Farmers angry over move to protect last 'wild' lands

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The Independent Online

Ministers are facing further anger from farmers over plans to introduce laws to stem the conversion of Britain's dwindling wild land to agriculture.

Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, is drafting plans to make farmers to carry out environmental impact assessments (EIAs) if they wish to cultivate wild or semi-wild land. Her department believes up to 1,000 farmers a year will be affected by the measures designed to protect archaeological sites and rare plants and animals. And farmers requiring EIAs could pay up to £15,000 for their assessments.

The law, bringing Britain into line with EU directives, is being resisted by farmers' leaders, who claim the proposals will add further financial costs and red tape to an industry already reeling from BSE, foot and mouth disease, and last winter's bad weather.

Andrew Clark, of the National Farmers' Union, called for the legislation to be as limited as possible, since Britain's rarest and most valuable environmental sites were already protected by law.

But environmentalists welcomed the proposals. Mark Southgate, adviser to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said the restrictions would be minimal and increase farmers' knowledge of the land.

Wild land is being lost in the UK at a rate of 10,000 hectares a year. Grasslands alone have been reduced by up to 18 per cent since 1991.