In September 2007, Hilary Benn asked Sir Don Curry to set up a group of the heads of key organisations (NFU, CLA, RSPB, Environment Agency and Natural England) to oversee the monitoring work Defra put in place to assess the impacts of the announcement of a 0% set-aside level for 2008.
An interim report of this High Level Group on Set-Aside (HLSAG) was passed to the Secretary of State (Hilary Benn) in April 2008. The final report was sent to Secretary of State on 22 July 2008.
HLSAG commissioned a range of research projects to consider botanical diversity, use by farmland birds and the importance of set-aside in protecting soil and water. The scientific evidence suggested that former set-aside land provided a range of benefits for the environment. The reports prompted the government to propose a compulsory scheme (option A) to ensure the environmental benefits associated with former compulsory set-aside land were not lost. This option would have taken up to 6 per cent of cultivated land out of production and would not have been as simple as set-aside. It would have had compulsory management prescriptions for a limited range of options and importantly would have been an additional mandatory requirement to any work already undertaken through agri-environment schemes.
The CLA and NFU felt that the option A proposals were disproportionate and unlikely to deliver the environmental benefits wanted. They believed that the research projects showed quite clearly that the benefits tended to be site specific, dependent on the management undertaken on them and also varied depending on where such areas of land were located. For example, a game cover located next to a woodland or hedge will be better for birds than one in the open. They also felt that the discussion around whether to replace set-aside had not considered the enormous uptake of agri-environment schemes or indeed recognised the management undertaken by farmers outside of agri-environment schemes.
The Presidents of the CLA and NFU went to Hilary Benn and persuaded him that the compulsory route was bad for everyone; farmers, conservationists and the environment. They wanted recognition of the enormous contributions made to environmental management through both agri-environment schemes and other on-farm actions. Following the Secretary of State’s agreement, CFE was launched as the industry-led voluntary approach to replace the environmental benefits of set-aside on 5 November 2009 at the farm of the then NFU president, Peter Kendall.
CFE recognised that management comes in different forms and introduced a range of 15 Campaign Voluntary Measures that farmers or growers could:
undertake outside of agri-environment schemes;
work around existing legislation such as LERAPs;
complement shoots on the farms with winter food and cover options;
offer pollen and nectar mixes that not only boost pollinators but also attract bio control agents.
All of these Voluntary Measures were based on sound scientific evidence. Similarly, CFE wanted to recognise what farmers had achieved through agri-environment schemes and continue to engage government support for ongoing funding of these.
As highlighted in the 2009 Defra public consultation on the regulation of set-aside, the compulsory approach would have required farmers to adopt a limited range of environmental land management options on 4-6% of their cultivated land. Unlike set-aside this would have required active management and would have been in addition to any activity already being delivered under a farmer’s agri-environment agreement. The Campaign however, offered a wider range of options that could form part of an ELS agreement or measures that many farmers were already undertaking voluntarily outside formal agri-environment schemes such as game cover or retaining former areas of set-aside.
The costs of a cross compliance regulatory route would have been greater on industry due to the damage caused to ELS and the administrative burden of changing existing agreements and recording or complying with the new rules. The compulsory approach would take a greater area of land out of production (at least 4 – 6%) and be less beneficial for environment. The role and environmental value of uncultivated land was not recognised in the compulsory approach (even in the price bubble of 2008, 3% of land remained uncultivated but did not appear on SPS forms as GAEC 12) due to more onerous management conditions.
Every arable farmer in England was asked to engage with CFE by selecting some of the most beneficial options when they join or renew ELS, and by carrying out some of the voluntary measures the campaign developed in addition to ELS on their farm.
CFE brought all the leading farming organisations together to encourage farmers and land managers to voluntarily adopt these important land management practises to benefit the environment.
These management practises worked along three key themes:
- Resource protection
- Farmland birds
- Farm wildlife
Through the Campaign farmers were offered the best possible advice and guidance on how to retain and increase the environmental benefits provided by their farmland. The Campaign did not involve any regulation.