Hill farming needs urgent preservation and consolidation not the introduction of legislation aimed at making farmers jump through more hoops, according to Tim Farron, Lib Dem shadow rural affairs spokesman.
Mr Farron told the Hill Farming Matters conference at Penrith, Cumbria, that there were still “enormous challenges” facing the uplands and Whitehall had to recognise the fact that solutions had to be found.
“The Uplands Entry Level Scheme, to be introduced next year, now awaits EU ratification – but the government must not be allowed to think that by not having screwed up the UELS scheme that the problems of hill farming have been sorted,” he explained to the conference which was organised by Action with Communities in Cumbria.
Mr Farron “It’s a worrying fact that only one in seven hill farming tenancies will be succeeded. With a high percentage of hill farmers pushing 60 years old and being close to retirement, it’s a situation that must be addressed.
“The average hill farmer is working for less than the minimum wage. If nothing is done we face a serious decline in the uplands population, an inevitable introduction of ranch-style farming and villages full of houses devoid of people and existing purely as holiday lets.
“This is no scenario for a stable hill farming sector and no foundation on which to build a sustainable upland environment,” said Mr Farron.
He believed the government was still ignorant of the real pressures facing the uplands.
“Cumbria’s tourism industry is worth £1.2bn a year and the reason people come here is because of the upland environment that is maintained by those who farm it.
“There’s no one else who can deliver this in terms of environmental maintenance on such a vast scale and yet there’s only £3.5m of Hill Farming Allowance cash coming into Cumbria.
“There’s clearly a massive financial discrepancy here that has to be dealt with,” said Mr Farron.
He was confident that there was a “swell of urban support” for hill farming. “The public are ahead of the policy makers when it comes to recognising the needs of the uplands and how much the public purse should be spending to keep hill farming viable.
“The value of the uplands in terms of a source of food, environment, bio-diversity and landscape cannot be matched by another other farming sector. It’s needs are urgent and they must not be ignored.”