21 January 2000
Subsidy change is bad for wildlife

by Isabel Davies

CHANGES to subsidy rules for field margins are out of step with governments environmental objectives, according to conservationists.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said it was concerned about a new rule which says standard field boundaries must be under two metres.

The organisation believes farmers will choose to remove habitat rather than risk losing subsidy and has written to MAFF asking for it to be reviewed.

Previously, MAFF has allowed farmers to claim the full Ordnance Survey area when fields were fully utilised according to customary agricultural practices.

But it now claims that field boundaries are now extending beyond a customary distance so the area planted is much less than the designated OS size.

Uncropped areas will no longer be considered customary if the distance from the centre of the boundary to the crop or forage area is over two metres.

For subsidy purposes, the field boundary is considered to be the area between the recognised centre of the boundary.

The new rules are set out in part one of the ministrys new Arable Area Payments guide which was sent to farmers last month.

As a result of the change, the ministry has already highlighted that there could be problems with set-aside if farmers choose to take up the 10m or 20m options.

If the strip is next to a boundary that is wider than 2m, the resultant deductions will take it under the minimum width and disqualify it as set-aside.

As a result farmers could lose some of their payments on other crops, it says.

According to Hannah Bartram, agricultural policy officer for the RSPB, government officials have shot themselves in the foot with the new rule.

This is a very rash and detrimental decision given it has been proven that hedgerows are valuable habitat for wildlife and farmland birds.

Jill Hopkinson, technical information officer for the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group agreed.

Farmers would be more likely to cut back hedges because they could not afford to lose payments, she said.

But you cant blame farmers for wanting to look after their interests..

Jonathan Pettit of the National Farmers Union admitted there was little chance of the rule being changed.