Voluntary set-aside hard to achieve, warns Natural England

Conservationists from Natural England, the government’s landscape agency, are to work with farm leaders in a bid to devise a voluntary replacement for set-aside – despite warning that it will be difficult to stave off compulsory measures.

The NFU has just weeks to ensure its preference for a voluntary environmental scheme is reflected in a government consultation due to be launched next month before a set-aside replacement is introduced across England next year.

Although the government has agreed to consider a voluntary approach, it still favours reversing a decline in farmland bird numbers by forcing farmers to place a proportion of their land under environmental management.

Securing the wildlife benefits of set-aside voluntarily would be a real challenge, acknowledged Natural England strategic director Mark Felton. But the agency would work in partnership with the industry in the hope it could be achieved.

“Sorting out the implications of the loss of set-aside is only one step in the direction of trying to achieve our targets,” Mr Felton told the Norfolk Farming Conference on Wednesday (25 February).

Doubling bird populations on individual farms would be “quite easy”. But it would require farmers to actively manage their land for that purpose, he warned conference delegates at the John Innes Centre, Norwich.

Speaking afterwards to FWi, Mr Felton said: “The NFU needs to lead this process, but if it is to work then it will need to call on things like entry level stewardship.”

If compulsory measures are introduced, up to 5% of arable land could be taken out of production. Mr Felton said: “The amount we are looking for assumes that when properly managed it will be twice as productive as average set-aside land.”

He added: “I am completely convinced we can replace the [beneficial] impact of set-aside. But I believe there will be great difficulty in securing enough land in areas where there are not enough farmers in entry level stewardship.”

NFU president Peter Kendall said many farmers were already “busting a gut” to deliver environmental benefits. Using a compulsory approach could force producers to think again about renewing entry level agreements.

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