A few days ago I wrote a piece on what I thought the Cabinet re-shuffle might mean for the environment – see here. The piece posed a lot more questions than answers! Fortunately my friend Miles King has suggested where some of the answers may come from – I recommend you read his excellent blog on the topic here.
Andrea Leadsom, the new Environment Secretary and George Eustice who has been re-appointed as the Farming Minister in DEFRA are both high profile ‘Brexiters’ and founding members of the Right Wing think tank Fresh Start Project which was set up in 2011 with the express purpose of re-examining the UK’s role in Europe. Both have spoken and written on how agricultural policy and subsidy should be reviewed. See Miles’ blog for the details.
In essence it has been summarised as follows by Agra Europe:
“direct payments to farmers in Pillar 1 of the CAP should be phased out, and there should be a parallel reduction in red tape and regulation in order to ensure a globally competitive farming sector.”
In tandem, “Pillar 2 payments for environmental stewardship should be increased with new tradable environmental payments introduced to allow productive land to be more intensively farmed and marginal land to be more focussed on environmental stewardship.”
I have written before about Pillar 1 and 2 payments on Dartmoor before – see here. There are the two agricultural subsidy funds – Pillar 1 funds pay farmers via the Single Payment Scheme now known as the Basic Payment Scheme based upon the area of land they look after and Pillar 2 funds are provided through schemes such as Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) now known as Countryside Stewardship – here farmers are encouraged to carry out positive management to encourage biodiversity and other environmental features.
The thinking of the Fresh Start Project also now helps us to make sense of Andrea Leadsom’s quote “it would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies” , i.e. intensive agriculture in the lowlands and environmental / public benefits in the Uplands.
The use of sheep in this quote is very interesting. It implies the density of sheep in the uplands will decline and increase in the lowlands. I can’t imagine any of the Dartmoor farmers that I know or Lake District farmers such as James Rebanks (The Shepherd’s Life) being at all happy with this prospect. It will also open up the row about whether Dartmoor is over grazed or undergrazed along with the rewilding debate.
However the Fresh Start Project thinking also implies that more money will flow to the Uplands via increased Pillar 2 payments for ‘public goods’, e.g. biodiversity, public access, flood prevention and carbon storage. On the surface this sounds potentially positive for Dartmoor and our other upland areas but goodness knows where it leaves places such as the Somerset Levels or the coastal fringes of Devon and Cornwall.
As ever though the devil is in the detail. Dartmoor farmers currently receive around £7m per annum in agricultural subsidies. Although I haven’t calculated the actual sums, around 50% of this is from Pillar 1 payments and around 50% is from Pillar 2 (it may be 40:60 or 60:40 but it is around these figures). Almost all Dartmoor farmers receive the Basic Payment Scheme monies (Pillar 1) but not all by any means receive Higher Level Stewardship or Countryside Stewardship (Pillar 2).
Removing the Basic Payment Scheme monies before the ‘new’ Pillar 2 monies were in place for all Dartmoor farmers could mean that a significant proportion of Dartmoor’s farmers were left penniless.
In addition there is currently great uncertainty about the commencement of new Countryside Stewardship schemes (Pillar 2) following the Brexit vote. All new schemes are on hold whilst DEFRA and the Treasury work out how to proceed i.e. are they prepared to 100% fund these schemes once we have left the EU? As a result important and ongoing conservation work is put in jeopardy and those farmers who are trying to re-negotiate their Schemes will see their incomes decline significantly.
Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Conservation Director has written about this issue yesterday: Brexit implications for wildlife friendly farming: long-term opportunity, short-term jeopardy – see here.
Worrying and uncertain times in the Uplands ….. and the Lowlands.