On August 25th Rob Cooke, Natural England Programme Director came to Cumbria to discuss inconsistencies in the application of HLS Extensions. He wanted to see the issues first-hand.

Rob met two land agents and Federation committee members, Jo Edwards and Charles Raine. They shared their experiences of negotiating Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) extensions and gave detailed examples of the difficulties and inconsistencies encountered along the way. For example, on 2 contiguous commons (commons next door to each other), one was offered an HLS extension and the other was not! The reasons why are unclear to them

Visit to two commons

Rob visited farmers on two commons. The first common was refused an HLS extension last year and has now fallen out of an agreement altogether. One of the owners used his veto to block the commoners trying for a new Countryside Stewardship scheme. The other common is now negotiating an HLS extension. A big worry for the hill farmers on this common is NE’s technical assessment has only been undertaken on a small part of the common. This part does not represent the whole common. They are concerned that the results of this one small assessment could determine whether they: a) get an extension, and b) the conditions of the extension. This seems neither scientific, nor fair.

Better understanding

We wanted to show Rob what is actually happening on the ground. Equally to explain how decisions made by NE’s Cumbria Team can have a huge impact on commoning and livelihoods. We think this is not well understood by his team.

We certainly want more and better communication with NE staff. More than that, we would like to see more empathy and understanding among NE staff. The hill farming community is facing difficult and uncertain times. To temper this uncertainty we ask NE to pause and not ask for further reductions in sheep numbers as part of the HLS extension process. At least until the new ELM schemes are in place. This gives our members and other hill farmers some stability and a breathing space while the new system is being designed.