Aberdeen scientists urge policymakers to pay farmers to protect our hills

University of Aberdeen scientists are amongst those who have been tasked with producing guidance for policymakers, leading investigations into protecting England’s upland communities, and who are calling on the government to pay farmers to manage these areas in a way that will protect them for future generations.

Recommendations from the University of Aberdeen and Rural Economy and Land Programme Research have taken centre stage in an independent report to the government about the future management of England’s hills, which has been launched today. Researchers are urging the government to develop a more coherent policy for uplands that rewards farmers for the full range of goods and services that they provide.  And, while today’s report focuses on England’s uplands, it also has implications for Scotland’s hills.

Mounting pressures such as climate change and a growing population are likely to have a huge impact on the uplands in the coming years and the way they are managed needs to change to adapt to these pressures.

The English uplands are landscapes that provide a wealth of natural and cultural assets. They also have the potential to generate many valuable public goods and market products, supporting a low carbon future and green economy. Vibrant, secure upland communities hold the key to realising this potential. Unlocking that potential requires government to work with and support local communities and land managers. In particular this means empowering communities, increasing the supply of affordable housing, particularly for young people, and improving access to next generation broadband and mobile communications.

Current support for hill farming is inadequate to sustain these assets. New funding mechanisms are required as part of the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy from 2013. These would reward farmers for managing national assets in harmony with developing businesses. A new approach is needed which would balance the needs of the environment with maximising the economic potential of the uplands. But supporting farmers is not sufficient on its own: the communities in which they are embedded must also be enabled to thrive if these assets are to be sustained.

These are the main findings of the inquiry into the future of upland communities by the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) being released today (Tuesday, 15 June).

The year-long inquiry recognised that while farming is essential to maintaining the landscape and managing natural resources, the future sustainability of the upland areas also depends on a thriving business sector. New initiatives are needed to bring together the public and private sectors to create markets for the uplands’ natural resources, like carbon and water, for the benefit of local communities.

It also calls for a new integrated approach to maximising the potential of these unique and diverse natural assets. At present, the inquiry found a lack of joined-up thinking, with too many of the well-intentioned initiatives having unintended negative consequences for communities, farmers and land owners alike. To remedy this, the CRC recommends the appointment of a single individual who would be responsible for this new uplands strategy.

Dr Stuart Burgess Chairman of the CRC and the Government’s Rural Advocate said: “Our inquiry has focused on the uplands’ potential as well as the challenges needing to be tackled. People are essential to the identity and future of the uplands. We have recognised that farmers and land managers play vital roles in looking after these assets, and that many more people enable them to do so as part of the wider uplands’ economy and society.

“There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way the uplands are viewed. Rather than be seen as areas of disadvantage, they should be considered for their high potential to offer significant public benefits.  The continued availability of these benefits is, however, bound up with the wider future of the uplands, and this now needs to be properly recognised.

“We found much evidence of initiative and enterprise in the uplands. However, there are threats to this strong sense of community and to the future for the uplands. The recommendations set out in our report can help upland communities to realise their full potential and continue to contribute to national prosperity and quality of life. The scale and range of benefits provided by these areas is significant. With the right support they can deliver even more, and be a model of how government supports community solutions for wider benefit in the future.”

Dr Mark Reed from the University of Aberdeen’s School of Geosciences, co-leader of the Sustainable Uplands project, said: “Today’s recommendations from the Commission for Rural Communities resonate with people living in Scotland’s hills, who increasingly feel under threat as whole communities follow the sheep that are leaving the hills in droves.

“We need an integrated and co-ordinated set of policies for uplands that pay the people who manage our hills for all the many benefits we derive from these remote areas – things like carbon, water and recreation in addition to sheep, deer and grouse.”

From Tuesday 15 June, ‘High ground, high potential – a future for England’s upland communities’ summary report can be found at: http://www.ruralcommunities.gov.uk/