Time to Put Grazing Livestock Back at the Heart of Future Policy for Our Uplands

Time to Put Grazing Livestock Back at the Heart of Future Policy for Our Uplands

Piece originally written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The Cumberland News and Westmorland Gazette, published on the 22 February 2019

The news that Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale is to re-constitute the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Uplands, will be hailed in hill and upland farming communities throughout the length and breadth of the land.  Sadly, upland farming and grazing livestock systems in particular, have come in for an unfair onslaught of criticism by ill-informed commentators and pressure groups.

Our uplands are important national assets.  By their very nature they are physically, socially and economically remote.  Agriculture continues to be, and should continue to be, the mainstay of economic and environmental management for these areas despite the severe natural handicaps encountered by farmers who operate there.

Upland livestock systems are also extremely important in the wider agricultural industry as they represent the beginning of the livestock production chain.  It is the crop of lambs and calves from our breeding flocks and herds in hill areas that are finished further down the hill on lowland units before entering livestock markets and abattoirs on their way to supermarket shelves.  This system of integrated production has operated in the UK for centuries and the impact of the loss of breeding flocks and herds in hill areas experienced over recent years should not be underestimated in terms of the impact on the wider economy, rural social structures and the rural environment.

Farming in hill areas provides the most reliable and coherent basis upon which the management of our most beautiful and yet fragile landscapes and ecology will be achieved.  The knowledge contained within the farming community in hill areas is invaluable and must be the primary source for new policy development.   It is not overstating the case to say that the skills of livestock and moor management are bred into hill people and just as the sheep are hefted so are the people.  It is important we do not lose these skills and we must provide the opportunity of ensuring that those skills are passed on to the next generation.  Without the hill community in the uplands making money from ruminant production, the landscape will change out of all recognition in a short period of time.  Once it has gone it will be nearly impossible to get back.

Given the harsh and fragile conditions experienced by farmers in the hills, land management is both costly and difficult.  Without public support many of these farms would find it impossible to break even.  That is why The Tenant Farmers Association is calling for the Government to add to its list of objectives within the Agriculture Bill to include “protecting or improving the management of upland landscapes and biodiversity through grazing livestock systems”.

Hill areas have been affected badly by several major shifts in policy and in reward structures over the past 10 to 20 years.  The TFA would argue that the most significant of these negative impacts was the introduction of the Single Payment Scheme in 2005.  It provided a specific, major blow to farming in the Severely Disadvantaged Areas (SDA) and had wider ramifications through the ending of payments on breeding livestock rendering those enterprises relying upon breeding stock in severe difficulty.  The TFA’s view is that renewed consideration should be given to how upland livestock production should be supported for the food, environmental and social benefits it brings.

The misguided calls for rewilding, livestock removal and top-down environmental restrictions will do serious damage to upland economies, communities and the environment.  Grazing livestock are amazing at using the grass these areas can grow, and which humans are unable to digest, to create some of the most high quality, nutritious and tasty sources of proteins one could imagine.  At the same time we achieve great management of landscapes, contributions to biodiversity and carbon sequestration and storage through good grassland management.

It is time that we had a fundamental review of the policy which turned its back on support for breeding livestock systems in upland areas towards the development of a new framework for the long-term which will deliver an integrated upland environmental land management reward package with stock rearing at its core.  We wish Tim and the All-Party Parliamentary Group well as it seeks to press ahead with this agenda and so many other issues for our upland areas.

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