Few successors means a bleak future for uplands
By Shelley Wright
LOW incomes and lack of security over the future of hill farming have left thousands of upland producers without anyone to hand their farms on to.
An NFU survey, published on Monday at the launch of the unions annual hill farming review, found 43% of hill farmers with children said the next generation would not be taking over the farm when they retired. For those without children, only 16.8% had someone willing to succeed them. Almost three-quarters (74%) of all farmers believed low annual income was the main deterrent.
Sir David Naish, NFU president, said the problem was compounded by the fact that nearly two-thirds of the 350 who responded to the survey were over 50 years old, with many looking to retire in the coming decade. Only 15.5% were aged 39 or under.
"The survey results are particularly worrying as the hills and uplands have been farmed by the same families over the generations. With no natural successor, the UKs upland communities face a bleak and bitter future." An exodus from the uplands could leave Britains hills looking like the vast depopulated areas of France and Spain that used to support hill farming communities.
He called on the government to honour its manifesto commitment to support farmers in less favoured areas, which account for more than 50% of the UKs agricultural area, and to bring some much needed security to the hill farming sector when it decided on this years Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowance rates. "We need to see from the new government a determination to maintain incomes as well as the environment," he said.
More than 170,000 farmers and workers are employed on upland farms, which produced two-thirds of the UKs specialist beef herd and breeding ewes and more than 25% of the nations milk.
Although hill incomes for this year are still being assessed by the universities commissioned by MAFF to gather the information, the NFU believed the outlook for UK livestock farms as a whole was bleaker than for a number of years.
"The dramatic strengthening of the £ has simultaneously reduced market prices for beef, lamb and milk while also cutting the value of direct support from the European Union," Sir David said.
Last years data showed 42% of cattle and sheep farms in Englands Less Favoured Areas had a net farm income of less than £10,000.
Tim Bennett, chairman of the NFUs LFA committee, insisted that the £60m top-up paid to upland suckler producers last year, to help them cope with the BSE-related market collapse, must be repeated this year. Any cut in the £166m paid in HLCAs last year would be inconceivable, he added.
The hill campaign will target MPs, but the NFU has no plans at the moment to hold a farmer lobby in Westminster. *