Set-aside News Special: DEFRA admits benefits are unclear

Government officials are struggling to measure the wildlife benefits of set-aside as they press ahead with places requiring farmers to place more land under environmental management.

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Farm leaders are working almost around the clock to stave off the compulsory set-aside replacement.

It would see 5% of arable land taken out of production across England. Growers would then manage this land for wildlife, rather than for food.

The NFU and the Country Land and Business Association have just 11 weeks to come up with a voluntary alternative to the government proposals.

The aim is to reverse a decline in farmland bird populations.

But it is proving difficult to pin down DEFRA officials when it comes to defining the exact benefits that the government wants farmers to deliver – and how those benefits will be measured in terms of additional bird numbers.

A DEFRA spokeswoman admitted: “Currently, we have very little in the way of calculating the exact benefits that set-aside brought and that we hope its successor will recreate.”

A “very ball park figure” would see an additional 200,000ha of land placed under environmental management, the spokeswoman added.

But there would be a time lag between implementing the measure and seeing any effect.

The admission is a stark illustration of the almost impossible situation in which farm leaders find themselves.

They feel the government has asked them to draw up alternative measures without revealing the targets they must reach.

NFU chief economist Tom Hind said: “What we need from DEFRA is more clarity in what benefits they want farmers to deliver.

“It’s no good them just saying they want another 200,000ha under environmental management.”

Researchers from Natural England, the government’s landscape agency, are developing their own ideas on targets.

But they are unlikely to be ready to share their thoughts with stakeholders until later this month at the earliest.

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