Set-aside News Special: Details emerge of voluntary replacement

Details are emerging of voluntary measures aimed at staving off a compulsory set-aside replacement in England.

The voluntary approach is being developed by farm leaders opposed to compulsory measures that would force farmers to manage land for environmental purposes.

They are proposing a voluntary alternative that would see growers encouraged to meet DEFRA targets by undertaking measures to boost farmland bird numbers.

The voluntary proposals are being drawn up by the NFU and the Country Land and Business Association.

They hope their Farm Environment Action Plan (FEAP) will be supported by farm advisers, including conservationists, consultants and agronomists.

The aim is to identify and promote environmental practices that growers can undertake as part of stewardship agreements and more generally.

Advisers would then promote these practices to growers during farm visits.

Exact targets for the voluntary scheme are yet to be finalised. but DEFRA wants to increase the uptake of agri-environment schemes to 70% of available farmland by March 2011.

In some areas, including parts of eastern England, uptake is as low as 50%.

The government also wants a 40% increase in the in-field Entry Level Stewardship options that particularly benefit farmland birds.

This would see farmers introduce the stewardship options best-suited to their geographic area and the needs of bird species within their locality.

The government prefers to see this as better targeting rather than raising the bar.

To be successful, a voluntary option would have to make significant progress towards these targets within two years.

If it fails, growers would face the prospect of compulsory measures requiring them to manage an estimated 5% of eligible arable land for environmental purposes.