CARWYN JONES, the Welsh Assembly‘s rural affairs minister, has praised farmers for a accepting a key role in the protection of the environment.

He told NFU Cymru‘s winter conference at Builth Wells in Powys that farmers increasingly accepted good farming practices went hand in hand with care of the countryside and its flora and fauna.

“Tir Gofal, the assembly‘s flagship agri-environment scheme, is widely regarded as one of the best schemes of its type in Europe,” Mr Jones claimed.

“There are now more than 2200 farmers participating in the scheme, managing over 230,000ha to the highest of environmental standards.”

Over 30% of agricultural land in Wales was now subject to management agreements, and the area would grow with the introduction of the new Tir Cynnal entry level scheme.

He reminded farmers who did not wish to become involved in formal schemes that cross compliance meant they would have a basic obligation to protect the environment.

Farmers had an “over-arching” responsibility to ensure farming‘s sustainability, and that the right environmental legacy was bequeathed to future generations.

While he conceded that Welsh agricultural output could fall in response to CAP reforms, he was generally upbeat about prospects for the industry.

But he admitted he was very concerned about the spread of bovine TB. An action group had been set up by the Assembly, but would operate at arms length from it.

“I have ensured that it is kept small, with a balance of farming and wildlife interests, so that progress can be made on the complex and contentious issue,” Mr Jones claimed.

In response to a question from a farmer in the audience, he insisted that, despite an annual compensation bill of £10m in Wales, there were no plans to reduce the amount paid to herds dealing with TB breakdowns.