Natural England
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Natural England’s response to the launch of the set-aside consultation announced by Hilary Benn

Following the set-aside consultation announced by Defra today (Wednesday 4 March), Natural England welcomed Defra’s recognition of the environmental importance of set-aside - especially its role in reversing the long-standing decline of some of our farmland birds such as the skylark, corn bunting and lapwing - and the commitment shown to recapturing these and other environmental benefits that it produced.

Natural England is committed to working with the industry to address the environmental damage associated with the ending of set-aside. And in such a way that retains the enthusiasm of farmers for agri-environment schemes.

The consultation provides a unique opportunity to explore options said Natural England, but it believes it will take more than a purely voluntary approach for these to be delivered.

The consultation compares two key approaches - a solely voluntary approach (labelled Option B) and an approach which would mean that farmers would have to keep a minimum area of their land under environmental management as a condition attached to their Single Farm Payment (labelled Option A). The latter approach was recommended by Sir Don Curry in his report to the Environment Secretary in July 2008. Natural England was asked to work up this second approach by the Secretary of State in July 2008.

Dr Helen Phillips, Chief Executive of Natural England, said: “We want to ensure that we don’t lose the important environmental benefits previously provided by set-aside. We believe the entirely voluntary approach proposed in this consultation will not deliver the scale or reach that is needed.

“Natural England believes an approach that links environment land management to the Single Farm Payment with the additional incentive of Environmental Stewardship presents a more reliable and timely solution. Defra will explore the voluntary approach before committing to any changes to cross compliance and we welcome the clear statement that this route will only be chosen if Defra can be sure that it will deliver.”

Helen Phillips continued: “We have worked with the industry to develop the evidence on the benefits and to explore options for restoring these since October 2007. It is vital that a reliable and workable solution is found for the industry and for the environment.

“As part of our work to help create the best possible approach we will be working with Defra and farming groups to devise a set of standards against which the current alternative approaches proposed in the consultation would be judged. Continuing to work side by side with land managers is the only way we can achieve an acceptable approach that will deliver a high quality natural environment from which everyone can benefit.”

Background briefing

Defra’s consultation is looking at a range of possible changes to the cross compliance Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) standards in England, the most significant of which are the proposals to restore the environmental benefits of set-aside. Under the heading of mitigating for the environmental loss of set-aside, the consultation compares two key approaches - a combined mandatory and incentive-based approach, and a solely voluntary approach - with a view to making an announcement in the summer.

The evidence indicates that the environmental impact resulting from the ending of set-aside is very significant. The amount of uncropped land in England outside agri-environment schemes has fallen by nearly two thirds since set-aside was ended, and is now at its lowest level since 1992. The task of providing adequate mitigation for environmental loss on this scale is enormous.

  • The consultation document stresses that Defra would need to be confident that the voluntary approach could effectively restore the environmental benefits that were associated with set-aside before it could be regarded as the preferred approach. It must, for example, meet the immediate feeding and nesting needs of farmland birds and other species and protect watercourses from the impacts of soil pollution.

  • Natural England believes that solely voluntary action is unlikely, on its own, to generate additional environmental management on a sufficient scale and over a sufficiently wide area to effectively restore the environmental contributions made by set-aside. As Don Curry’s report from the High Level Set-aside Group in April 2008 confirmed, it is “unlikely that relying on an incentive-based approach alone will be sufficient to ensure the level of environmental protection required. ... Nor is there any guarantee of overall uptake or geographical distribution of the ‘right’ in field management options”.

  • Natural England is also concerned that voluntary action alone could take years to make an impact, whereas the combined mandatory and incentive based approach could be in place during 2010. The issue of timing is particularly important given that it has already been two years since set-aside was effectively ended. We expect a further decline in the farmland bird index following the reduction in the area of un-cropped land and any delays will lead to a lower starting point from which to achieve a recovery, making the job of restoring farmland bird populations much harder.

  • It remains Natural England’s view that the combined mandatory and incentive-based approach, as described in the consultation document, provides the best chance of reducing the environmental impacts of the loss of set-aside and provides a baseline from which we can build further progress. Under the scheme, the larger arable farmers would be required to have a minimum area of their land under environmental management as a condition attached to their Single Farm Payment. The approach has been designed specifically to guarantee the area and distribution of environmental management to ensure that the loss of set-aside and its impact on declining farmlands birds will be addressed sufficiently and will be in place by the end of 2010. It will use new top-up options under the current Environmental Stewardship scheme to incentivise the best possible standard of management. Natural England is convinced that the cross-compliance element is needed to underpin voluntary action, and is convinced that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Notes for editors:

1. Natural England is the government’s advisor on the natural environment. We provide practical advice, grounded in science, on how best to safeguard England’s natural wealth for the benefit of everyone. Our remit is to ensure sustainable stewardship of the land and sea so that people and nature can thrive. It is our responsibility to see that England’s rich natural environment can adapt and survive intact for future generations to enjoy. We work with farmers and land managers; business and industry; planners and developers; national, regional and local government; interest groups and local communities to help them improve their local environment.

For further information contact:
The National Press Office on 0845 603 9953, press@naturalengland.org.uk, out of hours 07970 098005.

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