Sheep farmers have accused Natural England of pushing for reductions in stocking levels as part of Countryside Stewardship, to the point where the scheme may no longer be worthwhile.
The National Sheep Association claims some farmers in the north-west of England are being “almost blackmailed” into reducing stocking levels if they want to roll their Countryside Stewardship scheme agreements forward.
The NSA says this conflicts with other regions where some farmers are being allowed to roll existing agreements forward without changes until the introduction of the new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs).
NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said: “We are in a period of huge change and will see new ELM schemes over the coming decade.
“The purpose here should be to tide us over until these new schemes are available, continuing the good work that farmers are doing and ensuring sustainable income for farmers in return.
“I am really concerned to be hearing that hill farmers in some parts of the country are almost being blackmailed to further reduce stocking and grazing levels in order to access interim countryside stewardship schemes.
Schemes essential to viability
“We know these schemes are essential to the viability of many upland farms, although it gets to a point when the restrictions they place on the farming enterprise make them not worthwhile at all.”
Mr Stocker claimed Natural England risked alienating hill farmers and pushing them away from environmental schemes by limiting their farming activities.
There was no evidence that this would improve habitats and the wider environment, he said, and there appeared to be many upland areas that were suffering from undergrazing.
Reductions sometimes needed
But a spokesman for Natural England said advisers worked closely with existing agreement holders and new CS applicants to identify suitable stocking rates and in some cases reductions were needed.
“In some cases, monitoring and resurvey of land under HLS agreement shows that the expected environmental improvements from an existing HLS scheme have not been achieved,” he said.
“In these cases, Natural England will not advise that there would be public benefit to an HLS agreement being extended.
“Natural England has good evidence that appropriate stocking rates are essential to enhancing the condition of upland habitats, bringing benefits to biodiversity, carbon storage and reducing rates of water flow from the uplands.”