Scepticism greets new deal for hill farmers

A new government review outlines a plan for the future of England’s uplands. Roger Ratcliffe finds out how it has been received on the ground.

There has always been a fair degree of suspicion, sometimes even resentment, in hill-farming communities whenever they have been paid a visit by “the man from the Ministry”.

Back in the 1980s, the Government’s Countryside Commission – forerunner of Natural England – went on tour round village halls in far-flung places from Dartmoor up to Northumberland, taking in villages like Reeth and Kirkbymoorside along the way, with a consultation exercise called “What Future For The Uplands?”

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The actor, Robert Powell, fresh from his triumphant starring role in Jesus of Nazareth on TV, was engaged to do the voice-over for a swish audio-visual presentation.

This said something along the lines of “Don’t worry, the Countryside Commission is not going to play God in the uplands”, which prompted one wag to say aloud: “Well then, why have you hired his son to do t’ commentary?”

The latest official vision for England’s uplands has just been produced by Defra, the Department of Food and Rural Affairs.

Its Uplands Policy Review sets out a range of actions it will take in partnership with private and voluntary sectors as well as public bodies. Using words that hark back to the 1980s, the intention would be to secure a “sustainable future for the uplands”.

With the long-awaited review comes an immediate £26m package of measures, including £20m for rural broadband and £6m to help hill farmers undertake more environmental management.

The Defra secretary, Caroline Spelman, said that while the English uplands weren’t in crisis, the country couldn’t afford to be complacent about their future.

“They have often been neglected by policy-makers, but this Government attaches great importance to these special places.”

A key challenge, she went on, was to ensure that hill farmers were rewarded adequately, so that providing public goods alongside producing food became a core element of the hill-farming sector.

“There are enormous opportunities for the uplands as thriving, competitive farming businesses delivering food to the market in a sustainable way; management of ecosystem services to enhance the natural environment and biodiversity and a growing, green economy that can help build resilience to climate change.”

She added that it was vital for hill farmers to diversify their activities, and find other business opportunities.

The review highlighted why uplands are so important. Nearly 50,000 people are employed in upland agriculture.

More than 60 per cent of the English uplands are designated as National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or Sites of Special Scientific Interest, while 80 per cent of our unenclosed common land is found there.

And the uplands are the catchment for some 70 per cent of our drinking water.

Says the report: “The English uplands are nationally and internationally important for the value of their landscapes, biodiversity, agriculture, recreational opportunities, archaeology, and cultural and natural resources.

“While the uplands face all the challenges common to most rural areas, the strength of their communities and their exceptional natural resources provide real opportunities to create a more sustainable future.”

The Government is committing to helping achieve this, Defra says, and its review will identify conditions which will enable the English uplands to “become more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.”

Most people who live in urban areas think places like the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors are prosperous, mainly because of the high value of all those beautiful stone-built cottages with roses round their doors.

But uplands have been defined as Less Favoured Areas, economically. An average upland farm income in 2008/9 was £25,700 compared with the average farm income in England of £50,900.

The review has been welcomed by the Campaign for National Parks, whose uplands specialist, Christine Reid, said: “‘The ‘big idea’ in the Government’s policy statement is to move towards a system of paying farmers for work that they do to improve the uplands for the benefit of society – we strongly support this principle and believe that it will benefit communities and economies as well as the environment.

“The Government has rightly recognised that this is a resource worthy of protection, particularly from complex challenges like climate change.”

However, the review was greeted with scepticism by Alastair Davy, who in the past has led delegations of Yorkshire hill farmers to Downing Street to plead for more financial help.

Mr Davy, who rears hill sheep, crossbreds and a pedigree Limousin herd on a hill farm in Swaledale, says that the general trend in the economics of hill farming was still downwards, and farmers could not hope to recoup their costs from what they got at the market.

“The figures are now showing that they would make a loss if it wasn’t for subsidies, and we are in a loss-making situation if you take into account the extra costs we are now incurring on things like fuel and feeds.”

Hill farmers, he went on, need to make a return from their core business of stock rearing, which keeps them in business in the uplands, and looking after the land the way “everybody wants to see it and enjoy it” .

The subsidies they receive for that, he said, kept many farmers going in areas like Swaledale.

He wasn’t sure how many hill farmers could diversify to earn more money at a time when everyone was feeling the financial squeeze.

The National Farmers’ Union’s spokesman on uplands, Will Cockbain, said he was “reasonably positive” about the uplands review.

“I’m pleased that Defra recognises the contribution made by hill farmers to England’s livestock sector, which is 44 per cent of sheep, 31 per cent of beef herds and even one-sixth of dairy herds.

“Some people have always regarded hill farming as a niche activity, but quite clearly it’s volume production we’re talking about, which deserves recognition by the Government.”

One area of concern, however, was that the majority of upland farms are run by tenants, and the Uplands Review’s payments for eco-system services such as moorland restoration to combat climate change and flood risk should reward tenants for the work they do.

Cash for access decision reversed

Defra has done a U-turn over plans to cut access payments to some farmers who organise educational visits for schoolchildren, reported here two weeks ago.

The cash – an annual base payment of £500 plus £100 per visit – was withdrawn for new HLS agreements following the Spending Review in November.

But this has now been reversed. Payments for capital items to support educational access visits will also continue.

Defra says this decision responds to concerns raised about the effect of the cuts. In reinstating the payments, Ministers have underlined their belief in the importance of the countryside as a valuable learning environment.