By Pamela Mason
The uplands are a key feature of the cultural landscape of Wales. They produce food, and public goods and services, including water and peat which sequesters carbon, as well as habitats for wildlife. People live and work there. These were among the main messages presented at a conference in Llanrwst, organized by Bangor University, RSPB Cymru, and Cynidr Consulting, with support from the Welsh Government. The conference, which created space for farmers to discuss the future of the uplands after Brexit, attracted an audience of 150 participants including farmers, academics, conservation bodies, and Government officials. There was agreement amongst speakers and participants around the need to create new policy fit for the future.
According to Kevin Austin (Head of Agricultural Strategy and Policy Unit at Welsh Government), the uplands are usually viewed through the prism of the farming economy, which is a problem. Farms in Less Favoured Areas (LFAs) do not make money and are increasingly attuned to diversifying and looking beyond farming for income. Uncertainty surrounds farm income after Brexit as different scenarios are put forward. The uplands have become dependent on public money but support is decreasing everywhere so farmers cannot expect more money. However, the opportunity for upland farmers to deliver and be paid to deliver public goods is significant, including trees, hunting, walking, provision of energy and clean water, management of water flow, preservation of the Welsh language and management of peat bogs for carbon sequestration. Interventions should be targeted with payment by results.
Professor Peter Midmore (expert in agricultural economics, Aberystwyth University and author of Cherished Heartlands) highlighted the importance of the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 for uplands farming. Any outputs delivered through public funding, such as flood management or carbon storage systems, will have to contribute to the well-being goals stated in the WBFGA and there will be statutory targets for reducing carbon emissions and a new duty to reverse decline in biodiversity.
Gwyn Jones (European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism) talked about High Nature Value Farming (HNVF) again pointing to the public good they produce. However, how can we break the link between delivery of public goods and poor farm income, he asked. We should not ask farmers to deliver public goods for less than the minimum wage and there should a clear coherent vision shared by government and farmers.
Representing the uplands farming organization, Fairness for the Uplands, Tony Davies and Hefin Jones highlighted the risks of abandonment if farmers do not get public help. Discussing the opportunities, Tony Davies said woodland is a crop and an opportunity post-CAP if the government is prepared to pay, while Hefin Jones highlighted the need for a minimum wage post-Brexit with appropriate numbers of cattle and sheep grazing to keep the mountains in good condition and an emphasis on less but better meat with promotion of the taste qualities of grass fed meat.
RSPB Cymru Land Use Manager, Arfon Williams, said that farming is essential to the well-being of current and future generations in Wales. Until now, farming policies have largely encouraged more intensive farming practices that have squeezed spaces for nature and limited the environmental benefits that sustainable farming can provide. In Wales one in nine species is threatened with extinction. The challenge for upland farming is to deliver environmental benefits while also producing sustainable amounts of quality food and other commodities. The WBFGA and the Environment Act provide a real opportunity to create a Wales specific policy.
In conclusion, the conference highlighted the challenges of farming in the Welsh uplands and the need for farmers to be paid for providing public goods and services with consideration given to niche marketing of the tastier quality meat from the hills. Tourism brings in £3 billion a year to Wales and appropriate remuneration for uplands farmers will help to ensure that the uplands are enjoyed by all, provide habitat for wildlife, while maintaining the carbon sink, providing clean water to homes and businesses and controlling water flow to reduce flooding. A Wales specific policy with targeted interventions paying for results could offer a way forward.