On Friday, I referred to the old conservation motto:  "stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest".  I bemoaned the lack of progress we had made in protecting the best.   In the uplands, the situation is even more stark.

And this is where my working year starts.  Not literally, as I'll be in of Oxford at the Real Oxford Farming Conference (see here). Today, I will  be debating the future of our uplands - iconic landscapes which offer us so much.  While the dominant economic landuses are farming, forestry and grouse shooting, the uplands also offer us a huge array of other free services: vast stocks of stored carbon (largely in deep peat soils); upland catchments are vital for drinking water supply and flood amelioration; and many of us visit the wild spaces of the uplands for inspiration and enjoyment.  

Yet, wildlife in our uplands is in trouble.  Birds like black grouse, curlew, ring ouzel, whinchat are undergoing major declines and hen harriers continue to suffer from illegal persecution.  And, the State of Nature report showed that of the 877 upland species for which we have information, 65% have declined since 1970.

For me, most shocking of all are the statistics about upland SSSIs:

- 10.5% of the 162,000 ha of blanket bog designated as SSSI are in favourable condition
- 10.3% of the 124,000 ha of upland heath designated as SSSI are in favourable condition
- 39.8% of the 20,000 ha of acid grassland designated as SSSI are in favourable condition

So what's to be done?

First, we have to accept that upland farmers have a continued and important role to play.  Whilst parts of the uplands would undoubtedly benefit from the withdrawal of land management intervention (as George Monbiot recommends), many of the species we value rely on open habitats requiring some level of management.  The future condition and state of these habitats and their species is reliant on securing better, more sustainable (truly sustainable) landuse and land management practices – that underpin both the natural environment and the social fabric of the places (and people) responsible for their management.

Across our upland estate (60% of the RSPB estate is upland) we work work with our tenants and neighbours to secure positive environmental and socio-economic outcomes.  We do this at places like Tarnhouse Farm in Geltsdale or with United Utilities at Haweswater (as shown in Andy Hay's image below) and Dove Stone.  Here we have set out to demonstrate that restoring the upland habitat is good for business and good for wildlife.  

For an overview of our upland thinking – see here.

It's clear that many of the problems in the uplands are made worse by policies such as the Less Favoured Area policy (more recently known as Areas Facing Natural Constraint) which is in effect a ‘hardship’ payment that recognises the difficulty of livestock production in upland areas – poor soils, challenging terrain, difficult climate, distant from markets etc.  It seems to us perverse that we are still subsidising farmers to produce food in these areas when instead we should be positively supporting land managers (farmers) for activities that help secure a broader range of goods and services that the uplands are better placed to deliver.

So let’s stop talking about the Less Favoured Area and Areas Facing Natural Constraint – the Uplands ought to be a Favoured Area because of the range of vital goods and services they produce.

In order to improve the environmental and economic viability of upland farming, we need to change the whole basis by which farmers are supported – having clearer (and agreed) environmental outcomes and positive policy support measures (e.g. agri-environment) and seek to develop additional innovative payment mechanisms that recognise true value of upland ecosystem services (e.g. Payments for Ecosystem Services).  See, for example, here.

This is a shared agenda for many different organisations and individuals and that is why we have helped establish the High Nature Value farming coalition (see here).  Only together can we secure a better future for the uplands, upland wildlife, those that manage the uplands and those that rely on them.

But what about you? What's your view on the future of our uplands?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • It was a good debate and touched on many of the issues that you have all raised in your comments.  Creating viable livelihoods to help manage the landscapes is just one of the many challenges that are facing the uplands.  The good news was that there was a lot of agreement on the panel about the need for radical thinking, for collaboration, for trying new approaches,for rewarding farmers for delivering the services that well-managed uplands provide and for not running away from the major environmental challenges.  The bad news was that we did not come up with a silver bullet.  The CAP deal will not help, but we have to test out new thinking while regrouping to come up with a better campaign for more fundamental CAP reform in 5-6 years time.

  • Its both very complicated and not complicated at all - we are already paying, some 70% of LFA farm income coming from CAP. Actual farm incomes - what the farmer actually earns - are frequently way below the subsidy paid, the famer would make more for himself by doing nothing !  The problem is pretending that its all about food production - the contribution of the uplands, despite their enormous size, is vanishingly small. What we need to do is decide what we actually want and pay for that, not some myth from the past. It isn't about the landowners - everyone, including upland farmers, knew that headage payments for sheep were crazy but had no option but to follow. The real problem, and its even bigger in large parts of upland Europe, is whether people will want to work in these tough environments in the future - let alone for the pittance most upland farmers make today - how are we going to incetivise the skilled, dedicated workforce of the future to take over from todays ageing hill farmers ?

  • Martin

    The uplands (40% of UK area; home to 1% of the population) are a much more complex area than we care to imagine.

    Farming is at its fringes, forestry viewed as alien conifers and hardly any data available for the State of Nature report.

    Yes, farming and land use needs to change in the uplands but we must be prepared to pay for it to keep vital rural communities viable within these neglected areas while utilising the uplands for public goods and embracing the benefits of other cultural ecosystem services (terrible jargon) from sea eagles in Mull to rough shooting in the Cambrian Mountains and recreating bogs on degraded peatland in the Peak District.

    When the agricultural students at Harper Adams Univ couldn't afford Monbiot to speak on rewilding, I presented this version;    



  • Martin, I would be interested to hear your views on what the main barriers are to achieving the improvements you (and we!) seek.  It's too easy (although at times tempting)to simply bash the attitudes and behaviour of landowners.  But, as you say, lasting and significant improvements can only be achieved with their co-operation and input.

  • I agree with all you say Martin.The way our uplands are currently  treated (forestry,farming and grouse moor management) reminds me of a car constantly being reved in the red zone of its revs metre in order to achieve more output, but in the end it breaks down and over heats through non sustainable use. I must say when we look at much of our uplands of wind blown bare hills, I am constantly reminded that we are actually looking at a devastated landscape. Much of the hills were originally covered by deciduous trees but this has been hacked away in previous centuries and subsequent over grazing has prevented any tree recovery and degradation of the soil. A major effort is needed to restore at least in part some of this tree cover(as is being done at Abernathy). This does not mean that farming is excluded. The old method of open wood pasture, now rarely seen, would serve very well, but it does mean some radical change of thinking by all parties concerned. They need to think "out side the box" and not being constrained by current practices, most of which are non sustainable.

    Of course the persecution of raptors on grouse moors is a national disgrace. Will this Government try to do something about it? I doubt it very much!!!