Federation requests an extension to UELS/HLS agreements on hill farms and common land

Last month we wrote to George Eustice MP, Minister for Agriculture requesting that Defra seeks a mechanism to extend our HLS agreements until new post EU exit (commons-proofed) schemes are available. We sent a copy of the letter to Cumbrian MPs, four of whom got back saying they support the idea and would be writing to George Eustice.

We hear on the grapevine that “replication” (apparently that is their term for an extension) is creating waves in Defra but we have not received a formal response yet.

This is what we said in our letter:

Dear Mr. Eustice

Request for the extension of UELS/HLS agreements on hill farms and common land 

The current agri-environment (ULES/HLS) schemes on 20% of the land in the Lake District National Park will expire between 2018 and 2021 (i.e. before potential new schemes are available) rising to 50%  by 2024 (data supplied by Natural England).

Our members, hill farmers who farm common land as part of their overall farm business tell us that the current follow-on scheme, Countryside Stewardship (CS) is a not a realistic/ attractive option for them. The application process is lengthy and burdensome taking up to two years on commons. The payment rates are lower than before, but more work is need to comply with the ongoing evidence requirements. Contrary to what we have been told, CS requires an increase in the bureaucratic burden and red tape. Furthermore the “simplified” uplands options are not available to commoners. The result is that many of us are reluctantly considering dropping out of agri-environment schemes (AES) altogether when our scheme runs out.

We won’t be taking this decision lightly as many of us have had land continuously in schemes (ESA, UELS, HLS, former versions of Countryside Stewardship, SWES) for the last 30 years or so. We recognise that AES funding has made a significant contribution to our overall farm business income and helped us maintain traditional farming practices that deliver sustainable stewardship of the land. If we lose AES monies we will have to make changes to our farming practices which may put some our previous good work for the environment in jeopardy. There is also the likelihood that some farms may not be able to make the changes necessary and their businesses will fail.

We urge the government to recognise the value of continuous conservation management of the land and quickly find ways for us to continue to engaging in AES.

Along with the Foundation for Common Land we propose that Defra seeks a mechanism to extend our HLS agreements until new post EU exit (commons-proofed) schemes are available. We recognise that not all HLS schemes are working well and/ or delivering value for money. Before agreeing an extension all schemes should be subject to a joint review by the farmers delivering the scheme and National England staff to build on what is working well. This could also involve piloting new approaches that pay public money for public goods.

We do hope that Defra can see the merit in this and similar proposals to grant extensions to current UELS/HLS schemes as a way of ensuring that previous investment in the upland environment is not wasted. Equally hill farming businesses remain viable and continue to deliver environmental gain.   

We would be very willing to work with Defra staff to support the implementation of a mechanism to extend current UELS/HLS agreements.

Yours sincerely, etc