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Dales hill farming must be saved at all costs

Friday 08 July 2005

In a week when all news, good and awful, has concentrated on London, our countryside commentator John Sheard urges that a critically important report is not lost in the aftermath

IT IS difficult to write about countryside matters when the casualties are still being counted in the nation's capital but a report of such great significance was issued this week that it must not be pigeon-holed in the aftermath of Thursday's bombs.

Must be protected at all costs

As we know from previous experience, governments have a habit of "burying bad news" after major disasters but the clarion call issued on Tuesday about the potential "extinction" of England's hill farmers is far too important to be swept under the carpet.

As we reported (see News), the National Trust - which owns hundreds of thousands of acres of hill farm upland in Northern England - has studied the economic decline of these hardy, independent farmers and says they could be extinct as a business breed by 2012 - by coincidence, the year when the Olympic Games are due to be held in London.

The reason is that the civil servants at the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs have - not for the first time - got their figures back to front. Changes in the way farms are subsidised, meant to turn England back to "greener" farming, will do exactly the opposite in the uplands - and send most hill farmers into bankruptcy.

There is a bitter irony here because, from it very inception after the foot and mouth debacle, Defra has been boasting of plans to boost spending on schemes to protect our landscape and wildlife, rewarding hill farmers for their environmental work rather than the amount lamb or beef they produce.

Yet because of the way the new single farm payments scheme has been framed, they are the ones who will suffer the most. And, because of the geography of this island, many of them work in areas recognised as being outstandingly beautiful, the national parks like the Yorkshire Dales.

Now the single payment scheme is mind-bendingly complex - few of the farmers I know understand it - but I suspect that what went wrong here is part of the old class war which some Labour ministers are still fighting.

When the uplands were being mapped, it was noticed that many of the huge estates were owned by the aristocracy who used them - horror of horrors - for grouse shooting. In other words, a playground for the nobs.

It was unthinkable for Labour to give them huge handouts so grants for this sort of land were cut to the bone, even lower than they now receive under the old, discredited CAP system.

Nobody realised, it seems, that this very land at the heart of most our national parks is also home to thousands of hill farmers, many of them tenants without valuable cottages or farmhouses to sell off to rich offcumdens.

These are the very people who have been keeping areas like the Yorkshire Dales pristine for centuries, bringing in the tourists and allied businesses which are now the main employers in such countryside.

Farmers have been shaping our landscape since well before the Romans arrived 2,000 years ago, clearing the forests for farmland using stone axes. Some of the drystone walls they built in the Dales have been dated back to Celtic times.

And if you notice that I have referred only to England in this piece, there is a reason. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have already taken action to protect their own hill farmers.

What English city-based politicians and civil servants clearly fail to understand is that the countryside can revert back to bog and scrub within a matter of a few years. We are preparing to spend £5 billion to fund the Olympic Games - the lowest estimate I have seen - and destroy our countryside for a few million.

By all means, let us grieve for the death and destruction in London. But let us not be guilt of dereliction of duty when protecting a national treasure which - hopefully - will still be flourishing long after the Olympic Games have been forgotten: our landscape.

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