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Money spent on upland farming
is money well spent

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”
I must admit to not being a big Joni Mitchell fan (although I do like Nazareth’s cover of her This Flight Tonight), but when I think of our Uplands, their landscapes, cultures, people and communities, it is this lyric from Big Yellow Taxi that often comes to mind.

November 2016

Often when people talk about our uplands they talk about a single aspect – farming, recreation or wildlife perhaps. Or get drawn into a single debate – too many or too few sheep, too many or too few trees, or rewilding.

Our uplands are a multi-dimensional, multi-sensory stage, a backdrop created and maintained, supporting a myriad of activities. They are not a natural environment – the hand of man, whether in the past or the present, is everywhere. And the greatest hand has been that of the family farmers who have been hefted to their land for generations. The glorious landscapes we see were originally the by-product of farming practices, augmented by environmental payments over the last thirty years or so.

But upland farming struggles. It has always been challenged by remoteness, poor soil quality and short growing seasons. Last winter in Cumbria, we were shown in no uncertain fashion that our rough, tough and rugged Uplands are environmentally vulnerable. Financially, for many years it has needed the support of various schemes, latterly the Single Payment and environmental enhancements.

But those payments have come from the EU, so what happens after the 2020 date that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has guaranteed them until?

A domestic Government, with no European funding, juggling vote-winning or losing issues such as health, education, and maybe defence, will need convincing that spending on the sparsely populated Uplands is value for public money.

We need to convince them of all that is at risk. Food production in the uplands is obviously not as intensive as elsewhere, but our hills supply unique products as well as acting as a “header tank” of high quality livestock for farmers lower down. When farmers have money, they spend it locally, often the only industry supporting jobs, services and communities in our remoter areas. Our farmers are land managers, and their practices provide us with clean drinking water, carbon storage, flood mitigation and many other public goods. The landscape itself not only attracts millions of visitors spending billions of pounds, but is increasingly recognised for its benefits to health, wellbeing and education.

Farmers are essential for this. Perhaps anyone could buy land in the lowlands and make a decent fist of farming, but in the uplands the experience and expertise needed comes from generations of living and working on a particular farm. Can you imagine teams of hi-vis-jacketed workers doing what our hill farmers do, especially for the returns they could expect?

No, without farmers our uplands will change. Some may like the undermanaged landscapes, but we will not see the views we currently know and love. And what will happen to our remoter communities? Less economic activity can only lead to even fewer services and opportunities.

But we need not be negative. We need to demonstrate to politicians and the public that any money spent on our upland farmers is indeed money well spent. We need to build on the public benefits already acknowledged, and make the case for public funding.

Sustainable land use, smart economic growth, increased quality of life, health and wellbeing need to be linked together.

Public money for public goods. What could be fairer? Because we do know what we’ve got, and we owe it to future generations to keep it safe.

Guest blog by Douglas Chalmers

Chief Executive, Friends of the Lake District and part-time upland farmer

Find me on Twitter @FLD_Douglas

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Link membership.