IN an ideal world, the interests of owners and commoners would complement each other perfectly, but the dispute between the Lowther Estate Trust and graziers on Grasmere Common reminds us that this is not always the case.
While the setting for this dispute was Cumbria, it might just as easily have happened in Yorkshire. It highlights the need to ensure that commoners and graziers are not adversely affected by the way in which the latest Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reforms are implemented on common land.
On April 25, Defra announced that moorland farmers would receive about £26 more per hectare under CAP Pillar One payments from next year. This is great news and a victory for the commons since 96 per cent of upland commons are above the moorland line.
Yet further work is needed to ensure that a victory for the commons also becomes a victory for active farmers and graziers. Last year, during an Efra Committee inquiry that I chaired on CAP implementation 2014-2020, former NFU president Peter Kendall said: “I bat for productive farming... It is important that we continue our environmental performance as well but I do not bat for people who just own land.”
I very much share these sentiments. The North York Moors National Park Authority owns less than one per cent of the North York Moors, with around 80 per cent in private ownership. It is owned mainly by private estates and farmers who manage the land to support grouse shooting and sheep farming.
It is absolutely crucial that those who are actively involved in the commons (active farmers/graziers or at least those who form an active part in the management of the commons) receive payment whereas people with nothing to do with the commons do not receive payment.
Lessons must also be learnt from the way in which the existing direct payment system, the Single Payment Scheme (SPS), was implemented in relation to common land. The Foundation for Common Land reported that, due to the way the SPS is calculated, an area representing approximately 20 per cent of upland commons does not receive payment under the SPS. Going forward, we must ensure that payments to active graziers are made on the whole common.
Inaccurate and out-of-date commons registers have created further problems. In December last year, the Efra Committee urged the Government to ensure that accurate registers of common land are available for the purposes of mapping and payment. I therefore welcomed the Government’s announcement that Part I of the Commons Act 2006 would be fully implemented in Cumbria and North Yorkshire, the counties with the highest hectarage of common land in England.
The Government must now ensure that these changes are rolled out across the whole country.
The challenge of ensuring that CAP money goes where it is most needed also applies to Pillar Two agri-environment schemes (AES). A November 2013 report published by the Foundation for Common Land showed that the apportionment of AES payment between active graziers and common owners varies widely between regions. In Cumbria, 95 per cent of the money goes to active graziers. In Yorkshire, the figure is 75 per cent, while in Durham only around 50 per cent of goes to the graziers. Natural England should be prepared to get more involved in AES agreements and confirm that CAP money is going into the hands of the people on the ground who are actually doing the prescribed job, rather than to third parties.
In the past, there have been situations in which commoners and tenants have been prevented from entering into agri-environment schemes because landowners have refused to give their consent. There have also been concerns about owners using their right to veto the entry of common land into agri-environment schemes to lever unwarranted requests into agreements. It is unacceptable for landowners to unreasonably object to agri-environment schemes as a way of extracting additional payments from tenants or influencing agreements.
Common land makes a vital contribution to the beauty, character and history of our landscape and, by its very nature, accommodates multiple interests and uses. This can sometimes lead to tensions. It is therefore essential that the various interests on the moors and uplands are respected, so that neither the graziers, nor owners, nor those with shooting rights are disadvantaged.
Anne McIntosh is MP for Thirsk, Malton and Filey and chair of the EFRA Select Committee. She will address a meeting of Commoners at the National Park Offices, Helmsley, today.