Is Natural England shifting towards a better balance for the uplands?

Upland farmers need not be left out of the challenge of increasing food production, an NFU conference early bird meeting has heard.

While speakers from Defra and Natural England stressed the importance of sustainable intensification, there was what outgoing NFU uplands spokesman Will Cockbain recognised as a new willingness to “have the debate” on issues around stocking densities and ‘productive’ farming.

For Natural England that has meant a move away from its controversial Uplands Vision document of 2009, which chairman Poul Christensen said had ‘let his organisation down badly’.

“We told rather than listened and I’m very sorry how people perceived it,” he said.

The critical reception in many quarters had at least provided useful feedback for Defra’s current uplands review, Mr Christensen added, going on to describe a subsequent “reinvigoration” of the UELS delivery programme as undertaken “both to put food on the table and to maintain some of England’s most important landscapes”.

When asked directly about the importance of the food production in the hills, he said: "On a practical level it's about achieving balance. If you want to increase food production you need more sheep, but that comes down to local discussions about what stocking should be. In some places you can increase it, in others you won’t be able to, but I’m up for looking at that.”

The hill sector was in many ways ahead of the curve in terms of the sustainable intensification drive, he said, because its inputs were so low.

Returning to a theme of constructive discussion with farmers on the ground, he concluded: “Where and how to burn, optimum stocking levels, predator and raptor control – not one of those issues is easy but I feel that Natural England has matured over recent years. There’s no substitute for sitting down and making the most of local expertise and knowledge.”

While Natural England moves away from its mission statement of 2009, Defra is in the middle of putting together a new blueprint. Robin Mortimer, the department’s Director for Wildlife, Landscape and Rural Areas took delegates through an Uplands Policy Review launched in March last year with three aims:
• Supporting English hill farmers
• Delivering public goods from the uplands
• Sustaining uplands communities

A rural statement is expected in late spring of this year, but there was more encouragement for those with aspirations of increasing upland food production in Mr Mortimer’s thoughts on the Uplands Green Food Project, a component of the policy review work.

He said: “The shift in policy within the Uplands Green Food Project is that environmental outcomes cannot be delivered instead of food production – it has to be alongside it. Too often the trade-offs are not understood and thought though. It’s not a case of saying ‘we’ll leave the uplands to environmental outcomes only’.”