Jane has asked for my opinions on set-aside. So here goes, not, I’m afraid, a terribly sexy subject!

Set-aside was originally put in place in the early nineties as a production control measure to take around 10% of arable land out of cropping; it was not an environmental scheme. I can remember the huge outcry from the farming community as some of England’s good arable land lay fallow. Apart from letting the land revert there were specific things you could and could not do to manage the land; these requirements changed over the years. Back at the beginning, for example, you could grow fodder legumes (lucerne, vetches and clovers) and graze at certain times with goats, camilids and horses (hence the exorbitant prices alpacas and lamas commanded back then and the start of the huge surge into horsiculture). These things stick in my mind as I was running a milking herd of goats that benefited from a neighbour’s lucerne hay and some herb-rich grazing. There was some talk of environmental opportunities missed, but the increases is farmland birds and rare arable plants that followed was incidental, not a planned benefit.

After the 2007 harvest set-aside was put at a zero rate – no land has to be setaside just now. The rate will be reviewed again this spring, and there is some expectation that set-aside will be abolished altogether. Last autumn Hilary Benn issued a challenge to farmers and growers to continue to deliver their environmental responsibilities and ensure that wildlife does not suffer as a result of set-aside no longer being required. There are no new regulations to protect the environmental benefits that set-aside delivered, only advice, and most farmers have decided to plough to maximize profits, so making the most of the high grain prices after a run of lean years.

What do I think? I feel that some way should be found so that the wildlife gains are retained, but as a farmer in sticky times I well understand the desire of arable farmers and growers to ‘hit while the iron’s hot’. Again it comes back to same old adage – who’s willing to pay? Should the farmer sacrifice profit in order to keep the wildlife or should the tax payer shell out for the good of landscape and environment? Can there be a compromise?

Jane also asked me whether any grants are available to help farmers look after wildlife. The good news is that all farmers have the option to enter into what are called Environmental Stewardship agreements with the Government, under which they can receive grant aid for managing their land for wildlife. In this scheme farmers can opt to do things, like leaving stubbles overwinter or creating herb-rich field margins, which mimic the benefits of set-aside. Indeed, it should be possible to deliver the same amount of wildlife on a much smaller area of land. There are two types of agreements, the Entry Level Scheme (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship(HLS). And yes, there is money available for hedge laying, planting and coppicing in HLS agreements, though obtaining one of these agreements is difficult as they are highly competitive. In the more common ELS agreements there is an incentive for less frequent and later hedge trimming.

Well, I hope I haven’t bored the pants off you and managed to make things a little clearer!