George Monbiot meets Cumbrian farmers head-to-head at Federation of Cumbria Commoners 10th anniversary AGM and Conference

Over 100 people attended the AGM last Friday at Newton Rigg. Started by commoners 10 years ago and run by commoners, we have grown steadily over the years. Our membership manages nearly 20% of the common land in England. This makes the Federation a force to be reckoned with and one of the very few authentic bodies speaking for the commons of the country.

Our outgoing chairman Dave Smith, hill farmer Dufton, told the audience that Defra,Natural England and all the various agencies and conservation bodies involved in common land at a national, regional and local level come to Federation to hear the commoners’ voice. We inform members about pertinent issues in commoning via our newsletter and website and we explain to the outside world how hill farmers manage common land and its role in their hill farming systems. Click to read the minutes of our last AGM and finance report.

The AGM closed and George Monbiot, environmentalist and journalist was then given the opportunity address the meeting before being joined on the top table by a panel of speakers to take questions. Despite taking a position very far away from any of the commoners in the room, we showed Mr Monbiot a great deal of respect and listened carefully to his opinions.

Mr Monbiot claimed the deforestation of the uplands and stocking sheep on the hills increased flood risks. He added deforestation and grazing caused an ecological disaster was directly related to a lack of wildlife on the hills. He said he was not advocating forcing people off the hills to rewild, or return the hills to something more like their natural state, but he would like to see incentives to support rewilding.

Will Rawling, chairman of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association, said the landscape had evolved as a working environment, producing self-replacing flocks of sheep that produced high-quality protein from low-quality grazing. Farmers are protecting upland landscapes and delivering a huge amount of public and environmental good through environmental stewardship schemes. There isn’t a common in Cumbria that doesn’t have an environmental scheme of some sort and hundreds of hectares of woodland have been planted recently.

Young commoner Will Benson asked Mr Monbiot “Surely rain causes floods, not sheep?” in response to his theory that sheep cause flooding. The audience applauded.

 There was a general feeling among the meeting’s attendees that Mr Monbiot’s comments over recent months had been ‘counter-productive’ to farmers’ collaborations with Natural England and he was asked several times during the Q&A session to give a fairer representation of farmers in the media, including his Guardian newspaper column.

To see other media coverage of the meeting click on the links below:

Farmers Guardian, Independent on Sunday, Itv , Landkeepers BlowgWestmorland Gazette