In the first part of Farmers Guardian’s special investigation in to the future of upland farming, we examine the options around new support schemes, the influence of environmentalists, and how some farmers are using Brexit as a catalyst to reshape their businesses.
Britain’s upland farmers find themselves at the leading edge of the debate on how best to shape agricultural policy away from the demands of the European Union.
Central to numerous facets such as food production, landscape preservation and environmental protection, farmers in the hills are nonetheless nervous about what the future holds and how Government Ministers will seek to preserve their agricultural output as well as their cultural influence.
The scores of farmers who have spoken to Farmers Guardian as part of this special investigation share common concerns about what future environmental payments will look like; the influence wielded by environmentalists which they feel seek to attack and undermine farming’s role in the hills; and the continuation of a way of life which has shaped iconic parts of Britain’s landscape while attracting millions of tourists every year.
Defra Secretary Michael Gove, speaking at a Countryside Alliance fringe event at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month, committed to ‘making sure we preserve communities in less favoured areas’.
He also recognised upland landscapes are ‘iconic and attractive, but they are also a workplace’.
Yet there is healthy scepticism among upland farmers and representative bodies for the claims of Mr Gove.
And this same scrutiny is being applied to Lesley Griffiths in Wales and Fergus Ewing in Scotland by the upland farmers in those nations. Northern Ireland, still without a Government, faces different challenges, complicated by the border issue, and which we will explore specifically in a country focus later in the series.
Julia Aglionby, who chairs the Uplands Alliance in England, spoke for many when she said while the recently released Agriculture Bill might lean in the right direction in some respects, the lack of policy detail was a great concern.
Ms Aglionby, who also heads up the Foundation for Common Land, said: “We have been clear we need explicit support for traditional forms of livestock in the uplands, as well as the lowlands, which delivers the pastoral landscape which most people really enjoy.”
The Uplands Alliance has even taken the step of writing to MPs and industry stakeholders to seek amendments to the Agriculture Bill and support for its agenda.
NFU uplands chairman Thomas Binns, who farms several thousand sheep at Dowham, Lancashire, believed farmers were central to the delivery of ‘food production as well as landscape’.
This dual purpose was touched on time and again by those FG spoke to, with many angered politicians seemed to take an attitude that food production was merely a byproduct of environmental management, whereas those on the ground saw it as being fundamentally the other way round.
Mr Binns added: “The Basic Payment Scheme [BPS] is a cheap insurance to ensure a constant food supply.
“There is £3.2 billion in Common Agricultural Policy [CAP] support every year but only about £300m lands in the hills in the form of BPS, so some could argue there could be more [for the uplands].
“It depends how they slice it in terms of environmental and public goods and whether this means more coming in to the hills.
“And if we end up adopting World Trade Organisation rules there could be money set aside for all rural communities and farmers, not just in the uplands.”
Both Mr Binns and Ms Aglionby called for short-term assurances to be provided for those exiting environmental schemes in the next few years – something we will explore in the next week’s edition of FG.
The balance between getting environmental payments right, however, and whether direct payments should be retained is causing divisions to emerge in other parts of the UK.
While there seems to be acceptance in England a future scheme will move to purely environmental payments, in Wales the two main representative bodies are at loggerheads.
The Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) was aggressively calling for direct payments to be retained, while NFU Cymru struck a more conciliatory tone following the publication of the ‘Brexit and Our Land’ consultation document by Welsh Government.
South Wales regional vice-president for the FUW, Ian Rickman, who farms sheep near Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, said: “The Welsh Government, with its consultation on proposals for the future, has just piled another level of uncertainty on.
“They have more or less said Basic Payments are gone and we are moving to business efficiency grants and public goods payments, but there is no modelling, costing or figures for payments.
“They are going to take it away with one hand and they are offering nothing back, other than an aspiration.”
There is also concern any cash earmarked for agriculture post-Brexit could be swallowed up by the cost of administering the new scheme and large payments for ‘land managers’ such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, leaving less money for farmers who keep the rural economy going.
Hedd Pugh, NFU Cymru rural affairs board chairman, was equally alarmed and called for all farmers to respond to the Brexit and Our Land consultation, which closes on October 30.
The beef and sheep farmer from Dolgellau pointed out support payments were key to the economic vibrancy of rural areas as the money ultimately went out from the farms and in to a myriad of businesses which relied on agriculture, including feed merchants, machinery dealers and so on.
He added: “We [farmers] will have to adapt as we have done for centuries, but we have always had the support of Government over the years. However, the Welsh paper [Brexit and our Land] does not seem interested in producing food.
“Food production and environmental production work together and this is what the beauty has been with BPS and environmental schemes working together.
“Doing away with direct payments by 2025 will have a major effect on farming in Wales.”
If there is one thing hill farmers in Scotland cherish, it is the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme (LFASS).
For many upland producers on extensive systems it is seen as more important than the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). Scotland is the only territory in the UK to have maintained such an upland support scheme and any threat to it will be fiercely resisted by those who rely on it.
The £65 million scheme delivers what NFU Scotland calls ‘lifeline support’ to 11,000 farmers and crofters, but it is under threat, whether within the EU or outside of it.
Under EU rules, LFASS must be wound down to be replaced with a yet-to-be-designed ‘Areas of Natural Constraint’ scheme. Under what is known as ‘the parachute’, LFASS is due to be reduced to 80 per cent of its 2007-2013 level in 2019 and to 20 per cent by 2020.
Out of the EU in a post-Brexit situation, there is of course no clarity as to what level of funding there might be from Westminster. This is a point continually pushed by Scottish Rural Affairs Secretary Fergus Ewing.
In the short-term, NFUS is arguing for an EU derogation to the parachute reductions.
NFUS director of policy Jonnie Hall said: “The case will be built around the extreme challenges of the last 12 months, including significant stock losses.
“If LFASS payments were cut then it would threaten the explicit policy objectives of allowing farmers and crofters to continue to operate as viable businesses, thus avoiding the risk of land abandonment.”