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Set-aside is a term for land that farmers are not allowed to use for any agricultural purpose. It was introduced by the EEC in 1992 as part of a package of reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy to prevent over production. It applies only to farmers growing crops.

permanent grass set-aside In the first year of the scheme farmers had to set-aside a minimum of 15% of their cropped farmland for the harvest year of 1993. By the year 2000 the figure had dropped to 10%. In 2007, following significant rises in grain prices across Europe, the EU decided that for harvest 2008, the set-aside rate would be zero. It is currently unclear how long the zero rate will remain.

white campion in set-aside

In 2006 there were approximately 500,000 hectares of land in set-aside. This represents an area of countryside about 70km by 70km, about twice the size of the area enclosed by the M25 around London. In exchange for not planting crops on set-aside land, farmers are compensated for the loss of income that results from not being able to utilise the land productively.

woodland set-aside strip There are very strict rules in place that govern the use of set-aside. Initially set-aside had to "move" to a different location around the farm each year but this rule has since been relaxed and farmers can now allocate fields on a permanent basis. This has been good news for the environment as long term habitats for fauna and flora have been able to develop.

set-aside buffer strip Some environmental schemes are also allowed to count as part of the farmer's set-aside. For example if a farmer takes land out of agriculture by converting it to woodland, this can count towards the requirement. Many farmers choose to place their set-aside land in locations where it has the greatest benefit for wildlife. This allows ecosystems to develop that are sheltered from the farming alongside. Good examples of beneficial set-aside use include; strips alongside woodland, blocks adjoining watercourses and larger blocks between crops.

winter grazing by sheep Set-aside that is sown to grass has to be "topped" late in the summer. The cut material cannot be used but the farmer's own stock can graze the area between mid September and mid January. There is very little nutritional feed value in the grass at this time but grazing by stock helps to improve the diversity of the sward.

industrial rape Farmers are also allowed to grow "industrial" crops. These relate to specific crops like oilseed rape where a contract confirms that the seed will only be used for an industrial purpose. There is usually a small financial penalty for doing this by comparison with just setting the land aside. Farmers may accept this penalty in exchange for some improvement in the establishment of the following crop.

Set-aside offered policy makers an opportunity to help create areas of biodiversity across the countryside. However the rules concerning the management of set-aside were unduly restrictive and prevented environmental gain on a significant scale.

This website has consistently argued for a relaxation of the rules to assist farmers with the creation of worthwhile areas of habitat on their farms. The following are related papers.

Creating meadow grassland (2003)
Creating meadow grassland (2005)
Life after Set-Aside (2007)

Statistics for Set-aside in the UK

Set-aside in the UK
Set Aside
(000 hectares)
567 800 612 681 560 559 466 440
Set Aside subsidies
(£ millions)
127 180 143 177 131
Fully organic area set-aside
(000 hectares)
4.6 2.3 1.3