D-day to fend off set-aside replacement

Final proposals aimed at fending off a compulsory set-aside replacement in England have been unveiled by farm leaders.

The 47-page document outlining voluntary environmental measures to be undertaken by farmers was published by the NFU and Country Land and Business Association.

Under the measures, more farmers would be encouraged to sign up to environmental stewardship and manage productive farmland to boost bird numbers.

Farm leaders hope the government will prefer the idea over a compulsory set-aside replacement which could take 5% of English arable land out of production.

The proposals will be subjected to a full Defra impact assessment following the closure of a government consultation on Wednesday (27 May).

The full document can be downloaded by clicking here.

It is being backed by the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC), the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) and Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF).

NFU head of economics Tom Hind said the “beefed up” proposals would see different targets set for different counties, according to the needs of different bird species.

“We want to set ambitious targets but believe that the objectives in terms of environmental benefit are likely to vary from region to region.”

Over all, the proposals aim to have 142,000ha of English arable farmland left uncropped or managed for environmental purposes.

If farmers failed to reach this target for two consecutive years, a “regulatory failsafe” would see ministers consider compulsory measures under cross-compliance.

Mr Hind said: “The regulatory failsafe has been amended and now reflects the minimum land area that potentially yielded benefits on arable set-aside.”

But critics said the proposals did not go far enough.

Gareth Morgan, head of agriculture policy for the RSPB, said the proposals were little changed on an initial plan outlined by the NFU earlier this year.

“The RSPB’s position remains unchanged – we will continue to support cross-compliance in our response to the Defra consultation.

“If anything the proposals are moving backwards.

Mr Morgan said his primary concern related to the failsafe mechanism by which action would be taken if the voluntary approach fails to deliver

This displayed an alarming lack of urgency, he said.

“This hardly seems fair on the many farmers who will be doing something extra for farmland wildlife,” said Mr Morgan.

“In all likelihood those that don’t take part will be able to receive exactly the same farm subsidies as those who do play their part.

“The NFU and CLA leadership must understand that we need to see realistic plans to address the problems farmland wildlife is facing following the end of set-aside.

“We remain open in principle to a voluntary approach, but in light of the serious flaws in these proposals we cannot seriously support them.”

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