Orchids wilt in farmer's field of flax

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Environmentalists protested yesterday against a "crazy" European Union law which has allowed the destruction of a Site of Special Scientific Interest harbouring 15 types of orchid and the endangered Blue Adonis butterfly.

The 40-acre site on the Clayton to Offham escarpment on the South Downs near Lewes, Sussex, has been ploughed by a local farmer, Justin Harmer, to grow flax.

Despite the area being designated as an SSSI, no group has the power to stop it being farmed. In what is becoming known as the "flax loophole", flax subsidies can be granted under EU law on any land that is suitable to grow it, even protected nature reserves.

Mr Harmer, who farms 650 acres, says he can earn pounds 333 an acre by growing flax compared with the pounds 14 he would receive under the Government's environmentally sensitive area scheme.

Environmental campaigners from Friends of the Earth staged a peaceful protest yesterday as they awaited a decision by John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, on whether to grant a Nature Conservation Order preventing any more land from being ploughed.

An FoE spokesman, Matt Phillips, said: "It is a complete tragedy for the area ... no one is doing anything about it. This is all down to government policy and the common agriculture policy. It is absolute desecration of the South Downs."

Mr Harmer said that al- though he had not seen any orchids on the grassland that he had ploughed, he would not be ploughing any more of the land.

"We wrote to English Nature last June telling them we were going to do this and I only heard from them yesterday when we had finished ploughing," he said.

"It is a Site of Special Scientific interest and I agree that it is crazy, but English Nature needs to bring its subsidies in line with the EU if they are going to stop this happening. It is just a matter of economics."