Farm tenancies for a pound, controversial views on farming subsidies, ‘pricing out’ upland farmers – the National Trust hasn’t held back from headlines this year. (Updated Aug 17)
A quarter of a century ago, I worked for the trust as an assistant land agent (qualifying as a rural chartered surveyor) in the Thames and Chiltern region. Great fun drawing up chalkland Countryside Stewardship projects, designing and installing dairy farm effluent schemes and restoring parkland, complete with iron railings, in west London.
Heady days in a surreal, unworldly form of arguably ‘uncommercial’ surveying I’ll never forget.
Of course the trust is not like any ordinary charity. It has its own Acts of Parliament, holds land inalienably and is not required to act in its members’ interest but must ‘promote the permanent preservation of land for benefit of the nation’. We could all argue over the differences of preservation versus conservation till the cows (or hefted Herdwick sheep*) come home.
It can take a far sighted view in seeking long term ‘tough choice’ public benefits rather than just reflecting short term ‘fired up’ public opinion. A braver than average charity – its trustees rejected a members’ resolution to only vaccinate badgers in 2013.
Their director general threw the cat among the pigeons this month when she announced that, ‘to reverse decades of damage to the countryside’, farmers should only be rewarded for managing land in a nature friendly way while insisting that there is no conflict between maintaining an ability to grow food and look after nature.
She might as well have been saying ‘turtle doves shall become as common as collard doves’.
As unrealistic as the one pound peppercorn rent for their ‘£1 million iconic’
sheep farm at Llandudno, gaining much international coverage (splendid for member recruiting), rather than maybe focusing on the ability of the new tenant to handle thousands of visitors while ambitiously producing high value food unaffordable to the average punter.
Another tenant of the trust (Charlie Flindt) sagely pointed out that his farm subsidy ‘neatly matches‘ the annual rent. Perhaps the trust is hoping that, as land prices fall, and farmers go to the wall in a post-CAP subsidy world, more farmland might become available at knock-down prices? Is there a clue @NTChastleton with a tweak of their twitter profile – ‘Owned by the same increasingly impoverished farmers until 2020, farmland remained essentially unchanged for 40 years…’
OK, with shifting baselines of Beatrix Potter’s landscape versus habitat, it could be time for change in some areas but there’s no need to grab too many gimmicky headlines and chunks of ‘working’ countryside on the way.
(* 27.8.16 Press release from NT Press on Thorneythwaite Farm – note £200k approx over and above asking price paid for the ‘natural capital’ element)
Postscript Aug 2017. The letting of a grouse moor to a progressive tenant is an opportunity to set a new model of how upland management practices can be improved. Where the NT do ‘fall down’ (as in my blog above) is
failing to frame the narrative of the realistic tough decisions/trade-offs required in the real world of farming and funding upland areas.
Membership-hungry NGOs seeking to garner ‘recruitment headlines’ sometimes forget that the public’s lack of understanding of complex countryside as seen in this research out 31.7.17, may backfire on them. This is nothing to do with ‘them and us’ (town and country – as oft divisively portrayed), but a fact set within the historical context of the UK became a predominantly urban nation in 1861 when over 50% of the population lived in ‘built up’ areas. That figure is now circa 90% – and they are hungry to understand!
Setting out all the issues in a complex countryside are now more important than ever before.