25 February 2000

Partnership passion

Partnerships between farmers, environmentalists and regulators

are the way forward, believes the new chief executive of

English Nature, as he explained to Robin Cradock

DAVID Arnold-Forster, the new chief executive of English Nature, is a great believer in partnerships between farmers, environmentalists and regulators. That he made such partnerships work during the five years he was national park officer for the North York Moors national park is illustrated by the good luck card he received when he announced he was moving to English Nature. It was signed by no fewer than 52 hill farmers from across the whole of the park area.

His time in Yorkshire has seen a big change in relations between farmers and the Park Authority. This was helped by a policy of appointing park staff from farming backgrounds – and by the injection of a good deal of EU funding into moorland regeneration.

&#42 Heartbeat series

The popularity of ITVs Heartbeat series – which regularly attracts audiences of 13-14m – has boosted tourist numbers and contributed to a total tourist spend of £120m a year. An impressive figure, but Mr Arnold-Forster would like to see the money better distributed around the area and its farming residents.

The parks 50,000ha (123,000 acres) of heather moorland is the largest in England. It supports a traditional moorland economy of sheep-rearing and grouse-shooting, but productivity has suffered for years because of the debilitating effects of sheep ticks.

In August 1995 a partnership of private businesses and conservation interests co-ordinated by the national park gained MAFF and EU funding for the first stage of a four year moorland regeneration programme. Total cost is £2.87m, of which the EU Objective 5b and MAFF contribute £1m each.

When the funding period ended last summer there were fears that no new cash would be available. But in October 1999 90% of the park gained the new Objective 2 status, which means that funding can continue.

The present regeneration programme aims to reduce the high death rates amongst both lambs and grouse chicks, caused largely by tick-related diseases. Improv-ing the health and quality of lambs and grouse which can be marketed from the moors is already bringing benefits and these should increase over the years.

&#42 Moorland sheep

So far 32 management agreements have been set up under the programme. These involve 26 estates and 120 farms covering 96% of the heather moorland in the National Park. The grant-aided work consists of a compulsory three-times-a-year tick control scheme for sheep, with a fourth voluntary treatment for ewes/hoggs.

At the same time, the North York Moors Quality Sheep Association was set up to promote sales of breeding sheep from the region. In 1998 55 farmers joined the association and 4500 lambs were sold – all tagged and traceable to farm of origin. The Moorland Association, which represents the landowners and shooting interests, has donated a trophy to be presented to the breeder of the prize pen of sheep at one of the annual sales held around the moor, another move aimed at strengthening the partnership.

The improved condition of the moor and better habitat for both sheep and grouse have brought another benefit in terms of biodiversity. A good grouse moor is also an excellent habitat for upland breeding waders, so substantial parts of the park are on the verge of gaining Special Protection Area status.

The benefits of partnership between farmers and regulators can also be seen in the North York Moors Farm Scheme. Here, farmers in designated areas get payments for maintenance of grassland, unimproved grassland, farm buildings and walls plus yardage payments for hedges and payments for maintenance of rights of way. The scheme was in place in parts of the Park before Mr Arnold-Forsters arrival, but there are now 120 agreements that cost the park £450,000/yr, plus administration and staff time.

Where MAFF funds can be gained through schemes such as Countryside Stewardship, park staff help by providing the farm survey needed for the application. A total of 26 successful applications for Countryside Stewardship have already been helped.

&#42 ESA status

Unlike the Yorkshire Dales National Park, none of the Moors Park has ESA status. "It is a great shame that the area lost out on ESA status, so we have had to look to other sources of funding," says Mr Arnold-Forster. "As a park authority we have to look at reaching the parts that MAFF cannot reach, and the partnership approach is definitely best."

He is critical of those who see environmental payments to farmers as compensation. He wants to see the language – and the attitude – changed, with a recognition that such payments should be seen as rewarding creation of habitat and bio-diversity.

"Much has been done by English Nature for conservation, but much remains to be done," he adds. "The public sees environmental indicators like farmland birds declining, but agricultural subsidies dwarfing the support given to other industries like coal or shipbuilding. It sees hill farmers maintaining our finest landscapes struggling along on a pittance whilst elsewhere intensive production, overstocking and expensive new machinery tell a different story.

"There is a balance to be struck, but it has not been struck yet. It needs to be struck now, in partnership, before it is forced by external pressure, whether from the World Trade talks, Brussels or the British public."

David Arnold-Forster (left) was park officer of the North York Moors National Park for five years. He sees partnerships as a way of preserving attractive landscapes (above).