RSPB opposes voluntary set-aside plan

Conservationists have voiced “serious concern” at government plans to consider a voluntary replacement for set-aside.

DEFRA Secretary Hilary Benn has said he will consider a voluntary scheme – favoured by farm leaders – alongside a mandatory approach, due to replace set-aside next year.

“I welcome the idea of a voluntary scheme, led by the industry, if we can be sure that it will deliver,” Mr Benn told NFU Conference on Monday (16 February).

Mr Benn said he was keen that any scheme retained the wildlife benefits of set-aside, which would help to reverse the decline in farmland bird numbers.

But the RSPB said it would need a change of direction from the NFU leadership before it would be persuaded that a voluntary scheme was best.

Sue Armstrong-Brown, RSPB head of countryside and species conservation, said it was essential a replacement for set-aside was introduced soon as possible with a mandatory approach likely to provide more benefits.

“The RSPB has serious doubts about the ability of a purely voluntary scheme to deliver what farmland birds need, which is a little land in lots of places.

“A similar initiative developed in 2007 failed to generate action on the ground and it is difficult to see how this new proposal will work.

“We are willing to be persuaded, but would first need to see a change of direction from the leadership of the NFU.

“They need to stop attacking the evidence, which clearly shows changes in farm practices have contributed to declines in farmland bird numbers.”

The NFU should take a lead in encouraging farmers to do what was needed to reverse the decline in bird numbers, said Ms Armstrong-Brown.

“The kind of mandatory scheme proposed by Hilary Benn seems to us like a good deal for farmers, who still receive the same amount of public money, including old set-aside compensation payments, despite the loss of set-aside.

“The amount of land they would have to take out of production would be much smaller than that under set-aside and our precious wildlife would be thrown a lifeline.”