Warnings that loss of hill farms may destroy upland landscape

marksimonbrown mark at tlio.org.uk
Sat Nov 8 14:16:05 GMT 2008

Loss of hill farms could destroy rare upland landscape, experts warn
National parks fear a knock-on effect on precious environments if
sheep and cattle farms collapse
by Steven Morris
The Guardian, Friday November 7 2008

Precious upland landscape in Britain will be changed forever if hill
farmers are driven out of business because of changes to the way their
funding is allocated, national park chiefs have warned.

New figures show that profits on many sheep and cattle farms are
likely to drop by up to 40% in the next five years, which could spell
the beginning of the end for wild and iconic landscapes that have been
grazed for more than 3,000 years.

Experts fear the loss of hill farms in areas like Dartmoor and the
Lake District will have a disastrous impact on nature, tourism, water
supplies and even climate.

John Dyke, the chairman of the Exmoor National Park Authority, said
public funding for hill farmers had plunged over the last few years.
"Farming in the hills is rapidly becoming unviable," he said. "Upland
farmers feel unrecognised and unwanted by the UK government. It's a
disaster for the farmers and for these beautiful landscapes."

A report commissioned by Exmoor and Dartmoor national parks and the
Duchy of Cornwall, which manages Prince Charles's estate, claims that
the average family-run hill farm in southwest England made a farm
business income – effectively a net profit – of only £9,000 in the
last financial year. This left family members making less than the
minimum wage and seeing no return at all on their capital investment.

The report, carried out by a team led by experts in the rural economy
from the University of Exeter, said the average hill cattle or sheep
farm in the south-west could expect incomes to fall by 30% in the next
five years because of projected reductions in public support in
England as the single payment scheme, the European Union's principal
subsidy, is phased in.

According to the report, the picture is even bleaker for "extreme"
hill farms – those in the most remote moorland areas. They face even
harder economic conditions than lower lying farms because they find it
harder to diversify. The report warns that these extreme farms might
see profits plunging by 40%.

Maurice Retallick, 65, who farms 500 cattle and 200 sheep on Dartmoor,
said: "We are doing a full-time job for part-time wages. My generation
will keep on doing it because it's bred into you. The younger
generation probably won't be prepared to put the effort we put in for
the poor returns. That will mean the landscape will change completely.

"The vegetation will grow and it won't be accessible for the walkers.
The birds that thrive on the moor will vanish. Water quality will be
affected – the water that comes off Dartmoor is some of the cleanest
in the country. The walls won't be maintained, communities will die
and the tourists will stop coming."

Hill farmers like Retallick have had to cope with the price of
fertiliser and feed trebling in the past two years. The price of lamb
and mutton has rallied a little this year, but Dartmoor national park
says a farmer on its moors makes a profit of only around £1 a sheep.

It is not just the south-west where there are problems. Government
figures confirm that farm business incomes for those who graze animals
in "less favoured areas" – often moorlands – have fallen by almost 40%
to £10,600 in the past three years.

In the North York Moors National Park, an average of three-and-a-half
sheep flocks were being lost earlier this decade and there were fears
that all flocks would be gone by 2030. The decline has been arrested –
but the national park warns that any further loss of income will
kickstart the fall again.

Further south in the Peak District a study by the area's rural
deprivation forum has found that farming incomes there have declined
by 75% since the mid 1990s. The contrast with other farming sector is
startling – thanks partly to the world food crisis, the average cereal
farmer made a net profit of £56,100 in 2006/7 – up 70% on the previous

National parks say that if the sheep and cattle go, there will be a
knock-on effect on precious environments. The high moors are
effectively a manmade environment and if grazing stops and is not
replaced by other management, scrub and trees will begin to grow.

Nigel Hoskin, chairman of Dartmoor National Park Authority, said: "We
need to recognise the true value of these upland areas, not only for
food production, rich biodiversity and beautiful landscapes but also
in the context of a new challenge that is facing us – the management
of carbon."

The effect of sheep and cattle grazing on the ability of Britain's
moorlands to act as "carbon sinks" is one of the most crucial
functions of upland farming.

Peatlands are the single largest carbon reserve in the UK, storing
around 3bn tonnes of carbon, more than in the woodlands of Britain and
France combined. In areas like the Peak District, over-grazing has
been partly blamed for the erosion of peatland and worrying releases
of carbon.

But some farmers, environmentalists and the national parks argue that
some grazing is necessary to maintain the moors as sinks. They say
that if the moor is not managed sensitively, their make-up will change
and their effectiveness will be damaged.

The government is in the process of introducing a new scheme that will
reward hill farmers for the environmental and landscape benefits they
deliver. When he launched the scheme earlier this summer the
environment secretary, Hilary Benn, emphasised that "climate change
mitigation" was one of the duties farmers, who receive the Uplands ELS
grant, will be expected to take on.

But many farmers and National Farmers' Union (NFU) representatives are
concerned they will be made to jump through too many hoops to qualify
for these funds, which replace yet another grant called the Hill
Farmers' Allowance (HFA), that placed much less emphasis on
environmental issues.

Many farmers fear the replacement of the HFA with an onerous scheme
that puts the environment at the heart of hill farming could further
damage their businesses.

Will Cockbain, a Lakeland sheep farmer and a spokesman on hill farming
for the NFU, said: "What we really want is to be paid a fair price at
market for what we produce. If that could happen, everything else
would fall into place, but there's no sign of it happening any day soon."

Defra referred questions about hill farming to Natural England, the
countryside and land management agency.

Mervyn Edwards, who speaks on hill farming matters for the agency,
accepted hill farmers face a difficult future, though he said the
profit figures could be skewed because they may include very small farms.

Edwards said: "Farmers have been bombarded with change and change
brings about uncertainty."
Do sheep help or hinder the battle against global warming?

The question of whether sheep are good or bad when it comes to global
warming is a complicated one.

Peatland is the single largest carbon reserve in the UK, storing
around 3bn tonnes of carbon, more than in the woodlands of Britain and
France combined. But overgrazing of the moors causes the release of
CO2 – it is estimated that the southern Pennine hills could be leaking
as much CO2 as a town of almost 50,000 people.

Fred Worrall, a leading peat researcher based at Durham University,
said the ideal carbon moorland sink is a pristine lawn of sphagnum
moss untouched by sheep or cattle or horses. But as areas like
Dartmoor have been grazed for thousands of years, such landscapes are
very rare.

If sheep or cattle were removed from all upland, Worrall said, perfect
moss would not suddenly appear. Instead shrubby vegetation and birch
woods would spring up. This has already happened in some parts of
Dartmoor. Such vegetation would make the peat dry out – and lose its
effectiveness as a carbon sink.

So Worrall says that the grazing of some sheep and cattle is a good
thing. But the problem is nobody knows quite how many sheep or cattle
would be ideal.

Take in to account issues concerning the methane that sheep create and
the possible impact of that on climate and the carbon footprint of
producing extra feed for the animals – and the equation becomes
mind-bogglingly difficult.
What could be lost without farming on Dartmoor?

• More than 23,785 hectares of Dartmoor are notified as Sites of
Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) – a designation that denotes
national importance.

• The moor is home to hugely important birds like the golden plover
and skylark; butterflies, including the marsh fritillary, and plant
life such as the crowberry and 12 types of sphagnum moss.

• More than 2,000mm of rain falls on the higher parts of the moor
every year. This rain fills seven reservoirs and numerous rivers which
in turn supply drinking water to most of Devon.

• The public enjoy open access to all 47,000 hectares of moorland.
There are 450 miles of public footpaths and bridleways.

• More than 1,000 scheduled monuments are to be found on Dartmoor. It
contains the largest concentration of bronze age remains in the country.

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