Upland farmers are being left behind

19 April 2023

Thomas Binns

Thomas Binns

NFU Uplands Forum chair and NFU Livestock Board co-optee

Thomas Binns sitting on his quad bike with his sheep dog and his safety helmet on his lap

Thomas Binns, chair of the NFU's national Uplands Forum, reflects on the current situation with the Environmental Land Management Scheme

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.

SFI moorland standard excluded from management payment

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 this year’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. In fact, I can bring to mind a few farmers I know who farm exclusively moorland. The decision not to include it means they will miss out on the additional payment opportunity at a time when it is needed most.

"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.

"Of the six new ELM standards announced for 2023 recently, only two looked positive for the uplands."

Thomas Binns, Uplands Forum Chair

The development of SFI continues to leave upland farmers behind. Of the six new ELM standards announced for 2023 recently, only two looked positive for the uplands. The first being the hedgerow standard, which includes earth or stone-faced banks with woody growth. However, this still excludes farmers with other types of boundaries, such as walls, who will not see support for these until 2025.

The low input grassland standard also looked a positive opportunity for upland farmers to access some of the already eroded BPS. But, on closer inspection, any land within Countryside Stewardship of a similar nature, such as G5, will be excluded from entering this option. Without the ability to stack these options, many upland farmers will be unable to access payments if they are already involved in other agri-environmental schemes. At NFU Conference I addressed this issue with the Secretary of State, Thérèse Coffey, and I look forward to following up with her on how stacking could be used during the transition period.

Moorland continues to be the poor relation

Only the very limited introductory moorland rough grazing (MRG) standard is currently available specifically for those above the moorland line. According to the latest announcement, 2025 is the current target date for when more moorland standards will be available to access. This is an unacceptable delay. By not including it for the new management payment, or providing eligible offers where current schemes are already present, moorland continues to be the poor relation.

It knocks upland farmers’ confidence that we will not have other options available under SFI and ELMs, despite already delivering on a wide range of public goods. And it makes business planning almost impossible, with rapidly reducing BPS payments leaving a gaping hole in our finances. This is reflected in the results from the NFU’s livestock intentions survey, where 52% of upland farmers with beef cattle cited insufficient ELMs as the reason they may produce less in the coming years.

'Jam tomorrow' message from Defra

Like all UK farmers, we are fighting on many fronts, with input costs for feed, fuel, and fertiliser at unsustainable levels for most of us. On top of this, the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreement payment rates – a scheme that is preferred by most upland farmers because there are more options available tailored to what we deliver on farm – have yet to be reviewed. While Countryside Stewardship (CS) has seen a competitive uplift and the capital grants cap has been lifted, there has been a lack of additional support under the HLS, meaning upland farmers have been left out again.

I have been assured by Defra that there will be additional ways in which upland farmers can benefit from options under 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. We need to see a government showing that it values the upland sector.

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