National Trust outlines ambitions to build a bright future for hill farming

Press release
Gathering the Welsh Mountain sheep on Watkin Path on the Hafod Y Llan farm, Snowdonia, Wales
Published : 13 Jan 2017 Last update : 05 Dec 2017

The National Trust today pledged to work in close partnership with farmers to build a ‘bright’ post-Brexit future in which upland hill farming can thrive, nature can be revived, and cultural heritage is protected in some of Britain’s most beautiful landscapes.

Helen Ghosh, the director general of the National Trust, said livestock farming would continue to be right at the heart of the charity’s plans for managing upland areas, and that its tenant farmers were essential partners in helping to restore the health of the natural environment.

Hill farming in the UK is facing a complex set of challenges, with uncertainty over the future of the £3bn-worth of EU subsidies, pressure on incomes and declining wildlife, falling soil quality and increased flood risks in many areas.

The Trust, which has over 1,500 farm tenants across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has called for the current ‘broken’ model for funding farming to be radically reformed after Brexit, with farmers receiving taxpayers’ money for improving the environment and helping wildlife – rather than being paid simply for owning land [1].

In a speech to the Uplands Alliance in Cumbria, Helen said: “While there are some big challenges and – yes, threats – I am much more in the camp that believes that there is an unprecedented opportunity for the uplands post-Brexit.

“If we work together we can grab the chance to make their future more sustainable than it has ever been.  Reliance on CAP subsidy as now is not the future. But the opportunities are there, we believe, for the uplands to take advantage of new income streams – alongside maintaining some core public financial support – which deliver the benefits that the public want and the nation needs.”

The conservation charity said its long-term ambition of helping to reverse the alarming decline in nature would only succeed by working, listening and developing plans in partnership with farmers.

“The future of farming is bound up with the future of nature: without a healthy natural environment the long-term viability of farming is in question,” Helen told the audience in Penrith.

“Farmers are the essential partners in reaching our ambitions and they have the skills and understanding that we need.  Many are already delivering great results for nature and landscape alongside producing high quality food.

“We are committed to drawing on all that experience and knowledge and taking and sharing the best practical examples.”

The Trust said it was actively exploring a number of areas aimed at helping to secure a sustainable economic future for upland farming and would be setting out its thoughts for discussion with farmers and other partners in the spring. These ideas include:

  • Focusing on the production of high quality, grass fed livestock, and commanding higher prices for the meat through effective marketing with other partners [2]. This could help farmers become ‘price makers rather price takers.’
  • Taking advantage of new and emerging revenue streams in the uplands for services such as the provision of slow, clean water, tourism, absorbing and storing carbon, and producing renewable energy [3].
  • Investing in new and re-invigorating existing schemes that create clear pathways for new entrants into farming [4].
  • Exploring how the heritage of upland areas could receive public funding to recognise its wider cultural significance.
  • Drawing up long term local plans for estates in collaboration with farmers which have nature, entrepreneurship and the production of quality food at their heart.

Helen added that the uplands are uniquely well-placed to take advantage of existing and new market opportunities for upland farming emerging for the provision of slow, clean water; hosting visitors and thereby promoting health, wellbeing and a burgeoning rural tourist economy; absorbing and storing carbon; and producing renewable energy.

Common to all of these is their dependence on a high quality natural environment and on skilled land managers. The National Trust has said it is committed to supporting the development of these opportunities, through pilots on its land and in partnership with its tenants, neighbours, Government and other bodies.

Helen said that the Trust had been taken by surprise by some of the reaction to the charity’s decision to purchase the land – but not the farmhouse – at Borrowdale in the Lake District last summer. Any suggestion that the National Trust had in some way lost its commitment to support upland communities “could not be further from the truth”, she explained.

“We want to stand alongside our farm tenants in looking after this most wonderful legacy of landscapes, buildings and farming traditions and be partners with local communities to help them flourish in the face of future challenges.”

At Thorneythwaite, a local shepherd is now looking after the Herdwick flock that came with the land.  He is working with other Commoners on grazing regimes, exploring opportunities to restore some of the meadows and the historic woodland pasture on the farm.

“There is change coming and we need to face into this together,” Helen said.  “But upland farmers have proved over the centuries that they are resilient and adaptable and those traits will be needed again over the next decade.”

“If we work together, with a clear sense of our common goals, there is a bright future for farming, landscapes and nature. You can count on our commitment and support.”

Helen thanked the organisers of the event: “Working in partnership will be crucial and we are grateful to the uplands alliance, national park authority and others for working so hard to bring organisations like the National Trust together to discuss the opportunities and threats that face the uplands.”

Welcoming the speech Robin Milton, Exmoor farmer and chairman of the NFU’s Hill and Uplands Farming Group, said:  “Farmers and profitable livestock farming are the heart of the upland economy, culture, environment and landscapes. I am delighted with the National Trust’s commitment to work in partnership with farmers to secure the future of upland farming at a time when a united and collaborative voice to Government has never been more important.”

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, added:  “I am delighted to see the National Trust emphasising that vibrant and resilient farming and the achievement of outcomes for nature, culture and heritage go hand-in-hand in our countryside and how market failure can limit both.

“As we work towards the development of a post Brexit agricultural policy suitable for our domestic needs, it is important that we seek to blend together the outcomes for food, farming and the environment.

“The TFA is also pleased to be working with the National Trust as it seeks to refresh its relationship with its farm tenants and puts in place clear estate plans, overseen by its new team of qualified estate managers, which has the achievement of these goals at their heart.”