After CAP: What kind of countryside do we want to see?

National Trust Director-General Helen Ghosh today set out the Trust’s views on what the future of support for farming should be. The speech took place at Countryfile Live as part of a series of talks and debates about the future of the countryside.




Thank you. It is great to be here for the next few days, celebrating everything that is wonderful about our countryside.   And it’s great to be doing this in partnership with Countryfile.

People watch Countryfile in their millions – 8 million each week – one of the most popular shows on TV on any channel

But they don’t just enjoy the countryside from the sofa – they get out in it too.  There were 3 billion visits to the countryside in 2015, more than 200m of those to National Trust outdoor sites.[i]

People visit the countryside for all sorts of reasons: for exercise, for some peace and quiet, because they love seeing nature in all its glory, because it’s beautiful. And this year of course, for Pokemon Go.  Whyever they visit, and whyever they watch Countryfile, it shows that the countryside has a real place in their hearts.

A public survey in 2012 found that the countryside topped people’s list of what it means to be British.[ii]

We’re proud of our countryside and we feel a sense of ownership of it – it’s part of our identity.

More than 80% of our countryside is in some kind of agricultural use,[iii] and it is generations of farmers who have created the countryside we see today.  In our own case, at the National Trust, most of our 250,000 hectares of land is looked after by our 1700 or so tenant farmers with whom we work on a day to day basis.

So we understand the challenges that they face and the great things that they can achieve with the right support and resources.  They are key partners in creating the countryside for the future that we all want to see.


Since the war, the countryside we see around us has been significantly shaped by   the financial subsidy systems which supported these farmers – first the post-war domestic subsidies and once we joined the then-EEC, by the Common Agricultural Policy.  Farmers naturally responded to the incentives that these schemes produced, whether that was to produce more or less of one thing or another, increase livestock stocking rates or reduce them, take out the hedges or put them back in.

And now the Brexit vote creates a need, or an opportunity, for us to think again about how and why we use public money to create the countryside we want to hand on to future generations.

Before our politicians across the UK start to think about the next subsidy system (if there is to be one at all) we should take a breath and decide what the we want from the 21st century countryside, and then consider what role public subsidy might play.

We at the Trust will argue that taxpayers should only pay public subsidy to farmers in return for things that “the market” won’t pay for but the public needs and values.  That means payments for goods and services that go beyond food production – for the wildflowers, bees and butterflies that we love, to bring back the birds which have all but disappeared from our farmland, to create the water meadows and meandering rivers that downstream will help prevent the flooding of our towns and cities, and to rebuild the fertility of the soils on which both nature and production depend.

This is not just about the subsidy system, but also about the way the market works. Even though we may need some kind of transition to get there, taxpayers should not be paying subsidy simply as a kind of income support. Farmers should get a proper return from retailers and food manufacturers in return for producing great food.  If they are managing their land for a different “product”, or outcome – clean water, flood protection or great holiday experiences, they should get a proper return from the utilities, government agencies, insurance companies or tourism industry.

What’s the problem we are trying to solve?

Without going back as far as the 18th and 19th century naturalists with their descriptions of hay-meadows full of flowers, clouds of butterflies rising up around them, or hearing nightingales as commonly as we now hear blackbirds, we know that the countryside our grandparents and great-grandparents enjoyed was very different from the one we see today. In the 20th century, you only have to read Laurie Lee or H E Bates to realise that they lived in a world we have lost.   But it is possible to recreate a world that is the 21st century version of that world.

One of the immense privileges of my job at the Trust is that I can see a 21st century vision brought to life. Thanks to the great work of our local naturalists and land managers, and the support of members and donors, we do create meadows full of orchids, as I saw down at Golden Cap in Dorset last summer, and clouds of butterflies as I saw on some of our chalk down land on the Isle of Wight the year before.  And I have heard nightingales sing, on Bookham Commons in the fading dusk.

There are many farmers, land managers and charities in this country who are doing the same.

But these experiences shouldn’t just be for the few, they should be for everyone.

The regular State of Nature reports[iv], produced by the “green” charities under the leadership of the RSPB spell this out in stark figures – what was common, has become rare; and what was rare is now gravely at risk.   Don’t ignore the song of the blackbird – you may miss it one day.

Over the last 50 years, 60% of species (animals, birds, plants and insects) have suffered a decline and 31% have declined strongly.

A single – but significant – example is the dramatic fall in farmland birds.  There have been declines across most bird groups as a result of the fragmentation of habitats, but in farmland birds in particular.

And that decline in wildlife is symptomatic of a deeper problem.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the more frequent floods we are having can be made better or worse by how we manage land.

In the Lake District, hills stripped of trees that slow water and with rivers canalised to rush water downstream do little to prevent or mitigate floods such as those at Keswick.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation report that, globally, the state of our soils (including in the UK) is such that there may be only enough goodness in the soils for another 60 harvests, without urgent action to restore them.[v]

There are many factors behind this slow collapse of nature and natural processes – but the intensification of agriculture over a broad area since the 1940s is the prime cause.

This is not the fault of farmers. As people who need to make a living to support their families, farmers naturally respond to what “the system” asks of them and over the last 70 years, the subsidy systems have put the emphasis on producing food, at whatever the cost to the environment.

In 2015, £3.1bn was paid to UK farmers by the EU via the Common Agricultural Policy. That’s double the total income farmers were getting from their businesses alone, and represents about 60% of all the payments the UK is getting from the EU.[vi]

It is true that in recent years, CAP subsidies have moved away from a single focus on food production and toward protecting the environment – thanks in large part to the UK’s leadership.   But spending on environmental stewardship, alongside funding for archaeological features, diversification and community development, only represents about £600m of the £3bn total.  And this funding has only put a brake on the decline in the environment, not reversed it.

I should of course say here that the NT has been a significant beneficiary of these subsidies. Our tenant farmers are recipients in their own right, and the Trust itself  receives about £11m a year, £3m in direct subsidy and £8m for environmental stewardship schemes.  But we spend all of the money we get on conservation – and indeed accept that in the future the amount of support we get might well fall.

In the long run there’s no conflict between maintaining our ability to grow food and looking after the land and nature on which it depends. The first is utterly dependent on the second.

But unless we make different choices, we will hand on to future generations an environment that is less productive, less rich and less beautiful than that which we inherited, That is simply unacceptable as our generation’s legacy to the future.  .


In the National Trust, we are profoundly optimistic about the future. There are many reasons to be cheerful, many good things that can be done.

There are many farmers and land-managers out there who understand how to farm with nature. We have some great examples among our own farm tenants.

  • In the Yorkshire Dales, Neil Heseltine has successfully introduced a conservation grazing scheme with Belted Galloway Cattle, which has both allowed native wildlife to thrive while producing great tasting beef to sell into supermarket Booth’s premium beef scheme.
  • Near Sherborne in Gloucestershire, Jonty and Mel Brunyee have restored historic meadows and grasslands and are producing rare breed beef. In Jonty’s words ‘People are beginning to realise that slower growing, pasture fed, native breeds taste superb and are full of healthy omega 3s and other important nutrients. They are also perfect for managing our more precious habitats and landscapes.
  • And many other people are trying to do things very differently. I spent a wonderful day at Charlie Burrell’s Knepp estate recently, chasing after Purple Emperor Butterflies with our naturalist, Matthew Oates. Charlie has turned over his former dairy and arable farm to nature, with extensive grazing and profitable diversification like wildlife safaris and glamping.
  • There are already very successful examples particularly in the uplands, of partnership investment by water utility companies in changes to land management – restoring peat bogs, slowing down rivers, restoring meandering – that can produce a different kind of income for farmers. And there are many good examples, including on our own land, of landscape-sensitive renewable schemes, hydro and biomass, which produce both energy and income.
  • Our technical understanding of the effects of different farming techniques – whether that’s low or no-till, or precision use of technologies so that far less water or fertiliser or pesticides are needed – is getting better and better.

So how can any subsidy complement and support this progress?

There is of course a question of why should public money be paid to farmers and landowners at all?  The original answer was a public insurance scheme against the vagaries of climate and harvests and market swings.    But these days these risks should be dealt with by our sophisticated finance and food industries.

But the future of the countryside and everything it provides is too important to leave to the market alone.  Even the cleverest of economists- despite the great work of the Natural Capital Committee – have found it difficult to put a value on a Silver Studded Blue butterfly, a Bee Orchid or the song of the Nightingale.

And though farmers are key partners in the future of our countryside, it’s also an issue too important to leave to governments and farmers to sort out between themselves. The public should have a say as well as organisations such as ourselves and other charities who have experience and insights to share.

This is what we will be saying to the politicians.  We think there are six principles that any new system must deliver for the public:

  1. Public money must only pay for public goods. Currently, only £600m of the £3bn funding benefits wildlife and the environment – the rest is allocated based on the size of farm[vii]. This basic income support payment should be removed, though there may need to be a transition to the new world.
  2. It should be unacceptable to harm nature and easy to help it. Currently, only 1/3 of the basic payment is conditional on meeting ‘green’ farming standards. In the future, 100% of any public payment should be conditional on meeting higher standards of wildlife, soil and water stewardship.
  3. Nature should be abundant everywhere. The system needs to support nature in the lowlands as well as the uplands – people in towns and cities also need access to wildlife, recreation and the benefits the environment provides.
  4. We need to drive better outcomes for nature, thinking long-term and acting big. Nature doesn’t respect farm boundaries and needs joined up habitats on a landscape scale. But subsidies are implemented on a farm-by-farm basis. In the future, we should start at the landscape level, with farmers and landowners working collaboratively to set plans based on clear outcomes.
  5. Farmers who deliver the most public benefit, should get the most. Currently, the more land you own, the more money you get. In the future, those farmers and land managers who get the most public money should be those who do the most, deliver the best outcomes, and want to go further.
  6. We must invest in science, new technology and new markets that help nature. Currently, some science and technology harms nature – it increases crop yields with big machines and harmful fertilizers.  In the future, public money should help create ways of farming that benefit nature and help develop new markets to reward farmer for storing carbon, preventing floods and promoting biodiversity.

Not only would such a system based on those principles be radically different: over time, it should cost taxpayers less and be much better value for their money.  But most importantly, we believe it would create the countryside for the 21st century we all want to see.



[i] Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey results, Natural England, December 2015. Internal NT research.

[ii] DCMS’s Taking Part survey also showed that countryside and scenery was top of the list of what made people proud of being British.

[iii] Analysis from Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2015 (Defra and devolved administrations) and data on urban land use from UK National Ecosystem Assessment quoted in (75% of all land in UK is assessed as part of total agricultural area. 6.8% is classed by UK NEA as urban)

[iv] See The next report is due in September 2016.



[vii] The EU allocated £3.1bn from CAP to the UK in 2015, made up of £2.5bn on direct payments and £0.6bn on rural development, of which the majority goes on agri-environment schemes.

One thought on “After CAP: What kind of countryside do we want to see?

  1. I fully support this stand being taken by the NT and in my time as a members this is my happiest day of membership and justifies my subscription. I believe that the NT should openly support the organic sector as a way of developing an agricultural system which delivers real environmental benefits especially in arable cropping. The work being done at Wimpole Hall is excellent and I would like to see NT convert more of the in-hand acres they farm as a way of leading a new agri-environmental revolution.

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