13 December 1996

Replace HLCAs to tackle overgrazing, says Trusts

By Tony McDougal

CALLS for a shake-up of hill payments to overcome overgrazing in the UKs mountain and moorland areas have been made in a report published by the Wildlife Trusts.

The environment charity wants to see hill livestock compensatory allowances replaced by acreage aid over the next three years, claiming it would help reduce overstocking in the Lake District, Peaks, upland Wales and large tracts of Scotland.

Its paper, Crisis in the Hills: Overgrazing in the Uplands, claims 70% of heather moorland in England and Wales is at risk from overgrazing or neglect. Yet in the past two years, only four out of 60,000 hill farmers have had subsidies withheld due to overgrazing.

It criticises the moorland scheme, introduced by government in 1994 to promote sympathetic heather management, saying it had taken just 6000 ewes from a total UK sheep population of nearly 44m. The moorland scheme is one of a number of agri-environment schemes which has had a budget cut for 1997/98.

Two of the Wildlife Trusts demands – the integration of agri-environment schemes and a review of upland farming – have been taken up by MAFF. But agricultural campaigner Nick Milton said more could be done.

"We want the introduction of an integrated rural development policy in the next five years, which could be based on the Tir Cymen scheme. This has more than 700 farms in three pilot areas, encourages farmers to enhance the landscape value of their farms and offers a menu of conservation options."

George Dunn, CLA rural affairs spokesman, said MAFF and the European Commission were looking seriously at the social, environmental and economic implications of partially decoupling HLCAs. "Area payments would remove overgrazing problems but it could in turn lead to under-grazing of the moors," he warned.

Andrew Clark, NFU environment spokesman, said a partial decoupling of payments would be acceptable. But there was a danger that the distribution of support would favour certain areas, such as Scotland and the Highlands at the expense of parts of Wales.

Martin Gillibrand, Moorland Association spokesman, agreed change was needed. "It seems silly that the agricultural support regime should encourage overgrazing on the one hand and yet try to replace heather on the other."

Alastair Davy, Hill Farm Initiative spokesman, said it was vital government looked at how land values would be affected by changes in hill support. He said other factors, such as drought and rabbits, played a role in overgrazing, which was localised. &#42