3 May 2016

The future of UK upland farming subsidies

Silas writes:*


The uplands are made up of large tracts of undeveloped moor, valley, hill and mountain landscapes and are widely considered to represent the UK’s best remaining wilderness. This common attribution of wilderness is questionable, however, due to the considerable history of intervention by humans in all these areas, most notably through farming. Farming on the uplands is characterized by low-intensity livestock grazing that is dependent on subsidies to make it financially viable. In recent years there has been growing criticism that the subsidies received by farmers are not only inefficient but contribute to the ecological deterioration of these areas.

Since farming is the dominant land use in the uplands, it is unsurprising that it has been implicated in several damning reports that detail this deterioration. One study (pdf) showed that of the 877 species monitored, all have declined, 35% substantially. Crucially, it said that most species would benefit from less intensive grazing regimes. Some conservationists go even further and argue that grazing should be almost entirely eliminated. They contend that sheep, being such close grazers, prevent any kind of substantial vegetative growth, so that even one sheep per hectare can keep land barren in ecological terms.
Although considerable funds go to farmers in the uplands, their agricultural output is relatively low. For example, it has been argued that while 76% of Welsh uplands is dedicated to livestock farming, Wales imports seven times as much meat as it exports. At the same time, subsidies for farmers in the uplands sometimes surpassed their earnings by £20,000 in some areas. Fittingly, most uplands in the UK are categorized as ‘Less Favoured Area’ (LFA), a European Union designation for areas with reduced agricultural potential due to challenging physical conditions. However, if the farming in these areas is difficult, sometimes very costly and characterized by low output, it begs the question why it continues to be subsidized at all.

A reduction in subsidies would force farmers off the uplands and cause dramatic change to the landscape, a loss of tradition and culture, and potentially greater agricultural intensification elsewhere. To decide the value of the subsidies, it is worth clarifying what we want from the uplands and reconsidering both the costs and benefits of upland farming practices. Such reconsideration might lead to policies that please both conservationists and farmers.

Bottom Line Subsidies for upland farmers in the UK support tradition and culture but are unproductive and are may well be maintained at the expense of the environment. If we were able to reach a consensus regarding what we want from the uplands, we could then decide whether farming delivers those desired ends, and if it does not, how it could be adapted to do so in the future.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data, etc.