DEFRA Hill Farm Allowance shake-up to hit farmers

Farmers who scrape a living from England’s uplands face being driven from the hills by proposals to reform the way they are rewarded for looking after the landscape.

Livestock producers believe they will lose as much as 75% of their income under government plans to replace the Hill Farm Allowance (HFA) with an entry-level environmental stewardship scheme (ELS) for the uplands.

DEFRA officials this week embarked on a propaganda offensive to showcase proposals currently being tested on 60 hill farms.

The first meeting will be held in Cumbria today (21 August), with more to follow across England over the next month.

But NFU hill farming spokesman Will Cockbain said: “We are extremely disappointed. The scheme that has been brought forward for testing shows a complete lack of understanding about the realities of upland farming.”

Proposals would see slurry, fertiliser and manure spreading banned within 12m of a watercourse.

Ring-feeders on moorland allotments would also be outlawed. But farmers would be rewarded for maintaining and repairing stonewalls.

Mr Cockbain said he could accept the slurry ban, but there was no reason to ban fertiliser and manure spreading.

The ring-feeder ban was impractical and the scheme completely undervalued the cost of maintaining vital aspects of the landscape, such as stonewalls.

Ian Mercer, chairman of the Dartmoor Commoners Council, said some upland Devon farmers faced losing up to 75% of their income. “Hill farmers are trying to decide where they will be in the next five years. They are all looking down the hill, rather than up it.”

That view was echoed by Richard King, partner at Anderson’s, the farm business consultants. The HFA had provided a big chunk of upland income, he said.

“In many cases it was their profit. If it goes, it will be missed.”

DEFRA insisted the new scheme would recognise the key role played by farmers, while better targeting funding towards environmental and landscape benefits.

The Hill Farm Allowance had not delivered the best value for taxpayers’ money because it was not linked to the delivery of public benefits, said DEFRA. The new scheme will be launched in 2010.