DEFRA will press for the reintroduction of compulsory set-aside when it meets farm industry leaders in London next week.

The meeting between DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn, farming unions and conservation groups, will take place in London on 7 January and cover a range of proposals.

A government official said that there was a “strong will” at DEFRA to see set-aside reintroduced after the department failed to reach all of its biodiversity targets in 2008 and RSPB figures showed that farmland bird numbers were in decline.

“A level of 5-6% has been discussed by the department. But it is more likely the strongest case will be made for a level of between 2 and 4%,” the official said.

He also told Farmers Weekly that there could be a link formed between set-aside and the Entry Level Stewardship Scheme.

“One proposal is to allow farmers to include set-aside in the ELS area of a farm. Farmers who are in the scheme would then effectively receive payments for their set-aside,” the official said.

But NFU president Peter Kendall said that he would argue at the meeting for set-aside to remain at 0%.

“Food security is an extremely strong argument against bringing back set-aside at any level,” Mr Kendall said.

And Hertfordshire farmer Robert Law, who was an early adopter of the ELS scheme on his farm near Royston, said the red tape involved in establishing set-aside would threaten the uptake of stewardship schemes.

Mr Law has been involved in set-aside discussion groups with Natural England, the agency that administers environment schemes.

“We might find that we have three schemes, ELS, Higher Level Stewardship Scheme and set-aside, running in one field.

“It will be confusing, time consuming, costly and could ultimately be bad for wildlife if people ditch ELS,” he said.