Farmers to be paid to help revive life on the riverbank: Wildlife 'set-aside' scheme will allow cultivated land alongside water to revert to its natural state. Oliver Gillie reports

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The Independent Online
Farmers will be paid to leave uncultivated strips of land beside certain lakes and rivers, and to establish salt marshes where sea defences can be realigned, under a new wildlife preservation scheme. Half the cost of the plan, pounds 3m a year, will be paid for by the European Union.

Under the scheme, agreed as part of the Common Agricultural Policy in 1992, landscape which has been altered by intensive cultivation right up to the water's edge will revert to a more pastoral appearance. Reed beds will grow where they have not been seen for years, willows and water lilies will multiply, and rivers will run with clearer water.

Brown trout, salmon and other fish will have better spawning conditions because the wild land beside the rivers will prevent fertilisers and pesticides running off into the water.

Fishing on rivers in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Wiltshire which enter the scheme can be expected to improve. Otters will have a better chance to breed, and water birds such as kingfishers, reed bunting and reed warblers will flourish in the uncultivated strips on the water margins.

The fishing rivers which will benefit from the scheme, if farmers take up the offer from the Ministry of Agriculture, include the Wylye and Nadder, chalk streams which run into the river Avon near Salisbury. The Wylye is already prized among anglers for its trout, while the Nadder can only improve with sensitive management.

Swanside Beck and Ings Beck in Lancashire, tributaries of the Ribble, are salmon and trout streams highly valued by anglers which may be improved under the new scheme. And in Yorkshire, tributaries of the Derwent and Rye in the Vale of Pickering - streams well known for their abundance of brown trout, grayling, dace, barbel and chubb - may also benefit.

Farmers will be encouraged to leave 20-metre wide strips of land uncultivated beside streams and lakes, and where appropriate whole meadows. This land will be allowed to regenerate naturally through a scrub stage eventually to woodland. Under their contracts, farmers will have to control the scrub so that trees get the best chance to flourish.

Agreements will be made for a 20-year period to allow time for the vegetation to mature. The farmers will be paid pounds 360 a year for each hectare of arable land they put into the scheme, slightly more than they would get from set-aside.

Other areas to be brought into the new scheme are some of the Shropshire meres - Fene Mere, Crose Mere, Berrington Pool and Betton Pool, near Shrewsbury - small lakes left behind at the end of the Ice Age. They are ancient wetlands which have a rich variety of vegetation and insect life.

The river Beult, which drains water from the Kentish Weald to the Medway is also being brought into the scheme, as is Slapton Ley, a large natural freshwater lake on the Devon coast.

Farmers will also be paid to create saltmarsh where this provides a cost-effective and sustainable defence against flooding. These new saltmarshes will provide feeding and roosting areas for wintering birds such as redshank and curlew.

(Photograph omitted)