2 May 1997

Farms blamed for SSSI damage

INTENSIVE farming practice is being blamed for a steep rise in damage done to sites of special scientific interest.

Figures just released by English Nature reveal that there were 163 cases of damage on 121 SSSIs in the year ending Mar 1996, compared with 111 cases on 104 sites in 1994/95.

The 20% rise in incidents was put down to agriculture, with English Nature blaming excessive grazing, particularly of upland pasture. But the NFU hit back, saying that English Nature should shoulder part of the blame for failing to communicate adequately with farmers.

The report follows the recent case where environment minister, John Gummer, was forced to issue a Nature Conservation Order to East Sussex farmer Justin Harmer to prevent further ploughing of the Offham Down SSSI (News, Apr 18). Mr Harmer wanted to grow flax to take advantage of the £513/ha (£208/acre) EU subsidy.

Campaign group Friends of the Earth erected a flax effigy of farm minister, Douglas Hogg, outside MAFFs London headquarters on Tuesday to stress its anger over the so-called flax loophole. That allows farmers to obtain grant aid for flax even if the land was not in an arable rotation before Dec 31, 1991 (see p7).

Meanwhile, English Nature announced this week that it was considering legal action against a Herefordshire farmer for ploughing up 180m (590ft) of permanent grassland alongside the river Lugg, near Leominster. The removal of the grassland had resulted in polluting nutrients being released into the river.

Sarah Jennings, English Nature conservation officer, said the farmer had broken the law by failing to tell the conservation agency that he planned to plough the land. "We view this incident very seriously and our solicitors are currently considering action under the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act," she added.

Andrew Clark, NFU environment spokesman, said there were two main management problems in SSSIs – overgrazing and ploughing. While farmers were generally aware of having to notify the agency about ploughing or a change of herbicide use, stocking densities were still shrouded in confusion.

"There does not seem to be enough effort in discussing grazing management. I realise that English Nature has 20,000 site owner-occupiers, but with staff only visiting farmers once every two years there are bound to be communication difficulties," Mr Clark said. &#42