An uncertain future for hill farming also threatens the future of some of the South West’s most treasured landscapes.

South West hill farming under threat

The fragile economic viability of hill farming in the south west of England, already threatened by years of poor returns, may be made worse by the unintended consequences of the new Single Payment Scheme (SPS), a new study has found.

The report, by the University of Exeter, Duchy College and Cumulus Consultants Ltd, paints a bleak picture of the future for the South West’s sheep and cattle hill farmers.

The report argues that an uncertain future for hill farming is also threatening the future of some of the South West’s most treasured landscapes.

Martin Turner of the University of Exeter’s School of Geography, Archaeology and Earth Resources, led the research, which was commissioned by the Duchy of Cornwall and Dartmoor and Exmoor National Park Authorities. He said: “Hill farmers are rightly expected to deliver a wide range of ‘public goods’, to support wildlife for example, alongside their farming activities. However, our work has shown that their current financial position is already far from robust, and that the projected cut-back in public support over the next few years will further compromise the viability of some of these businesses. Our research calls into question the longer-term future of traditional hill farming systems unless further targeted support can be found.”

The report takes into account projected changes to the Single Payment Scheme, the European Union’s principal agricultural subsidy scheme. It was introduced in 2005 and rewards farmers for environmentally-friendly farming practices. The report estimates that many of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall’s hill farmers will lose out and that projected reductions in their SPS payments will cause Farm Business Income on the average cattle or sheep hill farm to fall by a third (34%) by 2013.

The research found that many hill farmers are already getting less than the national minimum wage for their work and absolutely no return on their investment. With an average Farm Business Income of less than £10,000 many hill farms are simply not viable at the present time even before the projected cut-back in public funding.

Public funding from government has long been viewed as the key to a viable hill farming industry, with successive policies aimed at supporting these farms dating back more than sixty years. This report suggests that while hill farmers are supportive of their new, broader role they have become more economically vulnerable, which does not bode well for the future protection, maintenance and enhancement of the natural and historic environment of the region’s moorland.

The situation is predicted to be bleaker still for farms in ‘extreme’ locations, such as Devon’s high moorlands. Among the most remote in the region, these farms face the harshest conditions and are even more heavily dependent on public funds for their survival.

Exmoor National Park Authority Chairman John Dyke commented: "South West hill farmers have to farm in much more difficult circumstances than most of their lowland counterparts. Over many decades successive Governments have recognised this by assisting our upland areas with a variety of special support mechanisms. These aids have been run down over the last three years and farming in the hills is rapidly becoming unviable. Farming in the hills of the South West provides considerable public benefits and I emphasised the plight of hill farmers to Defra's Parliamentary Secretary, Jonathan Shaw, in his recent visit to Exmoor National Park. The University of Exeter study provides good evidence of the current position and emphasises that changes to the present regime are urgently necessary."

The report also explains the important role that traditional hill farming plays in the maintenance and protection of the countryside, especially on the remote regions of Bodmin Moor, Exmoor and Dartmoor. For example, 90% of the drinking water for 1.6 million people in Devon and Cornwall comes from the south west uplands, which also provide 285 square miles of public open space and unique wildlife and archaeology.

Nigel Hoskin, Chairman, Dartmoor National Park Authority said: “We need to recognise the true value of these upland areas, not only for quality food production, rich biodiversity, and beautiful landscapes enjoyed by millions of people, but also in the context of a new challenge that is facing us – the management of carbon and water. The integrity of these Devon landscapes is essential, not just for the upland communities, but for us all. If that integrity is to be preserved and sustained, we must have action now to secure a fair deal for those who we, as a nation, will increasingly rely on to deliver.”

Date: 26 June 2008

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