The single-focus nature of environmental stewardship schemes means the traditional role of tenanted farms in upland areas is gradually being dismantled and the future for young sheep farmers jeopardised, says the National Sheep Association (NSA) and Tenant Farmers Association (TFA).
Although not a new situation, the two organisations have detected an increasing momentum in the worrying trend of farmers approaching the end of short-term Farm Business Tenancy (FBT) who are being told they will not be renewed. Instead landlords are putting eligible ground into environmental stewardship schemes, which often exclude grazing livestock, especially sheep, with the remaining areas being offered on annual grazing agreements and houses and buildings let separately.
Phil Stocker, NSA Chief Executive, says: “While this type of asset stripping exercise might be a sound business move for landowners, it leaves tenants approaching the end of their agreement with an uncertain future. Displaced tenants, faced with little option, are forced to disperse their flocks. Land that has been a single, often highly-regarded farm unit for many years is no more and the infrastructure of upland farming becomes gradually dismantled. Our industry is crying out for young people, but it is very difficult to encourage them in when faced with this permanent breakup of so many productive livestock units.”
TFA and NSA would like to see lessons learnt from the pressure environmental stewardship has put on the tenanted sector in recent years.
George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, says: “The Government needs to make a decision about whether it wants to support productive farms in the hands of hard-working tenant farmers, delivering both for food security and environmental management, or whether it wants to line the pockets of private land owners who are interested only in commercial gain and deliver little in return for the stewardship payments and generous tax breaks they receive. Both TFA and NSA believe that only truly active farmers should have access to payments to assist with producing environmental benefits on farmland.”
NSA and TFA would also like to see a move away from the single focus of stewardship schemes of the recent past and greater acknowledgement of the importance of grazing by livestock to support diversity of wildlife and plant species. In the future a better option would be multi-functional land management schemes that also consider social, structural and productivity elements, while discouraging landowners from prioritising direct access to the payments over good working relationships with tenants.
Mr Stocker continues: “We acknowledge that the impact of environmental stewardship on the tenanted sector is an unintended consequence, but this is only acceptable if we learn from the dramatic affect they are having at a local level and create better schemes for the future. Environmental stewardship only measures environmental outcomes; we need a more holistic approach that considers the vital role of sheep farms in our rural landscape and local communities, as well as the ability of these businesses to produce food at the same time as encouraging wild plants and animals.”
Mr Dunn echoes this: “An understanding of the consequences of past actions, whether intended or otherwise, must be considered when formulating future schemes.