Defra’s new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme must stop the uplands from being destocked and wilded by stealth, says Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association.
Britain’s hill farmers are at the top of the pile – literally and metaphorically.
They farm in the highest and harshest conditions, where the term multi-functional land management is in a league of its own.
But they are also at the top of the list with the pressure on their farming activities.
Critics say hill farming is unviable and without the brown envelope it wouldn’t survive, and usually when rewilding or tree planting is talked about, the conversation easily slips into our hills and uplands.
In contrast, much of the positive TV coverage of livestock farming featuring hill farming effuses over the wonderful landscape, the wildlife, the pride in the livestock, and the resilience of the people and their communities.
So where will this unique bit of our farming industry be as we settle into a post-Brexit Britain?
There is little doubt that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) looked after the hill sector.
EU treaties are explicit in their support for farming incomes and rural livelihoods – and there are few places easier to argue for support than our uplands.
But society’s needs are changing, and Britain is ahead of the curve in in our enthusiasm for more resilient businesses, and incentivising and rewarding the wider goods that are wanted from farmland, such as the protection of natural capital in the form of soil, air and water, and climate change mitigation work and nature recovery.
I’ve always been pretty comfortable with the general direction that emerged for farming after the 2016 referendum, and if we’re honest we’ve known for many years where our Governments would like to go had they the freedom.
For farming enterprises to optimise (not maximise) efficiency and be more profitable is something we would all want, and for support to come more in the form of a reward that recognises the delivery of public goods should mean it’s all more explainable to those who graciously give their money.
Government now has the freedom to do this, but even if you sign up to the principles, the devil will still be very much in the detail.
The challenge for our hill farming sector is that they really are at the top of the hill when it comes to opinions over what we want from our uplands.
Everyone and his (or her) dog seems to know best, and in the meantime, hill farmers are being squeezed to the point of being strangled due to having to reduce stock numbers further every time a new agreement is reached.
The experiences of many of our most traditional hill farmers, grazing upland commons with the most native of breeds, suggests there is an agenda not to maintain biodiverse semi-natural grasslands and grazing habitats, but to change them into a totally different environment, and in the process lose irreplaceable genetics, skills, and culture.
In England, soon after we finally complete our EU departure on December 31, we will see the start of Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme national pilots and possibly a new Sustainable Farming Incentive.
Maybe this will all lead to a place where we provide for nature recovery and climate change mitigation through farming and not instead of it.
It is, after all, farming that created what makes these areas so attractive and appealing to residents and visitors alike.
But in the interim, for those driven into CSS and HLS renewals, it seems Natural England are still using the same hated income foregone metrics and requiring farmers to go one step further – and the easiest way to calculate income foregone is to reduce stocking levels.
Ironically, this is now to a level that presents a terminal challenge to the farming methods that underpinned the creation of these areas in the first place.
Whether it’s the ease of this calculation or an underlying objective to fundamentally change the fauna and flora of the uplands, I’m not sure.
But if there is hope that ELMs will be our salvation, then we still have another four or five years to put up with what many who make their living in these areas would say is a form of social clearance and wilding by stealth.