HL Deb 23 June 1994 vol 556 cc473-5

7.8 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe) rose to move, That the scheme laid before the House on 16th May be approved [20th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, as noble Lords may be aware, the Government have recently introduced the habitat scheme. It is designed to encourage farmers to create and enhance important wildlife habitats. Under the water fringe element of the scheme farmers in six pilot areas can enter agreements with the ministry, either to take buffer strips of land next to rivers and lakes out of production altogether or to manage waterside fields by extensive grazing. This will have benefits for wildlife both in the water and on the waterside banks. The pilot areas were slected on the basis of advice from English Nature and the National Rivers Authority as well as MAFF's Directorate of Fisheries Research. There has been considerable interest in the scheme already and some 500 information packs have been distributed to farmers in the six areas.

One of the factors in ensuring that individual agreements are effective in protecting wildlife will be the need, in some cases, for fencing in order to exclude livestock from the buffer strips and thus prevent them from breaking down river banks. We believe that fanners should be assisted with the cost of any necessary fencing. But in the habitat scheme, operating as it does through payments per hectare, there is no mechanism to make capital payments. In order to overcome this problem we are proposing to use the one-off investment part of the Farm and Conservation Grant Scheme (F&CGS) to offer grants towards the cost of such fencing in line with the grants for similar works already available in environmentally sensitive areas. Grant will be available at a rate of 40 per cent. Farmers with an existing F&CGS plan can participate in these schemes and may, by an approved plan variation, be able to incorporate, at normal scheme rates, a fencing grant.

This is a small-scale addition to the F&CGS but a necessary and, I trust, an uncontroversial one. I commend the instrument to your Lordships.

Moved, That the scheme laid before the House on 16th May be approved [20th Report from the Joint Committee].—( Earl Howe. )

Lord Carter:

My Lords, the House will be extremely grateful to the Minister for explaining clearly, as always, the nature of the scheme. We on this side welcome the habitat scheme and this order is a sensible addition to it. If the habitat scheme is to work properly, the buffer strips of land next to rivers and lakes or waterside fields must be properly fenced against livestock so that river banks or lake sides cannot be broken down and damaged

There are, of course, other areas which would also benefit from fencing for habitat management. I am sure that the Minister is aware that the NFU has pointed out that it would be very helpful and conducive to good management if similar grants were available for hedgerows, especially those which fall outside the remit of the hedgerow incentive scheme, for chalk and limestone grassland and for moorland areas. In the latter case, the moorland, fencing would be particularly effective in support of the over-grazing regulations because it is clear that fencing can regulate grazing pressure much more effectively than shepherding.

Other than those comments—and I should be grateful if the Minister would respond to them—I repeat that this is a very sensible measure and we gladly support it from this side of the House.

Earl Howe:

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for his welcome of this measure. Grants for the provision, replacement or improvement of hedges, including associated protective fencing, are already available under the F&CGS. Chalk and limestone grasslands are landscapes covered by the countryside stewardship scheme. That scheme includes provision for capital payments towards the cost of any necessary fencing. In addition, under the F&CGS, grants are available for the provision, replacement or improvement of fences in general.

With regard to over-grazing on moorland, grants under the F&CGS are also available to help farmers to meet the cost of fencing to control stock access. I reiterate that the amendment to the scheme that we are debating tonight is designed specifically for the purpose of making the water fringe element of the habitat scheme a practical proposition for farmers and to encourage them to enter the scheme.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.5 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.14 to 8.5 p.m. ]