June 26, 2008

Hill Farming is ‘Rapidly Becoming Unviable’

The fragile economic viability of hill farming in the South West, already threatened by years of poor returns, may be made worse by the consequences of the Single Farm Payment scheme, according to a new study.

Published on the eve of a major conference about the future of farming on Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor, the report paints a bleak picture of the future for the region's hill farmers, with subsidies no longer based on the numbers of livestock produced.

The report, prepared jointly by the University of Exeter, Duchy College and Cumulus Consultants Ltd, argues that an uncertain future for hill farming is also threatening the future of some of the South West's most treasured landscapes.

Martin Turner, of the University of Exeter, who led the research, said: "Hill farmers are rightly expected to deliver a wide range of public goods, to support wildlife, for example, alongside their farming activities. But our work has shown that their current financial position is already far from robust, and that the projected cutback in public support over the next few years will further compromise the viability of some of these businesses.

"Our research calls into question the longer-term future of traditional hill farming systems unless further targeted support can be found."

The research, which was commissioned by the Duchy of Cornwall and Dartmoor and Exmoor National Park authorities, confirms a series of reports made by farming organisations since the Single Farm Payment came into effect three years ago, together with calls for added Government support.

It takes into account projected changes to the Single Farm Payment scheme, which is now the European Union's principal agricultural subsidy scheme and rewards farmers for environmentally friendly farming practices. The report estimates that many hill farmers will lose out and that projected reductions in their subsidy payments will cause farm business income on the average hill farm to fall by a third by 2013. Many were already getting less than the national minimum wage for their work, with an income of less than pounds10,000.

It suggests that, while hill farmers are supportive of their new, broader role, they have become more economically vulnerable, which "does not bode well for the future protection, maintenance and enhancement of the natural and historic environment of the region's moorland". The more remote and higher the farm, the more heavily it was dependent on public funds.

Exmoor National Park Authority chairman John Dyke said: "Hill farmers have to farm in much more difficult circumstances than most of their lowland counterparts. Over many decades, successive Governments have recognised this by assisting our upland areas with a variety of special support mechanisms. These aids have been run down over the last three years and farming in the hills is rapidly becoming unviable."

Nigel Hoskin, the chairman of Dartmoor National Park Authority, said: "The integrity of these landscapes is essential, not only for the upland communities, but for all of us. Now is the time for a fair deal for these hills."

Friday's South West Uplands Conference at Dartington Hall, near Totnes in South Devon, will be an all-day event, featuring 13 speakers, including hill farmers' leaders, the Government's Rural Advocate Dr Stuart Burgess and the report's author, Mr Turner.

(c) 2008 Western Morning News, The Plymouth (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.