Sustainable farming is pivotal for the future of upland communities, a conference at Newton Rigg College in Penrith heard on Tuesday.
Coming a year on from when controversial environmentalist George Monbiot stood up at the same National Centre for the Uplands conference to defend theories about rewilding, reforesting, and destocking the hills, the focus was back on agriculture.
With a General Election and reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) affecting British agriculture over the past year, the first day of this year’s conference explored the theme of declining subsidy and the need to return the focus to profit from livestock.
Robin Milton, chairman of the NFU uplands group, said: “There is a subtext that you can only make a profit if you do something wrong or damage [the environment].
“If farming was wrecking the environment to such an extent would there actually be anything left?”
The conference came four days after the verdict of this year’s General election was announced as a Conservative majority.
Mr Milton pointed to the prospect of an EU referendum, one of the Conservatives’ main election promises, as he discussed the questions about CAP payment cuts which will, he claimed, inevitably come.
“We have got some real challenges in the next year or two,” he said. “We are in an era where we are going to have to seriously question the CAP.”
Mr Milton pointed to the end of Uplands Entry Level Stewarship (UELS) which the reform of the CAP will bring. He said farmers did not need to be regulated upon to deliver what was right for the environment.
Julia Aglionby, chairman at the Foundation for Common Land, underlined the need to keep businesses sustainable in the hills, but suggested this did not have to come at the cost of environmental stewardship.
“We need to make sure there is a linkage between the biodiversity we are looking for and business returns,” she said.
Ms Aglionby claimed upland farmers needed certainty about their rights and responsibilities in managing the landscape.
Long-term declines in subsidy payments will require a greater focus on productivity in upland farming.
This was the message from David Hall, regional manager for Eblex, during his address to the conference.
He discussed the strength of the pound, which is currently stifling commodity prices and is likely to hit Basic Payment Scheme payments, as well as declining subsidy and the upcoming EU referendum.
He claimed improvements could be made through collecting data and information on grassland and livestock management.