Back to website

Hill farming 3 articles from the Western Morning News July 7 2005


The dire financial prospects facing many Westcountry hill farmers stem from the way the Government chose to implement the Common Agricultural Policy reforms in England. The reforms, agreed two years ago, led to the "decoupling" (separating) of farm subsidies from production, but left the detailed implementation to individual member states. Wales, Scotland and most EU countries have opted to continue making payments based on historic levels of production for the foreseeable future, in order to provide continuity and stability.

This system was rejected by the Rural Affairs Secretary, Margaret Beckett, who decided that the decoupling should go further. So the farm payment system in England is moving to a system of "area-based" payments over the next few years, as "historic" payments are phased out.

Mrs Beckett said it was impossible to justify making future payments on past levels of production. Instead, she said farmers should be paid for delivering environmental benefits wanted by the public. The new system means farmers will eventually be paid according to the amount of land they have, provided they meet certain environmental standards.

However, farmers in upland areas will receive significantly lower payments. By 2012, farmers in moorland areas will receive just 20-40 per hectare, while those in lowland areas will receive 210-230 per hectare. Farmers on the edges of the moors and in other marginal areas will receive a compromise figure of 110-130 per hectare. For farmers in upland areas, the changes could produce a dramatic collapse in income. The previous system, based on the number of animals kept, allowed them to just about scrape a living. Conservationists complained that this system led to overgrazing as farmers increased livestock numbers to boost their payments. Unless meat prices rise substantially, the lower new payments will not maintain farmers' incomes.

What is more, farmers are recognising that they no longer need to keep livestock to qualify for the payments. For many hill farmers the sums available in the future simply do not add up to a living wage.


Changes in government farming policies are threatening the region's upland areas as never before. London Editor, Jason Groves reports

Some of the Westcountry's most beautiful landscapes could go into decline unless the Government takes urgent action to prevent the "collapse" of the upland livestock industry, the National Trust warned yesterday.

In a bleak report, the trust said that livestock farming in upland areas was facing "rapid and unmanaged collapse" as a result of controversial government reforms. The trust, which owns large tracts of land in the Westcountry, said that recent reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) would cut livestock farmers' incomes by half. With many upland livestock farmers already operating on the margins of viability, the report warned that large numbers could be forced out of business in the next few years unless the Government intervened. The report said "urgent action" was needed to prevent the disappearance of the grazing animals that have shaped Britain's much loved landscapes.

Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust, said: "Farming plays a crucial role in maintaining the landscape of some of England's most important upland areas.

"The Government needs to recognise fully the public value of upland farming which supports wildlife, maintains a rich and varied landscape, provides access to millions of people and underpins a vibrant tourism industry.

"Further measures are urgently needed to put upland farming on a more sustainable footing and avoid chaotic change in some of our most cherished landscapes."

The warning comes as farmers begin adjusting to the new financial realities created by reform of the CAP. In future farm payments will be based on the amount of land a farmer owns rather than the number of animals he keeps. But hill farmers will receive substantially lower payments and there are fears that many will decide to stop keeping livestock, or give up farming altogether - leaving some of the country's finest landscapes to return to scrub.

Ian Johnson, spokesman for the South West National Farmers' Union, said that many upland farmers in the region were already struggling to cope with poor farmgate prices.

"Hill farmers have fared worse from the recent changes as a result of arbitrary lines drawn on a map by civil servants in Whitehall," he said. "There is a lot of hard thinking going on in the hills about the future and if you add to that mix the problem of bovine TB it could become all too attractive to throw in the towel."

Richard Haddock, a South Devon beef farmer and chairman of the National Farmers' Union's livestock committee, said that without government intervention livestock numbers would begin to decline dramatically next year.

"I am very pleased that the National Trust have woken up to this, it is something we have been warning about for some time now," he said. "Unless we get a proper package of environmental payments very soon the suckler cow will not be viable, whether it is in the hills or in the lowlands. If that happens it will not just be the landscapes that disappear, it will be the rural economy as well. Farmers may only be a small part of the economy but the food industry is huge."

Former agriculture minister Angela Browning said there was a real risk that the Westcountry's traditional pastoral scenes would disappear in the next few years.

"It is notable that in Wales and Scotland where they have large areas of uplands they have gone for a different system of payments that favours livestock farming. Our Government chose a system that disadvantages livestock farmers and this is the result," Mrs Browning, the Tory MP for Tiverton and Honiton, said.

"In many of these upland areas there is simply no substitute for grazing by livestock. It is all very well the Government talking about environmental payments, but you cannot get machinery and equipment up on to the moors, nor would you want to. You do wonder whether Margaret Beckett understands all this."

The National Trust study was based on a survey of tenant farmers in the north of England. The trust's Julian Lloyd said the issues were much the same for hill farmers in the Westcountry.

"The transition to help farmers move from the previous support regime to other forms of land management have not been put in place," he said. "We are not arguing for the status quo, we recognise that change could have some environmental benefits. But the opportunity for environmental benefits and public gain will be lost if the means to deliver it have fled the hills."

The Lib-Dem environment spokesman Norman Baker said many farmers believed that ministers were "privately cheering" as they were forced out of business: "Hill farming is an integral part of the countryside that we cannot afford to lose."

Colin Breed, the Lib-Dem's rural affairs spokesman, said that some change was inevitable, but warned that the changes could have unforeseen effects: "We could find that problems of overgrazing are replaced by problems of undergrazing."

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs dismissed the report's findings. "It is absolutely wrong to suggest that CAP reform will cause a collapse of hill farming," he said.

"The single payment scheme and environmental stewardship will enable farmers to connect directly with consumers, and put their businesses on a more sustainable footing. It will remove incentives to over-production and farmers will in general be better off.

"However, we recognise that mixed grazing can provide particular environmental benefits, and upland landscapes are among our most treasured."


The Dartmoor known and loved by countless visitors could soon be dramatically changed as a result of the change to Single Farm Payments (SFP), it was claimed yesterday. The warning came from Layland Branfield, who farms near Princetown in the heart of the moor.

He battled through foot and mouth disease, but believes that the change to SFP could be every bit as difficult because the long-term outlook is so unclear.

"The upland landscape is maintained by the pastoralists that populate it, but if we can't make any money there will be no onus on us to keep stock any more," he said.

Five generations of Mr Branfield's family have farmed on Dartmoor and Exmoor, but he wonders how much longer upland farming can continue.

"If you had said to me ten years ago - or even just five years ago - that I would be having this sort of conversation I would have doubted it very much," he said. "We had problems with foot and mouth disease, and I dare not really compare the two situations, but at least we got over foot and mouth.

"With the changes we are getting now there is nothing beyond it, that is unless something happens. The reality is that I have to keep my family."

Mr Branfield, who is the Devon NFU county chairman, said that changes in farming practices on Dartmoor were already having an impact on the landscape.

"There are already tracts of Dartmoor that are becoming impassable simply because there is that much vegetation. The public are finding it hard to fight their way through," he said.

"With the SFP and the reduction in beef prices not giving us any return we can't afford to lose money and so the cattle and sheep populations will disappear.

"Gorse and other vegetation will take over. Some might say that is a wonderful thing, but there is a lot of flora and fauna on Dartmoor that does not like excessive vegetation and so we will lose species diversity.

"By 2008 or 2009 we will have to consider very carefully what we do. Once you lose the farmers you will lose everything that goes with them."

He said that he had already adjusted the livestock on his farm. "We are reducing cattle quite drastically and that is an on-going process," he said.

"We are hedging our bets a little bit. Beef prices have dropped and if I did not reduce numbers I would be using income just to feed cows."