9 May 2001
‘Stop hill cash to end overgrazing’

By Shelley Wright

THE governments wildlife advisors have urged ministers to withdraw subsidies from hill farmers whose practices damage the environment.

In a report called State of Nature: The upland challenge, English Nature said a combination of factors was threatening wildlife on Englands uplands.

Economic crisis, social change, environmental degradation and a loss of traditional land management skills were all taking their toll on the hills.

“These changes, combined with inappropriate livestock subsidies, have led to the degradation, mainly from overgrazing of large areas of upland habitat.”

Schemes should promote practices which avoid over-grazing, and maintain Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), the report says.

The document calls for the reform of the European Union sheepmeat and beef regimes which have been blamed for overstocking and overgrazing.

New laws must tackle unsustainable livestock management, the report says. Farm subsidies based on livestock numbers encourage overgrazing.

It continues: “Wildlife in the uplands is intimately linked to livestock farming, but is sustained only through sensitive management.”

Breeding ewe numbers in English uplands increased by about 35% between 1980 and 2000 in response to subsidies based on the number of animals kept..

Many hills now have more sheep than is environmentally sustainable.

As an example, the report says, the fact that almost a quarter of the English uplands are designated as SSSIs demonstrates the value that the uplands have for wildlife.

But 55% of upland SSSIs are in poor condition, mainly due to overgrazing.

“At this time of significant change, it is important that farmers willing to protect and enhance the conservation value of the uplands are supported.

“And it is important that there is a clear message that farmers whose practices damage the upland environment will not receive financial support in the future.”

Government schemes, such as the Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme or Countryside Stewardship, have helped stem further habitat loss.

But the report says they have failed to restore or re-create upland habitats.

“We need both a greater shift of funds from agricultural production support to rural development and environmental measures,” it says.

The document welcomes the new Hill Farming Allowance (HFA) scheme which bases subsidies on the area farmed rather than the number of animals.

But it warns that most hill-farm income continues to come from other subsidy payments, such as sheep premiums, which are still calculated the old way.

Without further reform, environmental gains from the new hill subsidies are likely to be limited and biodiversity will continue to decline, the report states.

Its publication follows a document leaked last week which said hill farmers should be paid to stay on farms and look after the upland countryside.

That document, by the Governments hill farming task force, suggested a 5/ha increase in HFA payments for moorlands, to persuade farmers to stay.