keep sheep on the fells
Penrith and the Border – the constituency in England with the largest percentage of uplands land – is pressing the governments to increase limits on sheep numbers on the fells.
Rory believes that recent environmental measures – designed to protect hillsides from damage by sheep – have become “excessive” and is campaigning to relax the restrictions. He has challenged DEFRA minister Jim Paice in a Westminster Hall debate, and has pursued the issue in recent meetings of the Sheep association and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hill Farming. He has now sent a formal request to the Department of Environment and Rural Affairs.
Rory said: “The reductions in stocking levels are now damaging our landscape. Fells are being taken over by inedible grass and bracken. As the flock numbers fall, employment for farmers and shepherds and everyone in the related industries from auction marts onwards fall. When there is no rural employment village schools, pubs and shops will fall away too. We must tackle this before it goes any further. I agree that over-stocking is damaging – but under-stocking is now equally damaging. The dial must be turned back. Farmers in Penrith and the Border understand and respect the fact that farming and environmental protection must co-exist, but not at the expense of our agricultural heritage and the output that our land is capable of sustaining. We desperately need to review our schemes, our stocking levels, our planning laws, and our working relationships with agencies and Government. We need to trust in the farmers who know our land best.“
Will Cockbain, Uplands Spokesman for the NFU said: “Hill farming is about delivering both for the market place and the environment, we have already seen huge reductions in sheep numbers in the uplands along with significant environmental improvement, but farmers are increasingly concerned at talk of further dramatic reductions. Many rural jobs – from farmers to shepherds to vets, auction marts, abattoirs and hauliers – rely on a critical mass of animals being present in uplands areas as do lowland livestock farmers who are customers for female breeding sheep bred in the uplands.”
Robert Craig, Cumbria’s NFU Chairman, said: “I welcome the ongoing support and commitment from Rory Stewart. Hill farming and sheep production in the uplands is at the heart of the rural economy in Cumbria. If the upland farmers in the county are to be asked to further reduce the sheep numbers on the fells we must first fully understand the impact both on the economy and the social fabric of the uplands. It’s clear from income levels published that the current policy in the uplands isn’t working. I would urge that we need to see more direct dialogue between Lake District National Park, our local politicians and farmers, with the aim of generating proposals that would lead the upland in a more sustainable direction for the future for everyone.”
The meeting followed an event last week at which Rory Stewart hosted a visit of the National Sheep Association (NSA) to Parliament where the Association launched a paper called “The Complimentary Role of Sheep within Less Favoured Areas”.
Rory repeated his commitment to representing the views of sheep farmers in Westminster. Fellow Cumbrian and NSA regional representative John Geldard commented: “Things are changing. In 2007 we had a Secretary of State who said the environment more important than food production. This Government says the reverse. This is the first time we’ve been listened to. This is the first time our concerns have been taken seriously.”
The focus on sheep farming has not been limited to Westminster alone. A meeting was held in Orton last week, the culmination of discussions between Natural England, the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency with local farmers on how to involve the agriculture industry in Big Society initiatives, simplify conversations with DEFRA and ‘barrier bust’ challenging legislative issues. The project’s findings have been a wake-up call to the local government agencies whose challenging brief involves supporting the agriculture sector, whilst protecting the natural environment. Key actions are to work on bringing younger people into farming, relaxing planning laws to ensure that younger farmers are able to settle in rural areas, and lever taxes to create more opportunities for farmers. Farmers have also called for more flexibility in Natural England schemes, calling for a reduction in the number of years of Entry Level Schemes, and looking at more frequent reviewing of schemes in order to enhance land output and food production.