
"But we believe this makes it even more important to defend payments that help farmers not only to provide quality food but also underpin economic resilience for rural communities, and all without risking even more decline and loss of nature.
"In the South West, the most rural region of England, one where the tourist economy is king, where our strengths lie in a fertile blend of high-quality food products and nature rich landscapes that mark us out, to cut this investment would be utterly perverse.
"It will risk one of the best growth and community development options the region has, while undermining our future resilience.
"And if we lose funding for nature-friendly farming, we know that the vast majority of farmers will stop doing the things that wildlife needs.
"And this would mean the Government's ambition to be the first generation to pass on the natural environment in a better state to the next will be shattered."
The final decision comes amid Government splits over policies to protect the environment and boost the economy, with many Tories arguing it is impossible to do both. There was Lib Dem outrage about Mr Cameron's announcement that he wanted to "roll back" green costs on energy bills in October.
Dr Matt Lobley, co-director of the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter, said: "These payments quite rightly reward farmers for the work they do in managing the countryside. Reducing them would not only jeopardise future agri-environ-mental management but it would impose additional financial hardship on many who have shown real commitment to farming for the environment as well as for food."