The introduction of compulsory set-aside looks set to go ahead after DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn accepted the findings of a report by the High-Level Group on Set-aside (HLGS).

The report, chaired by Sir Don Curry, said removing set-aside had had an impact on biodiversity and suggested mechanisms were needed to “capture” the benefits of it.

Backing the report, Mr Benn said there was a “strong case for action” which needed to be implemented as soon as was practical.

Mr Benn said he agreed with the HLGS’ preferred option, which would see arable farmers manage a “small percentage” of land for environmental purposes.

The requirement could not prevent arable production on the land, but would instead ask farmers to adopt a range of practices such as permanent grass buffers, winter stubble or reduced-input cereal crops.

Farmers would also be encouraged to “make the most” of the land through proposed “top-up” options within the Environmental Stewardship scheme.

In a letter to Sir Don, Mr Benn said the proposal would give farmers “a choice” and he hoped it would be implemented in time for the 2009/10 cropping year.

Officials at the Rural Payments Agency and Natural England had been asked to look at ways to implement the scheme, he added.

Jeff Rooker, junior DEFRA minister said it was important the set-aside scheme was not a burden on farmers.

“The majority of farmers are doing it anyway, but we need to retain the environmental benefits whilst being as flexible as possible.”

Jim Paice, shadow environment minister, said the government should have introduced a specific stewardship scheme to encourage farmers to leave areas for set-aside.

“We would prefer to use the carrot, not the stick,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that set-aside has provided an environmental advantage, but we could retain these advantages through ELS where farmers are paid.”