Monday, 6 August 2007

Countryside boon for birds to be set-aside

Uncropped farmland has proved a major boon for many birds, including numerous declining species, but it could soon be cultivated for food and fuel instead.

The EU is about to abandon its 1992 ‘set-aside’ requirement, where a portion of a farm’s land had to be left fallow to reduce grain mountains. Farmers will retain their set-aside fee and the RSPB is proposing that the wildlife benefits of set-aside be reproduced by creating smaller, managed areas of fallow land. Discussions will now determine whether farmland birds in England are helped in other ways when set-aside disappears.

Gareth Morgan, Head of Agriculture Policy at the RSPB, said: “This is a crucial time for farmland birds, especially species in decline. Many of them have benefited from set-aside because of the plants and insects it has come to harbour.

“Set-aside is now an anomaly but it should not be abandoned without replacement measures put in place first. Annual set-aside payments to English farmers exceed £100 million and this could be put to better use.

“Most effective would be better funding for the green farming schemes the government is already running. But that can’t happen before next year at the earliest and we need some way of bridging the gap now to stop bird numbers plummeting back down again.”

The RSPB is proposing that strips of land next to hedges or watercourses be left uncropped, or that farmers leave whole fields uncultivated as part of their crop rotation. These areas would be much smaller than current set-aside requirements but be managed specifically for wildlife.

Gareth Morgan said: “In the long term, more money is essential if more farmers are to join green farming schemes. That is the only way the government will achieve its 2020 target for raising farmland bird numbers.

“This hasty plan to abolish set-aside is a salutary reminder that the environment should be at the heart of next year’s review of the Common Agricultural Policy, not an afterthought.”

Photo: Skylark by Steve Young (