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Upland Farming

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 4 April 2019


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure the long-term viability of upland farming.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and with her permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper. I declare my interests as set out in the register.

My Lords, I declare my own farming interests as set out in the register. Upland farmers have been looking after exceptional landscapes, including national parks, for generations. They are responsible for a distinct farming and cultural heritage and the production of high-quality food. We will work with farmers to improve animal health, agricultural productivity and the environment, and support enhanced rural connectivity, to ensure an economically viable future for this and future generations of upland farmers.

With their vulnerability of terrain, sparsity and remoteness, the upland areas need a range of measures underpinned by good delivery systems that keep farmers farming in a wider rural economy including forestry and environmental landscape management. Has the Minister’s department considered establishing a specialist high-value unit as a successor to SDA to champion strategic development, with a clear vision for the uplands?

My Lords, as a Government, we entirely accept that the uplands have an important connection to us all. After all, they provide 70% of our water. They have an enormous environmental benefit. Through the environmental land management system, which will replace the CAP, we are looking for ways to support and encourage the next generations to do this vital work on our behalf.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm the need for the 6,500 upland farmers to continue to receive public financial support? Without that, they will not succeed. Some 70 million people visit the uplands each year and that sort of payment is essential. In addition, I note the important role that small and medium-sized enterprises play in those local communities. Without that interaction, those communities will die.

My Lords, my noble friend speaks of the whole uplands economy. Tourism—such an important part of it—is based on the agrarian systems which make us all want to visit those areas. We have said that we will continue direct payments for 2019 and 2020. There will be a transition, but we will also introduce the environmental land management system. I believe that upland farmers will have a very interesting and productive use of that scheme.

My Lords, as several Peers have acknowledged, upland farmers make a massive contribution to the care of our hill areas. However, the character and community of those areas will depend on upland farmers being more than merely park-keepers. Does the Minister recognise that if Brexit leads to very high tariffs for lamb exports to Europe, and massive imports from new trade deals with New Zealand, it could spell the end of hill livestock farming? That is really dangerous for the hill areas.

My Lords, that is precisely why I mentioned food in my Answer. Upland farmers provide excellent food for the nation and for abroad. We clearly want that to continue. We want a trade deal. I am sure that all your Lordships wish us to secure a deal for the nation, but the situation is particularly acute for the upland farmers. I referred to animal health and productivity in my reply. We want to work with the farmers to ensure we conquer many of the diseases that are a travail for them, such as sheep scab. There are all sorts of areas of work that industry, the Government and farmers can work together on.

My Lords, it has long been established that hill farmers regularly have incomes in the lowest decile of all farm incomes. That has not changed over many years. If we want our uplands—whether the Scottish borders, Northumberland, the Lake District, the Peak District or elsewhere—to continue to look the way they do, it is absolutely essential that people there are given more and better support if we are to ensure that we can go on enjoying the upland countryside, as the Minister has recognised we all do.

My Lords, 53% of England’s SSSIs are in uplands. These are hugely important areas for our country. I agree with the noble Lord, who comes from an area of great upland rural and cultural tradition. Our objective is to secure that future, because it is important to us all that upland farmers still produce food and look after that wonderful landscape.

My Lords, since the Minister accepts that the upland farmers are the best guardians of the uplands and that there needs to be a reasonable income level, will he therefore accept that there has to be a market equivalent to what they have at the moment in exporting largely to the European market, and a guarantee of income beyond 2020, which is only next year?

My Lords, we have said as a Government that we will commit the same sum of money until the end of this Parliament. No Parliament can bind its successors, but 2022 is the likely end of this Parliament given the cycle we have. If we are to keep people on the land, they need a viable income. They also need to live a contemporary life, which is why I specifically mentioned the work we are undertaking to improve connectivity in the uplands, where we are not as strong as in other rural areas, and where we need to commit money, which we are doing.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm as a matter of fact that remaining in a customs union with the European Union would achieve the objectives that all noble Lords who have asked questions—and the Minister—have agreed must be our objective?

Our objective is to trade freely with the European Union, the EU 27, our partners in what I hope will be a very productive and long-term economic arrangement. That is what we should aim for.