Michael Gove returns to the uplands

Michael Gove has just delivered his keynote speech to the NFU Conference in Birmingham – you can read the full speech here. I have selected the passages which refer to the uplands.

“Rural communities depend on profitable agricultural businesses to thrive. The landscapes which draw tourists, from the Lake District to Dartmoor, the Northumberland coast to Pembrokeshire, depend on farmers for their maintenance and upkeep.”

“As does the work of organisations like the Prince’s Countryside Fund which support smaller farms, especially those in more challenging areas. I firmly believe that supporting those farmers who help keep rural life, and economies, healthy is a public good.”

“I am acutely conscious that the changes which are coming to farming leave some sectors more worried than others. And I am particularly aware that many smaller farmers, such as dairy farmers in areas like Devon or upland sheep farmers in Cumbria and Northumberland, fear that the future is particularly challenging for them. Margins are tight. Milk and lamb prices are far from generous. The risks to profitability of Bovine TB or other forces beyond the farmers’ control add to stress. And the prospect of public support diminishing or disappearing makes many wonder how they can go on. I believe we have to ensure future methods of agricultural support recognise how critical it is to value the culture in agriculture – Devon and Somerset would not be as they are – with the countryside as beautiful as it is and communities as resilient as they are – without dairy farmers. Cumbria and Northumberland, Yorkshire’s Dales and Pennine Lancashire would not be as they are – both as breathtakingly beautiful and as resilient – without upland farmers.”

“And yes, I am romantic about it. You cannot read James Rebanks’ A Shepherd’s Life, with its descriptions of life sheep farming in the Lake District, without realising how precious and valuable a link with all our pasts the continuation of farming in communities such as James’ provides. Men and women are hefted in those hills just as much as the sheep they care for. And preserving profitable farm businesses in those communities is just as much a public good as investment in anything I know.”

The specific mention of uplands and hill-farmers as ‘public goods’ therefore entitled to ‘public money’ will be seen as a big relief to many as the 25 year Environment Plan made no mention of the uplands at all and led to consternation in some quarters. e.g.

Gove did mention the uplands in his Age of Acceleration speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in January:-

On hill-farmers
So that does mean …. asking how we can support those farmers, for example upland sheep farmers, whose profit margins are more likely to be small but whose contribution to rural life and the maintenance of iconic landscapes is immense.

Rural resilience as a public good
Finally there is rural resilience. There are any number of smaller farm and rural businesses which help keep communities coherent and ensure the culture in agriculture is kept healthy. Whether it’s upland farmers in Wales or Cumbria, crofters in Scotland or small livestock farmers in Northern Ireland, we need to ensure support is there for those who keep rural life vital. The work of the Prince’s Countryside Fund has been invaluable here and the kind of enterprises that it supports are, I believe, worthy of public support.

but it was curious to say the least that they didn’t get a mention in the 25 year Environment Plan.

So Michael Gove has responded to the ‘feedback’ he has received and made specific mention. The Devil though is still in the detail which we have yet to see. This should begin to emerge once the Consultation Paper on the future of agriculture is published in a month or so.

The key questions to answer in the Consultation Paper with regards to the uplands are

will sufficient public money be made available for the uplands
and
will hill-farmers be prepared to earn it by the providing the public goods?

2 thoughts on “Michael Gove returns to the uplands

  1. Thanks for this Adrian, very informative. I wonder how much broadleaved woodland creation and restoration in upland areas of England might be seen as a desirable public outcome, especially for those in lower catchment flood risk zones and as an alternative income for cash strapped upland farmers ‘hefted’ to these areas? Will the 25 year plan address this potential?

    • Planting woodland on common land is challenging as all the interested parties i.e. commoners and land owners need to agree and a special derogation to erect fencing is needed. Habitat restoration is currently being attempted in many places and results are promising in a few locations but the legacy of historic overgrazing and current atmospheric pollution and climate change are making things difficult.

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