Commoners given £2m to help the Long Mynd get back to nature

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The Long Mynd, the high moor that forms the border between England and Wales in Shropshire, is to be restored to its natural beauty following the largest single environmental agreement between the Government and the beleaguered farming industry.

The Long Mynd, the high moor that forms the border between England and Wales in Shropshire, is to be restored to its natural beauty following the largest single environmental agreement between the Government and the beleaguered farming industry.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is to pay £1.8m to commoners on the Long Mynd who will in turn dramatically reduce the number of sheep and cattle they graze on the land and cut the use of fertiliser and pesticides.

The project marks a dramatic shift from the "headage" subsidy scheme where farmers are paid for each sheep they own and was described by the National Trust, which owns most of the Long Mynd, as "a real sea change" in farming practices.

The 10-year scheme, to be announced tomorrow by Elliot Morley, the countryside minister, aims to reverse the worst effects of intensive farming that have ravaged the Long Mynd and led to a downward spiral of its natural habitat over the past 40 years.

A 16-mile ridge which rises to 1,700ft in the heart of the Shropshire Hills, the Long Mynd remains one of Britain's most picturesque regions. Much of it is a designated nature reserve and it is bordered by two Sites of Special Scientific Interest. It is still a valuable habitat for rare birds and flowers. Several pairs of nesting merlins inhabit a nearby area and buzzards, skylarks, ravens and adders also frequent the heathland. It is also boasts 23 Iron Age sites.

But the unusual land agreements that characterise the Long Mynd have damaged its natural beauty. The area is common land, which means that nearby farmers enjoy ancient rights to graze their animals on the hill. Until recently more than 12,000 ewes grazed the land, stifling the growth of grass and heather, and robbing groundnesting birds of a habitat in which they can flourish.

The landscape has been further disfigured by the spread of bracken. While bracken can provide a haven for the winchat and some butterflies, it is aggressive, smothering heather and other wild flowers. Populations of ring ouzels, skylarks and curlews are down to single figures while just 25 breeding pairs of red grouse remain.

Now commoners will be compensated for reducing the number of sheep they graze to just 2,500 sheep across 2,200 hectares of the Long Mynd. In winter this figure will be reduced by a further 800 ewes. Reductions in sheep numbers have already seen the return of grasses as well as billberry and sheep's sorrel.

"It's a really positive step," said Ben Shipston, area manager for the National Trust in Shropshire and the West Midlands. "It is a sea change from a system of subsidy to one which will really enhance the environment. We need a fine balance between too many sheep and too few sheep.

"This will help establish a mosaic of heather and grasses that will benefit smaller birds. In turn that will attract birds of prey and the place begins to come alive."

The agreement has been secured under the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme, which encourages farmers to conserve the landscape in which they live. The ESA is in turn part of a wider £8.5m project to regenerate 10,000 hectares across the Shropshire Hills.

"It's the biggest single ESA we have ever signed up for," said a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture. "When I visited the Long Mynd it looked attractive with its cropped grass but then you realise it shouldn't be like that. It's the sheep that have kept the grass clipped and that has stopped wildlife flourishing."

The ESA scheme was introduced by the Ministry of Agriculture to help protect areas of landscape, wildlife and historical interest from the changes brought about by intensive farming methods. Other schemes operate in the Somerset Levels, the Peak District and the South Downs.

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