Vast areas of agricultural land should be replaced with new housing to improve rural biodiversity, English Nature said yesterday.
The recommendation was a surprise, coming from a body not known for wanting to cover the countryside in concrete.
A benefit of the policy would be the return of species such as the song thrush and skylark, and butterflies unable to survive in the huge arable fields in place across the countryside.
Dr Keith Porter, environmental information manager for English Nature, the organisation appointed by the Government with responsibility for maintaining English biodiversity, told the British Association at Salford that the amount of land used by farmers was disproportionate to the income it generated.
"Currently 76 per cent of our land is tied to an agricultural industry that produces only 1 per cent of our gross domestic product," he said. The relative value of the countryside for farming and for non-farming activities was graphically demonstrated by the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, when farmers lost an estimated £6.5bn - but tourism lost £14bn. Instead, said Dr Porter, different applications should be found.
"New types of land use, be they housing developments, flood prevention ... or tourist developments could present opportunities for creating new wildlife habitats," he said.
These options would encourage insect, plant and animal species, which were at present killed off by farming methods, said Dr Porter.
The suggestion was made as John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, is due to announce more housing for "greenfield" sites - especially in the South-east - to meet the forecast demand for thousands more homes.
The National Farmers' Union said that the idea was misplaced. "Although the value of [farm] goods ... may not be much compared to total GDP, it contributes to the food industry, which is worth £14bn," a spokesman said. "And you have to look at the vital role that farming plays in rural communities, providing jobs and keeping communities going."
Dr Porter said that his suggestions would meet significant opposition from rural areas, as well as farmers unwilling to give up their land for new developments.
The replacement of huge open tracts of arable and other farmland with smaller houses and gardens - but big by city standards - would encourage biodiversity, Dr Porter explained.
He suggested that it could prompt more rural wildlife. "Emotive arguments about concreting over the countryside and destroying our natural environment cannot apply to all the areas being considered," he said. "The opportunity lies in how development is planned."
But the NFU said: "If you stopped farming then the fields would turn to scrub, and that would wreck biodiversity. It's farming that creates these diverse habitats."
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