A common question we are asked is whether or not a farmer needs to plough up a grass field to stop it being designated as permanent pasture. This question stems from a fear that once land is designated as permanent pasture, it will never be allowed to be ploughed again. This fear has been stirred up over the years by some scare stories in the farming media and by those who have misinterpreted the rules.

So, what exactly are the rules and how do they impact on farmers?

Firstly, it is important to note that if the Rural Payment Agency (RPA) define some of your land as ‘Permanent Grassland’, this makes no difference at all as to whether you are allowed to plough it. The RPA’s method of classifying such land is purely based on what has been put on annual subsidy applications. If a return details that a field has been grass on 15th May for 5 consecutive years, it will be classified as Permanent Grassland (even if it has been re-seeded during that period).

The reason they do this is that they have had an obligation from the EU to monitor the level of permanent grassland across the country so they use this very simplistic approach, rather than going to the expense of a more complex system. Whilst having the RPA call your land permanent or temporary grassland does have an impact on certain crop diversification and ecological focus area obligations, it does not mean that land classed as ‘RPA Permanent Grassland’ is burdened with extra restrictions.

Environmental Impact Assessment

The rules you need to consider when thinking of ploughing or increasing productivity of any grassland are the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations. These regulations do not take any account of whether the the RPA call the land temporary grassland, permanent grassland, permanent pasture or anything else.

The EIA regulations consider whether or not the land is classified as ‘uncultivated’ or ‘semi-natural’. We therefore need to know the definition of these two descriptions:

Uncultivated land is land that hasn’t been cultivated in the last 15 years by physical means (such as ploughing or by an activity that physically breaks the soil surface) or by chemical means such as adding fertilisers or soil improvers.

Semi-natural land includes priority habitats, heritage or archaeological features or protected landscapes. This normally means land that has never been intensively farmed such as lowland heath or unimproved grassland.

As you can see, there won’t actually be that much land out there that falls foul of these rules. If you are concerned that your land might be classified as uncultivated or semi-natural, and you want to plough it, you will need to apply to Natural England for a screening decision. After submitting your application, they will then tell you if you need to complete a full EIA or if you can carry on with your proposal.

As you can see, the rules are not straightforward, but thankfully, they are actually less restrictive than many people think.

If you would like further advice with regards to anything mentioned above, please contact Charles on 01684 325215 or 07814 033449.