Walking towards Brexit

Bolstering the link between agricultural subsidies and public access could be a catalyst to new opportunities for both walkers and farmers.

Words Debbie James | Illustration Stephen Collins

farm illustration by stephen collins

A circular footpath skirts the perimeter of Dinas Island Farm in Pembrokeshire. It is not uncommon for 2,500 people or more to walk this route during a Bank Holiday weekend. The farmers – Neil and Lynda Perkins, and Neil’s father, Roger – are aware that the footpath lays their sheep farming enterprise open to public scrutiny, but this doesn’t make them uncomfortable. ‘People are very inquisitive. There are a lot of myths about farming and we are happy to set the record straight,’ says Neil Perkins.

At the opposite end of Wales, on Anglesey, Wyn Williams is a farmer with public footpaths crossing his land – three miles of them, including the iconic Anglesey Coastal Path. The paths have existed for so long that he has learned to run his 500-acre farm near Holyhead in harmony with walkers. ‘We get thousands of people walking the path every year, from all corners of the world,’ says Mr Williams, who runs a suckler beef herd and a large sheep flock.

He thinks it is right that farmers should be compensated for the business impacts associated with rights of way. ‘There are certain times of the year, when the cows have their calves at foot or we want to turn bulls in with the cows, when we can’t graze the fields that have footpaths running through them. There needs to be some recognition of that financial loss,’ Mr Williams reckons. Similarly, he thinks that the farm subsidy system should support farmers to maintain paths. ‘Paths cost a lot of money to keep open,’ he points out.

The current funding model of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) means that UK farmers received about £3.2bn in support last year – over £2.56bn in the form of direct payments based on land ownership, and about £600m in rural development payments, which are linked to schemes that deliver public benefit. 

The UK’s impending exit from the European Union means that a new domestic successor to CAP will need to be developed. The government has pledged to match existing levels of CAP support until 2022, but the details of that are still to be worked out. The Ramblers is urging for any future agricultural support to consist of a package of measures which ensure that helps ensure our path network is well-maintained and, where appropriate, enhanced through the addition of new routes.

CAP has come under increasing criticism for the large disparity between direct payments and support for rural development schemes. Some of the biggest beneficiaries of direct payments, which continue to make up the bulk of agricultural subsidies, include estates owned partly or wholly by the Queen, Lord Iveagh, the Duke of Westminster and the Duke of Northumberland.

So the opportunity to implement a better system that penalises those farmers who fail to meet their existing legal obligations regarding rights of way, and rewards those who go beyond them, could be a major catalyst in driving a different strategy for Britain’s farmland – prioritising a thriving, healthy countryside that delivers multiple benefits for society. This includes more biodiversity, cleaner water, healthier soils, enhanced air quality, better carbon sequestration and improved flood management – not to mention the closer connection with nature that comes from good public access and recreation opportunities. In turn, this mix of social and environmental services can help to support rural economies, ensuring the future viability of farming and more sustainable food production.

Like The Ramblers, the National Trust also believes Brexit offers the opportunity to create a different model to CAP, one that delivers multiple benefits for society. Marcus Gilleard, Senior External Affairs Adviser at the National Trust, says industry analysts have created a compelling case for why the focus of future policy should be on maintaining and improving the environment. ‘This would open up the opportunity to target more public support on the key environmental and social public goods that are in undersupply from agriculture relative to the scale of societal demand – but which also have a twin purpose in the part they play in securing a more sustainable sector and vibrant countryside,’ he says.

Mechanisms are already in place for shaping future policy; the recent Queen’s Speech revealed government plans to bring forward an Agriculture Bill in the next two years. In July this year Environment Secretary Michael Gove set out an ambitious vision for the natural environment and called for ‘a green Brexit’, describing it as an ‘unfrozen moment’ in which new possibilities occur, a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform how we care for our land, our rivers and our seas, how we recast our ambition for our country’s environment, and the planet’.

While acknowledging that the EU has often been a force for good environmentally, Gove cited the Common Agricultural Policy as one area ‘where the EU has most clearly failed to achieve its stated environmental goals’. In his words, CAP ‘rewards size of land-holding ahead of good environmental practice, and all too often puts resources in the hands of the already wealthy rather than into the common good of our shared natural environment. It also encourages patterns of land use which are wasteful of natural resources and often intrinsically poor value rather than encouraging imaginative and environmentally enriching alternatives’.

In discussing the future of agricultural subsidies, he vouchsafed support for farmers as being ‘critical to keep our countryside healthy’ and to protect the ‘human ecology’ of rural areas. He also highlighted the fact that 70% of the UK’s land is farmed – and that the beautiful landscapes we walk in have not happened by accident but have, in many cases, been actively managed. But he also noted that continued support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear.

farm illustration by stephen collins

The forthcoming Agriculture Bill will contain the details of that financial support system, but amendments could be tabled which push for wider change as the legislation passes through Parliament. Ministers are being urged to use the Bill to clarify what kind of benefits they want public money to pay for, if anything to allow those managing land to plan ahead. The Ramblers believe enhanced public access should be chief among the returns taxpayers receive from their investment in a new support system. Its policy on the case for access to the countryside aims to encourage farmers and land managers to maintain paths and provide further opportunities through new routes, visitor facilities, learning resources and training for volunteers.

Stephen Russell, Policy and Advocacy Officer at the Ramblers, says the organisation will seek to influence the Bill over the coming months. He admits that access might be peripheral to farmers’ concerns when future terms of trade and access to labour have yet to be agreed but points out: ‘Our overarching position is that there must be public value for public payment. Any change needs to ensure something in return for the public investment that will go towards supporting the industry and I think access is a reasonable thing to expect.’

Currently, farmers risk losing some of the direct payment they receive from CAP if they don’t meet their legal commitments on access, but Russell argues that in practice this is not sufficiently rigorous. A new system could offer more effective safeguards for public access, with a further tier of support for those who provide additional opportunities for the public.

‘We recognise the role of farmers as stewards of the countryside and the vital part they play in providing places for people to walk’, says Russell. ‘There are a whole host of public goods to be gained from the work that farmers do, but what we are saying is that access needs to be among those, not least because it acts as a multiplier of those benefits. The path network is one of the primary means for people to understand better the work of the farming community and what the public gains from its efforts, as well as the financial support it receives’.

But the unions representing farmers offer a counter-argument. The Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) believes existing access is underused. Wales has 16,200 miles of footpaths, 3,100 miles of bridle paths and 1,200 miles of byways, the FUW’s Land Use Committee chairman, Gavin Williams, points out. ‘Vast stretches of footpaths are seldom used, and many become overgrown due to lack of use,’ he says. ‘Many feel the Ramblers have an insatiable appetite in terms of wanting more access, when people are often not using the access they already have.’

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) contends that agricultural land is the most accessible it has ever been, with about 202,021 kilometres of public rights of way across England. ‘We want people to keep on visiting the iconic British countryside. But it must always be remembered that fields are working environments, and the public should enjoy the countryside in a safe and responsible fashion,’ says NFU policy adviser, Martin Rogers.

Many farms have at least one right of way crossing them, but the enjoyment of walkers using these comes down to the willingness of farmers to fulfil their responsibilities. Sandra Rooney, of the Chiltern Weekend Walkers, says some field paths are at times impassable because, after crops have been harvested and the field ploughed, the paths are not always promptly reinstated. ‘Farmers can be the worst offenders, even though they have the machinery to deal with overgrowth and reinstatement,’ she says.

Ms Rooney would welcome a support system that creates a clearer link between access and agricultural support payments. ‘We are always mindful that farmers have to grow crops and keep livestock. I understand it from their point of view and it’s not that I want to be able to access more of their land, simply that I would like existing paths to be better maintained. The field paths on some rights of way are so bad that you are forced to walk on the crops.’

Elsewhere in Britain, however, local Ramblers have made concerted efforts to engage with landowners and promote harmonious relationships between them and walkers. Indeed, many Ramblers Areas regularly acknowledge the efforts made by farmers who do maintain rights of way to a high standard through awards such as ‘Best Kept Footpath’. In Leicestershire, for example, one such award was recently presented to the Tylers, a farming family from Barrowden who look after 2,600 acres of arable land and grazing pasture, taking in a large section of the Welland Valley. Local volunteers recognised their ‘excellent relationship’ with the Ramblers and welcoming attitude to responsible walkers. The resulting presentation was featured in British Farmer & Grower, the NFU’s membership magazine. Recognising and rewarding such examples of best practice – and the resultant publicity – is seen as a positive way to encourage farmers to fulfil or exceed their obligations.     

With the UK’s withdrawal from the EU at a very early stage, there is much to be done before a new policy takes shape. But the Ramblers, the National Trust and other outdoor groups, while recognising the concerns of farmers and their crucial position as stewards of the countryside, are already advocating to the new government to ensure that the opportunity to improve access to the countryside is not squandered.

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