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Green groups clash with farmers over fallow land.

Byline: By Ben Goldby

Farming and environmental groups have clashed over plans to use land which could be worth millions of pounds to Midland farmers. The National Farmers' Union claims 'set aside' areas are redundant and could be used to create crucial revenue for arable farmers struggling to keep afloat following the recent floods.

But conservationists from the RSPB said the land was vital for small farmland birds and a return to ploughing and crop planting could be "disastrous" for dozens of species.

Set aside was introduced by the EU in 1992 to control the amount of cereals on the market. The system meant farmers had to leave certain areas fallow to stabilise the price of crops.

In 2005 the EU changed the basis of the support payments, allowing farmers to choose what they grew and who it was sold to.

Andrew Richards, senior Midlands policy adviser for the NFU, said: "There is no rationale for set aside to be kept in place since the changes in 2005.

"It became redundant and is looked upon, wrongly in our view, as a means to create havens for the conservation of wildlife.

"That works only where the land is left to grow permanently to allow hedges and long grass to thrive, but when we have set aside areas that are there for only one year the environmental benefit in open fields is practically zero.

"If we consider the set aside policy against this year's situation with the disastrous floods and crop yields down by a third in some areas, then we can see that it will exacerbate the problem.

"We are very keen to see the situation resolved and hope the EU will agree to a zero per cent requirement for set aside this year; with a view to getting rid of it all together next year."

Farmers could cash in on any extension to the amount of land they are allowed to plant on. The NFU estimates that just one acre of wheat crops could be worth pounds 390 in the current market.

"Set aside land means we are talking about millions of pounds across the region of lost production for no reason," Mr Richards said. But the RSPB warned that some of the country's best-loved birds could see their numbers drop severely.

A spokeswoman said set aside had been "vital" in halting the fall in bird numbers, which began as long ago as 1945. She said the organisation feared an end to set aside land could see the numbers of small farmland birds in the Midlands fall by as much as five per cent.

"Set aside has turned out to be very good for birds and provided food and shelter for dozens of species, particularly in the winter," she said.

"Lapwings and skylarks have benefited. Skylarks nesting in set asides have found them vital for survival.

"The stone-curlew is another example. It is a species that declined as quickly as any other bird after the Second World War so the Government set targets for preserving its population and they were hit in 2005, mostly thanks to set aside land.

"There are significant communities of small farmland birds across the Midlands. The grey partridge has thrived on set asides and it would be terrible for their numbers if they lose those areas. We think that Midland bird populations as a whole would crash if set asides go. They would drop in numbers by another five per cent. It could be disastrous as bird populations are just stumbling along as it is. It would be a massive setback."

The RSPB is now putting pressure on the Government to allow some land for conservation if and when the set aside system is abandoned.

"What we want is for them to provide some way of keeping the environmental benefit of the land before it goes completely," the spokeswoman said.

We think that Midland bird populations as a whole would crash if set asides go. They would drop in numbers by another five per cent

RSPB spokeswoman

ben goldby@mrn.co.uk

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The National Farmers Union is hoping the EU will agree to a zero per cent requirement for set aside this year; Lapwings, skylarks and stone-curlew have all benefited from set aside, says the RSPB
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 23, 2007
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