A TUSSLE has begun over how millions of pounds will be spent in agriculture in Britain as the lobbying begins between direct farm payments and environmental schemes.
But new farming minister George Eustice is urging negotiators to try to avoid a confrontation between farmers and environment groups.
Defra secretary Owen Paterson has begun seeking opinion on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and members of the RSPB, National Trust and Wildlife Trusts have started lobbying.
The charities want the Government to reduce direct farm payments by 15% – the maximum available under CAP reform – and spend the cash on measures aimed at helping wildlife, landscapes and heritage features.
The NFU is against that spend, saying reducing payments by 15%, precisely at the time when some other EU countries are preparing to increase direct support, will leave English farmers at a competitive disadvantage to their European counterparts.
Mr Eustice spoke of Defra's anxiety to ensure the best agri-environment schemes continue. Without the support of these schemes some hill farmers would struggle and other sectors, like tourism, would suffer too.
Mr Eustice said: "We've got a really good track record in this country with the entry level stewardship scheme, and particularly the higher level stewardship scheme has been a great success. We don't want to see those efforts diminished."
Simon Berry, who farms near Bideford, said: "The general public want us to protect the countryside. That 15% is vital."
Mr Eustice said Defra was looking to replace parts of the existing deals with a new environmental land management scheme, and said it would have more requirements and be more meaningful.
The agri-environment lobby argues that some schemes are more beneficial than direct payments, helping to address wildlife declines, promote more sustainable farming and deliver wider public benefits, such as rural tourism and jobs.