Farmers working under Environmentally Sensitive Area agreements cannot rely on an automatic switch to Higher Level Stewardship Scheme payments to maintain green income, say producers whose applications have been turned down.
The prescriptive management that has underpinned the farming of ESA land will be dismantled in many areas as the current ESA contracts come to an end.
With many farmers failing to switch to the HLS, the high level of management needed to protect the areas will be uneconomical. Some farmers are warning the environment will suffer while others say they will be forced to quit farming altogether.
One of the most vulnerable areas of the 22 ESAs in England is that in the Lake District, covering 245,390ha (606,400 acres).
Farmers in the area who have not been able to gain HLS status will have the option to take up the less strict Entry Level Scheme. But, for example, in-bye land which earns £47/ha (£19/acre) under ESA will only generate £30/ha (£12/acre) under the ELS, while white fell will drop from £25/ha (£10/acre) to just £8 (£3/acre).
“The transition from ESA to HLS status poses one of the biggest threats to fell land in Cumbria if farmers in the area fail to secure HLS agreements,” says Carl Walters of the Federation of Cumbria Commoners.
“It will turn into a chaotic mess if commons that are currently within the ESA end up with no HLS structure to maintain them. The sheep will be taken off because it won’t be economic to farm them and the land will deteriorate,” says Mr Walters.
“Even if there’s more cash in the future it won’t be possible to re-stock commons overnight with hefted sheep. These are areas where hefted sheep have adjusted to the specific grazing environment and can cope with problems like mineral deficiencies and ticks.
“So these areas would revert to wastelands – and that’s bad for farming and bad for the birds and wildlife that thrive on these sheep grazed commons.”
Farmers approached by Farmers Weekly were reluctant to be identified but said that, even though they knew there was a competitive element to the HLS, it now appears that funds are dwindling rapidly.
One farmer from west Cumbria had just managed to get an HLS scheme approved on 100ha (247 acres) of his 300ha (740 acres), but advised farmers to think well ahead if their ESA status was coming to an end.
“I know some farmers who are now making HLS applications even though they still have two years to go before their land’s ESA status is lost. Even if you want to try and fast-track an application it can take at least a year.”
Penrith-based Mervyn Edwards of Natural England said he recognised farmers’ concerns but urged anyone coming to the end of an ESA agreement to seek advice soon about future HLS schemes.
“Some farmers have used consultants to draw up HLS applications only to find they don’t have sufficient environmental ‘points’ to qualify.”