How can the National Trust support upland farmers?

Today our Director-General Helen Ghosh spoke at the Uplands Alliance event in the Lake District about supporting upland farmers.  Here’s Helen’s speech in full.

Uplands Alliance – Looking Forward: Shaping the Future of the Northern English Uplands, Friday 13th January 2017, Penrith, Cumbria

How can the National Trust support upland farmers?

Thank you very much for the invitation to talk today.

First, some context.  The National Trust strategy has at its heart playing our part in restoring our natural environment.  “Promoting the preservation” of landscapes and nature was central to Octavia Hill’s vision for the Trust in 1895, so the echoes to our founding charitable purpose couldn’t be stronger. But the Trust is also committed to farming which produces the high quality food the nation needs. Indeed, the future of farming is bound up with the future of nature: without a healthy natural environment the long term viability of farming is in question, and farmers will often be those in the front line producing a healthy environment.

We won’t succeed in restoring nature without working in partnership with farmers.  They are the essential partners in reaching our ambitions and they have the skills and understanding that we need.  Many are already delivering great results for nature and landscape alongside producing high quality food.  We are committed to drawing on all that experience and knowledge and taking and sharing the best practical examples. The bottom line is that successful relationships with our tenants are vital to us and we want to work in partnership with them in this work.  That’s why we will be drawing up long term local plans for our estates across the country which reflect these commitments and have nature, entrepreneurship and the production of quality food at their heart and inextricably linked.

What is our ambition for this partnership here in the uplands?  We knew that we faced a difficult decision when Thorneythwaite in Borrowdale came up for auction last summer, but the level of concern produced locally and nationally by our decision to buy land – but not the farmhouse – took us by surprise.  The force of the response was in large part because it was seen as a sign of something more profound – that the National Trust had in some way lost its commitment to support upland communities in the Lake District and the traditional farming system that sits at their heart.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We want to stand alongside our farm tenants in looking after this most wonderful legacy of landscapes, buildings and farming traditions and be partners with local communities to help them flourish in the face of future challenges.

But we also know that our actions have to support these commitments, as I discovered when I visited Borrowdale just before Christmas.  At Thorneythwaite, Joe Weir, from a local farming family, is now looking after the Herdwick flock that came with the land, working with other Commoners on grazing regimes, exploring opportunities to restore some of the in-by meadows and the historic woodland pasture on the farm.

Having seen his enthusiasm and energy, and learned at first hand of the enterprise and skill of the other farmers I met, I feel very positive about the future of upland farming.  While there are some big challenges and – yes, threats – I am much more in the camp that believes that there is an unprecedented opportunity for the uplands post-Brexit.  If we work together we can grab the chance to make their future more sustainable than it has ever been.  Reliance on CAP subsidy, as now, is not the future, but the opportunities are there, we believe, for the uplands to take advantage of new income streams, in ways which I will touch on later – alongside maintaining some core public financial support – which deliver the benefits that the public want and the nation needs.    

At the Countryfile Live event last August, I outlined the general features of what we believe any future taxpayers’ support system for agriculture as a whole should look like.  At their heart is the proposal that – beyond a transitional period – the taxpayer should only be supporting the outcomes that other markets won’t pay for but which the public cares about: more abundant wildlife and habitats, heritage, and, at least in the transitional period, healthy soils.  Central to this proposal is that farmers should be paid for outcomes – more lapwing or ring ouzels = more money.  This should favour smaller farmers, including those in the uplands, rather than simply reward farmers for scale.

Meanwhile, farmers should receive a proper price for the food they produce, and we need to develop new payments for other services which land management provides: water management, public access, health, clean energy or carbon storage.

These are general principles and the next steps will be to now develop these in partnership with our farm tenants including those in the uplands, so that we can work together on the basis of a clear plan for the future, which we have created together.

Here in the Lakes we have a particularly important role. This is partly because the landscapes here and the public’s interest in those landscapes cut straight to the core of our purpose and our history. This, combined with the depth of our relationships here, means we are well-placed to explore – together – what our principles mean in practice, and we will be setting out our thoughts for discussion in the spring.

What are our first thoughts about the role we should play in the uplands?

Livestock production will remain at the heart of upland farming and is a crucial component in managing the landscapes and habitats for these wider benefits.  However, maintaining high, or seeking to increase, numbers of livestock in the uplands is, in itself, likely to be no long term financial solution. Focussing on quantity rather than quality could also compromise or run counter to some of the aims we have to restore rivers and wider catchments, landscapes and habitats.

But peel away the debates about stocking rates and there’s a fundamental truth that we can’t ignore: rearing animals and working with them through the seasons is central to the culture and landscapes of the uplands, and we should celebrate and harness this.  These skills are vital to the kind of landscape and habitat management we’re going to want and need.

So we want to support Trust farm tenants in the maintenance of healthy, sustainable flocks and the shepherding skills and capacity to care for them and ensure they are grazing in the right place, at the right time, in the right numbers. There is also scope, which the Trust strongly supports, to command higher prices for animals through effective marketing for high quality grass fed livestock produced in an environmentally friendly way. The emphasis here should be on quality not quantity.  So we will be exploring with Lakes farming representatives the creation of a new marketing scheme for Herdwick and other high quality, local upland livestock: we know that adding value as a producer is one of the best ways to start being a price maker rather than a price taker.

Another issue highlighted by last summer’s events was the concern both local communities and the public had about the size and shape of our farms.  The Trust has a wide range of size of farm holdings in the uplands, and seeks to maintain what is significant in conservation terms about each. World Heritage Site nomination in the Lakes gives us a perfect opportunity to understand better the significance and history of each place, which vary by local circumstance.  A clear and transparent strategy for the future can then be based on that, conserving the best and most important regardless of size, alongside ensuring a pathway of scale to enable farmers to move onto and up the ladder.

A better economic future will undoubtedly depend on developing more diverse revenue streams and skills within upland farming, alongside producing high quality food.  We are committed to supporting the development of a multi-skilled upland farming community and will work with our tenants and other partners to develop ways to grow the skills that existing farmers have, while also creating training and development opportunities for new entrants to hill farming on our own land. We will be investing in new, and re-invigorating existing schemes, that create clear pathways for new entrants into farming and use the diversity of our large farmed estate to do this.

The uplands are uniquely well-placed to take advantage of a focus on delivering wider public goods, and also in tapping into new market opportunities.  These market opportunities, which trade on water management, public access, health, clean energy or carbon storage, have been the subject of much talk and little tangible action.

That’s why the Trust is playing our part in piloting and testing how these will work in practice.  We’re designing a whole farm scale ‘payments for outcomes’ scheme with our tenant farmers in the Yorkshire Dales and also seeking an upland pilot venue to run our concept for how to trade ‘slow, clean water’, following on from our successful natural flood management project, with farmers, on the Holnicote Estate in Exmoor.  We want these to work beyond our boundaries, and Government has been a key audience for our ideas: they are listening and keen to see good thinking in action.

Indeed, we would also be delighted to see in any post-CAP schemes explicit public financial support available to specifically promote cultural heritage in some of our most special farmed environments.  Here in the Lakes is a case in point, and it may be that the proposed World Heritage Sites designation may provide a purpose-built framework and hook from which to hang any formal mechanism.

There is change coming and we need to face into this together.  But upland farmers have proved over the centuries that they are resilient and adaptable and those traits will be needed again over the next decade.  If we work together, with a clear sense of our common goals, there is a bright future for farming, landscapes and nature. You can count on our commitment and support.


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