Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
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Hilary Benn accepts Curry Group recommendations on Set Aside

Hilary Benn accepts Curry Group recommendations on Set Aside

DEPARTMENT FOR ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS News Release (Information Bulletin ref : 246/08) issued by The Government News Network on 25 July 2008

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn today announced plans to explore how the environmental benefits previously provided by set-aside can be developed.

Welcoming the latest report from Sir Don Curry's High Level Group on set aside and the environment, Mr Benn said that he accepted the Group's view that implementation in the 2008/09 year was not possible, but that there was a strong case for action, which needs to be implemented as soon as is practical.

He also agreed with the Group's preferred option that would require arable farmers to manage a small percentage of their land primarily for environmental purposes. The proposed requirement would not preclude arable production; instead Defra and its agencies would work with the industry by asking farmers to choose from a range of common practices such as permanent grass buffers, winter stubble, or reduced-input cereal crops. Farmers would also be encouraged to make the most of this land for wildlife through proposed new 'top-up' options within the Environmental Stewardship scheme.

The Secretary of State confirmed that the Group's preferred approach will require the Rural Payments Agency and Natural England to work up detailed implementation proposals, and Defra to successfully negotiate changes in the CAP 'Health Check'. The Health Check is not expected to conclude before late 2008. This means that implementation will not be possible until the 2009/10 cropping year.

A copy of Hilary Benn's letter to Sir Don Curry, which gives more detail, is available on the Defra website.

Notes to Editors

1. To view the Secretary of State's letter to Sir Don Curry and for further information on the recommendations visit: http://www.defra.gov.uk/farm/policy/sustain/deliverygroup/index.htm

2. A summary of the recommendations in Sir Don's report is as follows:

- It would not be practicable to introduce new cross compliance requirements nor new options in Environmental Stewardship (ES) to mitigate the loss of set-aside for the 2008/09 cropping year

- It is more important to take forward the right policy option on a realistic timescale

- Officials should work up the practical implementation details of the preferred option

- The group should re-double its efforts to actively promote responsible voluntary action by farmers

- The monitoring programme should be continued for the key aspects (covering farmers' cropping patterns and management of uncropped land; consequential impacts on the distribution and density of farmland birds; and peer review key pieces of completed research)

- The group should meet again at around the turn of the year

The five point plan presented by Sir Don Curry's High-Level Set Aside group in November recommends that farmers:

A. Assess the environmental value of permanent set-aside land Set-aside that serves an important environmental function includes that which buffers watercourses, protects soils on slopes at risk of erosion, protects underlying historic features, or has a diversity or abundance of flowering plants.

B. Provide seed food for birds through the winter. Over-winter stubbles are very important seed food sources for birds. This is why rotational set-aside was so important. The British Trust for Ornithology found that, over two winters, 7% of farmland was stubble, but this supported over 50% of seed-eating birds.

C. Provide insect-rich habitats and nesting sites for birds through the summer.

Two hectares of insect-rich habitat per 100ha of arable farmland is a realistic target to aim for, given that this can include cross-compliance margins, buffer strips and ditch banks.

D. Protect soil and water from erosion and run-off on banks, margins and steep slopes.

Protecting soil and water from erosion and run-off can be delivered through properly located uncultivated areas next to watercourses, on steep slopes, valley bottoms, through erosion gullies or anywhere else where there is evidence of soil erosion

E. Find out more about helping scarce species and protecting the environment on farms.

This should mitigate the impacts of the removal of the requirement to manage any land as set-aside in 2008 for the general conservation of widespread farmland birds and protection of environmental resources, but there may be specific wildlife or environmental features on your farm, which would benefit from more specific conservation measures

3. The High Level Group on Set Aside chaired by Sir Don Curry was established in October 2007 at the Secretary of State's request, to monitor the impact of and reaction to the decision to set a 0% rate of set-aside for 2008.

4. Agri-environment schemes, such as Environmental Stewardship in England (ES), provide incentives to farmers to deliver environmental benefits on farmland.. Visit the Defra website on http://www.defra.gov.uk/erdp/schemes/ for more information on ES..

5. The RSPB and University of Hertfordshire have produced a software programme that explains how farmers can meet the objectives of the agri-environment schemes. The programme is available to download from http://www.herts.ac.uk/aeru/ema/els/ or by requesting a 'Planning your ELS application' CD from the RSPB Hotline number on 01767 693690.

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