UK farmers urged to value their ‘unused’ land

There is a risk of UK farmers ploughing up valuable environmental habitats ahead of new UK requirements from 1 February, for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) when developing uncultivated land, says Farming Minister Lord Whitty. On 3 January, he urged farmers to consider the consequences of causing irreversible damage to the UK countryside, and pointed out that by introducing EIA, “we are not ‘gold plating’ the EC requirements, which must be implemented through legislation and to which a voluntary approach cannot be adopted”.

Since the new regulation was unveiled on 11 December, there has been growing speculation that some farmers may be tempted to avoid the additional cost of an EIA by ploughing up land before the new regulation comes into force. Moorland and other areas subject to new access arrangements under the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act could also be at risk in the short term.

The first draft maps of proposed new access routes are being published as part of the preparation for CROW. Under current arrangements, access would be prevented if land on the proposed routes was cultivated or developed. However, last December, when DEFRA suspected a farmer was ploughing to stop ramblers gaining access to his land, Environment Minister Michael Meacher signed an order – only the second of its kind in 20 years, to stop the activity.

While the new regulations implement provisions of the EIA directive, in the absence of a definition in the directive of ‘uncultivated land’, DEFRA is publishing UK guidance. Land types included are: unimproved grassland, heath and moorland; scrubland and wetlands. Land would typically be considered uncultivated if it had less than 25-30% of ryegrass and/or white clover or other sown grass species indicative of cultivation. Agricultural operations on the land over the previous 15 years will be taken into account; and wetlands will include watercourses, ditches and ponds. Appeal provisions are included and the regulations will be reviewed in 18 months.

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