As an arable farmer, I am completely unused to this sudden surge in popularity. For the first eight years of my farming career
I was a much-vilified contributor to those dreadful grain mountains, soaking every acre of countryside with chemical in my quest to squeeze more unwanted grain into Europe’s bursting intervention stores. In 1992, set-aside was introduced. It was a pure and simple production control measure designed to cut down those surpluses. I then became one of those lazy farmers being paid huge subsidy cheques to leave land idle. The taxpayer was paying me not to farm.
That’s why the general public hated set-aside. Farmers did, too. We hate leaving land unused when there are staff and machines waiting for work. And in the early days, some daft rules on its management spelled a very unpleasant death for much of the fauna that inevitably made its way into the temporarily untouched farmland.
But over the years set-aside has grown in popularity. Farmers with low staff levels can use it to clean up fields ready for autumn sowing. Farmers with high numbers of staff can grow industrial crops on it. “But it’s set-aside!” has become the standard response from walkers who stray from the right of way. And the balloonists have built a huge and lucrative industry using set-aside for their uninvited and unwelcome arrivals.
As the management rules changed, wildlife grew to love it, too. Gone is “slaughter by mowing”. These days it tends to be a dose of non-selective herbicide to kill the weeds in the early summer, and then cultivation in July. How the wildlife has loved it – and how those who loved wildlife loved set-aside.
It’s easy to gauge how popular it has become with wildlife organisations by asking them about the news that the set-aside rate for 2007/08 will be nought per cent. “Total dismay,” says Dr Stephen Tapper at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (G&WCT); “Europe’s wildlife will be much the poorer,” proclaims Dr Mark Avery at the RSPB. For these organisations to be in such agreement, this must be news of some significance.
It’s all down to world stocks of corn, at their lowest for 30 years. India and China are upping their meat consumption and need the wheat to feed the beasts. The weather is playing havoc with the world ability to grow corn; Australia, still in severe drought, looks like being an importer for only the second time in its history. The story is the same closer to home; my harvest was down by 35 per cent.
The final blow to EU supplies came from the Commission itself, which cleaned out the intervention stores in anticipation of a bumper harvest this year. So perhaps it’s understandable that in some haste to undo such a catastrophic piece of management, the Commission has “abolished” set-aside.
It may be understandable but Dr Avery is livid. “We agreed that set-aside would have to go, but it’s too sudden. We were assured by government ministers that set-aside’s environmental benefits would be considered and replaced. Our only hope is the CAP “health check” in 18 months’ time, which will look at the ill effects that this decision will have on wildlife.”
Once again, Dr Tapper tells an identical story. “All that good work done to and by set-aside will be undone. We were hoping for a phasing out, not straight to nought per cent with nothing to mitigate the loss. Hilary Benn has promised us that he will ‘keep a watching brief’ over its impact on wildlife.” (This is the Hilary Benn who, as a vegetarian ‘on moral grounds’, is supposed to be charged with saving the livestock industry.)
Who will provide refuge for the nation’s wildlife, a bulwark against the reindustrialisation of arable agriculture that threatens to engulf the countryside? I nominate the shooting industry for this task. After all, Dr Avery’s solution to the set-aside crisis is simple: “We need to put in place small areas of ground, highly managed for wildlife, and specifically for groundnesting birds.” Dr Tapper is more specific. “In the long term we would like to see a system whereby one per cent of cropped area is put down as ‘conservation set-aside’. It should be in one-hectare blocks, with a choice of management systems from natural regeneration to properly managed wild bird cover crops.” Both seem to be describing the integral part of a game-shoot. The G&WCT additionally suggests paying farmers £500/ha for these strips.
The shooting industry – like farming – has lived too long with its head down, afraid to blow its own trumpet. Here is an opportunity to make a huge noise. If there’s one thing farmers love more than £180/ton for wheat, it’s game-shooting. And it’s this love that will keep game strips, cover crops, beetle banks and spinneys as features of the arable countryside. The conservation value of these features, and therefore shooting itself, should be broadcast far and wide. Strange to say, I can see game-shooting joining arable farming in an unusual but justified position: an occupation held in high esteem.