Highland farmers lose hope of Brexit dividend

Agricultural payments in post-Brexit England sounded like a promising opportunity for Jane Bassett. The third-generation farmer boasts species-rich meadows – a playground for hares – on his small Peak District livestock farm, and a new scheme replaces EU grants with cash for environmental work.

However, Bassett is not only unsure whether to participate, but is considering giving up farming altogether. The family farm’s income prospects now look so worrying under the new government funding regime, she said “everything is on the table including sales”.

“This is a crisis year for many farmers, including us,” she said.

Bassett and other highland farmers are at the center of concerns over the environmental payment scheme, which is finally taking shape almost seven years after the Brexit vote gave Britain the chance to leave the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. The transition towards financing green initiatives initiated after the vote met with widespread approval.

But Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, warned at the group’s February conference that progress on the program was “stammering and partial” and “a worrying lack of transparency in budget spending.”

There is a growing feeling among rural communities that Brexit has brought more risks than benefits. Changing funding hurts farmers as EU-style payments are cut every year; these payments, based on land area, will be at least 35% lower in 2023. lower than before Brexit.

Farmer Thomas Binns was applauded at an NFU event when he invited Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey to “look into the details [of the payments scheme] and see where we can ease the pain of the highland farmers.”

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In particular, mountain farmers are offered payment rates much lower than those paid in the EU, leaving their finances in a precarious state, prompting some to increase farming rather than restoring nature.

James Rebanks, Lake District farmer and author of Shepherd’s lifesaid: “Farmers like me are absolutely terrified of what it offers them.

“We were told yes, we would lose this subsidy that no one thought was a great idea but which supported mountain farming – but we would get an enlightened, progressive system where we could produce public benefits to replace some or all of that income. . . What we get is a frugal, cheap and nasty version.”

Sheep farmer Thomas Binns on his farm near Clitheroe, Lancashire
Sheep farmer Thomas Binns on his farm near Clitheroe, Lancashire © Jon Super/FT

Unbridled cost inflation is also taking its toll. According to official figures published last week, a typical grazing farm in the English highlands faces a fall in farming income – a measure of net profit – by almost two-thirds this financial year to £16,300.

Projections by Julia Aglionby, a professor of practice at the University of Cumbria’s Center for National Parks and Conserved Areas, suggest income will rise to £22,900 over two years before falling back to £16,700 – just over a third of the 2021-2021 level 22.

The crux of the emphasis on government payments is the decision to calculate payments based on “income foregone plus costs” – paying for green improvements at rates designed to compensate farmers for the resulting fall in farm income. Batters said that for some of the farms that participated in the pilot phase, the work was simply unprofitable.

Upland farms are particularly affected as they tend to produce less food than lowland farms, meaning they have ‘give up’ less income and receive lower rates. Most farmers will receive £151 per hectare for managing grassland with minimal fertiliser, but those doing the same work on so-called ‘very disadvantaged areas’ or upland farms will only receive £98.

Julia Aglionby
Julia Aglionby, Professor of Practice at the University of Cumbria: “Biodiversity and carbon stored in the highlands are as valuable as in the lowlands” © David Hartley/Shutterstock

Aglionby said: “Biodiversity and carbon stored in the highlands are worth as much as in the lowlands.” She added that given the low income of the typical highland farmer, they should be targeted by government attempts to “smooth out” regional income disparities. “The green economy is a great way to achieve this, but the way the government is shaping post-CAP policy is not.”

Rebanks, a supporter of environmentally friendly regenerative agriculture, said many of his neighbors want to intensify their livestock farming. “Every farmer I’ve spoken to in the last two weeks has said…. . “If they’re going to offer me much less money than they used to, I have to make a profit in manufacturing and pump my fortune more, or I just won’t be able to pay the bills.”

This trend is particularly worrying as hills in England – like those managed under various payment schemes in Scotland and Wales – represent a significant opportunity for positive environmental change. The government-mandated National Food Strategy, released in 2021, highlighted data showing the highlands are well suited to carbon capture and support species diversity.

Rebanks has carried out projects ranging from reclaiming peatlands to ‘rebuilding’ a river and leaving grassland to improve soil quality; he wrote about greener agriculture bringing back species such as barn owls.

James Rebanks
James Rebanks, author and herder, with his Border Collies Tan and Floss at Racy Ghyll Farm, Troutbeck, near Penrith, Cumbria © Ian Rutherford/Shutterstock

Farmers’ concern is compounded by the view of some environmentalists, such as George Monbiot, author of the book Regenerationthat the less fertile uplands should be completely returned to nature. This view is anathema to farmers who say hundreds of years of sheep and cattle grazing have shaped landscapes beloved by local communities and visitors.

Monbiot is not a view supported by Westminster, but some campaigners say the lack of clear direction after Brexit has exacerbated farmers’ fears.

“The Welsh Sustainable Agriculture Scheme has been very strong on the need to take account of the cultural importance of farming,” said Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association. “This is something we haven’t seen in the context of the ‘public goods’ foundation. [England’s post-Brexit scheme]. Rural communities can feel a bit besieged. . . farmers are trying to understand what their role is.”

Batters, Rebanks and others agree that the £2.4bn in annual funding pledged in the current Parliament – an amount that is rapidly declining in real terms – will be far too little to get the food system to meet targets such as net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

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The government said the CAP “disproportionately rewarded the largest landowners and held back smaller farmers while providing little for food productivity or the environment. Our new farming policy. . . ensure that sustainable food production and environmental protection go hand in hand.”

Bassett herself strives for green changes on her farm, such as planting trees on a “refuge strip” for animals and sharing green farming techniques with nearby farmers. But the 58-year-old is still unsure if she wants to commit to the environmental payment scheme because if her family makes a sale, the buyer may want to step up livestock production and “undo the work done”.

She would prefer to stay on the family farm. But he warns: “If [the government] fail to appreciate what we do, they may lose what they are trying to protect.”

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