‘Hill farms at risk’ if landown­ers paid to look af­ter en­vi­ron­ment

Gove plans ‘threaten liveli­hoods and iconic land­scape’

Yorkshire Post - - BREXIT SPECIAL - DAVID BEHRENS COUNTY CORRESPONDENT ■ Email: david.behrens@ypn.co.uk ■ Twit­ter: @york­shire­post

THE SUR­VIVAL of Yorkshire’s hill farms has been thrown into doubt by the Gov­ern­ment’s “green blue­print” for agri­cul­ture af­ter Brexit, two ex­perts warned last night.

Pro­pos­als by the En­vi­ron­ment Sec­re­tary, Michael Gove, to re­place the long-stand­ing scheme of ba­sic pay­ments to farm­ers cal­cu­lated ac­cord­ing to acreage, with one that re­wards en­vi­ron­men­tal ini­tia­tives, could also have the ef­fect of chang­ing the sig­na­ture land­scape of the Yorkshire Dales, it was sug­gested.

The draft of Mr Gove’s lon­gawaited Agri­cul­ture Bill, pub­lished on Wed­nes­day, pro­poses pay­ing farm­ers and land man­agers for “pub­lic goods” such as higher en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards.

But a direct con­se­quence could be a re­duc­tion in the num­ber of an­i­mals left to graze on the county’s up­lands, it is claimed.

The first warn­ings emerged on Thurs­day at a con­fer­ence hosted by the Up­per Nid­derdale Land­scape Part­ner­ship, at Pate­ley Bridge.

Chris Clark, a ru­ral business ad­vi­sor who farms near Buck­den in up­per Wharfedale, told del­e­gates that un­der the plans, only farms with re­duced stocks of an­i­mals would be fi­nan­cially vi­able.

He said the ac­counts from more than 50 such farms, some com­piled for Mr Gove’s en­vi­ron­ment depart­ment by Askham Bryan Col­lege in York, had “turned con­ven­tional wis­dom on its head” about the way up­land farm­ing was fi­nanced.

“It’s en­tirely counter-in­tu­itive and we have been very sur­prised by the find­ings. But I’ve seen

prob­a­bly 25 hill farms now and the col­lege has seen 35 more and they’re all ex­hibit­ing the same char­ac­ter­is­tics,” Mr Clark told The Yorkshire Post.

“The con­clu­sion is that if there isn’t enough nat­u­ral grass, there’s no amount of cor­rec­tive eco­nomic ac­tion that can make the farm­ing in the hills any more prof­itable.

“We have also found that for each farm there is a max­i­mum sus­tain­able stock­ing rate and be­yond that, the prof­itabil­ity of that farm re­verses.”

He added: “This com­pletely blows out of the wa­ter the economies of scale business model that hill farm­ers have been en­cour­aged to fol­low for the last 20, 30 or 40 years.”

Mr Clark said the re­sult of Mr Gove’s pro­pos­als could be a whole­sale move away from rear­ing an­i­mals on hill farms.

He ac­knowl­edged: There’s huge worry about up­lands turn­ing to scrub, and I un­der­stand that, but it is bet­ter for farm­ers to have a more vi­able business where they have less stock and where the cattle and the sheep pick out the bits that want graz­ing.”

The Gov­ern­ment’s pro­posal is to phase out direct farm sub­si­dies – which Min­is­ters con­sider in­ef­fec­tive be­cause they skew the sys­tem to­wards the largest landown­ers – over a seven-year pe­riod from 2021.

Joe Bon­ner, head of the ru­ral business re­search unit at Askham Bryan Col­lege, said: “If sub­si­dies re­duce as they are fore­cast to do, the farm­ing en­vi­ron­ment will have to change.

“In the fu­ture, more ef­fort is go­ing to be put into en­vi­ron­men­tal re­sources and there will be fewer an­i­mals graz­ing on up­land ar­eas of the Dales.”

Paul Burgess, manager of the Nid­derdale Area of Out­stand­ing Nat­u­ral Beauty, which over­sees the lottery-funded Land­scape Part­ner­ship, said: “Business as usual isn’t go­ing to be an op­tion, and the of­ten-re­peated solution of in­creas­ing stock num­bers to try and in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity won’t nec­es­sar­ily make hill farms more prof­itable.

“In fact, the ev­i­dence is to the con­trary. Sim­ply in­creas­ing stock­ing num­bers and in­creas­ing vol­umes will make farms less prof­itable and more vul­ner­a­ble to change.”

Mr Gove said the Agri­cul­ture Bill would “al­low us to re­ward farm­ers who pro­tect our en­vi­ron­ment, leav­ing the coun­try­side in a cleaner, greener and health­ier state for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions”.

PIC­TURES: JAMES HARDISTY.

UN­WEL­COME CHANGE: Up­land farm­ing in the Yorkshire Dales could be thrown into doubt by changes in sub­si­dies.

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