Changing land use – what farmers need to know

Farmers must follow legal procedures before changing the use of any land classified as uncultivated or semi-natural.

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations protect uncultivated or semi-natural land from changes in agricultural activities that might cause damage by increasing productivity or physically changing field boundaries.

Essentially, it means it is not possible to plough, cultivate, drain, reseed or use fertilisers or soil improvers on land that has not been touched in the past 15 years without first applying for permission.

See also: Read more on farm compliance issues

In England, the relevant authority is Natural England, but similar regulations are in place in each of the devolved regions.

Failure to comply can lead to a £5,000 fine and payment reductions under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), as the need to follow the regulations is also covered by cross-compliance rules.

Landowners found to be in breach of the law may also be required to restore the land to its previous condition.

The regulations have been in place since 2006, but were updated in 2017.

What is uncultivated land?

Uncultivated land is ground that hasn’t been cultivated in the past 15 years by:

  • physical means, such as ploughing or an activity that breaks the soil surface
  • chemical means, such as adding fertiliser or soil improvers.

“Semi-natural areas” include bracken, species-rich hay meadow, fen, marsh, swamp, bog, semi-natural scrub, dwarf shrub heath, wet grassland in coastal and river flood plains, unimproved grassland and standing water.

They also include historic environmental features of regional significance, including sub-surface archaeology and landscape features, such as historic parkland.

The definition of uncultivated land differs to the permanent grassland classification under BPS.

Permanent grassland is land which is used to grow grasses or other herbaceous forage for five or more consecutive years.

This land can be ploughed or improved without prior permission, so long as it is not also classified as uncultivated or semi-natural, and assuming the overall amount of permanent pasture in the UK does not fall under the national minimum level.

What is meant by changes in land use?

Natural England (or the relevant authority in the devolved regions) must decide if a proposal to change the use of rural land is likely to have a significant effect on the environment.

Farmers must apply for an EIA screening decision before they take action if they are looking to increase productivity by:

  • disrupting the soil surface by ploughing, tine harrowing or rotovating
  • increasing the use of fertiliser or soil improvers including lime
  • sowing seed that will increase grassland productivity
  • draining land
  • clearing existing vegetation or scrub equal to or above an area of 2ha, either physically or using herbicides
  • increasing stock density that will result in improved vegetation from grazing.

A screening decision is also required where farmers intend to:

  • add or remove field boundaries that are more than 4km long
  • add or remove field boundaries that are more than 2km long for land in protected areas, such as a national park, area of outstanding natural beauty or site of a scheduled monument
  • add new fencing on common land that meets the same criteria above
  • move or redistribute earth (depending on the quantities involved and whether the land is in a protected area, such as a national park).

When is permission not needed?

Permission is not required where farmers are replacing nutrients on semi-natural land, as long as it doesn’t result in increased agricultural output.

For example, it would be acceptable to apply low levels of lime or farmyard manure to hay meadows if it was part of its traditional management

Introducing a mixed wildflower seed or clearing invasive non-native vegetation is also allowed.

Is there a minimum field size?

Farmers generally only need to apply for a screening decision if they want to change the land use of more than 2ha of land (this includes separate projects on the same farm which add up to more than 2ha).

However, there are some exceptions where proposals under the 2ha threshold have to go before the authorities.

These are where the land:

  • is semi-natural
  • has heritage features, such as above or below-ground archaeological sites
  • has special landscape features, such as a historic parkland.

What is involved in an EIA screening decision?

Landowners have to make an application for a screening decision which involves providing an Environmental Screening Report covering:

  • a full description of the project and its effect on the environment
  • map and plans for the project and the area likely to be affected
  • descriptions of the environmental sensitivity of the project
  • landscape, biodiversity and archaeological assessments where required
  • details of any mitigation that will lessen the effect of the project
  • an appended collection of evidence.

Natural England says it should take between 35 and 90 days to decide whether a proposal can proceed or whether the landowner needs to apply for full consent.

Applying for a full consent decision requires the preparation of a more detailed environmental assessment report.

Input is likely to be needed from a specialist environmental consultant.

How many proposals are turned down?

Natural England keeps a public register of all screening decisions which shows almost none are refused.

The majority end up being ruled as falling outside of the scope of the regulations or seen as having no significant environmental effect.

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