They say a week is a long time in politics. And though the recent upheaval the pre-June 23rd UK seems almost a forgotten and distant era though only a month ago. As Brexit becomes ever more the political reality, more and more organisations, like the National Trust, who spoke out in favour of a Remain vote begin to switch focus to attempts to steer Brexit in a positive direction. This is the thinking behind National Trust’s new push to radically renew the system of farming subsidies in the UK.
The trust have released a six point plan for subsidies, shifting away away from production and acreage-based grants to refocus on protecting, restoring and enhancing the natural environment.
The six points are summarised here, but are given in more detail on the National Trust’s Future of Our Farming news article:
- Public money must only pay for public goods.
- It should be unacceptable to harm nature but easy to help it.
- Nature should be abundant everywhere.
- We need to drive better outcomes for nature, thinking long-term and on a large scale.
- Farmers that deliver the most public benefit, should get the most.
- We must invest in science, new technology and new markets that help nature.
I fully agree with each of these points. It’s great to see one of our biggest national conservation charities (and also one of our biggest farmers) making such a bold intervention in this debate.
I do feel National Trust have missed a very important Point Seven from their list of six:
Facilitating improved access to the countryside for the British public.
Public funds should be used to facilitate public access
While great strides have been made in opening access to our uplands, moorlands and other ‘open countryside’ to outdoor recreation in recent decades, people are still broadly excluded from a great deal of our lowlands and other areas subject to farming. These area, and the farmers and landowners who manage them, receive a huge amount in subsidies – around £2.5-3 billion in Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments alone. This money comes from the public in the form of taxation – yet the public is excluded from the vast majority of farmland. Attempts to increase public access are heavily resisted by farmers and their representatives. This can be witnessed in the negative response from NFU Cymru to the Welsh Assembly Government’s Green Paper on countryside access.
Of course, a great many farmers and landowners do an awful lot to help walkers and others in the countryside. And many involved in outdoor recreation need to change their attitudes, especially with keeping dogs on leads and respecting property by doing no damage. But all in all farm land presents a potentially incredibly valuable, but under-utilised recreational resource. And one we are all paying to keep going.
Even the Public Footpaths that do exist in farm land are often treated with contempt by farmers. On a recent walk near Wirksworth, on the edge of the Peak District, a Public Footpath through a farmyard had been completely blocked with taped fencing and locked gates across the legal Right of Way. Being so far from an alternative route I had no choice but to find a way of scrambling over the barriers, and hoping not to meet what was likely to be a hostile farmer. At another point (within a few miles) I came across the pictured sign on a gate – no problem I thought, I have no intention of leaving the path. The only trouble was the path went straight across the middle of the field and hadn’t been maintained. Crops were growing on it, so that the path was invisible. So I had the landowner was making it very clear to me I must stay on the path, while giving me no option but to guess where it was and walk straight through their crop!
The fields in the second picture are by the Malverns, leading up to one of the railway stations walkers can use to access this great range of hills. But the Rights of Way crossing it have been ploughed up, leaving it unclear where a walker should go to either stay on the correct path or even use a route which the farmer might prefer. So the walker is left in the uncomfortable position of just having to strike out across a field and hoping for the best.
Although the benefits to outdoor recreation are clear (and all that entails for both physical and mental wellbeing), there are other benefits to increased access to our countryside, and ones that should benefit farmers too.
“No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” Sir David Attenborough
I love this quote. It sums up so much about what I believe is great about getting people into the countryside. The charge is often made that people from outside the farming/conservation/upland/rural (delete as applicable) communities don’t understand them, leading to conflict, misunderstand and failed policies. Well, how can people be expected to understand something they are actively excluded from? Unless we stand helping people enjoy, responsibly, their countryside, to see it as theirs to protect, how are we to spread the vital messages we to about the issues such areas face?
With such an adversarial situation between outdoor advocates and the farming sector both sides can come across as intransigent. Organisations like Ramblers and Open Spaces Society get criticised for a ‘militant’ approach to the policing of Public Footpaths, especially in opposing changes to the direction of paths. Again – when such paths present one of the few legal ways to access much of our countryside, when our rights to use these was so hard fought for, and when (as described above) they are still so often abused by some (but nowhere near all) landowners, how can we expect otherwise. By having a more liberal approach to accessing the countryside (see my ideas below), maybe all can work more positively together in the future, with changes being made through cooperative partnerships, rather than through often hostile relationships.
These are just my initial thoughts on the ways in which our countryside could be opened up more effectively to outdoor recreation through conditionality in subsidies (or even, blue sky thinking alert, because it’s just a good idea!). Importantly, I don’t believe any of these ideas need have any detrimental effect on farmers. They should, at worst be neutral in impact, and at best create additional opportunities for landowners (e.g. chargeable facilities, cafes etc) should they wish to take advantage.
If anyone has any ideas to contribute to this, please let me know – it would be great to collate them!
Maintenance of footpaths – ensuring and Rights of Way running through land are maintained, open, and welcoming should be a clear minimum condition. This is already a legal responsibility landowners have – so it should be happening anyway. There should be a zero tolerance approach to handing over public funds to any landowner not fulfilling such responsibilities.
Increasing opportunities for access on foot – where possible audits of the local area should be conducted to identify gaps in local provision. For example local beauty spots which are difficult to access; under-resourced activities (e.g. a lack of Bridleways for horse riders or cyclists); or areas with a low density of either Rights of Way or Access Land. Where gaps are identifies landowners should be encouraged to work with other stakeholders to set up new routes, ideally as Rights of Way, but potentially as Permissive routes.
Access on/along rivers / lakes – only 4% of rivers in England and Wales hold a Right of Navigation which is recognised (or unopposed) by all parties. This has a severe impact on water sports, especially canoeing. In return for public fund
to maintain land, landowners should be obliged to allow canoes to pass along their waterways. Although this doesn’t answer the deeply entrenched issue of whether permission is needed or whether a legal right already exists (see, for example, River Access For All) it would at least allow paddlers to canoe along a huge amount of water with reduced conflict with other groups.
Support access to specific environments for outdoor recreation – these could range from rocks and crags for climbing, or the chance for newer sports like paragliding, abseiling etc to be able to use land for their recreational use.