Page last updated at 14:04 GMT, Monday, 16 February 2009

Farm wildlife cash 'could return'

A combine harvester drives over a wheat field
Set-aside was introduced to try to end food over-production

Farmers in England could once again receive payments for leaving uncultivated land to wildlife, the government has said.

The European Commission effectively abandoned the compulsory "set-aside" scheme last year for farmers receiving the Single Payment Scheme.

This followed widespread flooding and concerns about high global food prices.

But Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said he was looking at replacing set-aside with a voluntary scheme.

'Very proud'

Environmental groups have raised concern that the lack of uncultivated land deprives birds and other wild creatures of food and refuge.

Introduced in the early 1990s, the system of paying farmers to set aside land from production was designed to discourage over-production after years in which Europe produced mountains of surplus food and drink, threatening commodity prices.

Mr Benn secured agreement last year from fellow EU ministers that individual countries could pay farmers to restore some set-aside land.

In a speech to the National Farmers' Union in Birmingham, he said: "I'm very proud of what British farming does for our country. Farmers do so much for the environment out of love of the land.

"And we're working together to see how we can best retain the advantages of set-aside, while settling on a better approach for farmers.

"Set-aside delivered important environmental benefits and over time these benefits will be vital to maintaining levels of production."

The European Commission introduced the set-aside scheme in 1992, stipulating that at least 15% of farmers' land which was not used for growing crops had to be left for wildlife.

But it announced in July 2007 that it wanted to reduce the requirement to 0% - effectively abolishing the programme. This move was intended to deal with shortages in the EU cereals market.

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