8 January 1999

Lakes pin hopes on big shake-up to hill subsidies

In the first of our regional

specials, focusing on the key

issues affecting UK farmers,

Jeremy Hunt assesses the

impact the governments

recently announced £120m

aid package will have on

north-west livestock farms

RADICAL changes to the way hill farming is subsidised may be the only way of maintaining a viable agricultural economy in the Lake District.

That was the opinion of four hill farmers who gathered at a farmhouse in Borrowdale, amidst some of Lakelands most remote fell country, to talk to farmers weekly about the deepening crisis in the hill sheep sector.

The four farmers – Stan Jackson, Nook Farm, Rosthwaite, Joe Relph, Yew Tree Farm, Rosthwaite, Gavin Fearon, Hollows Farm, Grange and Stan Edmondson, Seathwaite – farm about 6000 Swaledale and Herdwick ewes between them.

Farm minister, Nick Browns, aid package may bring a cash injection of £4000 to each holding. But these farmers say it will not inject new life into their farms; it will simply go "a small way" towards recouping the huge losses incurred as sheep values have plummeted.

"Many hill farmers, faced with rock bottom cull ewe prices, have decided to retain old ewes. Quota prices have increased to cope with these old sheep which, if bred from, will only increase the lamb crop next year and take the hill sheep sector into an even deeper hole," Mr Fearon reckons.

All four farmers, who say that up to 70% of their income is now derived from subsidies, agree that cash incentives to take sheep out of the system – even outside Environmentally Sensitive Areas – are a worthy option that should be looked at more closely.

They say ewe numbers on hill farms have increased dramatically over the past 10 years and, to support that expansion, it has been necessary to winter stock on lower land away from home. But some are beginning to question this practice and its cost. "I have decided not to take any land away this year. It will cause me problems but I have reduced numbers this year and sold a lot of older ewes.

"And the ministry should consider a disposal scheme for cull ewes, both hill and lowland, like the one that has operated for cull cows. It would clear a lot of sheep out of the system and give a fair return to farmers," says Mr Relph.

But Mr Fearon supports even more radical change to the system of support payments. "The sooner we get away from being paid on a headage system the better.

"If hill farms were supported by an area payment stock numbers would automatically be reduced as farmers adjusted to a more appropriate stocking rate for the holding. The current system is encouraging the output of hill lamb, for which there appears to be a shrinking market. And if we cant find a market for lamb at these prices, when French lamb is at £3/kg, what future is there?"

(L-r) Joe Relph, Stan Edmonson, Gavin Fearon and Stan Jackson believe radical changes to the way hill farming is subsidised are needed.