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Grants boost for 'green' farmers: Extra pounds 30m to help landscape and wildlife

MORE THAN one in ten of Britain's 280,000 farmers could soon be earning a substantial part of their living by conserving wildlife and landscapes, it emerged yesterday.

Gillian Shephard, Minister of Agriculture, disclosed a pounds 30m a year increase in funding for schemes which give English farmers state payments in return for 'green' farming practices. The package is part of the reforms of the Common Agriculture Policy to reduce surplus crops.

They will be able to earn money for converting intensively farmed fields back to wildife-rich habitats, using less fertiliser or none at all, and for improving access for ramblers.

The National Farmers' Union and wildlife and countryside lovers gave the package a cautious welcome, but had doubts about whether the money on offer was sufficient to lure farmers away from intensive agriculture.

Mrs Shephard revealed a near doubling of government spending on environmentally friendly agriculture to pounds 70m a year in England. This still has to be approved by the European Commission in Brussels and survive this autumn's public expenditure round. The Welsh Office announced similar measures yesterday.

The package includes six extra Environmentally Sensitive Areas (and two ESAs in Wales) where farmers are paid up to pounds 310 per hectare (2.4 acres) to conserve and enhance the landscape and wildlife habitats. The new areas are the Blackdown, Cotswold and Shropshire Hills, Dartmoor, part of the Essex coast and the land around the tributaries of the upper Thames; and in Wales the Clwydian Range and Preseli in Dyfed.

They will take the total number of ESAs to 22 and their area will then cover 10 per cent of England's farmland. A majority of farmers in the existing ESAs are receiving the payments in return for participating.

A new moorland scheme will pay compensation to hill farmers for reducing sheep flocks. Over-grazing is leading to the destruction of much of the country's heather moors.

Mrs Shephard also wants to pay farmers to set aside fields for 20 years in order to turn them into nature reserves. She wants them to recreate natural and semi-natural habitats such as coastal salt marshes, lowland heaths and water meadows.

A new grant scheme should increase the area of organically farmed land threefold, with payments of up to pounds 100 per hectare for farmers who abandon fertilisers and pesticides.

'Farmers who take positive action to conserve and enhance the rural environment over and above the requirements of good agricultural practice deserve extra reward and encouragement,' she said.

Andrew Clarke, the NFU's conservation adviser, said: 'It's difficult to say whether farmers will take up these payments - some are sufficient, some very likely are not. But we're in favour of the principle and this is a step in the right direction.'