grass margin© Tim Scrivener

Grass margins in arable fields currently in or coming out of stewardship schemes can be used to help farmers meet ecological focus area (EFA) targets under the new CAP, the European Commission has ruled.

The NFU said it had won a “concession” for grassland covered in the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) in England, following nearly a year of lobbying Defra and also the commission.

Farmers and landowners who have more than 15ha of arable land, will need to have 5% equivalent of their total arable land to EFAs – unless they qualify for an exemption.

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EFA options available include land lying fallow, buffer strips, catch and cover crops, nitrogen-fixing crops and hedges.

The NFU said it had received written correspondence from Defra/the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), which gives an important clarification on the status of grass margins in arable fields.

In the statement, Defra said it had received confirmation from the European Commission that the status of grassland would be “frozen” throughout the duration of an agri-environment agreement – and resumes the moment the agreement ends.

“So, for example, if land is in grass for three years then is set aside under an agri-environment agreement for five or 10 years, on completion of the agreement the clock starts at year four provided the land is still in grass,” said the Defra statement.

“In this example, this means the land would still be considered to be temporary grassland on completion of the agreement. It opens the possibility for such grassland strips to count towards the EFA requirements within greening as land lying fallow, and removes any incentive for such grassland strips to be ploughed up and environmental benefits lost.”

The environmental benefits would further enhance work farmers undertake through the voluntary stewardship scheme, the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE), Defra added.

The NFU welcomed the ruling, saying: “This statement means that land currently in ELS/HLS or which has recently come out of ELS or even CSS (Countryside Stewardship Scheme) margins could be eligible to host EFA fallow, but of course these areas would need to be added into greening figures to work out the 5% EFA requirement and also considered if any exemptions were looked at.”

The relevant agri-environment scheme codes are those set out in the SPS 2013 handbook.

The NFU reminded growers that permanent grassland cannot be used to host the EFA fallow land option or be used as a crop for crop diversification purposes.

Finally, it is important to remember that land under ELS / HLS should be compatible in terms of management to that of the EFA rules in order for it to count for EFA under BPS.

A Defra spokesman said: “The European Commission provided clarity that arable land taken out of production under certain agri-environment schemes retains its arable status rather than being treated as permanent grassland once it leaves the scheme.

“This leaves open the possibility for such land to count towards the farmer’s EFA requirements as land laying fallow. Guidance will be published on our website shortly.”