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A farmer who ploughed up one of the country's most important wildlife sites on the South Downs - prompting Tony Blair to say during an election rally that such "completely crazy"activities would not be permitted under a Labour Government [1] - is set to plough another supposedly protected wildlife haven just a kilometre away.

Friends of the Earth has written to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott asking him to issue a Nature Conservation Order to save the site.

During the recent Election campaign, farmer Justin Harmer partially ploughed Offham Down Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a chalk grassland wildlife site on the South Downs near Lewes in East Sussex. He did so to gain payments of up to 591.16 per hectare to grow flax under the notorious Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) 'flax loophole',which allows wildlife sites to be ploughed up despite the fact they are not presently used for arable crops.

Now Mr Harmer is understood to be about to plough Offham Marshes SSSI [2] [3], a site designated for its rich diversity of amphibians especially toads and newts, to again receive the flax subsidy. A Nature Conservation Order would ensure no ploughing could take place for several months and buy time for a negotiated settlement leading to the site's protection.

Both Tony Blair and Michael Meacher, now the Environment Minister, condemned the"crazy" ploughing at Offham Down, and pledged that a Labour Government would never allow such activities to happen. The site was eventually saved from further damage by a Nature Conservation Order imposed by the then Secretary of State John Gummer.

Matt Phillips, wildlife campaigner at Friends of the Earth said:
"This time the Secretary of State for the Environment can halt the destruction of one of our most important wildlife havens before it happens. Labour promised to improve protection for such places and to close the flax loophole. Action speaks louder than words. This is not an isolated incident. Hundreds of our finest remaining places for wildlife get damaged each year. The law must be strengthened to better protect them and the Government must put its full weight behind such measures before it's too late."

During the General Election campaign Labour pledged to close the flax loophole.Environment Minister Michael Meacher promised: "Labour will lead the campaign to reform the abuses that CAP causes and ensure that SSSIs are not damaged in the future". A copy of Mr Meacher's press release of 17 April 1997 outlining Labour's tough stance at Offham Down is attached.


[1] At a General Election campaign rally at Sussex University on 15 April 1997, Tony Blair responded to questions about the ploughing at Offham Down by saying:
"You asked me about SSSIs and the crazy situation just near here where you've got a farmer being paid European Union money to effectively tear-up a place that's of particular scientific and natural interest. This is completely crazy. It's a crazy situation and I notice that Michael Meacher issued a statement a couple of days ago in which he said that if such a thing [the issue of a Nature Conservation Order] were not done by the Government, WE would, so this is prevented from happening. I think this is entirely the right thing to do.

"We certainly shouldn't be in the crazy situation when people are actually being paid money or a subsidy to damage the environment. That is foolish and we would not permit it to happen."

The Labour manifesto included a commitment to improve protection of SSSIs. However on 4 July Labour announced it intended to complete the Cardiff Barrage and destroy Cardiff Bay SSSI - despite the fierce opposition to the scheme of all three Welsh Ministers when in opposition.

[2] Offham Marshes is situated at the bottom of the River Ouse valley. It is formed by marshes grazed by cattle and intersected by drainage ditches. The elements of most interest on the site are the ditches which feature a rich assemblage of amphibians such as Common toad, Common frog,Smooth newt and Palmate newt. English Nature describes Offham Marshes as "one of the best sites in the country" for the Common toad. Aquatic wildflowers present include Water violet and Arrowhead.The site also features the UK's largest beetle - the rare Great silver beetle and the scarce Hairy dragonfly.

[3]Part of the Offham Marshes site east of the railway line was ploughed last Autumn and now features a crop of flax. The drains on this part of the site now appear to contain little special wildlife interest. It is understood that Mr Harmer has notified English Nature of his intent to plough the rest of the site, and that the statutory four month period of negotiation has now elapsed. As a result he can quite legally plough at any time. However, he is unlikely to want to actually seed the crop until the Autumn.


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Published by Friends of the Earth Trust