Farmers Guardian magazine features column from NFU uplands form chair, Thomas Binns

13 January 2023

NFU uplands forum chair Thomas Binns

NFU uplands forum chair Thomas Binns

NFU uplands forum chair Thomas Binns has written a column for Farmers Guardian looking at Defra's ELMs updates and how they will impact upland farmers. 

Upland farmers provide more than just high-quality, sustainable meat and dairy. We form the backbone of many rural communities and manage the iconic landscapes enjoyed by the millions of visitors to the British countryside each year.

It is vital for the future of farming in the uplands that we are properly recognised for the wider public value the sector delivers for the nation.  

Three years down the line from when the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) was first announced I cannot believe the situation we find ourselves in.

The Farming Minister Mark Spencer said at last week’s Oxford Farming Conference that despite Defra suggesting the new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) Management Payment will help to drive uptake “among all farmers”, the payment does not include land managed in the SFI Moorland Standard. Many upland farmers have moorland integrated as a key part of their farm businesses and there are a few farmers that come to mind who exclusively farm moorland. The decision not to include it means they will miss out on the additional payment opportunity at a time when it is so needed.

The development of SFI continues to leave upland farmers behind. Only the limited introductory Moorland Rough Grazing standard is currently available, and further development of standards relevant for upland farmers are not yet available. According to the Minister’s recent announcement, additional SFI standards suitable for upland farmers will not be available to access until 2025, as a target date. Isolating moorland and not including it under the new management payment is yet a further example of this approach. It puts us further away from having the confidence that we will have other options available under SFI and ELMs, when we’re already delivering on a wide range of public goods.

This makes business planning as an upland farmer almost impossible with rapidly reducing BPS payments leaving a gaping hole in our finances. This is reflected in results from the NFU’s livestock intentions survey, where 52% of upland farmers with beef cattle have cited insufficient ELMs as the reason they may produce less in the coming years.

Like all farmers, we are fighting battles on many fronts, with input costs for feed, fuel and fertiliser at unsustainable levels for many of us.

On top of this, the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreement payment rates, which is a scheme that is preferred by most upland farmers because there are more options available tailored to what we deliver on farm, hasn’t been reviewed. While Countryside Stewardship has seen a competitive uplift, there has been a lack of additional support under HLS, meaning again upland farmers have been left out.

I have been assured by Defra that there will be additional ways in which upland farmers can benefit from options under Countryside Stewardship (CS) and the SFI Moorland Standard. But these are yet to materialise and I’m concerned how much longer some upland farmers can hold on with this ‘jam tomorrow’ message from Defra. Confidence is everything in farming. What we need to see is a government showing that it values the upland sector by fairly rewarding hill farmers under ELMs and giving equal, timely opportunity for all.