HL Deb 25 October 1989 vol 511 cc1364-7

2.46 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What new measures they are taking to prevent the spread of noxious weeds in the countryside from fields which have been set-aside.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, since set—aside is novel, farmers will need time to develop the best management techniques, which will vary from farm to farm. We are monitoring the position carefully and would be prepared to consider further measures if these appeared necessary.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for her slightly emollient Answer. Is she aware that there are to be seen around our fields increasing patches of these noxious weeds, the seeds of which are blowing around to plague the fields and gardens of neighbours? Is my noble friend aware that no one likes to be the recipient of their neighbour's wild oats? Would my noble friend consider making the control of these noxious weeds one of the conditions of continuing to pay the £80 per acre for set—aside land?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I take the point raised by my noble friend about not liking other people's wild oats, though I hazard a guess that both he and I have sowed a few in our time. The advice I have from ADAS is that there is no evidence that set—aside is leading directly to the increased spread of weed infestation except for thistles. Under the Weeds Act farmers have an obligation to prevent the spread of thistles. Perhaps I may commend to my noble friend, and anyone else who is interested, the publication A Practical Guide to Set—Aside. In that guide I have noted the words: In the first year or two, the set—aside area will be weedy, but with suitable management you should be able to develop a perennial vegetation which will be dominated by wild grasses but with a range of flowering plants, with conservation gains".

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this problem is widespread, even in Scotland? Can she say whether the Government have any plans to produce a sensible scheme? Set—aside is essentially a stop—gap measure. I know that in Scotland money is being put up to investigate organic farming. I consider that to be a sensible move. Is there any move to replace set—aside in the country as a whole with a scheme which will further extensive farming regarding grassland instead of simply wasting that land in the way that is taking place at the moment?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I do not want to go down the organic lane. In this Question we are talking about weeds. The correct management of set—aside land is in the interests of the participants themselves because that practice preserves the value of the land. The Government give advice notably in the practical guide to which I have referred. Fallow land should not be treated as a soft option. Those taking part in the scheme should act responsibly to avoid problems on their own or neighbouring land. Payments will be withheld if the management rules are not met.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recall that a year ago your Lordships' Select Committee on the European Communities looked at the first draft of proposals by the Commission for set—aside and produced a report on the subject? In that report some of the difficulties mentioned in the Question were addressed, and some solutions to those difficulties were proferred. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, not a great deal of notice was taken of the report.

In the light of what is now developing, will the noble Baroness have another look at the summary of conclusions and recommendations in the report in order to see whether or not modifications can be made, including the rotational fallow which was put forward in the report at that time? The amount of land so far set aside amounts to only 3 per cent. of the total arable land eligible. I gather that this year not a great deal of land has been added. Thus the supervisory problem which was held to be an impediment to novel schemes is much less now than was originally anticipated. In the light of all this, is there not a case, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, suggested, for a look at the whole scheme to see whether, if it is to be a permanent scheme, it cannot be suitably modified so that it is more environmentally sensitive?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the total uptake for 1988–89 is 110,000 hectares, which is about 2.4 per cent. of the United Kingdom eligible area. Set—aside was never intended to act as a total means of eliminating overproduction. It was meant to help certain farmers. Local ADAS experts are available to give advice, and work currently being undertaken on our experimental husbandry farms will give the basis for further and more accurate recommendations in the future. I very much hope that they will look at the same time at the EC recommendations. As I said in my first reply, the scheme has been going for just one year. And so it is early days.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, while leaving the wild oats to my noble friend, can she say whet her farmers can obtain advice on other aspects of set—aside such as those to do with the environment?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, from the point of view of environmental top—up, the Countryside Commission, in consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture, is offering additional payments to farmers in the eastern counties to manage their set—aside land in ways that produce specific benefits for the environment. Some of these options involve more frequent cutting. But where a specific objective is to favour birds—for instance, the stone curlew—and other wildlife, more frequent cutting than once a year is specifically excluded.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that a greater danger than thistledown is ragwort, which is known in Scotland as Stinking Willy? It causes death by convulsion in horses and otherwise in cattle. Sheep survive because they do not live long enough for the poison to build in them.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am extremely interested in the information provided by my noble friend. I can add that for spear thistle, creeping or field thistle, curl dock, broadleaved dock and ragwort or other serious infestations of wild oats, couch, black—grass or cleavers, special permission can be obtained in certain limited circumstances for the use of herbicides.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is any work being done on a more long—term scheme for better use of the land?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, various other forms of diversification are already in hand. For instance, one need not leave land as green fallow. One could have a golf course or one could have horses grazing on it. One could have caravans. There are several options. We are monitoring the position carefully. The main way to bring down the overproduction of cereals is through price.

Lord Craigton

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to a monitoring scheme conducted by ADAS. If my information is correct, 'will she ensure that the priority given in this monitoring scheme to wildlife will be equally applicable in the case of these noxious weeds?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I did not say that ADAS is conducting the monitoring. I said that our experimental husbandry farms are undertaking work which will provide the basis for further and more accurate recommendations in the future. I am quite sure that they are looking at all these points in the face of a new scheme. Obviously, we want to get it right.

Lord Borthwick

My Lords, perhaps I may mention herbs of the deep—rooted variety. In certain parts of the Alps, both in Germany and in Switzerland, these deep—rooted herbs are improving the quality of cattle and other stock. In addition, deer and many other wild animals roam. Does my noble friend not agree that such a situation would be welcome here?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, we went for the option of non—grazed set—aside because we were worried about upsetting the balance of livestock for our sheep and cattle farmers now. Therefore we did not take up that option. However, I am most interested in my noble friend's remarks.