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Hill farms: whose environment is it anyway?

Friday 23 October 2009

People who love the English countryside, and in particular its wilder areas, owe a huge debt to our hill farmers, says our rural affairs commentator John Sheard. But a row is raging between them and the bureaucrats and the future of the landscape in many of our national parks could be under threat

I HAVE held a deep respect and sympathy for hill farmers for half a century now. They work some of the toughest land in the country – land which includes many of our national parks – out in all weathers to earn a pittance.

The last survey I saw, a couple of years back, showed that on average they earned profits of between £5,000 and £8,000 a year for 70 hour, seven day weeks, and that for many includes a 52 weeks a year – very few of them take an annual holiday.

dales uplands
Facing destruction?

On hourly rates of pay, they would be much better of sweeping out the toilets at their local pub (if they have a village pubs these days, which is doubtful) so I was happy to be able to report earlier this year that they were enjoying a rare (accidental) boom caused by the collapse of the pound against the euro: our lamb sold on European markets now brings in almost twice as much in sterling.

It is very rare that these hardy types benefit from Government policy (or, in this case, a lack of it) so it with sadness that I must now report on a much more normal state of affairs: a bureaucratic battle which, says the Tenant Farmers’ Association, could actually “destroy” our uplands (see News, Tuesday).

This is particularly galling because after almost 12 years of disastrous Government intervention in rural affairs ( which they clearly know nothing about and care even less) one of they very few good things they have done was to create Natural England, amalgamating several previous rural quangos and placing its HQ – Praise be the Lord! – in Yorkshire.

Based as it is between the Yorkshire Dales, the North York Moors, and the Peak District, Natural England has already established a good reputation for its efforts to steer our farming away from intensive agricultural methods which is the past have led to disaster after disaster.

There would be no drystone walls or picturesque barns – in fact, no picture postcard villages for the tourists to eat, drink or sleep in...

These include a massive decline in farmland birds, thousands of miles of hedgerows uprooted, rivers and streams polluted by artificial fertilisers and pesticides, massive flooding caused by draining peat moors, even so-called Mad Cow Disease brought about by feeding treated animal waste to herbivore cows.

To be fair, many of these disasters took place under Tory governments and Natural England has, so far as I can tell, being doing a good job in steering us back towards “greener” more traditional farming methods.

This week, however, the Tenant Farmers’ Association, which has thousands of hill farm members, issued a very angry statement on new environmental stewardship rules which could persuade farmers to cut their livestock numbers by up to 70%.

This, says the association, is folly at a time when there is a growing world food shortage and Britain’s food security is particularly vulnerable. But is also threatens the whole future of the hill farming industry because, as more and more farmers’ sons and daughters quit the land for easier, better paid jobs with office hours and annual holidays, the skills hard learned over generations will be lost.

To the hill farmers I know, there is also a hidden insult here for do the bureaucrats proposing these changes understand that it was the hill farmers who created the landscape in areas like the Yorkshire Dales in the first place?

Without their efforts over the centuries, the Dales and most of the other national parks would be covered by scrub, forest, bracken and bog. There would be no drystone walls or picturesque barns – in fact, no picture postcard villages for the tourists to eat, drink or sleep in.

It is this feeling of resentment, I suspect, that caused TFA Chief Executive George Dunn to say: “It is quite clear that those who designed the new scheme have little knowledge of how upland farming works.”

I suspect Mr Dunn is right. These proposals, although put forward by Sheffield-based Natural England, have the smell of Whitehall or Westminster about them, the thinking of chattering class townies who know nowt of rural life and are incapable of accepting that the future of our most beautiful landscapes is in the hands of country bumpkins. They should get off their backsides to see, talk and listen to the people who know.

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