Nature-friendly hill farms can be more profitable

By Jenna Hutber

Monday 18 November 2019

A new report into the unique challenges upland farmers face shows that focusing on margin over volume could help farmers weather formidable trading conditions and political uncertainty.

The report’s authors call on the future government to support hill farmers with business advice packages and to offer greater stability through payments which recognise their role as guardians of nature and the environment.

Farmers already face impossibly tight profit margins, increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather and consumer demand for ultra-low food prices. Profit challenges are felt most acutely in the uplands and other marginal areas such as coasts and remote islands.

The report uncovered evidence that the current business system makes it harder for farmers to turn a profit. Contrary to popular belief, the report found that inputs such as expensive artificial fertilisers generally fail to increase profit margins. Instead, profitability can be improved by taking a lower input, nature friendly approach which relies only on the farm’s own natural assets, i.e. grass available on the farm. 

Moving away from a business model that prioritises production over profit will not only boost farm finances but could also deliver huge benefits for the incredible wildlife which depends upon upland habitats, such as flower-rich meadows and pastures.

UK upland areas are home to internationally important wildlife, contain 11 of the 15 national parks in Great Britain and large areas are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, National Nature Reserves and Special Areas of Conservation.

But the wildlife in these traditionally nature-rich areas is struggling – 12 of the 36 species of bird which breed in the uplands are now on the Red List and 15 per cent of upland species are at threat of extinction.

The report’s authors urge farmers to work together and seize the opportunity to market themselves as a premium, nature-friendly and eco-conscious brand.

Chris Clark said: “Farmers in the uplands and other marginal areas are already working hard to keep their businesses afloat and are facing real uncertainty about the future.

“Farmers urgently need support to adapt to a new business model, based on environmental credentials and added-value.”

The report was commissioned by the RSPB, National Trust and The Wildlife Trusts. These organisations are urging governments across the UK to act on the findings of the report and do more to support hill farmers to adapt to the inevitable changes.

Tom Lancaster, Head of Land and Seas policy at the RSPB said: “Farming with nature is central to the future of wildlife in the UK, and we now know this can also improve farmers’ bottom line as well.

“Farmers should be supported to make the transition to nature-friendly farming, including through advice and training, which government must support, as well as payments for the public goods that these farms can provide.”

Ellie Brodie, Senior Policy Manager at The Wildlife Trusts, said:

“It’s really important that nature-friendly hill farming is financially viable – for both the communities that it supports and the wildlife that depends on it. This report is a revelation. It shows that less can be more:  farmers who scale back their overheads and reduce stock numbers can run more profitable businesses that are better for nature too.”

Marcus Gilleard, Senior Policy Programme Manager at the National Trust said:

“For too long, public policy has locked hill farmers into a system which drives up production and damages our environment.

“This report shows that lower impact, nature friendly farming can increase profits for farmers, with the right support from government. It’s critical for our environment and the future of farming in the uplands, that our new system of farm payments helps deliver this shift.”

The report was written by independent consultant Kaley Hart, farmer and business consultant Chris Clark and business strategy expert Brian Scanlon.

A report commissioned earlier this year by the RSPB, National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts estimated the cost of providing business advice to upland farmers would be £5.4 million per year.

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