12 April 1999
Government to restructure hill farming
By Johann Tasker
THE government has unveiled radical proposals that are likely to mean the wholesale restructuring of hill farming and a massive reduction in the number of hill livestock.
The proposals, which would see the biggest reform in hill-farming for 50 years, would abolish subsidies on livestock numbers in favour of payments on the area farmed.
The switch from headage to area payments would mean that subsidies would only be paid if producers farmed a minimum area in an environmentally sensitive way.
Details of the proposals were revealed in a consultation paper released quietly by the Welsh and Scottish Offices last week.
The Ministry of Agriculture in London is expected to follow suit within days with an announcement that affects the upland areas of England.
Linking subsidies to environmental measures instead of food production is vital under the terms of the European Unions Agenda 2000 reform package.
It would also help quell criticism that livestock producers have been encouraged to “farm subsidies” by overstocking sensitive upland habitats with sheep.
But many producers are likely to see the move as confirmation of their fears that the government wants to turn hill farmers from food producers into park-keepers.
Headage payments have been paid on the number of livestock in the hills since food shortages prompted Britain to boost food output after World War II.
But with food shortages no longer a threat, the importance of the uplands is increasingly seen in terms of the environment rather than production capacity.
Nevertheless the farming unions and producer associations will find many of the governments latest proposals controversial.
One question likely to offend sheep producers is whether Less Favoured Area (LFA) land used to graze beef should command higher subsidies than land for sheep.
The consultation documents also seek views on the idea of extending LFA payments to include deer farming, dairy farming and even arable farming.
Although the Welsh farmers unions have yet to study the consultation documents in detail, they have already issued warnings about the implications of upland reform.
The move to area payments could put many Welsh farmers out of pocket because the relatively small size of many Welsh farms has encouraged intensive stocking.
“Many family farms are very vulnerable if payments are paid on an area basis,” said Arwyn Owen, commodity officer for the Farmers Union of Wales.
Bill Goldsworthy of the National Farmers Union pledged to fight any changes that threatened the future of farming in the uplands.
“Its not good enough to say there will be winners and losers,” he said. “Payments must be tailored to ensure that the overall level of hill farming support is maintained.”
Jim Walker, president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, cautioned against any changes which benefited big producers at the expense of small farms.
“We want a simple system that is easy to administer and continues to deliver help to the most fragile of our farming areas,” he said.