Ball is in your court, Natural England tells farm leaders

A controversial target to boost farmland birds can be met by taking just an extra 1.5% of arable land out of production, the government’s landscape agency has claimed.

Uncultivated land type

2006/07 average (ha)

2008 (ha)

Target status*




(target not met – 62,000ha shortfall)




(target met)




(target met)





* assumes 2008 land can be managed twice as effectively as during 2006/07

Only an additional 62,000ha (153,000 acres) are needed to regain the wildlife benefits that had developed before set-aside was effectively abolished in 2007, suggests a document sent by Natural England chief executive Helen Philips to DEFRA civil servants and farm leaders last week.

The figure is significant because widely quoted estimates until now have suggested that 200,000ha (500,000 acres) – equivalent to 5% of arable land – must be taken out of production to meet a DEFRA commitment to reverse a decline in bird populations.

But Natural England experts believe the lower figure may be all the extra land that is needed because the area of non-rotational set-aside and margins that remain may already meet much of the target requirement.

This land may already be helping to boost bird numbers to the level needed, say Natural England analysts – provided it is being properly managed, and is in the older uncultivated set-aside areas, or on soils and slopes at risk of erosion (see table).

“The key shortage against the target is the major reduction in the area of rotational land,” states the document. “This is of crucial importance to farmland birds, so the key challenge is to replace this loss with additional land managed under options that deliver.

“If the 28,000ha that remained in 2008 were to be managed in ways that delivered enhanced benefits, only an additional 62,000ha would be required to deliver the 90,000ha target needed to deliver the benefits that delivered on rotational set-aside and other uncultivated land between 2005-2007.”

Dr Phillips told Farmers Weekly there was no interest in taking more land out of cultivation than was necessary and the appraoach the industry was developing towards bird, wildlife and resource protection was “promising”.

But while the approach offered more flexibility to farmers, she warned it needed to demonstrate it could deliver environmental benefits.

“To test whether either approach will deliver the benefits, we have developed these targets and they have been shared with the NFU and CLA,” she said.

“These targets are essential to underpin an effective voluntary approach which is part-way through its development – it is too early to decide whether this approach can meet these goals or not.

“For either approach to work, there will need to be sufficient support for farmers, to help them chose and implement the right options. We will continue to work closely with the industry through the consultation period, and after the Secretary of State has chosen which option to deploy.”