Upland Britain – a brighter, fairer future

Let us consider the uplands of the UK.

My little essay in the Manifesto for Wildlife set out a list of 10 actions to rejuvenate the uplands and to make our hills better for wildlife and for people.  It has attracted a lot of enthusiastic praise as being far-sighted and at the same time a lot of brickbats for being heavy-handed and unfair to upland landowners. Either view is a bit odd, in my opinion, as what I wrote includes quite a mixture of current government  and opposition policy, addresses some of the well-known and hitherto intractable problems with public land use policy and will provide a lifeline and safety net for many upland farmers.

This post is in three parts; I set out my own personal vision for the uplands of the UK (concentrating on England), I then briefly recapitulate how very far away we are from where I’d like to be and how the current situation is a mess that needs sorting out. And then I discuss my proposals from the Manifesto for Wildlife for how we get to a better place from the current shambles of ineffective flawed policy and ineffective practice.

An upland vision

I want our uplands to deliver for us: more wildlife, cheaper water, fewer floods, more carbon storage, beautiful landscapes, much greater recreational opportunities, sustainable and profitable businesses and good value for the taxpayers’ investment.

Who would argue with that?

My vision is mostly about public goods rather than about market goods. Yes, I’d like the uplands to produce some food for us (but they’ll never produce very much) and yes, I’d like timber production to be part of the mix, but more of that could come from more natural forests rather than plantations of exotic conifers. 

We now know enough to value the uplands highly for the public goods that they could produce far better than they do at the moment. Whether you live in central London or on the Durham moors, you should be able to see that the uplands are working for you, and that your taxes are delivering benefits for you.  Better water storage benefits us all – it reduces floods which harm people and businesses and if we get a grip of this issue then everyone’s home insurance costs will fall (not just those who live near upland watersheds). Cleaner water, not water that needs expensive processing by water companies, is good for all of us because the water bills will fall – again, for everyone.  More carbon storage, in restored peat bogs where the carbon in peat builds up, and in a much broader coverage of natural woodland is good for all of us too – taking climate changing gases out of the atmosphere and sequestering them naturally and cheaply.  More wildlife from a resurgence of avian and mammalian predators once wildlife crime is eliminated (who wouldn’t want to see Golden Eagles soaring over Yorkshire hills?) as well as the reintroduction of keystone species such as European Beavers to help restore ecological systems.  And we should all enjoy these public goods.  Our existing National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty lack wildlife and lack much of a pull for those who love wildlife – we need to turn them into wildlife hotspots. But I can also see plenty of room, and a need, for cross-country skiing, pony-trekking, some game shooting, lots of fishing in restored wetlands, wildlife photography and rambling, mountaineering and hill-walking and simply getting away from it all.  People should flock to the uplands for their weekends and holiday breaks.  Even more, I could envisage new settlements being set up, holiday villages, with new transport systems, new roads and new public transport in order to service these needs.  The uplands are big, there is plenty of room for more people, more wildlife and a much greater provision of ecosystem services.

And yes we can produce some food and forest products too – but whereas the main value of lowland farming will always be to produce food the main value of the uplands should be recognised as being public goods, non-market goods, but goods that are of immense value to society.

An upland failure

Photo: Adam D Hope / Hill Walkers on the Swire Road

Our current uplands are over-grazed, over-drained, over-burned and underproductive. They are not the tourism hotspots which they should be and they are poor for wildlife.  They have some fine views but they are actually ugly wildlife crime hotspots where protected species are persecuted by criminals.  The public gets a raw deal – we are paying for this mess through our taxes which go to upland landowners in income support that props up inefficient practices and we pay for it through our water bills and home insurance too.

And it’s not as though upland communities are thriving as a result of all this investment. Trying to make a living through the production of market goods is a struggle in the uplands – it’s trying to master the ecology of these wild places rather than working with the grain of nature.

At the moment, hundreds of millions of pounds are paid by the ordinary taxpayer to large grouse shooting estates who produce nothing for the ordinary taxpayer and inefficient upland farms to maintain a way of living in the hills.  Neither provides good value to the taxpayer and it will be the Countryside Alliance and the NFU, representing, in some strange way, the vested interests of the recipients of this bizarre funding which will shout most loudly for the status quo.  It’s hardly surprising that the beneficiaries want your money to keep coming with no strings attached.

Towards the sunlit uplands

Photo: Sorensenalisha [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

If you agree with my vision for the uplands then you have to engage with the current politics and figure out how to get from the mess we are in at the moment to a much better place.  This is an issue for all of us, because we are paying directly through subsidies for the current land use which delivers so badly for us all and we are paying for the environmental damage that results from private landowners pursuing private profit through unsustainable land use.

The first thing that will help deliver this new vision is Brexit.  I voted Remain and I am still hoping that we stay in the EU but if we don’t then delivering this upland vision could be one area, one of rather few in my opinion, where a Green Brexit is possible with political will and bravery.

The first step is already government policy in England (and Wales I think but I get a bit confused as to how this works); removal of direct subsidies. The Agriculture Bill will phase out subsidies to landowners by 2027.

This will have the biggest impact on upland farmers whose incomes are very highly dependent on the current payments.  Many will go out of business.  Those who own the land on which they farm will be looking to sell up, to cash in their chips, and they’d probably be well-advised to do this sooner rather than later.

Let me point out again that this is government policy – not one thought up by a bunch of independent nature conservationists in the Manifesto for Wildlife!  The consequences of this policy shift are unpredictable, they always are because people’s reactions are complex and don’t always appear rational to economists (but then economists don’t always appear rational to normal people).  However, selling up is certainly an option and one could imagine the consequences of that being much larger upland landholdings, perhaps sheep ranches which operate in a more intensive manner even than now – that’s not what we want but that is a potential future under current government policy.

So how do we prevent that? We step in and buy the land ourselves. Not ourselves as individuals but ourselves as the state. This isn’t nationalising the uplands so much as buying land so that we can deliver our better vision for the uplands ourselves directly rather than at arms length through complex policy mechanisms that will involve further payments to upland land owners.

And we can find the money to do this partly from the savings we make in removing subsidies and partly because it will look like a very good investment to deliver our better upland future.  It’s ‘Public Money for Public Goods’ rewritten (just for the uplands) as ‘Public Money for Public Ownership for Public Goods’ – simples!

We’ve done this before, although so long ago that people tend to forget it ever happened. We set up the Forestry Commission 100 years ago (next year) because of a national need to produce timber (top of our minds were pit props for the mines – times move on).  David Lloyd George’s government did not go down the ‘Let’s incentivise private landowners to do this’ route, they saw having a strategic timber resource as a national priority and could see you needed land on which to grow trees so the FC acquired land and grew trees.

Whatever you think of the FC (and I am generally, on balance, a fan) it is the country’s largest land manager (700,000ha (210,000ha of which are in England)) and it makes NE and the Environment Agency both look inept compared with FC’s ability to get things done on the ground.

I’d be very happy to take the risk of giving an FC-like body the job of acquiring land through purchase or very, very long leases and then delivering the mixture of blanket bogs, recreation, species reintroductions and increased woodland cover that we need in the uplands.

The main alternative, and current government thinking as far as it is visible, seems to be to continue to give short-term grants for ever to those private land owners who opt in to voluntary schemes.  Under this model the benefits gained are expensive and not guaranteed beyond the short period of a grant scheme (say 10 years).  To secured environmental good practice in perpetuity costs an absolute fortune.  This was called, long ago, by the then boss of Natural England, Helen Phillips, as ‘renting’ environmental outcomes rather than securing them – and she was quite right.

Buying land to deliver public goods is not a very radical move – that’s what nature reserves are! If the RSPB asked for your money to manage a site for 10 years with no certainty that their good efforts would last longer than that then you’d probably tell them that it didn’t seem a very good deal. Similarly grant schemes in the uplands aren’t a very good deal either once you get into the mindset that we want ecosystem services ahead of food production in upland areaas and we want them for ever. Of course, if we change our minds then we can flog off the land in a few decades time – but I bet you we won’t want to do that.

The Labour Party’s idea (in the last manifesto and repeated recently) to renationalise (deprivatise) the water companies is a good idea except it isn’t clear that Labour has fully appreciated all the merits of their proposal. I think Labour has only got as far as thinking ‘If private companies can run the water system and pay big salaries to their executives and big dividends to their shareholders then why can’t the state do that but channel more of the profits into cheaper water bills for all and/or money for other public benefits such as the NHS’.  I think that is how they have come to their position.  But they don’t seem to have twigged that state ownership of land, much of which would be in the uplands, would also allow other public benefits to accrue. All that burning for grouse shooting could stop. All that snaring and trapping would stop.  It would be much more difficult for wildlife criminals to kill birds of prey and escape prosecution too.  A much larger range of public benefits would be feasibly produced.

I can see a place for continuing grant schemes for good environmental management but the basis of those schemes (in the uplands) should change.  They should be much longer in duration – decades not a few years, and an element of the public payments should be a down payment on purchase of the land eventually – otherwise our money inflates land values for private profit, and merely rents environmental assets rather than securing them.  Landowners might not like that, but then the schemes are voluntary. A landowner can enter them, with our conditions for getting our money, or not – their choice.

Photo: Eirian Evans / Sheep, Hiraethog hills

I keep stressing that this is my plan for the uplands – not the whole of farming. You might wonder why it doesn’t apply to lowland agriculture too. I believe that the primary aim of lowland land management should be food production. We need food and it would be wise to grow quite a lot of it ourselves because we have a good climate and good soils. But the primary value of the uplands is in non-market public goods such as wildlife, carbon, flood alleviation etc etc. with a bit of food production thrown in as a small part of the mixture.

I think we can best produce food through a whole lot of private enterprises knowing their land and having a stake in it and striving to meet market needs. But we know that if we don’t provide incentives for environmental good things then we’ll lose a lot of wildlife (as we have done) so public money to private owners for public goods seems a good enough model for lowland farming to me – maybe I’m not radical enough!  But in the uplands, market goods are hardly relevant and my route to producing public goods is, I argue, fairer to the public, more effective and will provide a kind exit route for large numbers of small farms who will be up against it over the next few years as subsidies are phased out.

So, go back please, and read my essay in the Manifesto for Wildlife and see whether you agree with it or not. It identifies the problem, sets out a basic vision for the future, prescribes the area over which we should operate, describes how the vision will be implemented and where the money will come from.  It’s a plan. It’s my plan.  What’s yours?


23 Replies to “Upland Britain – a brighter, fairer future”

  1. Shame we can not add photos on here as present day drainage of forestry is still every 20 meters even when its in the ‘Eden catchment’ and recent floods cost over £1 Billion flooding over 3000 homes in Carlisle alone!!With mass clear fell in Britain’s largest man made forest complex [Kielder, Wark, Spaedadum and Kershope] that is speeding up a lot of water down the many rivers including the Eden!

  2. A good blog, but one quick point. If you want carbon storage then your best bet is conifer plantations of the Kielder type. This comes at the expense of biodiversity, so there will have to be some difficult trade offs.

    1. SteveF – well it depends on the energy used to plant and grow and process the trees and the type of land on which they go. But, in essence, yes there will be trade-offs and I would say that is another reason why a government body, owning land, is a good way forward because short-term grants, that are menus of voluntary options will rarely deal well with such trade-offs.

      1. Is there any evidence that fast-growing softwoods absorb more carbon in the short term and store more in the long-term than hardwoods? Surely heavy-timbered oak forests perform better and will have a longer-lived root biomass too? I don’t know the answer – but with luck SteveF can point us to studies.

        1. Don’t get fussed-up about it. Do you imagine that the GHG equivalence of forest clearance, excavation, concrete, construction, infrastructure, access roads, end-of-life disposal and provision of new gas and nuke backup for wind turbines can ever be remotely approached by adding-back a few trees-worth of cyclic carbon?

        2. It’s not about hardwoods or softwoods as such (hardwoods actually have slightly higher carbon content). It’s about the management regime. A Kielder type forest, that is actively managed will deliver greater cumulative GHG removals than a forest that is simply left to grow (even if the carbon content of that woodland will tend to be higher at a given point than the managed woodland).

          In GHG accounting, the thing that matters most is removals over time, which is why active management of forestry tends to be the favoured option in this specific context. But obviously in reality you are going to want a range of options, in order to balance all of the competing issues at play here. And of course planting a load of lovely biodiverse deciduous woodland would also still deliver important carbon benefits.

          There’s a good introduction to all of this in the Forest Research publication “Forests, Carbon and Climate Change: the UK Contribution”.

  3. A lot to take in ! But, as you point out, the key to the whole debate is what ‘goods’ society needs to buy from the uplands today – likely to be led by water & carbon, with biodiversity, people and hard commodities (timber & food) following. And that is where the Natural capital sums Defra are looking at, if not the farmers & many conservationists, take you.

    I’m fed up with conservation bodies going on about how much its going to cost – it seems that spending money has become a sort of power thing in conservation. What you don’t mention is that farm income on most upland farms (excluding tourism) is less than the subsidy payment ! So all that hard work rearing sheep goes into reducing, not increasing, farmer’s income !

    Whatever you think of upland forests, there’s no doubt some are in the wrong place – forced up onto the moorland by agricultural policy. But there’s resistance to their loss – to deforestation in our forest-light country, also timber and carbon. So we should move them – onto improved, biodiversity free, land around our towns and cities – again, as advocated by NCC.

    And on biodiversity loss, my naïve assumption was that when upland planting stopped in 1988 all would be fine for moorland birds. Not a bit of it – farming has done a far more thorough job than forestry ever did. Back then noone would ever have bet on Black Grouse surviving in Wales but Golden Plover at risk of extinction.

  4. I like your policies, Mark, but I’m less sanguine about the propsect of smaller farmers going out of business than you appear to be. In our state-owned uplands, we should encourage small farmers to remain, albeit managing the land for public good. In the lowlands, too, we should be intervening in the market (as we do now anyway) to keep folk on the land.

    Leaving aside arguments relating to the intrinsic ecological value of lowlands, I do think it’s essential to resist the relentless spread of the mega-farm and intensive agriculture *everywhere*. It seems to me that one of the fundamental reasons for ecological collapse is that so many of us have been removed from the land, from any meaningful contact with the natural world, and from any practical understanding of the way it all fits together. Without this connection, we have forgotten that we need to adjust our own lives to fit in with these natural processes. In this context, leaving food production largely to market forses (as you seem to be advocating) has resulted in a demand for year-round strawberries and mange-tout, and our cluelessness as to how much input and management is required to produce our food, means that we see meat (for example) as a daily staple. Our present consumption levels are wildly unreasonable. Any eco-friendly land policy should aim to reverse the process of enclosure and exclusion from the land, everywhere.

    1. Quite agree that small farmers need to be helped if/when public subsidies end. A lot of money and work is going to be needed to ensure our degraded uplands can deliver public goods, e.g. massive tree planting schemes, blocking drainage ditches on moorland etc. Surely the ideal solution is to try and ensure that as much of this work as possible is done by small farmers. This could involve paying them to manage their land sustainably, or if the land is nationalised providing training opportunities so that farmers can become State employed wardens.
      Whatever is done, major change will always involve winners and losers, what is needed is to ensure that the majority of people are winners, and any unavoidable losers are properly compensated. I remember reading somewhere that the average age of an upland sheep farmer is over 55, presumably a lot of them would welcome the chance to retire with a reasonable lump sum and pension.

      1. Matthew – the majority of people are taxpayers and rarely does anybody speak up for them. Government is supposed to make those judgements.

        Small farmers, if land owners rather than tenants, are capital-rich even if income-poor – certainly compared with people with normal jobs on the same income. We should be fair but that doesn’t mean being excessively generous. Selling your business at the end of your working life is a route that is taken by many small businesses.

        You could call this nationalising land – but it’s actually buying it. There will be a lot of land on the market – the state has as much right to buy it as does anybody else. But the state has been investing in that land for many years, and with large amounts of money.

        There will certainly be lots of work to do on the land – I’m sure they would be advertised as jobs often are.

  5. Great plan Mark. We need radical and positive ideas because the current system is a disgrace. PFI might have balanced the books for Blair and Brown but we are now paying for those schools and hospitals over and over again. You rightly point out that is what’s happening in the uplands. Just about heard George Monbiot’s speech in London. We need to tell landowners, NGOs and the government what they can do to make a real difference.

  6. Can’t help but agree with the manifesto vision of expanding public ownership of the English uplands during what is likely to be a decade or more of significant tenure transition. Makes sense to secure some vital assets to maximise public benefit – no other model seems more credible based on current evidence. I’ve worked on and walked across way too many designated crispy, fried blanket bogs! Thanks as ever Mark for the strong, open campaigning.

  7. Hi Mark I like your upland ideas as it all points to the right ideas for the country holistically and benefits all not just the few as it always has been. Over the last few years I’ve been touring the UK with my interest in wildlife with birds my main interest but not exclusively. Our diverse landscape is truly amazing from Lowlands, Downs, Broads, Moors Wolds, Uplands and Mountains. The greatest disappointment was the uplands, fantastic landscape but devoid of wildlife except for Red Deer and Grouse. I would call them Sterile although around the edge of these uplands and moors there was life not far away. It sadden me to find traps across one area of the Southern uplands which confirmed to me these Grouse Moors are no go areas for many wildlife whether on the ground or airborne and we all know why. I wanted to visit more upland areas but then thought what is the point as I won’t see anything up there. Seeing wildlife enhances your life it makes you feel good and should be see everywhere and by everybody not only that but what ever the habitat you should see the wildlife for that habitat and the uplands are void of what should be seen there.
    Could anyone answer this question what is ecotourism worth to the Isle of Mull as this Island is the only place you can guarantee to see Hen Harriers Short Eared Owls White Tailed Eagles, Golden Eagles, and a whole host of other wildlife the place is bursting at the seams and that’s how our wild places should be. Golden Eagles are Scotland’s national bird and yet people trap them poison them and shoot them. Landowners should be paid a subsidy to have these birds on their land. Hen Harriers & Short Eared Owls are one of the most majestic birds you can see hunting over Moorland and people would flock to see these birds if only they were left alone to breed and prosper. I’ve said they are worth more to the local economy alive than dead.
    There is a lot to do to change it around but I think there is a chance if the bulk of the general public want it enough. It all makes sense this is our country our land our wildlife we must work together to make all this happen cause no one else will it’s down to us to make it happen. Marks ideas are a way forward. I am a nobody just a member of the public that wants a change in our attitude towards our wildlife our land and our country

  8. Hi Mark – this blog is a major improvement on the manifesto entry (draft one) maybe as you’ve more space to explain? In the manifesto, I found one of your uplands proposals just seemed needlessly spiteful, and more than one that was easily misinterpreted.
    It’s impossible to debate with those we need to engage with, when people are so inflamed they can’t talk to you, never mind listen.
    I hope you will receive plenty of constructive feedback that will help reshape ‘draft two’. As they say – No plan survives contact with the enemy – but I much prefer this view:
    “Everyone’s got a plan ‘til they get punched in the face” (Tyson).

  9. My idea for ensuring that the uplands deliver public goods would be to make landowners custodians of land that has certain basic “rights”.
    In the same way as pet owners have a legal duty to look after their pets, and pets have certain legal rights, landowners should have a legal duty to look after land in a way that ensures it is healthy. The best way to measure the health of the land would probably be the amount of biodiversity it sustains. Most of our uplands would currently be classed as unhealthy, and landowners would have a legal duty to nurse it back to health. For example they could agree to restore a certain amount of blanket bog or plant a certain number of trees in a given period of time, perhaps with the aim of increasing the number of species present by 5% in 5 years. The idea would be that it’s not just a one off, but there has to be continual improvement in biodiversity for decades until a pretty high standard is reached. Obviously there could be other measures of the health of the land, or other targets that have to be achieved relating to carbon sequestration or reduced runoff during flood events.
    If these actions are not carried out, or other targets are not met, or damaging activities such as raptor persecution or heather burning take place, then the landowner would be guilty of neglect. There would then need to be penalties that are a genuine deterrent, such as fines of hundreds of thousands of pounds for large estates plus a criminal record, with the ultimate sanction of having the land confiscated and being banned from owning land in the future, in the same way as people guilty of neglecting pets can be banned from keeping animals.
    My guess is that some landowners wouldn’t want the responsibility of having to care for the land and would sell, whereas some would want to keep the social status of being a big landowner and would be prepared to contribute towards the cost returning the land to health. Those landowners that wish to keep their land should get some public money to help with restoration, but to use the pet analogy again, it would be realised that owning land will entail certain costs in looking after it.
    I think this would be better than nationalisation if it means that wealthy landowners pay for some of the costs of restoration because they want to remain landowners, plus there wouldn’t be the cost to the public of buying land. Hopefully in time market forces would mean the value of land would related to it’s ecological health, providing a further incentive for landowners to pay for restoration. Ultimately would it be a bad thing if people bought land and restored it as a long term investment if they could significantly increase the value of the land and therefore their personal wealth?
    The obvious question would be what happens if large numbers of landowners sell up when the scheme is introduced and no-one wants to buy the land? In this case public ownership would be the fall back option, however I think it would be worth trying a system that could result in private money being spent on restoration alongside public money for public goods, as well as promoting the idea of stewardship of land and by extension the idea that we are all stewards of the earth.
    Although this is primarily about the uplands, I don’t see why a similar scheme couldn’t be for lowland farmers as a way of ensuring that farming is as wildlife friendly as possible.

  10. Very surprised that lots of intellectuals think money saved on subsidies would be used to buy land.
    You must be joking all the general public and politicians would use it for NHS,schools etc.
    Not a hope In hell of getting any of it to buy the uplands and anyway anything run by British Government is generally rubbish.

  11. Dennis, reality at last. The contributors to this blog understand ecology but don’t understand people. The proposed policy that an average upland farmer would even entertain the concept of support in exchange for equity in his land or business by anyone let alone the government is definitely ill thought through. Despite the high profile nature of these ecologically based proposals on the future face of a post Bexit agriculture the reality is that the vast proportion of the public are not interested or aware. 8% of average incomes are spent on food in the U.K., lower by proportion than any EU county and on par with the US but still we live in a political climate where austerity is the political mantra on both sides of the political spectrum.. what is post Brexit policy going to be ? Despite all the posturing the obvious outcome is one based on massively reduced support for U.K. Agriculture with trade deals with non EU trading blocks being secured on greater acces to our markets for agricultural imports. The result will be catastrophic for UK agriculture leading to yet further rationalism of the industry. Indeed it’s already happening in the UK milling industry with Hovis shutting Souhthampton with loss of 71 jobs and Whitworths buying the Manchester & Selby mills already with both businesses acutely aware of the double threat of losing their market in flour to the Irish Rebulic and facing imports from non EU sources. The malting industry will react next I’d imagine the point being that the idea that UK Farming inc is going to somehow be transformed into an ecological example to the rest of the world, supported by a willing and supportive ecological customer base while undergoing a cut in support and facing cheap imports is ludicrous. I suggest that the contributors to this blog wake up and face the reality that they need to engage with land mangers in a constructive way and accept that they are way down our list of concerns at the moment.

    1. Julian – the idea that the state will continue to give money away to upland landowners when we need something else from the land is the new reality. Your analysis is correct – there is trougle ahead. But the impact on the uplands will be that the state will step in to buy land because it wants a whole mix of things from the uplands that market-led farmers rarely produce, and don’t produce cost-effectively under current circumstances. You don’t farm the uplands though, so don’t you worry about it.

      1. “You don’t farm … so don’t you worry”

        You could say that to the principal contributors to the manifesto

        1. Filbert – you could, although it makes more sense to use the full quote which was made to a lowland farmer.

  12. Don’t worry about me being worried. That’s the point that I’m trying to make to you, which you don’t seem to be getting, nobody who actually matters is worried about it. Farmers see it as way down their list of threats, government views this agenda as politically expedient at best and the overwhelming proportion of consumers have proved time and time again that they don’t care either. You need some friends I’d say so a bit less shouting and a bit more lets talk actually to the people who know the business and who can advise us on the workable solutions and try and foster some working relationships might not be a bad idea under the circumstances?

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