In the latest in our Shape Your Farming Future series, Charlotte Cunningham speaks to farmers on Exmoor and upland representatives from across the UK to discuss their post-Brexit hopes and fears.
Hill farmers are calling for the Government to help preserve upland areas for the public and pledge support for farm businesses as Brexit looms closer.
The farmer-led Exmoor Hill Farming Network (EHFN) has stated its ambitions for the future of the uplands, known as ‘The Exmoor Ask’, in order to raise awareness of the needs of those farming on such a diverse landscape.
For a sustainable future, farmers are asking for a package of public and private investment post-Brexit to achieve their two main targets: keeping benefits of the moors for the public in terms of tourism and diverse wildlife; and providing support for farm businesses to allow for landscape maintenance.
Exmoor covers more than 18,300 hectares (45,220 acres) in Devon, with 28 per cent of this under regulation to protect distinctive wildlife. As well as this, it is home to 18 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), more than 500 wildlife sites and produces about 200,000 lambs and 10,000 calves each year.
Therefore, farming the hills is often a mixture of both livestock farming and landscape management. With Brexit plans and possible support schemes yet to be firmed up, James Taylor, a beef and sheep farmer near Exford, believes now is the time to act. He said: “Defra does not seem to have picked the direction it is going in yet.
It is very much a blank page at the moment. Now is the time for the uplands to speak up.” Robin Milton, NFU uplands forum chairman and a member of the EHFN steering group, said reinforcing the importance of agriculture in Parliament was something farmers must take into their own hands.
He said: “When it comes to agenda, we must make sure the Government realises farming’s importance. Agriculture is a valuable resource.” David Knight, chairman of the EHFN, said it was most important for policymakers to realise each upland is completely unique.
He said: “Schemes in the past have been very broad and now we need more control. As farmers and custodians, we know land better than anyone.
“Especially on Exmoor with the National Park, all the infrastructure is here to make it work. We just need an injection of money to make what could be a very exciting environmental scheme.”
Mr Milton suggested one way to structure a new support scheme would be to look to the best of the past. He said: “If we look to the old Hill Farm Allowance Scheme, the purpose of this was to protect and enhance the social, cultural, economic and environmental value of the landscape.
“Going forward, we need to bring back a simple, area-based scheme. We have the ability now to build something bespoke to really benefit the environment and create a basis for business support.”
Keeping farming communities on the moors tops the list of priorities and business support is vital to enable this, added Mr Taylor. He said: “Particularly on Exmoor, there is a very strong family theme. In a recent state of farming on the moors survey, the average age of a farmer on Exmoor is below the national average.”
It is vital to maintain these social connections, added Mr Milton. He said: “We have to keep young people here. Without them, the area will die. Farming moorlands keeps post offices, pubs, schools and shops thriving.
“Those which are here are desperate to stay.” Trade deals are an immediate concern to hill farmers, and regardless of leaving the EU, there has to be change, said Mr Milton.
“Even the best-case scenario, which is keeping trading as it is now, is unsustainable for beef and sheep farmers.
There is obvious concern, but there are also opportunities. “A bad deal with Europe would remove early trade of hill lambs, on which we are dependent; but what works in our favour is the UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world.”
Training is another way to help sustain upland farming, said Mr Taylor.
“We need to get farmers talking more. Having funding to bring advice onto the moors will really help farm businesses thrive. We are considering a low interest rate system to encourage innovation, and financial support could help grow this.”
As a young farmer, Tim Milton agreed support was needed to ensure sustainability on the moorlands, but claimed Brexit put the upcoming generation in a position to move away from dependence on subsidies.
He said: “The current Basic Payment Scheme does not always enable efficient farming. “In an ideal world, a performance-based system would work best on the hills, but monitoring this would be difficult.
“However, without a subsidy, the landscape here would struggle to be maintained. Exmoor looks how it does because of hundreds of years of farmers.
While preserving it may cost a huge amount of money, you cannot put a price on heritage – it is invaluable.” Robin Milton added public support and awareness of the importance of upland farming was one of the biggest immediate challenges.
He said: “If we want to maintain a farmed landscape, support is crucial. It is, after all, a public asset.”
SION POWELL, DENBIGHSHIRE
“As a lamb producer, I would like to retain our tariff-free access to customers in the EU. It is a well-established market which does not need disruption.
“As a beef producer, I am wary of trying to compete with imported beef produced with hormones if the free trade deal with the USA goes ahead.
“Imports which have been produced to lower standards should not have free access to our market. “With regards to subsidies, I think few would argue the present system is perfect. But whatever changes there will be, I would like to see a gentle transition so farming businesses could have time to plan ahead and adapt.”
WILL COCKBAIN, CUMBRIA
“In my opinion, we need to be looking at two main aspects: livestock farming and environmental management.
With regards to livestock, about 40 per cent of sheep in England and Wales are produced in the uplands – a very significant figure and many other jobs further up the chain rely on this.
Also, it is vital we have tariff-free access to our main EU market. “For environmental policy, we need to look back as well as forward and use some of the better elements from schemes such as the Hill Farm Allowance and Environmentally Sensitive Areas for simple, but effective, delivery.
We also need to focus on the delivery. “I would really like to see more of a focus on active farmer support – ownership of land should not be a licence to entitlement.
There needs to be an element of cross-compliance included and perhaps area-specific payments: for example, in the Lake District, stone walls are a big, but very costly, part of the heritage.”
JEN CRAIG, LANARKSHIRE
“I would like to see a more viable market for our produce with less control by supermarkets, alongside more support for home-grown produce and our industry from supermarkets and consumers.
“In addition to this, we need continued [financial] support for farmers and rural communities in the hills and uplands, as well as a greater appreciation and acknowledgement of the environmental benefits our type of farming provides.
“All of this would help encourage young people to stay in the hills, but also give others a reason to come and live, work and farm, which is what we need to thrive in the years ahead.”