Robbing Peter to pay Paul will get us absolutely nowhere
One of the most remarked upon features of this part of the world that we are fortunate enough to live in is the beauty of the unique vistas provided by our moorlands and uplands.
Generations of tourists have come to admire their fantastic scenery, just as generations have worked hard to maintain a landscape that has been almost entirely crafted and shaped by farming. In fact, hill farming is the only realistic way to maintain some of the country's premier environmental assets at a realistic cost.
But due to the very nature of the moorlands and uplands there is a disproportionate regulatory burden on its farmers; not to mention the irony that whilst hill farming is at the start of many supply chains (providing the nucleus for the stratified sheep industry's flock, collecting water supplies, being the very environment that encourages 3.6 billion trips to the countryside every year) it also has to bear the cost of being at the end of virtually every supply chain that feeds into it.
The classic adage that a farmer 'sells at wholesale, buys at retail and pays the transport each way' is more than just a cliché for the hill farmer.
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Given these unique challenges, the latest round of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform has produced some real disquiet. Although we do not know exactly how the scheme will be administered, it is an accepted fact that we will not see the broad environmental schemes we had before and there is no doubt there will be less money all round.
It has been suggested that the best way forward would be the levelling of payments across lowland and SDA (non-moorland) regions with a small percentage from this levelled payment then used to supplement payments made to hill farmers, but whilst this certainly has its attractions we have to bear in mind that this kind of 'robbing Peter to pay Paul' will get us nowhere in the longer term.
No winners will emerge from CAP reform. It is a case of damage limitation, of distributing losses evenly and fairly for all parties – not about grabbing as much as we can for the hills. Any replacement environmental scheme must have at its heart the recognition that farming that has created the landscapes we enjoy so much, and that they exist because of farming, not in spite of it.
There is a huge appetite in the hills and uplands to increase income from the marketplace through sustainable intensification. In order for this to be possible the complex landscape of regulation, markets and policy need to align in a coherent fashion.
It is critical that there is an incentive for current farmers to stay in, and future generations to enter, the industry and this must be at the heart of the policies that affect them – from regional payments to agri-environment schemes. The skills, knowledge base, hefted flocks and herds that maintain the uplands have taken hundreds if not thousands of years to develop, and cannot be replaced.