DEFRA must not rush into introducing compulsory measures to mitigate the environmental consequences of scrapping set-aside, according to the NFU.

The NFU, along with theCountry Land and Business Association, has sent a letter to DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn to protest about an interim report by the High-Level Group on Set-aside (HLSG) which was published on DEFRA’s website last week.

The report concluded that removing set-aside has had an impact on biodiversity and suggested alternative mechanisms will be needed to “capture” the benefits of set-aside.

Cross-compliance

Options include adding requirements to cross-compliance so that farmers have to implement wider buffer strips or mandatory winter stubbles, or adding new options to Environmental Stewardship.

But the NFU has challenged points made in the report and an accompanying letter by Mr Benn, where he indicated an announcement could come before the end of July.

Although both members of the HLSG, the NFU and CLA said they felt some of their comments had not been incorporated into the final draft and the group was exceeding its remit by looking at the impact of the loss of fallow land – not just set-aside.

EU health check

They were also worried that Mr Benn seemed ready to take a unilateral decision before the EU health check had been concluded.

NFU president Peter Kendall said it would be a “knee-jerk” reaction to announce compulsory measures this summer.

“Number 10 is having meeting after meeting about food inflation and the need to increase food production – how does that fit with this debate about set-aside?” he said.

“We need a long-term strategy that is easily manageable for farmers and we mustn’t disadvantage ourselves.”

Sir Donald Curry, chairman of the HLSG, said the report was accepted by all parties, although it had taken three drafts and was “inevitably a compromise”.

More research had been commissioned to increase understanding of the environmental value of set-aside, he said. But if measures were introduced it would be better if they were on an EU-wide basis.