The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) has expressed concern about a fall in the number of Dales farm holdings in agri-environment scheme agreements.
Latest figures from Defra suggest that around 200 Dales farms – nearly one in five – have decided not to put land into the Countryside Stewardship scheme after their previous five-year Environmental Stewardship agreements expired.
The Authority believes the impacts on the local economy and on the environment are significant. Those concerns have now been raised with Defra via National Parks England, the body which represents English National Park Authorities in Westminster.
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National Parks England says that, compared with 2015, the area of farmland in the ten English National Parks under paid-for environmental management has dropped by nearly 20 per cent – www.nationalparksengland.org.uk/news-and-media/press-releases/npe-press-release-future-of-farming-aug-2019
Senior Farm Conservation Adviser at the YDNPA, Helen Keep, said: “The problem has been predominantly with those farmers who had an Upland Entry Level Environmental Stewardship agreement.
“They have generally not been interested in the replacement five-year mid-tier Countryside Stewardship scheme as, at the time of its launch four years ago, it had few attractive options for upland farmers.
“The difficulties with Countryside Stewardship have pushed some of those farmers, who were already struggling to make a living, towards more intensive land management in order to fill the financial gap – typically £10,000 per year.
“This is starting to have an impact on both the landscape and wildlife of the National Park. Although the land of highest biodiversity value is continuing to be managed under higher tier Countryside Stewardship, the low uptake of mid-tier agreements means that, if we are not careful, we could be left with islands of biodiversity rather than a connected network.
“Natural England has made significant changes to the Countryside Stewardship mid-tier, which is a much better offer now. But there is still work to do to help farmers get into the five-year mid-tier scheme.”
Farmer and YDNPA Member Chris Clark said: “The difficulties with Countryside Stewardship have encouraged some farmers to switch to more intensive production – something that industry leaders have told them for years will lead to an increase in profitability.
“However, the economic reality is that reducing stocking rates (to the ‘sweet-spot’, the naturally sustainable level) produces the maximum profit. Reducing the number of stock would not only improve the core farm business viability, it would naturally start to generate significant environmental improvements.
“So the farm business would then also be eligible for the highest level of payments under the ‘payment for public benefits’ policy currently being developed by government. A financial win-win.”
YDNPA Deputy Chairman and farmer, Neil Heseltine said: “It’s a fact that the current agri-environment scheme, Countryside Stewardship, which replaced Environmental Stewardship in 2015, has not been attractive to Dales farmers.
“The options available for the uplands haven’t been great. But each year Countryside Stewardship is getting better, and I would urge farmers and landowners to look at it again when the next application window opens early next year.
“I also hope colleagues at Defra will consider closely the request being made by National Parks England for a review of Countryside Stewardship.
“We know that the proposed Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs), which will replace Countryside Stewardship after the UK exits the EU, could be a huge opportunity for farmers in the Dales. But we must not forget the here and now.
“It’s vital for the environment and for the long-term viability of farm businesses here that we get as many upland farmers as possible into Countryside Stewardship agreements.”