Ploughing up permanent grassland – clearing up the confusion

grassploughThe new Single Payment Scheme, now looming large on the horizon, is set to bring with it new greening complications and already questions are being asked about the impact of ploughing up land which is classified as permanent grassland.

Fields which have been down to grass for five years of more have been denoted as PP1 in England and GR2 in Wales on this year’s Single Payment application.

It’s important to note, the long standing taboo that land defined as permanent pasture on your SPS form cannot be ploughed is misleading and not entirely accurate.  

So what are the rules?

Most grass can be ploughed up without the need for official approval. Only if the parcel is greater than 2ha in size (4.94 acres) and has not been mechanically or chemically cultivated for 15 years of more, or is defined as unimproved or semi-natural pasture, must a farmer seek approval from Natural England before ploughing.

Mechanical cultivation is defined by Natural England as ‘agricultural soil-disrupting activities’ such as ploughing, tine harrowing, sub-surface harrowing, discing and rotovating. Chemical cultivation is defined as ‘chemical enhancement of the soil’ through the addition of organic and inorganic fertilisers or soil improvers.

How can I protect my position if I want to plough up my permanent grass?

Should Natural England challenge the cultivation, the burden of proof will lie with the farmer.  We recommend records of cultivation, fertiliser (organic or inorganic) applied and other practices aimed at improving land productivity in their application are kept in a safe place should there ever be a query.

What if I haven’t chemically or mechanically cultivated my land in the last 15 years?

If you haven’t cultivated or applied any fertiliser to the land in the last 15 years, you will need to have an Environmental Impact Assessment carried out. The site will need to be evaluated and assessed on its ecological importance – basically looking at which flora and fauna are present and if the site supports any breeding birds.

What are the chances of being allowed to plough after carrying out an EIA?

Unfortunately, there is not clear answer for this. Each site is based on its merits and dependent upon its ecological importance. When assessing the numbers of these applications made, they are very rare.

What are the consequences of falling foul of these regulations?

Anyone who ploughs up land which has not been cultivated or had fertiliser applied in the last 15 years will risk severe penalties to their Single Payment, as this rule falls under one of the Cross Compliance requirements.

While the rules may change as we progress into the new Basic Payment Scheme, at present the 15 year rules applies.

Going forward, this rule is worth noting, not only for understanding the position in regard to ploughing, but also to help minimise your Greening requirements for 2015 onwards.