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The Social and Environmental Crisis in the British Uplands

Alistair McConnachie published Sovereignty from July 1999 to its 120th consecutive monthly issue in June 2009, and he continues to maintain this website.
Alistair McConnachie also publishes Prosperity - Freedom from Debt Slavery which educates about the nature of our debt-based money system and A Force For Good which advocates the maintenance of the United Kingdom.
To find out more go to the about who is Alistair McConnachie page.
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Herdwick sheep in Cumbria

Alistair McConnachie writes:
Economically, the reason that UK farming has problems is because government policy is to force British farmers to compete on the world market. Instead, agricultural policy should be re-orientated to national self-sufficiency, worldwide.

We dealt with the necessary principles in various past issues of Sovereignty, for example, here. Policies flowing from these principles would help improve the economic situation and help ensure our valuable rural uplands remain populated.

Environmentally, there is an ideological conflict between a strand of environmentalism -- called re-wilding -- which believes, wrongly, that the "wilderness" is best left to be "wild".

However, by his hand, man can destroy or improve the bio-diversity of any area on which he lays his hands. That is his burden, but it is also his privilege.

With man's presence, any wilderness area may run the risk of becoming a monoculture, but without man, it will almost certainly become one. For example, without man and his animals, the British uplands are quickly colonised by heather and bracken weed. Government policy should be to encourage people onto the land. Only that way can man work directly to ensure bio-diversity of species, and only that way can man repair that which his hand may hitherto have destroyed.

This article by Suzanne Greenhill was published originally in the November 2004 issue of Sovereignty under the above title. Here she explains how government and EU policy is leading to a social and environmental crisis in the uplands of Britain

We thought that after the barbaric slaughter of 11 million animals in the Foot and Mouth epidemic of 2001, when less than 1% of animals were infected, shepherds would be encouraged to replace and build up their flocks to sustainable levels. Particularly hard hit -- as a result of government policy -- were the uplands of England, and the border counties of Scotland and central Wales.

These areas are the natural home to many of our native breeds of sheep. At the end of this disaster, driving from the northern edge of the Lake District for 60 miles into Scotland, you would see no livestock at all. The picture was the same from West Cumbria through the Yorkshire Dales and over much of the North Yorkshire Moors.

For centuries "Commoners" - those people with grazing rights on a common, hill or moorland - have grazed their native breeds of sheep and cattle communally on areas of frequently unfenced land.

These Common Rights go back to Medieval times when the Lord of the Manor allowed peasants to use the poorer areas and higher ground of his land that was unsuitable for crop cultivation. Today, many of these upland farms still only have small parcels of land attached to the farmhouse, (what is called 'in-bye land').

In summer, after lambing, flocks are turned out to graze their heaf or heft (the flock's own territory on the hill or moor) as the lowland pasture needs to recover and is needed for winter feed.

On the heaf of Common land the ewes teach the lambs where the natural boundaries are. Often this is only a line of rocks or a stream. It takes years to heaf a replacement flock as they also have to build up resistance to particular parasites, to cope with mineral imbalances in the poor soil, to learn where to find shelter and where to cross swollen becks and streams. It really is survival of the fittest as the losses in the first few years are substantial.

A core number of ewes and lambs are retained every year by these farmers so that they have an economic and sustainable flock bred with "the knowledge" of their own heaf and the requisite traits. When a farm with grazing rights is sold, the flock is sold with the farm and must remain with their heaf.

In the past, when farmers have tried moving a hefted flock to another farm, within a very short period the flock has returned to its original heaf, rather like homing pigeons.

Common Land in England and Wales covers 550,000 hectares (1,359,050 acres) and is 12% of the land area of these two countries. Nearly half of Common land is in our National Parks and is also classified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) or carries other environmental status.

Centuries of this specialist type of farming have created the wonderful and varied landscapes we see today: the fells of the Lake District, the Pennines, the dales and moors of Yorkshire, the Clee Hills of Shropshire, the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, and the moors of Devon and Cornwall. In Wales, examples are the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains and Snowdonia.

There are even communal marsh graziers on the coasts of Cumbria, Romney Marsh in Kent and parts of Wales.

Over time, very specific sheep have also been bred to be adaptable to different regions and the often harsh local conditions. Examples are the Herdwicks, the dominant sheep of the high and wet Cumbrian fells, the Swaledales suitable for the Pennines and Yorkshire dales, the Cheviots for the cold and drier weather of North East Britain and Romneys which graze the salty marshes. There are 80 different breeds of sheep in the UK, but many of these other breeds are lowland sheep and would not survive in the uplands. These farming management systems have been the only viable way of making use of the available land in these areas.

Tourists and the public enjoy our wealth of scenery, but much of it is under threat from varying sources.

Some may think of climate change and the pressure on land from urban encroachment or ugly inefficient wind turbines or the cross-contamination by commercial growing of GM crops.

Yes, these are all real threats too, but there are other forces at work undermining the preservation of these areas and the centuries old management skills of these particular farmers.

First, there is the problem of an ageing population of farmers. The work of the Commoners is particularly arduous and often undertaken in very severe weather conditions, so younger people are not drawn to this way of life. Historically Commoners have been the "Cinderellas" of farming often only making £3,000 or £4,000 a year profit throughout the 1980s and '90s when the arable "Barley Barons" were very well rewarded.

Just before Foot and Mouth, prices collapsed completely and one farmer, whose sheep at auction would have fetched so little that after paying commission he would have been left with nothing, simply gave them away! £5 an animal was quite usual at that time, but even during and just after Foot and Mouth when there was a shortage of lamb and the supermarkets raised their prices, this was not passed on to the farmers.

Secondly, in the early 1990s English Nature (EN) and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), which are government-advisory bodies, began designating more sites as SSSIs.

This policy was part of EN's and CCW's interpretation of the UK Habitats Regulations, to comply with the European Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC).

The objective by these two agencies was to reach a target of 90% of the SSSIs "to be improved or in improving condition" by 2010. Their so-called reasoning for this was an alleged threat from "overgrazing" or high stocking numbers of livestock. At that time there were some areas that were overgrazed because the slump in farm incomes had lead livestock farmers to increase their flocks and herds in order to survive financially. This was because farm support money was paid on the number of animals kept. Part of EN and CCW's remit was to offer Commoners with grazing rights a financial payment to reduce their flocks by one third. An amount was paid annually for a 10-year period while this reduction lasted and was in lieu of the Commoners' lost income. Since their incomes were so low, many Commoners joined the scheme. English Nature bought some grazing rights in perpetuity therefore removing a third of flocks forever from that Common land.

In 1998 research was carried out for English Nature on Scottish heather moorland about environmentally sustainable stocking numbers. The conclusions of this flawed research, on only one type of grazing land, were set in stone in the English Nature Handbook.

The mantra of English Nature continues to be "overgrazing", which they refuse to define when challenged by the National Sheep Association or the National Farmers Union. And their stipulated regime continues of "a one size fits all" grazing stock number of "one and a half sheep per hectare" (1 hectare=2.471 acres) on Common land and upland.

English Nature and CCW have made no adjustment to this stocking rate figure even after the impact of the huge losses in 2001 in the FMD epidemic. Anyone can see that most of the uplands of England and Wales are not like Scottish heather moorland!

To compound the intractable blindness of English Nature they will not acknowledge that there are regional variations and different sections of the same Common or moor carry different vegetation depending on altitude, climate and minerals in the soil.

Even one side of the same hill can have quite different weather to the other. The fact is that no two Commons are alike and the knowledge and particular local farming practices of each Common or moor varies and must always be taken into account.

The result of the 10-year flock reduction scheme has lead to ever increasing great swathes of tall bracken, gorse and scrub, much of it impenetrable for sheep and a huge loss of the areas of palatable grass.

There is an increasing loss of low-growing flora, insects and birdlife. Walkers are finding it difficult to fight their way through dense shoulder high vegetation and there is a growing fire risk. In 2003 there were large fires after a few weeks of dry weather in the National Parks of the Lake District, the North Yorkshire Moors and the Peak District.

From the far south west of England to the borders of Scotland and in Wales the problem now is undergrazing.

The Commoners are finding it increasingly difficult to get their flocks to spread out because of the overgrown vegetation. Some are still trying to rebuild their flocks in the wake of Foot and Mouth. Those still with smaller flocks are finding there is often encroachment by larger neighbouring flocks.

English Nature will not allow the necessary rotational burning of old rank heather, which is part of good management practice or the necessary destruction of bracken and gorse.

If sufficient numbers of grazing upland cattle were allowed in summer this would improve the condition of many areas because cattle will graze the longer coarser grasses that sheep avoid.

They will also help to trample the young shoots of bracken. But for every one cow grazed EN insist that six sheep are removed from grazing!They seriously believe "that the greater the stock reduction the quicker these grazing areas will improve" and have said this to Commoners.

This Agency has been given £15 million for 2004/5 for a new scheme to pay for a further third of flocks to be removed for 5-6 years on some Commons of Cumbria. This sum was National Sheep Envelope money previously paid to all sheep farmers, so the majority will now receive nothing.

Under this latest "Sheep and Wildlife Enhancement Scheme" (SWE) there is no guarantee that Commoners will eventually be allowed to put back to their Common the extra third of the flock taken off during 2004/5. So with any flocks reduced by two thirds it becomes unworkable for farmers to continue with the use of the heafing (hefting) system in these upland areas.

As a result of this SWE Scheme, the tragedy further unfolding is that a huge area of Scawfell and much of the long neighbouring valleys of Eskdale and Wastwaster are now without sheep.

At two livestock auctions in October this year, each mart sold 4,000 Herdwick sheep, twice the usual number for these Autumn sales. What we are now seeing is the whole heafing system breaking down.

In the background is the Common Agricultural Policy reform of 2005 and a very uncertain future. This CAP reform will cause the biggest changes to farming since the Industrial Revolution. Six weeks before commencement on 1st January 2005, all farmers will receive less subsidy money.

The payments will reduce each year until 2012 when subsidies will cease. Just to add to the woes, some farming sectors will be very severely penalised losing 60-70% of previous payments. And contrary to what some Department of Food and Rural Affairs Ministers think, many hill farmers cannot diversify into other crops on the type of hill land they have available.

The new farm payment (known as the Single Farm Payment or SFP) is based on complying with environmental requirements and not production.

As long as a farmer keeps his land in good agricultural and environmental condition he will receive a payment, but he does not have to plant a crop or keep livestock although most will need to produce in order to survive financially.

On top of this, there is concern over the National Scrapie Plan due to be completed over the next five years. This rare disease does not even affect all breeds of sheep and is not known to have ever caused fatalities in humans. The government also seems determined "to discover" that BSE ('mad cow disease') has somehow found its way into sheep. This would suit a political agenda to reduce millions more sheep from the National Flock.

Our Government has signed up to two international agreements, but its policies ignore very important essential elements in them.

In the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) nations are required to "respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity…" Article 8(j)

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992) states the key principle, "local communities have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices." Principle 22

Ignoring these principles is leading to the destruction of Common land, the loss of bio-diversity, and the loss of the hill farmers themselves with their knowledge and specialist management skills. It will further lead to the loss of upland communities.

On average we are losing 12 farmers daily in Britain and the wider social and economic implications of this seem of little importance to those who govern us. The number of allied agricultural businesses, such as feed merchants, machinery suppliers, hauliers and vets also diminishes when working farms disappear. Then there is the knock on effect of pubs, post offices, village shops and schools closing, further fragmenting the cohesion of rural communities.

Traditional family farms are vital not only in producing food, but in delivering the many environmental benefits and maintaining the landscape for the wider public. We cannot afford to lose them. Once gone, they are lost forever.

See also our web article from November 2001 Hefted Sheep: A Phenomenon Cast Aside by Astrid Goddard, which includes interviews with Cumbrian Fell farmers.
Also see Richard Mawdsley's article on How to Manage Hill Land Naturally

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