Brexit, CAP and grouse shooting

Sometimes several streams of argument begin to run together and form a river.   This week there have been signs that we are at standing at the headwaters of a river – let’s hope it doesn’t trickle into the sands.

The biggest political game on the block is undoubtedly Brexit – and we all know what that means. Don’t we?

And the largest opportunity which Brexit delivers the environment is to reshape the contract between people (the taxpayer and consumer), the environment (how the countryside is managed and for what) and an industry dependent on public subsidy (farming and farmers).  This would be a time for clobbering farmers if anyone wanted to do so, although I can’t see anyone who would, but it should be used as a time to ensure good value for money for the millions who currently provide some of their income as income support to farmers and landowners under the CAP.

The motherhood and apple pie phrase to which almost everyone is signed up is ‘public goods for public money’ as a basis for society’s investment in agriculture. The market provides a way of rewarding farmers for their produce and if it works unfairly, as it sometimes does, then farmers need to get much better at fighting their corner in a competitive world.  But the market cannot and does not reward farmers for non-market goods, and the reason that farming is in a category of its own when it comes to handing out the public money is that farming produces (currently under-produces) the song of the Skylark, the buzz of bees in a flower meadow (also under-produced these days), flood alleviation (another under-produced environmental service), water quality (could do much better), a fine view etc etc.

Because there is a conflict between maximising crop production on any piece of land (and being paid for it by the market) and producing wildlife, carbon storage and other public goods on the same piece of land (and not getting a dime for it) the public, or the state, or the EU, or Defra is entitled, nay duty bound, to step in and distort the market for the public benefit. [And in parentheses – who says markets are that good at doing their primary job anyway? Not, I would guess, farmers.].

These issues are explored in the document produced this week and featured in Miles King’s Guest Blog on Tuesday.  They were also explored in the Environmental Audit Committee’s report published on Wednesday (see Recommendation 6).

On Wednesday, at the Oxford Farming Conference, in front of the great and perhaps good of farming, Andrea Leadsom gave the industry some of the news it wanted to hear in promising to remove red tape from farming under an English system of agricultural support post-Brexit. She concentrated on the three-crop rule and she won’t find much resistance to that anywhere in the UK.

But it was left to George Eustice, the most experienced minister in Defra, to spell out some other news to the OFC where he sketched out the government view to move away from direct subsidies relating to land area (or more strictly payments based on former production subsidies paid on each parcel of land in an earlier reference year). England will move away from Pillar 1 payments being the lion’s share of agricultural support.  Unsurprisingly, we do not have any details of whether this means simply cuts in direct support or redirection of Pillar 1 payments to the environmentally active Pillar 2 payments or some combination of the two.  But it appears from social and traditional media coverage that Eustice went as far as saying that this move would affect ‘slipper farmers’ who simply own potentially agricultural land but don’t do any real farming, and grouse shooting was specifically mentioned.

This concentration of agricultural payments on agricultural activities rather than on land owning is to be welcomed.  It will have big ramifications, not least perhaps for the money received by wildlife NGOs for nature reserves which are grazed, but the principal is sound. Defra will not mind at all cutting agricultural support to please the Treasury and to provide better value for money and narrowing down the focus of hand-outs through the former CAP in a post-Brexit England will be one route they may be keen to follow.  If done well it will be ‘a good thing’ and in line with this blog’s suggestion for a cut in overall spend on agriculture achieved through a  cut in direct support to agriculture but accompanied by an increase in environmental spend.

That grouse moors were singled out for mention in a room full of farmers (and journalists and a few environmentalists too) is significant.  They will have been mentioned because there won’t have been many grouse moor owners in the room and so the audience would not have been upset by the example chosen but also because it is a good example (if followed through) of the government standing up for the many (the taxpayer, consumer and ordinary farmers) rather than the privileged few (as exemplified by those Tory MPs who spoke in the grouse shooting debate).  Also, it’s quite a lot of money! Imagine you owned 26,000 acres (10,500 ha) of upland land – I’ll just give you a moment to do that (read this for some help).  You will currently receive £56/ha for that land every year.  Yep, that’s a cool £0.5m per annum from agricultural support. And if you run that land as a grouse shoot, shooting birds for fun, then you still get the agricultural payments so you can put them towards your next Magritte.

There is something rotten in this system but also something rather inefficient in policy terms.  In any rational review of spending, grouse moors would float to the top; and not like cream.  These issues have been pointed out in this blog many times, in the evidence on grouse shooting many times (eg by me, by RSPB, by LACS, and others) and by Greenpeace and FoE more recently too.

George Eustice may have been flying a kite, but I doubt it.  This way of thinking is sensible and politically expedient.  We should all support him (come back next week for how to do that) particularly because the Moorland Association will be bending Defra’s ear – of that we can be sure.

And come back at lunch time for more on this subject – the environmental aspects.


But just a brief closing note on something else touched on in this blog this week (see here). I went in to London yesterday and bought The Times (unusually) and The Guardian (more usually) for the journey.  The Times covered this issue well in both a piece by Ben Webster and a leader (the main leader) which included a lot of sense including the sentence ‘As a new post-Brexit agricultural landscape emerges, famers’ livelihoods will be at stake, but so will food prices and the health of the countryside.’. The Guardian didn’t cover this at all.



17 Replies to “Brexit, CAP and grouse shooting”

  1. Thanks for mentioning our report again Mark.

    I was at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, but we were hearing the rumours from up the road at the OFC (mainly via twitter) and some of the journalists were flitting between conferences.

    I personally think Eustice is flying a kite, or perhaps a harrier, with this idea. But the principle that subsidies should be paid to farmers, rather than just any landowner, has a number of ramifications. Yes it could well mean that grouse moor owners lose their payments (they can afford it).

    It could also mean that RSPB and the National Trust, two of the largest recipients of CAP subsidy, lose theirs. I wonder how they would feel about this.

    1. I’ve had conversations with three farmers over Xmas; a young Welsh hill farmer (a rare beast!) and two from different parts of the industry in different counties of the lowlands.

      They all thought, with varying degrees of resignation or anger, that all the money would go to environmental causes. They seemed to think that eg NT/RSPB were huge, and would get all the money (!) but never mentioned the larger corporate farming companies or landowners.

      Interesting that in this straw poll they all saw us as the big bogieman, not the NHS or corporate tax cuts. Also interesting that they saw environmental groups as far too powerful and the farmers’ lobby as very weak, whereas we think the exact opposite.

      1. From neighbours and farming groups etc. That I am part of I would say that I get the exact same sort of response.

    2. Mark
      As someone flitting between the two Oxford farming conferences, Eustice is misinformed as to exactly where agric subsidy goes. On Langholm grouse moor, as you would know Mark, no subsidy claimed but support payments for fencing the sheep off the moor were paid to the RSPB/GWCT/NE/SHN partnership. A public good from public funds – the wildlife at Langholm is staggering from the voles underfoot to the orchids and curlews – the where-for-all to pay for it is less certain.
      Best wishes for 2017

      1. Rob – Happy new year to you. But good luck telling the minister for agriculture, or anyone else, that grouse moors don’t get Basic (Single) Payments. And I don’t know what Langholm claims for – how would I? And you are trying to overturn a general truth with an anecdote. As I say, Happy New Year! Did you make any New Year resolutions?

  2. Very interesting.

    And making two very clear points:

    First, we should be arguing on outcomes, not sectoral tribes. Grouse shooting loses both ways – it isn’t farming and it is depleting, not enhancing, services we should be paying for including carbon, water & biodiversity.

    Second, whatever the farming religion gloss, it is increasingly clear that the big issue for farmers is whether they can make a living under any new system. Which leaves the door open for paying for the things society needs, food production amongst them, but not overriding as it is under CAP.

    Politicians fly kites to see whether an idea will gain support. So one way or another we all need to make it clear to George Eustice that he is on the right track – and it’ll make it easy for the likes of the NT if there is public support for the things we all need and want, but not for grouse shooting.

  3. Tim Bonner has a letter in The Times today (Fri) in which he states that grouse shoot management receives ‘no subsidy whatsoever’. It looks like spin – can anyone clarify the position or provide a link to info on this?

    1. eco-worrier – you don’t get a subsidy for grouse shooting, you get a subsidy for farmland even when it is used for grouse shooting.

      1. Mark I had a bit of “grassland” and reading the regulations (which I cannot remember well now) there were restrictions on what “grassland” could be included if it was used for other purposes. Golf courses were out but at the other end of the scale I think it covered the likes of boot fairs. I guess the grouse moors are burnt etc to improve the heather for sheep. If not why is it still allowed as agricultural. Anybody read the compliance regs lately, hate to inflict it on you.

        1. Andrew – well, not really. the heather is burned for grosue and if you looked at the books for a grouse moor then the income from grouse shooting would be vastly more than it is for sheep – even if a few sheep wander around them for a few months each year.

          the minister has got it right despite the protestations of the Countryside Allaince in the Times today. Grouse moors get agricultural subsidies because they have a low value agriculture as a side line. We don’t have to retain that loophole and income stream for shooting in the future – and we shouldn’t.

  4. We showed George Eustice the Exmoor Mires Project a couple of years ago. It’s a Peatland restoration scheme funded by South West Water and others. We talked to him about ecosystems services and he seemed to get it. There is a chink of hope that Tories’ desire for more free market economics coupled With Brexit could lead to something positive for the uplands.

  5. Really interesting comments, Jbc and Pete. I’ve just finished reading James Rebank’s ‘Shepherd’ book and the thing that really came across is the loss of the truly rural and the feeling of alienation many truly rural people are feeling – exacerbated by the fact the the real value of what we (whether farmers or foresters) produce just keeps going down and down – timber prices bottomed out in the early 2000s at 3X less than their peak during my career – that is 3X, NOT 30%. Blaming the conservation sector sounds to me like the rural equivalent of urban people blaming immigration – a displacement activity for things they don’t feel they can do anything about. It isn’t just the uplands, either – a friend from university who is a Cambridgeshire arable farmer told me a few years ago that his wife’s teaching job had made more than the farm, and now he is looking for salvation where apparently most farmers are hoping – trying to build houses !

    The one thing I’m increasingly convinced about is that rural land managers stand or fall together – money from food production won’t go to conservation or vice versa – it’ll go to whatever the Government’s biggest popular shambles demands.

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