Page last updated at 09:56 GMT, Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Strong views in England's uplands

By Trevor Timpson
BBC News

hill farm
Many feel hill farmers' needs are the key to the uplands' future (Photo: NFU)

The Commission for Rural Communities wants more people to give their views to its inquiry into the problems facing England's uplands.

People who live and work there have some very definite replies when they are asked what they and their communities need.

For Charles Cresswell, as for many, the needs of hill farmers are the fundamental question.

Mr Cresswell, a member of the Country Land and Business Association, is the chairman of the College Valley estate, some 14,500 acres reaching up to the top of The Cheviot in north Northumberland, on the Scottish border, which he describes as "a lovely spot, but pretty rough for several months of the year".

"The fundamental thing is the hill farmer has not been paid enough to cover the costs of what he produces - mainly beef and sheep," he insists.

Not many votes

The hardy hill animals are in demand from lowland farmers for breeding, he explains, "but it's an expensive place to produce food; you pay more for fuel and spare parts, and repairs cost more, being remote."

Once the hill farmers' problems were recognised by the government and was compensated for to some extent, he says. But, he claims, "there are not many votes to be won in the hills - and many government services have leached away."

Charles Cresswell
Until we get an administration which values an upland area other than for lovely walks for tourists, and pure water for townsmen to drink, it will be an upward struggle
Charles Cresswell, Country Land and Business Association

The Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says it has recently announced new plans to reward hill farmers for protecting and enhancing the landscape and environment.

But Charles Cresswell says help for upland farmers is much greater in Scotland - just across a wire fence from the College Valley estate.

"The government has dumped a tremendous amount of environmental regulations, especially on the hills. The Environment Agency thinks of the hills as a place which can produce clean water, and food producers are badly affected," he claims.

"It now costs 20 to dispose of a dead sheep - if you leave an old sheep unburied, you're liable for prosecution."

An Environment Agency spokesman pointed out that the agency had been active in promoting studies on the challenges posed to upland areas by climate change.

"We recognise that farmers play an important role in ensuring that the upland environment is managed." he said.

But for Charles Cresswell, what the uplands need is "government tender loving care - it's present in Scotland, absent in England.

Medical shortage

"Until we get an administration which values an upland area other than for lovely walks for tourists, and pure water for townsmen to drink - that values it for the food it produces - it will be an upward struggle."

"I think we'll find it very difficult to get another generation of young people to stay up in 'them there hills'," he goes on. "One young man on the estate I think would want to stay up there; some of the rest would rather be in advertising."

A shortage of medical services, is another problem he identifies, now that doctors knock off at night and at weekends.

For healthcare the best thing is to go to into Scotland to the Borders General Hospital in Melrose, says Mr Cresswell - 30 miles away, 10 miles further than the nearest English hospital at Berwick, but much better equipped, he says.

Will Cockbain, the National Farmers' Union's spokesman on uplands, farms hill sheep and beef cattle near Keswick in Cumbria.

Will Cockbain
A lot of country people have 4x4 vehicles and are taxed much more heavily. But in upland areas they are quite essential
Will Cockbain, NFU

What the upland farmer needs is a profitable livestock sector across the board, he says. Upland farming cannot be isolated from the lowland farmers who buy its livestock.

An issue that needs to be addressed in the uplands is the taxing of vehicles, he says.

"A lot of country people have 4x4 vehicles and are taxed much more heavily. But in upland areas they are quite essential - when there is snow, or you have to pull the trailer, for instance. It's unfair to tax them as though they were Chelsea tractors."

Another thing that is needed, he says, is "a flexible planning system to encourage young people to stay in the area".

Young local people have the rural skills needed to foster communities, he says - and entrepreneurial skills too. But they need some sort of security - to know they will be allowed to live in an area.

Market prospects

"It's stupid at the moment," Mr Cockbain says about the planning system. "It's easier to get planning permission for a holiday home than for a local person."

It is important that payments to farmers for environmental work be adequately funded, he adds - and the link to "income foregone" should be broken so that if farm incomes go down, environmental payments do not go down too.

The market prospects for red meat are better than they have been for a while, says Mr Cockbain.

All the same, he feels there may well not be as many farms in upland areas in 20 years' time - just as there are not as many farms now as there were 20 years ago.

That is why it is important that the Commission for Rural Communities holds its inquiry now, he says, "to see that communities do survive".

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