Report advocates paying upland farmers to steward the land

A Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) report is set to advocate paying farmers a hill environment land management payment to recognise the value of hill farms to environmental protection, maintenance of the countryside and rural communities.

The Hills Task Force was set up by MAFF in December 2000 to identify ways in which the Government can help English hill farmers to develop sustainable business enterprises that contribute to the upland environmental protection, economy and society. The task force, which was set up before Britain’s upland farms were devastated by foot and mouth disease, delivered the report to Agriculture Minister Nick Brown on 30 March, but despite requests from MAFF civil servants, it has not yet been released for publication.

However, the introduction to the report and some of the 63 recommendations have been obtained by edie and suggest that the foot and mouth crisis could provide an opportunity to encourage a less intensive and more environmentally friendly way of farming. “The future could be one in which animals do not have to travel so far, local markets reduce the roles of the middle man and the big chains, and the environmental output of the hills, which underpins tourism and quality of life for society, is properly rewarded,” the report says.

The proposals are likely to be central to the debate on the future of farming, and Britain’s approach to the common agriculture policy following the election and the end of the foot and mouth outbreak. Ministers have already hinted at an inquiry into the future of farming following the election and as large numbers of older farmers are expected to quit the land following the crisis, the task force issued a clear warning in the report. “Should land be abandoned it will profoundly change the landscape which people expect to see when they visit the uplands. We think there is an urgent need for action to sustain the landscape and wildlife which is now as valuable a product as the stock hill farmers traditionally produce.”

The report proposes shifting more of the £3.5billion spent on farming each year into supporting more sustainable farming and the introduction of a ‘hill environment fund’ to eventually replace the existing environmental enhancements included in the Ministry of Agriculture’s hill farm allowance, with at least £42 million allocated annually. The proposed grants would be focused on issues such as animal density, the length of field boundaries and the cost of maintaining the landscape, including dry stone walls. There would also be additional payments to special areas of conservation or common land.

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