Hill farmers need better support to deliver ‘public goods’

Hill farmers must be given greater stability after Brexit through government payments that recognise their role as guardians of nature and the environment, a report has recommended.

The report (PDF), released on Tuesday (19 November) by the RSPB in partnership with the National Trust and The Wildlife Trusts, explores the unique challenges faced by hill farmers and how farming for nature can improve their profits.

The report authors argue that the current hill farming business system is making it harder for farmers to make a profit.

See also: Upland farmers call for 25-year environment schemes

The study analysed 46 hill farms and found the use of inputs, including expensive feed and artificial fertilisers, generally fails to increase profit margins.

Instead, profitability can be improved by taking a lower-input, nature-friendly approach that relies only on the farm’s own natural assets – for example, grass available on the farm. 

Marcus Gilleard, senior policy programme manager at the National Trust, said: “For too long, public policy has locked hill farmers into a system that drives up production and damages our environment.

“This report shows that lower-impact, nature-friendly farming can increase profits for farmers, with the right support from government. It’s critical for our environment and the future of farming in the uplands that our new system of farm payments helps deliver this shift.”

The report identifies several steps to improve the profitability of hill farming:

  • Reduce unnecessary fixed costs to make fixed assets work harder for the business – for example, through sharing machinery, co-operating and sharing resources with neighbouring farmers
  • Add value to meat products to improve the price received 
  • Make the protection and enhancement of the environment a more central element of the farm management system, rewarded both through the market (adding value to products and increasing meat prices) and by applying for public payments focused on the delivery of public goods
  • Consider the development of other diversification opportunities to add to the portfolio

The report urges the government to support hill farmers to adopt more extensive models of production to enable space for woodland, trees and other habitats that could work alongside grazing livestock.

This would position hill farmers “at the front of the queue” when it comes to accessing “public money for public goods” farm support, proposed in England and Wales.

Brexit farm support

A report published by the three conservation agencies in September said UK agriculture would need to receive at least £2.9bn each year from the Treasury after Brexit to support farmers and land managers so they can meet existing UK commitments to restore nature and tackle climate change.

This estimated specific support for hill farming at £252m/year across the UK – including £5m for business skills advice – in addition to the core funding for land management interventions, which runs into the billions.