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Greater Government support for upland and marginal farms is needed

Harry Bowell, Director of Land and Nature at the National Trust, wrote to Secretary of State for Defra, Rt Hon Thérèse Coffey, to urge Government to provide greater support for upland and marginal farms.

March 2023

The challenge of the agricultural transition for upland farmers has been in the news a lot lately.

Since the 2016 referendum result, National Trust has campaigned for the UK government to support farmers in transitioning to a new future outside the EU; one where the environment is seen as core to a successful farm business, and where farmers are fairly rewarded through a new system of public money for public payments – a ‘brighter future for farming’, as promised by Health and Harmony.

We can all agree that farmers have a vital role to play in tackling the climate and nature crises while running successful businesses. But the Environment Act Targets and Net Zero won’t just fall into place; we need joined up, well-funded and concerted action to reverse the declines in nature and damage to our climate – especially in the uplands, but also across lowland marginal farmland.

Together with other charities like RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust has commissioned work to explore how hill farming can become more profitable whilst delivering more for the environment. We’ve also commissioned research to demonstrate how national farm budgets should increase significantly to deliver for nature, climate and cultural heritage, how new funding approaches may be needed for high nature farming systems, and how new environmental payment methodologies are critical in the uplands, lowland marginal areas and protected sites. Henry Dimbleby’s independent national food strategy review also pointed to the new opportunities facing these areas. But progress by government on developing a workable and rewarding package has been slow, if not severely limited.

In the context of what the new ELM schemes have been designed to achieve, we believe priority should be given to ensuring the most effective use of public money in achieving the best outcomes for nature, climate and cultural heritage, working to engage those who are best placed to achieve that. But that will only work if the public goods and services that farmers are well placed to deliver are properly rewarded and farmers given the full toolkit to adapt and respond.

We will continue to do our bit. Our priority will be to work with our tenant farmers and commoners to support the adoption of innovative, nature friendly and low carbon approaches to farming on National Trust land. Our approach will include finding ways to drive lower emissions from livestock, offering training and support to assess farmland in terms of its current ecological status and potential opportunities to enhance nature and climate whilst protecting cultural landscapes and heritage assets, making investments in farm infrastructure, and lending our support in securing access to private and government agricultural payment schemes.

With 80% of Trust land farmed in some way, we need to make change happen in partnership with our tenants and we aim to be the landlord of choice for those who want to farm in a way that delivers nature, sequesters carbon and delivers great quality food. We will work hand-in-hand with our tenants, investing time, money and effort to ensure that happens. But our tenant farmers and others still need government help.

We cannot afford to miss the opportunity to help farmers and other land managers in the uplands, lowland marginal areas and protected sites farmers reach their potential in safeguarding our environment and cultural heritage, while producing good quality food and making a healthy living. The alternative is stark: go bust or intensify, a travesty and further death knell for our beautiful upland landscapes and nature in the wider countryside.

We remain committed to working with Defra to help protect and enhance the UK’s environment and cultural heritage, and see the farming transition through to a successful conclusion with nature at its heart.

But we urge Defra to address the growing challenge facing ‘high potential’ farming systems on the edge – a crisis for farming, for rural communities, for nature, climate and heritage


Harry Bowell is the Director of Land and Nature at the National Trust. Follow @NationalTrust


The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.

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