Hill farmers to be forced to accept huge losses: New 'green' policy to stop overgrazing means big savings in subsidies, Oliver Gillie reports

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The Independent Online
THE COMMONERS of Crosby Ravensworth fell in Cumbria have been asked to take the first step in a national plan that will eventually save the Government millions of pounds in subsidies to hill farmers.

By March, the commoners must agree to reduce the number of their sheep on the 3,000-acre common by about 40 per cent, and accept a loss of up to 25 per cent of annual income. But the commoners believe they are being asked to achieve an impossible task, and say the policy is unfair.

Crosby Ravensworth is a test case in the application of a policy that will save millions in subsidies when it is extended to all parts of Britain. However, the Ministry of Agriculture has presented the new policy as having the purest of green motives and the savings in subsidy as incidental. The official reason given is the heather - which the ministry says is being overgrazed.

If farmers do not comply, it has been threatened, their subsidies for hill sheep - which are worth about pounds 30 per breeding ewe - will be withdrawn. This has embittered the Crosby Ravensworth farmers because neighbours who keep their sheep on the nearby Birk Beck common are being paid an extra subsidy by the ministry to keep fewer sheep.

Both commons border the M6 on the bleak road up to Shap fell, a few miles south of Carlisle. But Birk Beck common lies west of the railway line running from Euston to Carlisle, and comes within a designated 'environmentally sensitive area' that extends west to the Lake District.

Morland Sanderson, who farms 153 acres of pasture at Hause Farm and runs 650 ewes on Crosby Ravensworth fell, said: 'The seven farmers who run sheep on Birk Beck common are being given pounds 28,000 a year for the next 10 years to reduce the number of their sheep on the fell. But Crosby Ravensworth fell is on the wrong side of the railway line.

''We are being told to do virtually the same as the Birk Beck commoners but we are getting no compensation. And if we don't do it they will take away our subsidies.'

The situation has arisen because the Ministry of Agriculture introduced a new definition of overgrazing into its contracts for hill farmers a year ago. In the past, it was defined in agricultural terms. Provided the animals were thriving and there was no permanent damage to forage, the land was not being overgrazed. Now a new environmental definition is being used which considers land to be overgrazed if heather is receding or reduced in quantity, or if the number of plant species is reduced.

However, the fell is run by a committee of commoners which has no power to tell the 25 farmers what to do; it can only proceed by agreement. And it is going to be very difficult to reach agreement on a new policy for how many sheep each farmer may run on the fell, when each faces a loss of thousands of pounds a year. Some are bound to argue that their portion of the fell is less overstocked than others.

Mr Sanderson, who has run his sheep on the moor for 37 years, stands to lose more than pounds 7,000 a year under the new policy. He said: 'The commoners' committee says the ministry should do what has to be done, but the ministry says the committee should do it. So how will it get done?'

There are another five similar commons in Cumbria and others in Lancashire and Northumberland which will soon be brought into the scheme which will be extended in stages to hill farms all over Britain.

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