26 Sep 2007 05:02 PM
Hilary Benn announces action to monitor impact of EU agriculture council's decision on 0% set aside rate for 2008

DEPARTMENT FOR ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS News Release (327/07) issued by The Government News Network on 26 September 2007

Secretary of State for Defra, Hilary Benn today announced an immediate programme of environmental monitoring of farmland following the EU Agriculture Council's decision to set a 0% rate of set-aside for 2008.

Mr Benn said that monitoring will be established under Defra's Agricultural Change and Environment Observatory (ACEO) to assess what happens on the ground in the next few months and to provide a firmer basis for future action. If there is evidence of significant environmental impact - including on the bird population - as a result of the zero percent rate of set aside in 2008, then the Government will look at what action to take.

In anticipation of the Council agreement, as announced on 1 August 2007, Defra has been working very closely with its statutory advisers - Natural England and the Environment Agency - to assess the scale and nature of the likely environmental impact of this change in England and options for addressing it. There have also been discussions with farming organisations and environmental and conservation stakeholders.

Defra's analysis suggests that up to 200,000 hectares of arable land in England are likely to remain uncropped and that land in longer term set-aside and many of the more environmentally valuable areas are unlikely to be brought back into production at short notice.

Hilary Benn said;

"I share the concerns which Natural England, the Environment Agency, and environmental and conservation groups including the RSPB have raised about the possible consequences if there is a substantial return to cropping of set-aside land in the short term and if that were to continue or increase in the longer term.

"I welcome the assurances given by the Presidents of the National Farmers Union and Country Land and Business Association that the farming industry as a whole is committed to shouldering its full environmental responsibilities in relation to all the land that it manages, including land that has been in set-aside up to now.

"I want the farming industry to be in no doubt that I am looking for them to demonstrate that they can deliver on this assurance. We are committed to monitoring this situation closely, and if significant environmental impact does occur, then I am ready to make an early announcement about the action to be taken."

"To help oversee the monitoring, I am asking Sir Don Curry, in his role as chairman of the Sustainable Farming and Food Strategy (SFFS) Delivery Group, to bring together the leaders of NE, EA, NFU, CLA, and RSPB and others. I am also asking the Chairs of the SFFS Regional Steering Groups to establish regional liaison arrangements involving farming and environmental groups".

All agricultural land including uncropped land is protected from environmental damage by the existing cross compliance rules. Where farmers were enhancing set-aside by cultivating small plots to provide lapwing or stone curlew nesting sites, The Rural Payments Agency will be arranging for these exemptions to continue as simply as possible under cross compliance. In addition Defra has asked Natural England to target advisory support so that we help farmers enhance the environmental return from land not in production.

Mr Benn also announced that Ministers have made clear to the European Commission - in correspondence and at today's Agriculture Council meeting the importance of finding ways to preserve the environmental benefits of set-aside if it is abolished as part of the Common Agricultural Policy Healthcheck, a move which the UK has long advocated to reduce unnecessary production controls.

Mr Benn continued;

"I very much welcome the assurances given by Commissioner Fischer Boel to that effect when she made the 0% proposal to Council for 2008. She also took the opportunity to remind farmers that a 0% rate for 2008 still allows farmers to continue with leave land uncropped and to participate in environmental schemes, both of which I also hope they will consider carefully."

Defra will also be looking at how the Entry Level (ELS) strand of Environmental Stewardship can help to mitigate any environmental impact, as part of the current review of scheme progress and our preparations for the CAP Healthcheck.

Notes to Editors

1. As a result of the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council decision, farmers with set-aside 'entitlements' will not be required to take land out of production in order to receive a payment under the 2008 Single Payment Scheme.

2. The monitoring exercise will be conducted through Defra's Agricultural Change and Environment Observatory (ACEO) which has an existing programme of work examining the impact of CAP reform. This will to tell us more about farmers' cropping patterns this autumn and their plans for spring 2008. Planned surveys which will be used in this way include the December Survey of Agriculture, the Farm Business Survey, and the Farm Practices Survey. We will also be considering evidence, both quantitative and qualitative, provided from within Defra, by Natural England and the Environment Agency, and by external environmental and conservation stakeholders including the RSPB. We will also consider as part of the Observatory's work a detailed field and interview survey to establish how uncropped land is managed and how this relates to its ecological value. NE and EA are full participants in the Observatory, and contribute to it financially. In addition, we will be inviting farming and environmental organisations to work with us on this monitoring exercise. This will help to draw on their expertise and to further develop a shared understanding of the scale and nature of the issue.

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