A less is more approach will be better for hill farmers and the environment

intext-blog-hill-farming
This post is by Tom Lancaster, head of land, seas and climate at the RSPB; Ellie Brodie, senior policy manager at The Wildlife Trusts; and Marcus Gilleard, senior policy programme manager at the National Trust.

 At a time when many in farming communities will be experiencing acute anxiety about what the future holds, the National Trust, RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts have today published a new report looking at how to achieve a more profitable, resilient business model for hill farming, alongside a thriving natural environment. It was written by Chris Clark, Kaley Hart and Brian Scanlon, who between them have a huge amount of experience in farming, policy analysis and business management.

As representatives from organisations with a huge stake in the future of the uplands, we share farmers’ anxiety, not just for our own farming operations, but for those of our friends and neighbours. This report is our attempt to understand how the future of hill farming can be secured, in a way that enables us to restore nature across our upland landscapes.

Many of our most iconic species, habitats and landscapes are closely associated with farming and agricultural management in the uplands, such as curlews, species-rich hay meadows and the bucolic North Pennine Dales. But, as with farming, the natural environment in the uplands has been under pressure for some time, to the point where much of it is in a poor state.

Hill farming can be profitable
The report argues that hill farming can be more profitable, resilient and better for nature by reducing costs, and that the optimum way to reduce costs is to reduce the number of livestock. This may seem counter-intuitive. But, across the 46 farms that the report authors analysed, the findings were consistent: once a tipping point is crossed in terms of livestock numbers, and the naturally available grass runs out, the only way to feed livestock is to buy-in expensive feed, fertilisers and other inputs. These external inputs increase farm costs, which cuts or removes profits. Reducing stocking densities can also have environmental benefits, from boosting soil health and the ability of land to hold back floodwaters, to locking in carbon and increasing biodiversity.

Further to this, our report identifies the following additional steps to improve the profitability of hill farming:

  • reduce unnecessary fixed costs to make fixed assets work harder for the business, eg through sharing machinery, co-operating and sharing resources with neighbouring farmers;
  • take advantage of opportunities to improve the price received for meat produced, by adding value to the product;
  • 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 through applying for public payments focused on the delivery of public goods;
  • consider the development of other diversification opportunities to add to the portfolio.

At the heart of this approach is a focus on margin over volume, on provenance over commodity production and on co-operation over competition. It’s not a new prescription, and is one Chris Clark has written about before on this blog. This report expands the analysis to a greater number of farms across the UK and, in doing so, provides a wider evidence base for the economic benefits of this approach to farming in the hills, and other similarly marginal farming areas.

Exploiting the trend for less and better meat
We believe that hill farmers could benefit from this approach, but appreciate that many may take some convincing. Many livestock farmers in particular feel under attack, but the approach to livestock numbers advocated in this report fits with the action needed to tackle the climate emergency. It will position hill farmers to exploit a trend toward a ‘less and better’ approach to meat consumption, in an era when the public increasingly wants a ‘story’ behind the food they eat.

More extensive models of production also enable more space for woodland, trees and other habitats, which can work hand-in-hand with grazing livestock. With more space for nature, hill farmers can be at the leading edge of the fight against climate change and wildlife decline. They would also be at the front of the queue when it comes to accessing the ‘public money for public goods’ farm support, already proposed in England and Wales.

This approach alone will not address the precarious state of farming and nature in the hills. In many cases, reducing output helps reduce losses but not boost profits. Public policy will, therefore, need to play its part, both in the provision of tailored and appropriately costed public support that secures the environmental benefits associated with hill farming, and also support for business skills and advice. Work we published in September priced this hill farming specific support at £252 million per year across the UK, including £5 million for business skills advice, in addition to the core funding for land management interventions, which runs into the billions.

What is clear is that a ‘less is more’ approach can significantly improve the resilience of hill farming to inevitable future change. An approach that includes a nature rich landscape in the value of the food that these farm businesses produce, together with public policy that properly rewards the environmental benefits they provide, will lead to a future that is better not just for wildlife, but for hill farmers as well.

[Image courtesy of Jim Barton at Geograph]

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