Threatened wild flowers saved by EC's arable farm policy: Rare species are returning as fields are taken out of production to reduce crop surpluses. Bob Richley and Nicholas Schoon report

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The Independent Online
SOME of Britain's rarest wild flowers are likely to make a return thanks to the EC set-aside regime in which 15 per cent of arable land has been taken out of production.

Shepherd's needle, pheasant's eye, corn gromwell, corn cockle, spreading hedge parsley and corn mouse tail are among the rarities which respond well to the new conditions. They were once common in and around cereal fields and were even regarded as weeds, but were swept to near-extinction by the intensification of agriculture after the Second World War. Their small, pale flowers are hardly seen. These plants cannot compete with well-fertilised and fast-growing cereal crops and are killed off by herbicides, which arable farmers have come to rely upon. Nor, however, do they flourish in semi-natural or wild habitats where nature is left to its own devices. They need farmland which is lightly tilled and cut once a year.

Research by the Game Conservancy Council on using reduced herbicides on crops to benefit game birds found that 19 endangered plant species were reappearing on six fields in Wiltshire, Hampshire, and East Anglia. Their seeds survived years of dormancy underground or came from a few plants surviving in strongholds.

Dr Nick Sotherton, lowland research manager with the Game Conservancy Council, says these flowers will thrive even better under the new rotational set-aside regime, in which farmers are compensated for taking land out of production in an attempt to end crop surpluses. The seeds get their chance to germinate and grow once the previous cereal crop is harvested and the dosing with herbicides and fertiliser stops.

EC agriculture ministers meet in Brussels today to try to decide how much land should be used for rotational set-aside - in which a field is taken out of production for just one year before being replanted - and how much should be set aside for several years, or even permanently. Conservation and environmental groups have argued that many of the huge potential gains for wildlife have been lost under the rotational set-aside regime - the only one on offer for cereal farmers this year. A longer period would allow a greater diversity of wildlife to develop.

The ultimate set-aside is a wood, and Britain is seeking a forestry option. The EC proposes that farmers should have a choice of putting 15 per cent of their arable land into rotational set-aside or 18 per cent into a longer period of set-aside. Britain wants farmers to have the option of putting a greater proportion of their land into long-term set-aside.

The Game Conservancy Council says the rotational scheme can benefit ground nesting birds as well as rare flowers that will not be helped by longer-term set-aside. But Richard Knight, of the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, says: 'Non- rotational is better because it gives flora and fauna a chance to get well- established.' The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds sees virtue in both regimes. Rotational set- aside produces winter stubble where birds can feed on spilt grain and weed seeds. Longer-term set- aside encourages populations of small mammals, which owls and kestrels live off.

English Nature, the Government's own conservation arm, points out that long-term set-aside can favour the rare arable flowers provided there is an obligation on the farmer to cut back weeds regularly and till the soil.