NEWS: Set-aside to be replaced by a voluntary conservation scheme

Mark Rowe reports on a government decision that will divide farmers and conservation groups

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The government has delighted farmers but shocked wildlife groups by deciding to introduce a voluntary conservation scheme to replace set-aside. Defra says “a ground-breaking agreement” between the farming industry and government will enable farmers to implement a conservation approach that will provide vital habitat for the UK’s hard-pressed wildlife.
But the decision has once again exposed the fault lines between farmers, who argue that they are best positioned and committed to implement good environmental practices, and conservation groups, which distrust the industry and argue that farming’s need to make a profit will always compromise wildlife and habitat management.
Set-aside was abolished two years ago by European law, but little thought was given to the environmental impact of scrapping a system that encouraged farmers to leave land uncultivated. In the UK, the government, recognising that set-aside had become a haven for birds, butterflies and insects that were suffering from loss of habitat elsewhere, sought to reintroduce a new scheme that encouraged farmers to leave land fallow and support wildlife. Defra said it would listen to arguments from all interested parties as to whether this scheme should be voluntary or compulsory.
The plan was first reported in the spring edition of Countryfile Magazine. At that time, while all options remained open, many conservation groups were reasonably confident that a compulsory scheme would be implemented. Now, though, Defra has recommended a voluntary code for farmers, the key provision of which is an undertaking by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) to double the number of Entry Level Stewardship schemes, which provide incentives to farmers by paying them for conservation practices that benefit wildlife, such as growing hedgerows and leaving wide field margins.
The plan was announced at the Royal Show by Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, who said: “I look forward to seeing farmers responding to this challenge and to farmland bird numbers recovering, so that we don’t have to consider a regulatory approach in the future.”
The NFU welcomed the move. Farmers had strongly argued that a mandatory scheme would be restrictive and bureaucratic, while a voluntary scheme would encourage creative measures and enable farmers to still utilise most of their farmland. “The campaign is ambitious and provides a long-term method of working collectively on environmental issues with the farming community,” said Peter Kendall, president of the NFU. “We are absolutely determined to make it succeed. ”
The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) will also play a key role in the scheme. Its president, Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, descrobed the voluntary scheme, as an opportunity to “demonstrate what farmers and land managers already do for the environment.”
However, the news has been greeted with dismay by some conservation groups. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said it questioned whether farmers would be willing to take on the responsibility for wildlife management the new regime will confer on them. “We hope that the voluntary approach will live up to its promises, and we will be watching to ensure that it does. It will be vital that all farmers step up to the plate and play their part in making it a success,” said Ian Woodhurst, CPRE’s senior farming campaigner. “If they do not, the prospects for developing voluntary approaches to meet the environmental challenges we will need to face in the future will be seriously undermined.”
The CPRE is concerned that concerned that some farmers may opt to only manage the bare minimum of their land, leaving it up to others to undertake more of the environmental actions that are needed. “The voluntary approach is risky,” said Mr Woodhurst. “If grain prices rise again, as they did recently, the temptation to take land out of environmental management and put as much of it into production as possible could be irresistible for those farmers who choose to put profit before the environment.
“If that were to happen, and the voluntary approach failed to work, it could be difficult to restore the environmental benefits that set-aside has provided over the last two decades.”
The RSPB has long supported what it describes as the “huge positive effects” of set-aside and believes its abolition would only accelerate the decline in farmland birds. The organisation had emphatically argued for a mandatory scheme, and RSPB chairman Graham Wynne gave the proposal a muted response, saying “The countryside needs this to work. We will help by providing advice and training on what farmland birds need.”
The Wildlife Trusts also believes a voluntary scheme will not work. “We’ll keep a close watch on the scheme as it develops and would like to see a firmer commitment to the fallback option should the voluntary scheme fail to meet its objectives around farmland birds, wildlife and water quality,” said John Cousins, head of agricultural policy for The Wildlife Trusts.