Don’t fall foul of latest land rules

Emma Smith, of YoungsRPS.
Emma Smith, of YoungsRPS.

New legislation sees further requirements come into play in relation to improving the productivity of uncultivated or semi-natural land, farmers are being warned.

Farmers should be aware that an Environmental Screening Report may now be required before implementing any change in farming practice on such land.

Permission has long been required by Natural England for changes in land use on uncultivated and semi-natural land areas of more than two hectares in size.

And failure to comply, whether accidental or not, can result in prosecution and fines of up to £5,000.

In such cases a farmer would also be required to return the land to its previous condition.

Land is considered to be uncultivated if, for the last 15 years, it has not been physically cultivated, such as ploughing, or chemically cultivated, such as applications of fertiliser.

Semi-natural land includes areas of bracken, marsh and wet grassland in coastal areas, as well as species-rich hay meadows.

Anyone looking to carry out works to improve the productivity of uncultivated or semi-natural land, including ploughing, drainage works or increasing chemical usage, should first consider if a screening decision from Natural England is required.

Historic features, such as ridge and furrow, are also captured by the description of semi-natural areas and therefore will require a screening application, even if the land has been chemically cultivated.

Understandably, some confusion can arise in relation to declaring land for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) where land that has been in grass for more than five years is classified as permanent pasture.

However, as part of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), permanent pasture only becomes classified as uncultivated land where it has remained not physically cultivated or treated with chemicals for up to 15 years.

Under the new regulations an Environmental Screening Report must be submitted with a screening application.

It should also be said that applicants must ensure that all the relevant information is provided with the application, or they risk rejection.

This report should include the full details of the project, as well as information as to any likely environmental effects that could be caused by the proposed changes.

As a result, the timescale involved in gaining approval has increased significantly, particularly where a full Environmental Impact Assessment is required.

As this must be achieved prior to work commencing, it is advisable far any farmer affected by the changes to plan well in advance.

Farmers taking on new land are also required to comply, ensuring they have records to demonstrate any chemical and cultivation measures employed in recent years.

Where this is not available, a witness statement obtained from the previous land user is recommended.

The aim of this more rigorous application process is to further protect uncultivated and semi-natural areas, but the rules are complex and anyone concerned about their own personal situation would be well advised to seek professional advice before changing the land use.