Future support for the hill & uplands

Friday, 25 October, 2019

Commodity watch by UFU policy officer Daryl McLaughlin

In recent months, the Ulster Farmers’ Union hill farming policy committee has been collaboratively working on a wide range of topics on behalf of our members. The committee is keen to look at new and existing practices to manage uplands with livestock.

Hill farms are facing the loss of a basis payment scheme and are currently facing a reduction in income generated by sales. Almost 50% of Northern Ireland’s suckler cows and 60% of the ewe population, is grazed on severely disadvantage areas (SDA). Production of livestock in hill and upland areas is extremely important in supporting the red meat industry in Northern Ireland. The UFU continues to call for the reinstatement of the Area Natural Constraint (ANC) scheme. Part of the argument for ending the ANC scheme was the seven-year transition to flat rate. This has now stopped at five out of the seven. This means that only £15.4 million has moved due to the 1% movement per year to flat rate and that the ANC budget was £24 million less with £15.4million being transferred as basic payment which leaves SDA farmers facing a short fall of between £8/9 million.

Achieving succession is key for many farmers and while there is more uncertainty, this is becoming increasingly difficult for many farmers. Agri-environment schemes are extremely important, but they must focus on results to benefit the farmer and environment in a realistic manner. Many of our farmers maintain that greater flexibility with management practices is key. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, creating new policy will be one key area where the UFU hill farming policy committee will be focusing their time and resources. Policy makers in Northern Ireland could learn many lessons from agri-environment schemes in the Republic of Ireland and in Great Britain. Realistic payments are required for farmers to embrace such a scheme and this would ultimately improve the environmental conditions for wildlife and habitats. Results based schemes have costs and administration expenses however, there is new and emerging technology which could be used to reduce this such as drones.

The UK Government states they want to pay farmers for public goods in a post Brexit situation. Farmers will embrace policy however, the funding must be provided at realistic market rates and is sustained period. Farmers want to take a long-term view, but this is very difficult at the present time. Farmers in Northern Ireland must work together with practitioners, researchers and policy makers in order to set the new direction of support. It will not happen by itself.

What could new policy look like?

  • Scheme design - Farmers must have equal input so they have ownership over what they are doing. Farmers must be trusted as they are the only ones that can deliver the much-needed results and have the experience and knowledge about delivery. Research and policy makers must work in an equal partnership with the farmer.
  • Simplicity - The process must be straightforward so farmers can meet the criteria themselves.
  • Flexibility - Outcomes should be agreed in advance and the farmer needs to be able to decide on an approach to deliver this in the best way possible, with the assistance and benefit of proven scientific advice.
  • Advice - There should be a suitable, trained advisor in the local area who is available to assist when required and farmers should not be penalised for using this resource. Outcomes need to be agreed and requirements identified for the farmer to aspire too.
  • Monitoring and evaluation – The process needs to be simple so farmers can complete the process and include what they are delivering in conjunction with the agreed outcomes.
  • Payment for service delivery – The farmer needs to be paid on a results-based approach for biodiversity. To date payments have been paid on income forgone and going forward farmers need proper and realistic incentivisation.

What kind of flexibility does hill, and upland farmers want going forward?

  • Heather burning – The ability to burn at the right time of the year and under the right burning conditions where necessary.
  • Stocking rates - Farmers want to be able to set their own stocking rates, be able to winter out livestock in upland and hill areas, and not have prescriptive rates, dates or times.
  • Type of livestock - Farmers should be able to select their own type of stock suited to the conditions they have and the most rewarding system.
  • Freedom to farm - Farmers need a level of freedom so they are in control of their own fam business in collaboration with policy.