ARCHIVE: Set-aside and Environmental Benefits

4. Environmental Considerations

Introduction

In the second half of the century, the UK had increased its agricultural self-sufficiency from 30% to 80%, but with a loss of around a quarter of its semi-natural ecosystems (Green et al, 1989). Set-aside offers a major environmental opportunity.

Environmental designations such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) seek to give environmental protection to small but environmentally important areas, often on farmland. Farmers in the USA have proved that the conversion of abandoned farmland into a rich ecosystem is possible; Shendoah National Park, the most popular in the USA was created entirely from such land (Green et al, 1989).

In order to optimise environmental benefits, set-aside land must be treated as an integral part of the farming system. In the shorter term set-aside natural regeneration can provide resources for birds such as linnets, corn buntings, grey partridge, finches and game birds.

The reform of the CAP and production control measures have begun to encompass conservation concerns. A notable achievement is the increase in sparrowhawk numbers since the ban on organochlorine pesticides was introduced. However, habitats are still being destroyed and insect and predator populations are in decline (Firbank et al, 1994). Environmentally managed set-aside is unlikely to replace wildlife that has been lost but may help to increase populations locally through improvement of habitats.

The dramatic increases in invertebrate populations and diversity after set-aside are well documented (Warren, 1995), and this has a knock on effect e.g. the increase in Sawfly larvae providing a food source for young partridges. It has been found that mutualist bees are attracted to naturally regenerated plots, over sown fallow. It has also been found that the cutting of early successional set-aside fields leads to a doubling of bee density, and such cutting is envisaged to benefit invertebrates and plants in general.

Defra runs a grant scheme called the Countryside Stewardship Scheme that offers payment to farmers and land managers to conserve and protect English landscape, wildlife and history. Its aim is to introduce conservation into general farming practices. The Entry Level Scheme has also been recently introduced to encourage farmers to adopt environmental management for the benefit of wildlife.

Set-aside placed next to special environmental areas can act as a buffer to protect them from agrochemicals and in time, the set-aside will become colonised by species in the adjacent land. If set-aside is sited next to or used to link areas important to wildlife it can greatly contribute towards improving local biodiversity.

If part of your land is in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone or Nitrate Sensitive Area placing your set-aside in these areas will help reduce nitrate leaching.

Hedges are valuable habitats providing food and shelter to a wide range of species. However to maximise these benefits hedges require proper management.

If set-aside is adjacent to hedges, the land will allow easy access the hedges for trimming and other maintenance. Cut hedges to a variety of heights and shapes but no established hedge should be less that 1.5 metres high. See hedge management guidelines.

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