The recent trade deals with Australia and New Zealand sound an alarm bell for cattle and sheep farmers on Britain’s most marginal land. Are they to be thrown under a bus along with our fishermen? They certainly are not expecting sympathy – the Conservative Party stopped being the party of the landed interest in 1846 when the Corn Laws were repealed.
Despite Jeremy Clarkson shining a sympathetic spotlight on agriculture recently, landowners don’t get good press. Ownership of land is always an emotional subject and most landowners own, well… A lot. Just ask them how many acres and multiply by £6,700, the UK average price for one acre, and bingo! A brand new person to hate. This makes even those with the most modest landholding ‘rich’, and even when forced to sell their produce below the cost of production, undeserving of government subsidy.
So, if land ownership invites hostility, current farming practice is equally contentious. The environmentalists have farmers cornered with their methane belching cattle, biodiversity deserts, bee-destroying pesticides and soil erosion choking our rivers. The charge sheet is endless.
It doesn’t help that the average age is 60, the vast majority white and, worse, men. Not much diversity there. Even ripping out hedgerows, a practice that ended 40 years ago and has been illegal for 23, is trotted out along with alleged recreational killing of raptors every time a countryside issue features in the news. And, of course, the badgers don’t like to be forgotten.
Easy to lampoon. Images of red faces, checked shirts, Range Rovers, window down, elbow out, shouting at unsuspecting ramblers. But if you lift your eyes to the English countryside you might see one of the most beautifully managed landscapes in the world. Most landowners and farmers care deeply about their land. Benign taxation to avoid the fragmentation of holdings and loss of benefits of scale has allowed land to pass from father to son or daughter for generations and the concept of primogenitor has held ancient estates together for centuries. Forestry and the love of trees is passed down through farming families in a country where most children cannot even recognise four common trees.
Owning land is unlike anything else. Edmund Burke was quick to extol its virtues because of the associated responsibilities. Land may be valuable, but the owners feel they are no more than custodians, and taxation policy has recognised the small financial return and the generational timescales that shape our landscape.
For nearly half a century we have been dictated to by the dead hand of Brussels’ bureaucracy and the steady nationalisation of land use. Yet the basic farm payment of £94 an acre has been a welcome safety net. Encouraging farmers to put crops in the ground produces a surplus, and macro-economic forces let prices slide to the cost of production and as buyers know farmers have subsidy, below it. In real terms wheat is the same price it was 30 years ago even after the surprising, welcome increase since August. Thus, the consumer had an abundant supply of cheap, locally-grown food.
So far so good, but it has encouraged farmers to be unadventurous, growing the same rotations and as Dieter Helm, the government’s environmental adviser, has rightly pointed out, the logic of searching for ever-increasing yields has resulted in a serious reduction of biodiversity. If you have a hectare of wheat, you don’t want anything eating it, taking its light, water, treading on it or bothering it in any other way. Hence no weeds, and therefore fewer insects and hence fewer farmland birds. Most farmers recognise this and welcomed the end of the Common Agricultural Policy in January.
So where does the new Agriculture Act take us? The answer, as we await more details, is we really don’t know. The landscape is in the hands of environmentalists now, almost all paid for by government or NGOs and almost none earning their living through farming. But what we do know is that the subsidy reductions started in January – 25 per cent in the first year rising to 50 per cent by 2024 before the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (Elms) is introduced. As the government knows, for years the subsidy was the profit. Last year many thought that without it, 70 per cent of farms would be loss-making. Will this year’s farm gate prices change things? Farmers are cautious people – one swallow does not make a summer.
Why would the government make the steepest cuts in the first three years of the seven designated to end the old regime? Why are larger farms penalised with larger cuts? A degree of political hostility is implicit in these moves. The complexity of Elms makes many farmers doubt that it will make up for the loss of the current subsidy. Those that fancy a future in rewilding may yet be disappointed if it doesn’t pay. We are in danger of the law of unintended consequence – small farms forced to sell or startle their neighbours with peri-urban activities, clay pigeon shooting, pony paddocks, mountain bike trails, musical festivals, anything that keeps them solvent but are hardly good for the environment. Others may try the equally unlovely intensive farming of poultry or pigs.
A more prudent route would be to build on the successful Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) environmental scheme for those on marginal ground. Proven and shown to deliver, evolution must be preferable to revolution. But Defra is home to Trotsky’s permanent revolution. If it is not simple it is not going to work. Most doubt that what is coming next will be simple. Most of the new schemes of the past 30 years have belly flopped before major relaunches.
The Environmental Land Management Scheme sounds promising, but one needs to remember the Conservative Party is the party of Sir Robert Peel and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. He sold out the landed interest and set in motion an agricultural depression that lasted 70 years. Cheap grain from abroad came at a price.
Is history about to repeat itself? In his speech in the House of Commons on 4 May 1846 Peel stated: “I cannot contend that the probability of dependence upon foreign nations constitutes a reason for maintaining the Corn laws (protection for home production).” Or: “With respect to the agricultural class here, I do not deny that this change in the law will be altogether unaccompanied by distress.” And finally: “I believe they are all interested in the extension of scientific agriculture, that I come to the conclusion that the natural presumption in favour of unrestricted import, ought to prevail.”
Competition to drive innovation is all very well, but cheap imports, distress… Blimey, is this now what we face?
Only 120,000 families in England and Wales are engaged in agriculture. Will this tiny voice of the landed interest be heard? Does anyone care for those check-shirted, red-faced sons of the soil? Probably not. But it may be worth considering who put the food on your table free of brucellosis or anthrax while looking after our glorious countryside. Beware the fashionable siren voices of the environmentalists.
If farming doesn’t pay it will be the environmentalists that kill the thing they love. Our beautiful rural landscape faces its greatest threat for 250 years.
Brace yourself for a go-kart track somewhere nearby soon.
Gilbert Greenall farms in Gloucestershire and on Exmoor