Idling land resources through set aside never made a lot of economic sense and was largely a way of dealing with over production encouraged by the old style CAP. However, many environmentalists felt that set aside encouraged biodiversity. This was particularly the case for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) which with over a million members, largely urban gardeners whose bird identification skills are sketchy, is a very influential conservationist group in the UK. Defra policy is strongly influenced by the RSPB which has framed the agenda in terms of, for example, using farmland bird populations as an indicator of environmental stress, although they may not the best measure.
The RSPB view, as expressed by head of conservation Sue Armstrong Brown, is that ‘One of the strengths of set-aside was simply that there was lots of it. It made the whole countryside more varied and wildlife loves variety.’ The NFU, in contrast, argues that it is a blunt policy instrument and that only a small part of set aside ever had great environmental value.
Defra secretary Hilary Benn has stepped in to warn farmers to look after habitats and bird numbers after set aside has gone, or face new regulations to compel them to do so. He announced an immediate programme of environmental monitoring of farmland.
In fact, as Don Curry has pointed out, this is an English policy manifestation of a mich wider debate. As commodity prices have risen, global tensions between the use of land for food, fuel and the creation of environmental benefits have increased. There are no easy answers, but a debate is needed.