More than half of sheep producers in the North York Moors National Park will take their flocks off the hills if financial support from an English Nature scheme is withdrawn.

The finding was made in a joint Park Authority and English Nature survey.

It was set up to study farmer intentions beyond the proposed termination of English Nature’s Sheep and Wildlife Enhancement Scheme (SWES) agreements in 2008/09.

Moorland project officer Rachel Pickering explained that, currently, the agreements helped to retain the moorland landscape for the benefit of the public by compensating producers for losses incurred in grazing flocks on the hills.

Without grazing sheep, the picturesque landscape of the hills is likely to revert to scrubland, warned Miss Pickering who added that 56% of moor farmers planned to remove their flocks if SWES funding was not renewed in 2008/09.

“When asked if their moor flocks would still be grazing in 10 years’ time, just 24% replied yes.

Only 16% expected to remain after 15 years,” she said.

The SWES payment rates were initially set using estimated figures and are now considered out of date.

“We want to find out exactly how much money farmers are losing on their moor flocks,” she said, adding that English Nature had commissioned a costings study.

Results from the study, which is being carried out by researchers at Askham Bryan College, should be available by the end of March.

“The study will also define how much it would cost to establish a heft from scratch.

Obviously, it is going to be cheaper overall to retain the flocks we have rather than set up new ones.

However, we need accurate information to present to government policymakers, as proof that adequate funding must continue,” Miss Pickering said.

Many flocks will be unviable without support, leaving producers with little option but to join the Higher Level Scheme.

“The HLS would lead to complications, because on common land all the graziers would need to join at the same time.

They would also have to persuade landowners and shooting tenants to enter the HLS as well,” explained Miss Pickering.

To contact Wendy Short e-mail: wendy@sykehall.freeserve.co.uk