Farming and conservation

Legalities and conservation issues for farmers, including cross compliance, land management, climate change and biodiversity

This guidance was withdrawn on

Replaced by detailed guidance listed on the Land management sub-topic page.


The protection and improvement of the environment is encouraged in several ways in the UK. There are legal requirements of farmers and land managers, good-practice expectations under various schemes, as well as public and local community demands for environmental and social benefits.

Conservation issues affect every aspect of farming. This guide explains the areas of concern and interest for farmers and land managers, legal requirements for environmental management, as well as information on the various schemes and support available.

This guide also introduces the basics of protecting and enhancing the natural environment, including farm land use and management, public access, encouraging biodiversity, protecting species and habitats, and helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Farm land use and management

Cross compliance is a system of standards and requirements that farmers must meet in order to qualify for payments under certain Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) schemes, including the Single Payment Scheme (SPS). It consists of both regulatory requirements and ‘best practice’ standards for environmental management in farming. It is made up of two main elements:

  • Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs) - these are European legal requirements on issues relating to environmental, public, animal and plant health, and animal welfare. For more information, see the guide on Statutory Management Requirements (SMR).
  • Statutory requirements to maintain your land in good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC) - including maintaining habitats and landscape that are important to the English countryside. For more information, see the guide on standards of GAEC.

Read the guide on cross compliance: the basics.

The regulations governing your land use and management have changed over the years in a number of areas, including:

  • grazing
  • use of fertilisers
  • use of pesticides
  • soil management
  • burning of heather and grasses

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are formal processes that aim to protect semi-natural or uncultivated land from damage caused by farming - for example, by reducing fertiliser usage or improving soil quality. For more information, read the guide on EIAs).

New regulations, processes and best-practice guidance have been published to encourage more efficient ways of doing business between you and the government, and improve the quality of your farming.


It is important to protect habitats that contain natural or semi-natural vegetation by preventing overgrazing and unsuitable supplementary feeding. This is set out in the GAEC 9 standard, which applies to you if you keep livestock on natural or semi-natural vegetation. You must also comply with any written directions in relation to your land about overgrazing, sent to you on behalf of the Secretary of State. Breaches of these directions can result in fines.

View the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra’s) guidance on the requirements of GAEC 9 - overgrazing and unsuitable supplementary feeding on the Agricultural Document Library (ADLib) website.

The practice of ‘conservation grazing’ using livestock meets nature conservation objectives and can include everything from semi-feral herds of ponies in hilly regions to the use of commercial livestock breeds in the lowlands.

For more information, read the guide on grazing and pasture.


Fertilisers and manures are used to replenish the nutrient status in soils. The most commonly used fertilisers contain nitrogen, phosphate, sulphur, potash, a compound known as potassium carbonate (K2CO3) and magnesium. Lime is also applied to correct soil acidity. However, there are a number of voluntary and statutory controls on fertilisers to ensure that they are stored safely and that the risk of pollution is minimised, including:

  • safety, import and export policy - due to the potential terrorist threat of fertiliser products with a high nitrogen content, there are stringent controls in place for the use and storage of fertilisers on farms
  • fertiliser and manure management - there are national standards for the use of fertilisers in order to reduce the risk of nutrient pollution - view Defra’s guidance on nutrient management and fertiliser use on the ADLib website
  • minimising pollution - read the guides on air pollution on farms and water pollution on farms
  • cross compliance - see the guide on cross compliance: the basics
  • Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs)- see the guide on NVZs)

You can also read fertiliser guidelines and best practice on the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) website.


There are strict regulations on the sale, supply, storage, advertising and use of plant protection products (PPPs) - commonly known as pesticides - in order to protect users, consumers and the environment. The Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD) is the government agency responsible for overseeing their use and enforcing these regulations.

Read information about the PSD on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website.

Before you use a pesticide, you must be sure that it is approved for the job you’ll be doing. It is a legal requirement that professional users of PPPs must be adequately trained, and that the product labels of PPPs are strictly followed.

If you plan to use pesticides or store them for sale, you must have properly trained staff to do so. You can find advice and training courses for a Certificate of Competence for using pesticides on the City and Guilds NTPC website.

Read information about the Certificate of Competence for storing and selling pesticides on the BASIS website.

Find out about the plant protection products code of practice on the HSE website.

If you are receiving payments under the SPS or other Common Agricultural Policy scheme, you will also need to comply with the Statutory Management Requirement (SMR) 9 - restrictions on the use of PPPs. This standard aims to ensure that PPPs are used correctly and their risk to humans, animals and the environment is kept to a minimum. You cannot use a pesticide unless it’s been approved under relevant legislation.

View Defra’s guidance on the requirements of SMR 9 - restrictions on the use of PPPs on the ADLib website.

Heather and grass burning

According to the standards of GAEC 10, moorland and heathland landscapes and habitats must be properly maintained. This standard applies to you if you are planning to carry out heather or grass burning on your land.

You must not burn gorse, heather, rough grass, bracken or Vaccinium shrub species outside the burning season, except under a licence issued by Natural England. You also need to take all reasonable cautions to prevent injury or damage to people or adjacent land before, during and after the burning. You should also have enough people and equipment to control the burning during the entire period of the burn.

View Defra’s guidance on the requirements of GAEC 10 - heather and grass burning on the ADLib website.

Download Defra’s guidance on the Heather and Grass Burning Code from the ADLib website (PDF, 145K).

You can also see the guide on heather and grass burning.

Soil management

There are requirements under GAEC 1 - Soil Protection Review to manage the structure and organic matter of the soil on your land and to reduce the risks of erosion.

Download guidance on the requirements of GAEC 1 - SPR from the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) website (PDF, 363K).

Download Defra’s guidance on protecting water, soil and air on your farm from the ADLib website (PDF 1.38 MB).

As well as observing cross compliance requirements you must also be careful to avoid soil erosion and overgrazing. This can be more commonplace in upland areas, depending on the soils, climate and landscape. Peat soils and steep-sloping land can have the most severe erosion. Download Defra’s guidance on controlling soil erosion from the ADLib website (PDF, 819K).

Hill farming

The uplands are a difficult environment for farming and need to be carefully managed. Hill farming is a specialised profession, and it takes careful management to ensure a productive, sustainable farm.

EIAs will help you control your grazing management and maintain the quality and species of vegetation in your upland areas. See the guide on EIAs.

There is financial help available for farmers through government-sponsored compensation schemes such as the Hill Farm Allowance. This scheme is overseen by the Rural Payments Agency as part of the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) 2007-2013.

From July 2010, Natural England will administer The Uplands Entry Level Scheme which will replace the Hill Farm Allowance (HFA). This is a new category of Entry Level Stewardship (ELS).

The Uplands ELS is open to all farmers and land managers in SDAs (Severely Disadvantaged Areas). It will reward farmers and land managers for continuing with and adopting farming practices that conserve the upland landscape and natural environment.

For more information, read the guide on hill farming, Entry Level Stewardship (ELS).

Countryside conservation

Farm support schemes have moved away from production-only based payments to stewardship of the environment and support for other sustainable activities.

The conservation of the rural environment is a main focus of both Defra and Natural England. There are several ways that farmers and land managers can work alongside these organisations to help conserve the landscape features of the countryside and improve public access to it.

Common land

Common land contributes to our landscape’s beauty, character and history.

If you own common land, your rights are subject to statutory controls and the commoners’ interests. As the rules governing the rights to common land are a balance between the interests of the owner and those of the commoners, historically there have been problems with the management of common land. In response to this, the government has introduced legislation which enables common land to be managed more sustainably.

For more information, read the guide on common land.

Public rights of way

Public rights of way (PROWs) provide many opportunities for people to enjoy the natural environment. They are legal highways that anyone can use at any time, even if they cross privately owned land. For more information, see the related guide on public rights of way.

Download a Natural England guide to PROWs and definitive maps in England from the ADLib website (PDF, 330K).


According to GAECs 14 and 15, you need to protect hedgerows on your land, especially when they provide habitats for nesting birds. If you have hedgerows growing in, or adjacent to, any of your land or near watercourses, these GAECs will apply to you.

View Defra’s guidance on the requirements of GAEC 15 - hedgerows on the ADLib website.

View Defra’s guidance on the requirements of GAEC 14 - hedgerows and watercourses on the ADLib website.

If you want to remove a hedgerow, you will have to notify your local authority in writing and receive written permission to carry out the removal. You should receive a reply from them within 42 days.

You must not cut or trim any hedgerow on your land between 1 March and 31 July inclusive each year, as this is the main breeding season for birds. However, there may be an exception to this rule, for example, if the hedgerow:

  • overhangs a highway, road or footpath and can obstruct vehicles, pedestrians or horse riders
  • is dead, diseased, damaged or insecurely rooted and is likely to cause danger by falling on to a road, highway or footpath
  • needs hedge-laying or coppicing during the period of 1 March to 30 April inclusive
  • has been laid within six months and needs trimming

Important hedgerows are protected from removal by the Hedgerows Regulations 1997.

Read advice for managing your hedgerows on the Natural England website.

Drystone walls

The standards of GAEC 13 encourage the maintenance and retention of drystone walls as an important landscape feature. These apply to you if you have drystone walls on your land.

View Defra’s guidance on the requirements of GAEC 13 - stone walls on the ADLib website.

You must not remove a stone wall from your land, or a stone from a stone wall on your land. However, there are exceptions to this rule, for example, if you need to:

  • widen an existing gateway in a wall to enable access for livestock or machinery - the gateway should be no wider than ten metres
  • repair another stone wall on your land that’s in a better condition than the one from which a stone is removed
  • make minor repairs to a public footpath


Biodiversity refers to all plant and animal species and the habitats they live in. In the UK, these can be affected by climate change, competition from non-native species, loss of habitat or poor habitat management.

The government’s strategy for conserving biodiversity is set out in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, which aims to:

  • protect wildlife sites
  • promote the recovery of declining species and habitats
  • encourage biodiversity through official policy
  • encourage people to become involved in conservation schemes

Download Natural England guidance on conserving biodiversity from the ADLib website (PDF, 315K)

Nationally important sites for biodiversity are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and Natural England can advise on their management. For more information, see the guide on SSSI and historical monuments.

Defra aims to minimise the negative impacts of farming and agriculture on the natural habitats for wildlife in the UK through various schemes, such as Environmental Stewardship, which is administered by Natural England.

Natural England also gives advice on a range of wildlife management issues and issues licences under a range of wildlife legislation. For more information, read the guide on managing and conserving wildlife.

For more information on the control and protection of various species of wildlife in the UK, see the guides on wild birds, wild mammals and wild plants.

Climate change and land management

Climate change is viewed as a serious, long-term challenge by the UK government, and farmers will be among the first to feel the full impacts, as the potential increase of temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will affect crop yields and increase the risks of pests and diseases. As such, farmers have a responsibility to manage their land in environmentally responsible ways.

The European Union’s (EU’s) Common Agricultural Policy provides financial support to farmers for a number of farming, environmental and rural development activities.

One area of focus for EU legislation has been on agricultural emissions. Carbon emissions come mainly from animals’ digestive processes and wastes, fertilizer use and land-use change. The erosion or drainage of peat and fenland soils, along with the use of fossil fuels in agriculture, can also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. However, while there are regulations that affect farmers by aiming to control these emissions, there are also opportunities for new crops and businesses as a result of climate change.

For example, as a part of the aim to reduce greenhouse gases, farmers are encouraged to produce biogas from anaerobic digestion, which captures methane from organic wastes like slurries and manures. Doing so can also reduce waste costs for farmers.

For more information, see the guide on using renewable energy.

Farmers are also being encouraged to grow energy crops. These are used as a substitute for fossil fuels, so they can contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and help to combat climate change.

Defra works to implement air-quality standards across the UK. This includes the monitoring of CO2 emissions and ammonia levels, as well as encouraging farmers and land managers to use environmentally responsible practices. For more information, see the guides on air pollution on farms and air, water and soil quality: the basics.

Land management schemes

There are various land and conservation schemes in the UK that aim to protect the countryside, as well as the species and their habitats within it.

Environmental Stewardship provides funding to farmers and other land managers in England who deliver effective environmental management on their land under a wide range of options. The main objectives of this scheme are to:

  • conserve biodiversity
  • maintain and enhance the quality and character of the landscape
  • protect the historic environment
  • protect natural resources
  • promote public access to the countryside

There are three components of the Environmental Stewardship Scheme:

  • Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) - is open to all farmers and landowners, and promotes good stewardship of the countryside through effective land management beyond SPS requirements to maintain land in good agricultural and environmental condition. See the guide on [ELS)(
  • Organic Entry Level Stewardship (OELS) - is targeted at organic or organic/conventional mixed-farming systems. It is only open to farmers not receiving Organic Farming Scheme aid. See the guide on OELS.
  • Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) - involves more complex types of land management, where farmers and land managers need further advice and support. HLS applications are much more detailed and are assessed against specific local targets. See the guide on HLS.

Download the Defra’s guidance on the protection of water, soil and air on farms from the ADLib website (PDF 1.38MB).

The Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) is a voluntary initiative to encourage farmers and land managers to adopt important land practices that replicate the environmental benefits formerly provided by set-aside to avoid regulation. Read about the CFE and its objectives on the CFE website.

The English Woodland Grant Scheme (EWGS) aims to encourage woodland creation and management of existing woodlands, and is available to all private landowners.

Before applying for an EWGS, you and your land must be registered on the Customer Register and the Rural Land Register. For more information, see the guide on registering your land.

You can also find Defra’s customer and land registration information on the ADLib website.

Environmental regulations

There are a number of regulations and codes that aim to protect and conserve the natural environment, including:

Environmental protection is also influenced by new European legislation. The Environmental Damage (Prevention and Remediation) Regulations 2009 aim to prevent and repair damage to land, water and biodiversity.

Find Defra’s environmental damage prevention and remediation guidance on the ADLib website.

Organisations that can help

Below are details of organisations that can offer advice on managing and conserving your land.

Natural England is responsible for conserving and enhancing the natural environment, and for the licensing of protected species in England. Find information about Natural England’s work on the Natural England website, or call the Natural England Enquiry Service on 0845 600 3078.

A major role of Defra is to help the farming industry operate efficiently. Defra administers European support policies that provide around £3 billion to UK agriculture. It also administers the Whole Farm Approach, which offers a faster, more efficient way for farmers and growers to meet regulatory requirements. Defra oversees a number of agencies that work with farmers. Find information about Defra’s work on the Defra website.

The RPA is an Executive Agency of Defra that is responsible for delivering Common Agricultural Policy payments. Its remit includes implementing Defra’s policies on cross compliance and running the SPS. Find information about the RPA on the RPA website.

You can also read the guide on the SPS.

The Grazing Advice Partnership (GAP) was formed to aid the development of conservation grazing throughout the UK. For more information, see ‘Farm land use and management’. You can read about the work of the GAP on the GAP website.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) represents the farmers and growers of England and Wales. You can read about the work of the NFU on their website.

Farmers are likely to come into contact with local authorities over a number of farming, land use, food standards and environmental regulations. Your local authority may also be able to provide further information or resources.

You can find contact details for your local authority in the Contacts Directory.

Further information

NFU Callfirst Helpline

0870 845 8458

Grazing Advice Partnership (GAP)

01666 511 304

Defra Textphone Helpline

0845 300 1998

Natural England Enquiry Service

0845 600 3078

RPA Customer Service Centre

0845 603 7777

Defra Helpline

08459 33 55 77

Cross Compliance Helpline

0845 345 1302

Defra’s environmental damage prevention and remediation guidance on the ADLib website

Download Defra’s water, soil and air protection for farmers from the ADLib website (PDF 1.38 MB)

Defra’s nutrient management and fertiliser-use guidance on the ADLib website

Fertiliser guidelines and best practice on the AIC website

PSD information on the HSE website

Plant protection products code of practice on the HSE website

Pesticide-related training courses and Certificate of Competence information on the City and Guilds NTPC website

Certificate of Competence information for storing and selling pesticides on the BASIS website

Download Defra guidance on controlling soil erosion from the ADLib website (PDF, 819K)

Defra’s GAEC 9 - overgrazing and unsuitable supplementary feeding guidance on the ADLib website

Defra’s SMR 9 - restrictions on the use of PPPs guidance on the ADLib website

Defra’s GAEC 10 - heather and grass burning guidance on the ADLib website

Download Defra’s 2007 version of the Heather and Grass Burning Code from the ADLib website (PDF, 145K)

Download GAEC 1 - SPR guidance from the RPA website (PDF, 363K)

Project directory and discussion forums on the RDPE Network website

Download a Natural England guide to PROWs and definitive maps in England from the ADLib website (PDF, 330K)

Defra’s GAEC 15 - hedgerows guidance on the ADLib website

Defra’s GAEC 14 - hedgerows and watercourses guidance on the ADLib website

Defra’s GAEC 13 - stone walls guidance on the ADLib website

Download Natural England biodiversity conservation guidance from the ADLib website (PDF, 315K)

Defra’s customer and land registration information on the ADLib website

CFE profile on the CFE website

Heather and grass burning code and guides on the Natural England website

Natural England’s work and services information on the Natural England website

Cross compliance requirements information on the Cross Compliance website

NFU work and services information on the NFU website

Published 17 September 2012
Last updated 13 June 2013 + show all updates
  1. Fixing references to specialist guides
  2. First published.