The future of the Yorkshire Dales National Park environment looks green and its economy bright following Brexit and radical changes to farming, it has been claimed.
As the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) announced it had applied to double a pioneering scheme in which Wensleydale farmers are paid for work such as habitat improvement, members said the government’s emerging post-Brexit ideas for farming and the environment were like a breath of fresh air.
A full meeting of the authority heard the Wensleydale scheme – which has seen 19 farmers paid by results to produce ‘public goods’, such as species-rich meadows – could be replicated nationwide after receiving praise from ministers.
Members were told after Brexit the government intended to revolutionise farming, which remains critical to the economy of the national park, with 2,700 people directly employed in agriculture, but many upland sheep farms were operating at a loss.
In a government paper titled Health And Harmony: The Future For Food, Farming And The Environment, presented to members, it stated the after leaving the EU, the government intended to incentivise methods of farming that increase biodiversity, reduce flood risk, mitigate climate change and create new habitats.
Langstrothdale hill farmer Chris Clark told the meeting the government was setting out to “change the purpose of hill farmers”, from producing food to intangible environmental services.
However, members praised Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove, saying he had identified a way of boosting the national park’s economy while also improving the environment.
Ian McPherson, the authority’s Member Champion for the Natural Environment, said: “I am amazed that things have changed so quickly. The fact that government reports use words such as beautiful, health and harmony is a very big move forward.
“I am really very excited about what the future may bring, not only across the board, but also in respect to upland farming and land management. This might change entirely the way we think about farming and managing the land. I am totally delighted with this report.”
In its submission to Defra to extend the payment by results pilot scheme, the authority said there was an “outstanding opportunity” to support upland farm businesses and significantly enhance the environment by extending the pilot by up to three years and increasing the number of farms involved to 40.
YDNPA chairman Carl Lis said: “Evidence is mounting that the Wensleydale payment by results pilot scheme has been a great success – both for the environment and farm businesses.
“Farmers like it because instead of following a set of rules, such as strict mowing dates, they are free to manage the land as they see fit in order to achieve a positive environmental outcome.
“We think this approach could provide the starting template for the future of upland farm support after Britain leaves the EU – but it needs to be tested further now. There is a real opportunity to use this project to really test out new ways of supporting our upland farmers.”
Mr McPherson told the meeting: “The reality is that we are leading the country in the way in which the new agri-environmental schemes might look like.
“Ministers are extremely impressed by the work we are doing on our so-called results-based environment scheme in Wensleydale. There is a real strong possibility Michael Gove is supportive of this and what we are doing here might well be the model that is rolled out across the whole of the country.”
Neil Heseltine, a fourth generation farmer from Malham, added: “I never thought I would say it, but I actually feel quite excited about something Michael Gove has said.
“Public goods means my farm suddenly goes from being a one dimensional farm, which is production of red meat, to being capable of producing ten or 12 public goods, right from wildlife habitat, biodiversity, pollinators, soil health, public and educational access.
“So there’s a much more diverse range of products that I’m capable of producing on our farm and those products could have a much higher value than the red meat I’m producing.”
Mr Heseltine said it was imperative that national parks had control over the design of agri-environmental schemes as they had the local knowledge of what would work.
While most members warmly welcomed the government paper, the authority’s chief executive David Butterworth raised concerns over an absence of legislative guidelines to enact the plan due to the government’s focus being on Brexit.
Member Jocelyn Manners-Armstrong said she remained sceptical as to whether the government’s ambitions would become reality.
She said: “It’s a wish list basically. It tries to cover everything and be for everybody. What I want to see is concrete suggestions, numbers, times, people, allocation of resources. Although it is all lovely I’m actually more scared than enthused.”