Speaking in Edinburgh, Roger Waite, the official spokesperson for the EU agricultural commissioner, conceded that the proposal to remove 7 per cent of the farm area from production could include existing agri-environment schemes.
He instanced farms which already have buffer strips around their fields to benefit wildlife as an example of what the commission would accept within the 7 per cent and he believed that almost all farms had other areas of existing non productive land which would qualify.
But he emphasised that the commission would not move on allowing member states to have their own national schemes and environmental priorities.
He attacked UK farming minister Caroline Spelman, who not only wants the overall budget to be reduced but also said that the UK was entitled to a larger pot of cash for rural development. Waite said it would be difficult for the UK to get more from a smaller budget.
Waite rejected the view that the 7 per cent was a new version of Set Aside, saying this land was to be seen as “ecological focus areas” and it was part of the unwritten deal where taxpayers support the CAP and not only get food but also other benefits from the cash.
He also indicated that the commission was willing to accept that reseeding was a natural part of having permanent pasture which was not the original intention of the proposals. But Vicki Swales of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said what was really needed was an expansion of permanent grassland as an aid to biodiversity.
Waite was determined that the forthcoming CAP would only reward active farming but admitted that, so far, no one had come up with a description of this that would satisfy the World Trade Organisation requirements of not having payments linked to production.
David Barnes, deputy director of the agricultural department of the Scottish Government, said they were not supportive of the proposal that required at least 5 per cent on any individual’s income to come from farming as the eligibility criteria but he admitted pinning “activity” down was a real battleground in negotiations.
Waite had earlier claimed that member states already had the powers to act against those not farming but still receiving subsidies but said that only the Netherlands had used this facility. As a result of this inaction, he was determined that the active farming requirement would in future be handled by Europe.
While admitting the size of the CAP budget would be critical to its final shape, he was confident the majority of member states would agree to the present flat lining, or no increase proposal.
• After years of struggling with the implementation of electronic identification of sheep, Scottish farmers may receive help from an unexpected direction, with the German Association of Sheep Farmers going to the European Court of Justice over the issue.
The case centres on the expense of implementing the new procedures for questionable results due to the unreliable nature of the tag readers. The German farmers have also raised questions over animal welfare, as evidence has been brought forward that has shown injury to animals’ ears after tagging.
NFU Scotland policy manager Penny Johnston described the German intervention in the issue as interesting and beneficial. “The UK has been seeking allies to drive for a fundamental review of the regulation and this action will help strengthen the case.”