18 January 2002

Concern over new land law

By Isabel Davies

NEW laws to protect uncultivated and semi-natural land could have the opposite effect by dissuading farmers from signing up to agri-environmental schemes, claim critics.

Ministers claim the rules are necessary to protect areas of high value from environmental damage. DEFRA is yet to send farmers details of exactly what land is due to be covered by the new regulation despite the fact it comes into force in two weeks.

But Oliver Harwood, head of rural economy at the Country Land and Business Association, said he feared land in long-term set-aside or an agri-environmental scheme could be included. "There is nothing to say land which has been in an environmental scheme wont be affected. People wont go into schemes in future if they fear they cannot get out of them."

The CLA believes the definition DEFRA plans to use is too wide. It believes the same one as used to identify access land should be used. Oxfordshire farmer Tony Good who is in the tenth year of a Countryside Stewardship agreement and has been told he is likely to be affected by the new law agreed with the CLAs assessment.

Farmers would not risk being left with uneconomic land because they had planted it with indigenous grasses or created new wildlife habitats. "What will happen is this will kill the Countryside Stewardship Scheme stone dead," Mr Good predicted.

Uncertainty

Uncertainty over the rule has already promoted some farmers to plough ground ahead of the deadline because they say this is the only safe way to defend their position. But Lord Whitty has appealed to producers not to take such action, warning it risks "irreversible environmental damage".

A DEFRA spokeswoman confirmed that ex-stewardship land was likely to fall under the regulation. But farmers who did want to revert back to intensive production were unlikely to need to go as far as having to get an environmental statement. Most farmers would be told they could proceed a screening stage. &#42

"We anticipate very few cases where an environmental statement is needed and such land will be considered sympathetically," she said.