THE GOVERNMENT has launched its long-awaited First Soil Action Plan for England, but has given little indication how much will be included as cross-compliance conditions.

Leading lights in soil research said they had waited 30 years for the first Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs route map to maintain and protect Britain‘s soils.

Food and farming minister Lord Whitty launched the three-year programme of over 50 action points DEFRA plans to put in place with farmers, planners, builders and others.

The plan aims to implement new and existing policy and regulation and increase understanding of and access to information on the state of soils.

“It‘s about time soil had equal attention to air and water,” he said on Thursday (May 20).

One of the requirements of cross-compliance is to keep land in good agricultural and environmental condition, he pointed out.

“If that means anything, then it must mean the protection of soils.”

Whole farm soil management plans form part of the action plan, but Lord Whitty did not say whether these would be a cross-compliance condition or form part of the new Entry-Level Stewardship scheme.

“This is still open to consultation, but if anyone thinks GAEC can exclude soil management altogether, they are mistaken.”

At the same time the Environment Agency launched a consultation document – Soil, the Hidden Resource, – that builds on its State of Soils report.

It sets out the agency‘s intended activities, which include tackling the impacts of intensive agriculture, improving the soil knowledge base and understanding soil biodiversity.

The EA seeks views on how these should be prioritised and how it should work with farmers to achieve its aims.

“Soil is the great unsung hero of the environment,” said EA chief executive Barbara Young.

Agriculture does have a major impact on the soil, for good or bad, she noted, and urged all to put forward their views on how to take things forward.

“We‘ve now got a common hymn sheet that government, land managers and others can work from, and the answer really does lie in the soil.”

• More on the soil initiatives, and reaction to the EA‘s controversial State of Soils report, can be found in FARMERS WEEKLY, May 21 issue.