This spring has tested us all to the limit

Robin Milton Uplands Forum Chairman_39992

NFU uplands chairman, Robin Milton, reflects on the ‘frightening’ impact of this year’s spring on hill farming businesses and considers some of the challenges ahead.

At a time when everyone is encouraging us to engage in some crystal ball gazing to consider the future of farming it may be useful to look closely at the recent past, particularly Spring 2018, to determine those factors that impact hill farming most and which ,if any, we have any control over.

Brexit is the buzz word of the day, and will undoubtably have the single greatest impact on hill farming’s future, but that is realistically in the control of politicians and civil servants who seem to thrive on engaging loosely with absolutely everyone and probably listening to nobody.  But the real challenge at present for most hill farmers is to still be around post Brexit - in business and solvent enough to deal with future challenges. There is a real danger that while worrying about the future, the lessons of the past are forgotten and farmers stumble blindly through the present being ever optimistic that tomorrow will be better! It’s a scenario that seems very familiar.

Spring 2018 may well be remembered for the wrong reasons. Following the wettest summer and autumn for many years, the rain continued through the winter to test livestock and farmers to the limit. Then as spring allegedly became closer, the snow arrived just in time for lambing. And all this barely noticed by the politicians frantically considering their future.

The impacts of the winter have been substantial with one fallen stock collector estimating throughput up by around 30%. This is a frightening figure considering those animals will have cost more to feed than for many years and straw became more elusive than BPS and HLS payments. Effects on profits will not be properly noticed until a reduced lamb crop is sold in the autumn and all the bills for this winter are paid.

Volatility seems to be another buzz word that is used lightly but determines the survival of fragile upland farm businesses. What other sector sees the value of its product vary so widely with the value of lamb virtually doubling when upland farmers had few left to sell and straw achieving a similar increase in price when desperately needed. Try explaining these impacts on farm budgets to anyone else let alone a bank manager! 

Then to compound the situation, the fiasco of agri-environment schemes continues with NE and the RPA seemingly treating the ‘income foregone’ based payments as their own and paying farmers at the speed of an ‘arthritic snail’ as quoted by Michael Gove recently. Great that he recognised it but better if something actually happened in response!

For those in the unlucky situation of negotiating the complexities of Countryside Stewardship, it seems all those years of environmental management by farmers may be disregarded in the quest for ‘value for money’ and ‘public goods’. NFU did warn of the consequences of this scheme during its development but was ignored, although maybe a rollover of current schemes as a transition measure could be possible. This is a possibility that has been raised with Defra/NE.

Peat restoration is likely to have a huge impact on the grazing management of moorland and fell with long term unforeseen consequences inevitable where such a single purpose approach is taken. With farmers portrayed as environmental villains and their sheep as reducing landscapes to deserts, it must be assumed that farmed landscapes will only become perfect when peat bogs flourish and farming is consigned to the dustbin of ‘natural capital’.

As an eternal optimist, maybe, just maybe, things will be better next year – the uplands will still be farmed to deliver quality food, stunning landscapes and environmental management. The weather may be kinder, the markets amenable and upland farming sustainable and profitable.

With water companies, tree planters, walkers, rewilders(lynx reintroduction), environmentalists, NGOs, natural capitalists and pressure groups all wanting a say in how the uplands are farmed, NFU representation has never been more important to our future and as I finish my term of office I have been proud to represent upland farmers to the best of my ability – the best judge will be the next generation.

Last edited on: 11:05:2018

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