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Don't set aside set-aside

Europe’s nature under further threat as Commission decides to reduce set-aside to 0%…

The European Commission has published its proposal to reduce the rate of set-aside to 0% for the 2008 harvest year. BirdLife International regrets this decision as the annulment of set-aside for 2008 could deal a severe blow to the already struggling farmland bird populations and other wildlife. Set-aside was introduced in 1992 with the aim of taking land out of production to reduce the EU’s infamous grain mountains. This proved an inadvertant boon to wildlife, including many birds, by providing a source of food in the winter and a safe place to nest. Thus set-aside became an important measure to compensate at least partly for environmental damage done by agricultural intensification. It now represents an important refuge for wildlife in intensive farmed landscapes. As an example, researchers in the UK have observed that when the set-aside area was halved in the 1990s, the number of farmland birds also showed a serious decline.

Recently published research from Sweden has demonstrated the link between set-aside level and numbers of farmland birds such as Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis, Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris and Eurasian Linnet Carduelis cannabina.

Eurasian Skylark and Northern Lapwing use set-aside to nest, rare plants grow in these untouched pieces of farmland and Yellowhammer Emberiza Citrinella and Corn Bunting Miliara Calandra profit from the extra food.

Some birds like the threatened Little Bustard Tetrax tetrax in France depend on set-aside for their survival. The Commission’s decision is likely to inflict heavily on the habitats of these species in the coming months. Ariel Brunner, BirdLife’s EU Agriculture Policy Officer commented: “Although the Commission has recognised the environmental benefits of set-aside and has promised to do a full assessment of it in next year’s Common Agricultural Policy ‘Health Check’, this rushed decision is likely to do real and immediate harm on the ground before the issue is thoroughly evaluated.”

The EU’s justification given for this decision rests on concern for the low availability of cereals on the market which could result in increasing food prices.

“This justification is in complete contradiction to numerous declarations made by the European Commission in the context of the biofuel debate where it is repeatedly stated that Europe has a huge potential for increased use of agricultural land for energy production,” argued Brunner. If we are already facing a crisis in the cereal sector, how can we pursue a vast increase in biofuel production?” he said. “On the other hand if the Commission claims that we have potentially up to 17.5 million hectares available for biofuel expansion, how can we justify the haste in tapping into set-aside without any proper evaluation?”

BirdLife International urges the Commission and Member States to introduce emergency offset measures, for example in the context of cross-compliance while a permanent environmental solution is developed in the context of the Health Check.

Find out more about BirdLife's policy work on Europe's farmland: visit Farming for Life at: http://www.birdlife.org/action/campaigns/farming_for_life/index.html

4th July 2014