A park's progress – the North York Moors National Park at 70

Black sheep wandering down a road through the moorland landscape of the North York Moors National Park

As the North York Moors National Park celebrates its 70th year, Rachael Gillbanks talks to chief executive, Tom Hind, about the future for farmers inside its boundaries. This article was first published in the NFU British Farmer & Grower magazine.

Famous for its huge expanse of heather moorland and deeply cut dales, the North York Moors National Park attracts more than eight million visitors every year to enjoy its 26 miles of coastline, 1,400 miles of footpaths and bridleways, plus some unique wildlife treasures including the rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly found in the area’s limestone grasslands.

No stranger to challenges facing farmers

As the custodian of more than 500 square miles of internationally important landscape, the Park Authority celebrates its 70th anniversary on 28 November, and its chief executive, Tom Hind, says an ambitious vision for the future has never been more important.

A thriving future for local communities is at the heart of the Park’s new management plan and, with more than 1,000 farm businesses operating within its boundaries, the future prosperity of local farming families is inextricably linked to that of the Park.

With several years under his belt at the NFU, where he held a variety of roles from chief dairy adviser to head of economics and international affairs, Tom is no stranger to the challenges facing those local farm businesses. He says the Park has always sought to be close to its farmers – seen as fundamental partners in the drive to achieve a resilient landscape.

Tom Hind, North York Moors National Park

Photo: Zain Lambat, Creaxive Studios

"We have put a lot of effort into building good relationships on the ground through our agricultural team," he said. "And while we won’t get it right every time, we try to be open and accessible because ultimately our ability to deliver a vision for the Park depends on the people that own and manage the land."

Anxious for farm businesses

With this in mind, Tom says he is anxious about how local farms will navigate the changes already affecting them post-Brexit.

"After 20 years of working in farming politics and economics, I am anxious," he said. "I think the next six years will herald possibly the most profound change in the landscape of farming – with those heavily reliant on BPS for profit particularly at risk."

His fear on the new Environmental Land Management Scheme is that farmers will have to work harder to get less, which when seen through the lens of historically low farm business incomes for Less Favoured Area cattle and sheep farms, does not bode well.

“After 20 years of working in farming politics and economics, I am anxious.” he said. “I think the next six years will herald possibly the most profound change in the landscape of farming – with those heavily reliant on BPS for profit particularly at risk.”

Chief Executive North York Moors National Park, Tom Hind

"Unfortunately, I think we will have fewer farmers in the National Park as a result and there’ll be a change in the mix of enterprises, with more people looking to become more efficient and/or productive or develop new diversification opportunities," he concluded.

Optimising opportunities

In response, the Park aims to optimise the opportunities for farmers – seeking to provide access to a range of funding, such as through the current Farming in Protected Landscapes Programme (FiPL) that has brought £600,000 into the Park in the current year.

Finding ways of helping the farming community make 'conscious, proactive, strategic' decisions will be crucial.

"I worry that being as resilient as they are, farmers will tighten their belts too far," added Tom. "Everyone in farming has a collective job to do on this and we need to be really honest about the situation, and the options available."

Part of this transition will be seeing farmer delivery of environmental goods and services as 'no bad thing' he thinks.

"Changes in our landscape are inevitable, but that’s not to say you can’t run a really productive farming business in the National Park – I've seen plenty of them," he said. "However, we need to recognise that not everyone will be able to go down that route."

Water quality success

Asked about some of the more challenging environmental regulations being introduced and the resulting planning constraints, Tom is pragmatic in his outlook.

Talking about the drive to improve water quality, an objective in the Park’s management plan, Tom is quick to quote the real progress made in the Esk Valley. Here, practical steps taken on-farm, and part funded historically by the Park’s Water Environment Grant, helped not only to protect the river’s sensitive ecosystem but also improve farm businesses in a win-win scenario.

The water quality baton is now being picked up by FiPL funding, which Tom believes is proving successful because it promotes locally based, facilitated and targeted schemes to deliver the right measures in the right place.

This is important especially where businesses need to invest significant sums – sometimes on the back of expansion – but Tom admits that the result can lead to difficult planning conversations, given the Park’s legal obligations to achieve ‘nutrient neutrality’.

"We try to work through this process and explain the checks and balances that need to be considered,” he added, “but at times this is really not easy for either party."

Grand ambitions

With the Park having grand ambitions for the future, surely it is a priority to embrace innovation, boost skills and encourage the next generation of farmers if the industry is to play its part? Tom says he has been really impressed with the innovation and dynamism he has seen on farms in the area, but adds there’s no silver bullet to prepare farm businesses for the future.

"We are really interested in partnering with local colleges and others to provide skills training that will help open up new business opportunities – essentially build the emerging green economy from the bottom up," he said.

"We are also serious about the levelling up agenda, especially given the challenges associated with deep rurality. But aside from the obvious focus on issues like connectivity, we are also determined to create a resource for some of the most deprived communities in the country – many of which are on our doorstep."

Looking ahead, Tom is very optimistic about the future of the Park and its ability to meet society’s needs and aspirations both in terms of climate change and health and wellbeing.

“There will certainly be big challenges and a major shift in outlook will be needed. It will be difficult, but I would like to think the opportunities for farmers will be greater inside the Park than beyond its borders.”

Chief Executive North York Moors National Park, Tom Hind

"We have a tremendous asset that we can build on, but owe a lot to the work farmers do to enhance the landscape. The trick will be working hand-in-glove with our farmers to simultaneously enhance the environment and their businesses," he said.

"There will certainly be big challenges and a major shift in outlook will be needed. It will be difficult, but I would like to think the opportunities for farmers will be greater inside the Park than beyond its borders."

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