Many of us have enjoyed visiting the local sheepdog trials over the summer months, and it is great way to celebrate the continuation of the traditional methods of sheep farming which have shaped both our landscape and how our local communities developed.
Yet it is a particularly worrying time for our hill farmers. Besides the challenges that this year’s extreme weather has brought, farmers are concerned that Brexit may make upland sheep farming unsustainable. Besides the possibility of tariffs on exports of lamb and mutton to Europe, which accounts for 40% of UK markets, farmers are also concerned about changes to support for farms.
I know both from my previous work preparing accounts for local farms, and from recent meetings with farmers that upland farms are very marginal enterprises. Rearing sheep is not a profit-making business at the best of times, so farmers rely on support to get by and to keep their farms in the way that we would expect.
Higher animal welfare is more expensive, both in costs and in time. Old and picturesque barns are expensive to maintain, as is dry stone walling, but our countryside would look very different without them.
This week Parliament starts to debate the Agriculture Bill, the proposed replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy. The European policy has always attracted criticism, especially for the bureaucracy and delays in payments, but it remains to be seen whether our own government can improve on it.
The common agricultural policy has two elements – a single farm payment that supports farmers based on the area of their farm, and payments for providing environmental benefits. Qualifying for the environmental payments requires a large amount of form-filling, taking photos from exact angles, and submitting everything online, often for a very small financial return.
Without the Single Farm Payment many hill farmers worry that their farms will not be sustainable as they will not have a steady income to rely on. Yet the government is adamant that it will not pay farmers for farming. This is understandable for farms with a large acreage of profitable production such as crops or vegetables, but there is currently no understanding of the challenges facing upland farms.
The Peak District National Park Authority is also very concerned as much the Park is populated by sheep, which are a part of the landscape. Whilst intensive sheep farming is not ideal for biodiversity, a balance must be struck. Farmers need to know they can sustainably produce sheep and use part of their land for environmental benefits.
I will be following the Agriculture Bill closely and making the case for our hill farmers. Without them, High Peak would be a very different place.