25 April 1997

Lakeland heather change called for

By Jeremy Hunt

FARMERS within the Lake District environmentally sensitive area are calling for a new approach to controlled grazing of heather fell.

The proposal, one of seven to be presented to next weeks MAFF initial review meeting, follows an NFU survey of 700 Lake District ESA farmers.

It calls for a new intermediate payment tier for heather fell at a stocking rate of 1 ewe a hectare. That would run alongside the existing tier 1, with a stocking rate of 1.5/ha and tier 2 at 0.7/ha.

The lower year-round stocking rate of 1/ha would remove the need to away winter 25% of ewes from fell grazings, a move which farmers fear places hill flocks at risk of losing hardiness.

"It should also reduce the number of ewes producing twin lambs and so preventing their return to the high fell land and requiring farmers to rent extra summer pastures," said Peter Allen, NFU upland spokesman.

MAFF will also be asked to review common land provisions and to introduce greater flexibility. Veronica Pitts, NFU senior policy adviser, said the need for strategic fencing should be considered where some commons were prevented from joining the ESA scheme because of resistance from an adjacent common.

Tenant farmers raised concern that landlords were taking a big share of ESA payments through increased rents. Fifty-seven survey forms were completed by tenants and almost half said they were not receiving the full financial benefit of the ESA.

"Of those who said they were not receiving the benefit of ESA payments, all commented that the landlord had increased the rent and swallowed up all, or nearly all, the grant," said Miss Pitts.

Those who said they were getting the benefit of the ESA grants, said it was only after a continuing battle with the landlord. Many said a rent rise was likely in the near future.

Other proposals included:

&#8226 A review of the ruling on liming meadows and pastures and more flexibility on walling grants.

&#8226 Removal of the financial ceiling placed on the conservation plan, which covers building renovation to bracken clearance.

&#8226 An extension to the arable/grass ley tier to include improved grassland, to benefit the few dairy farms in the ESA, with an immediate reinstatement of the cut in the Tier 2 meadow payment.

Richard Allen, Cumbria NFUs vice-chairman, said the response to the survey had been overwhelming and had produced a valuable set of proposals.

"What we have here is Lake District farming being paid around £5.5m to meet environmental demands while at the same time maintaining a landscape that is at the core of this regions tourist industry, worth £600m a year. Now that has to be money well spent," he said.