Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Farmers asked to lead the way to protect environment

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Farmers will be asked to come up with innovative ways of preserving the environmental benefits of set-aside, Environment Secretary Hilary Benn announced today. Speaking at the NFU Conference in Birmingham, Mr Benn said that he was prepared to consider a voluntary approach alongside a combined mandatory and incentive based option when making a final decision on a scheme to replace set-aside, which was abolished in the EU in 2008.

Under set-aside, farmers were previously required to take a proportion of their land out of production to reduce the EU's infamous 'food mountains'. The UK supported the removal of set-aside while leading the way in Europe to ensure that the environmental benefits of set-aside were recaptured, for example, by requiring uncropped land to be used as buffer strips around fields to prevent nitrates from fertilisers running off into ditches and streams.

Mr Benn said:

'I'm very proud of what British farming does for our country. Farmers care for the environment out of their respect for the land. We're working together to see how we can best retain the environmental benefits of set-aside, while settling on a better approach for farmers.

'The way in which you farm does deliver important environmental benefits, and over time these benefits will be vital to maintaining levels of production. Indeed, over 70 per cent of the farmers we surveyed recently said there were benefits to leaving land uncropped. Over 60 per cent felt that farmland birds benefitted the most.'

'I welcome the idea of a voluntary scheme, led by the industry, if we can be sure that it will deliver. This would be real partnership and we will stand ready to help.'

A group of experts led by Sir Don Curry was asked last year to investigate what steps might be taken to retain the environmental benefits of set-aside. The group decided that the goals of any scheme should be to revive the numbers of farmland birds, improve biodiversity and protect natural resources.

The Government intends to consult on both a combined mandatory and incentive based approach and a solely voluntary approach in the spring, with a view to making announcement in the summer.

Mr Benn added:

'We all want a strong, productive, competitive and sustainable industry. Sometimes we may have different views about the means of achieving it, but that's when partnership is even more important. We're most effective when we work together.'

Mr Benn also praised the resilience of Britain's agricultural sector during the economic downturn and outlined a new push to ensure the sector remained strong by investing in skills.

'It has been a stormy 12 months, but British agriculture has shown its strength and its resilience.

'And as we look to the future, we need to get the farmers of tomorrow interested and involved with the industry, and to help today's farmers who want new skills to deal with new technologies like anaerobic digestion and meet new challenges like climate change.

'I will be convening an industry round table, bringing in colleagues from across the farming industry, agricultural colleges and elsewhere to overcome these problems and to inject some real urgency into our efforts to make sure that people in the industry have what they need to do their jobs even better in future.'

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