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Uncropped Field Margins

Volume 449: debated on Thursday 20 July 2006

2. Whether he has made an assessment of the environmental and economic implications of requiring 2 m uncropped field margins. (86597)

I thank the Minister for that short answer. I am sure that he would wish to enhance and augment the rural environment, but I am not sure that that is the best way to do it. It tends to penalise farmers who have retained their hedges and helps farmers who have bulldozed them. If the Minister took the opportunity to inspect some of those field margins, he would see that they are choked with pernicious weeds such as soft broom, sterile broom, wild oats and, in the east of the country, blackgrass. When the combine harvesters spread those around the fields, it results in the need for much higher levels of pesticide usage on arable farms. Can the Minister think of some more imaginative ways of utilising the same amount of land to stimulate farmers to do something to make a positive impact on the rural environment?

It is interesting to be asked whether one has made an assessment and, when one says that one has, not then to be asked what it was before one gets the Opposition view. It is clear that cross-compliance measures impose a minimal burden on farmers, calculated to be of the order of only 2 per cent. of the single payment that they receive. That was for farmers who were not previously using what are generally accepted as good management practices. The fact is that most farmers did leave the 2 m margin, measured as it is from the centreline of the hedge. In respect of the environment and biodiversity considerations, the hon. Gentleman will know that as much as 70 per cent. of all the wildlife and biodiversity of a field is estimated to live in the hedgerow margin. Protecting them in that way is an essential part of delivering our 2010 targets.

It is important that farmers should do their bit to promote biodiversity. Will my hon. Friend the Minister therefore do more and go further to encourage environmentally friendly stewardship of the land by farmers?

We are looking at all sorts of ways to improve the management of our countryside and incentivise farmers to do so. There is a general consensus in the Chamber that cross-compliance and all the moves that have been made from pillar one to pillar two are ones that we would all support. We are moving in the right direction, which is paying farmers to provide public benefits, instead of the old system of paying for production, which disconnected farmers from their markets and was an inefficient way of doing things. However, it is essential that we have the flexibility to take into account the distinctive features of the English countryside, of which the hedgerow is one. I make no apology for protecting it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that with 71 per cent. of British butterflies and 44 per cent. of British moths in decline, hedgerows and field margins are critical to ensuring diversity? Those creatures, which are important to the farmer for the fertilisation of his crops, should be protected.

My hon. Friend makes the important point that biodiversity should be seen in terms of the whole ecosystem. The pollination services provided by butterflies and other insects that inhabit hedgerows and the margins of fields are essential. Our 2010 biodiversity targets state that we must increase the number of farmland birds. There is a severe decline in the food that they depend on and that they feed to their chicks—butterflies, caterpillars and so forth—which is part of the problem. It is essential that we look at this issue as part of the whole environment, and that we address it in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.