Country Matters: Set-aside? It's a waste of space

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The Independent Online
YOU will not easily find anybody round here with a good word to say about agricultural set-aside, the policy under which the Government pays farmers to take land out of production in the hope of reducing surpluses. In the six years since set-aside was introduced, I have never met anybody who thought it was the right solution to a problem whose existence everybody admits.

Villagers loathe set-aside for having helped to put them out of work. If a farmer with 1,000 acres can pick up pounds 18,600 in cash for letting 150 acres lie idle, he will need fewer hands, if any, to work the remaining 850. Ornithologists, entomologists and wild-flower lovers have despaired over set-aside because the rules require the farmer to mow or spray the uncultivated land every year in late spring, killing the life newly-

growing there, including the nests of larks, pheasants and hosts of warblers and goldcrests. The reduction in number of English songbirds, reckoned in some groups and types to be as much as 60 per cent in recent years, has been blamed on many possible causes; but the mowing and spraying of set-aside land may well be one of them.

Farmers themselves abhor set-aside. If they are going to make any money out of the land on their farms not set-

aside, they must 'flog it to death'. They are doing so very productively. Agricultural production as a whole in countries implementing set-

aside has continued to grow at about 1 per cent a year even after 10, 15 or 20 per cent of land has been taken out of production. The policy has failed, without qualification.

My own feelings about the vagaries and vicissitudes of set-aside policy are exceptionally poisonous because it cost me at least pounds 40,000 three years ago. The field bordering my garden which had been set aside in 1989, was sub-let for pig rearing in 1991, just as I was beginning to try to sell the house into a rapidly declining market. Potential purchasers might have liked to live beside an uncultivated meadow, filled with wayside and woodland blossoms. A field of dusty bare earth filled with hundreds of snuffling and honking pigs did not appeal to them. Did the farmer apologise for having ruined the value of my property? Did he care? Like hell, he did. Farmers consider nobody's investment in the countryside to be as important as their own right to profit from it.

Last week, however, I think I spotted the ideal parcel of land to be set aside, a perfect use for an imperfect policy.

It is a stretch of Suffolk prairie amounting to about 50 acres, including a three- quarter-mile length alongside a public road. This was heathland, turf and heather and bracken and broom when the Romans were here. It was heathland when we suppose that King Raedwald, one of the mightiest kings in Western Europe, was buried near here at Sutton Hoo around 625 AD (if in fact it was Raedwald whose battleship and treasures were buried with him on the bleak headland looking down the river to the North Sea).

The heath has been ploughed up by successive generations since the food shortages of the Napoleonic Wars; but each generation enclosed its crops with hedges to protect them from the blustery coastal winds and to keep them rooted in the sandy soil.

Our generation, with its greater wisdom and its hulking machines to manoeuvre, removed the hedges and created a dustbowl. After annual ploughing and sowing, when the spring winds come, the topsoil is whipped off the prairie and blown in blinding clouds across the road, where it drifts and piles and banks like snow. This year, the road was effectively impassable for some days, especially on two wheels; and it took a crew of workers from the county's highways department most of a month to clear, with diggers and trucks and temporary traffic lights to the tune of pounds 10,000, most of which came from public funds.

There are people round here who think that the council should have charged the landowner the full cost of the road clearance and dumped the spoil back on his land to ruin his crop. It needles them to think that subsidies for grain encouraged the removal of the hedges in the Seventies; that we subsidised the landowners to replant hedgerows in the Eighties; and that we are now, effectively, subsidising their poor husbandry yet again by paying to clear up their disasters after them.

Another, less punitive, option would be a compulsory set-aside. If that prairie land were left to stand uncultivated, untended, unmowed, unsprayed, it would revert to heathland within a generation, or 30 years (say my know-all naturalist friends). The topsoil would stop blowing about within a year.

The hitch in this idea in that no such thing as a compulsory set-aside order exists in law. The policy is entirely voluntary, allowing the farmer complete freedom to decide for himself which land he will be paid out of public funds not to cultivate. The citizenry as a whole has, as usual, no voice in the matter.

We are told that our domestic agriculture industry must have state subsidy to avoid being swamped by far distant foreign competition. If we accept this (without questioning why it should apply to the industrial production of food when it was not found to apply to the industrial production of ships, planes, cars or motorbikes), we may ask why this money is spent so counter-productively.

If we agree, for instance, that 15 per cent less production should come from the land in order to reduce surpluses, why do we not agree to support more organic farming which, in itself, is less productive than intensive farming, employs more people and uses no poisons? The Government has accepted the ideas of the Game Conservancy Council and other lobbyists that a perimeter around fields should be set aside from spraying, ploughing and cultivation, creating 'green corridors' for fauna and flora and removing significant amounts of land from production. Why will it not also allow enhanced subsidies to farmers who eliminate toxins, improve soil quality and employ more hands?

The Ministry's answer is that organic farming is prohibitively expensive. More expensive, one might ask, than paying farmers to put back hedgerows they were paid to rip out? More expensive than paying for land to do nothing? More expensive than sending in the diggers and the trucks to clear up the disastrous consequences of subsidised bad management and feather- bedded bad husbandry? The Germans seem not to think so. They spend more than 200 times as much as we do in support of organic farming. But what do they know?

Duff Hart-Davis is away.