Guy Anderson - RSPB Principle research manager and Brian Ethridge, satellite tagging juvenile Hen harrier, Geltsdale, Cumbria

Upland land use and management

The landscape we see today is the product of past and current land management activities with farming, grouse moor management, forestry and renewable energy generation shaping the way the land now looks.

Farming in the uplands

Farming is predominant across much of the UK uplands, with beef cattle, sheep farming and localised pockets of dairy farming the main farming activity.

The scale of farming operations, choice of livestock and farming practice is determined by a variety of factors including the extent and quality of enclosed land, the nature and availability of unenclosed land, the market, agricultural policy and local tradition.

The way the land is farmed is further shaped by land ownership. Large areas owned/managed as sporting estates (particularly in northern England, central and east Highlands of Scotland). There is also farming activity undertaken by a mix of owner/occupiers, tenants and/or those with common grazing rights. Many farm businesses comprise a mix of these. 

The quality of land

Most upland farms typically have an area of enclosed land (in-bye), managed as pastures and meadows and a larger area of unenclosed land (often in the form of rights to graze common land). Depending on individual circumstance, upland farmers may also have access to other land. 

The quality and area of unenclosed land is highly variable often including a mix of peatland habitats (eg blanket bog), dwarf shrub heath and acid grassland. Throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, major areas of land are managed as croft land (typically a small area of enclosed land with grazing rights to an area of larger common grazing).

Across Northern England, particularly the Peak District, Pennines and North York Moors much of the unenclosed land is managed for grouse shooting whereas in Scotland, much of the unenclosed land is managed for grouse shooting and/or deer stalking.

Hill farm economics

Upland farming is a challenging business due to the distance from markets, the nature of the land, climate and associated variable costs.

Despite years of support for the uplands (eg Less Favoured Area support), upland farming incomes remain low, with a significant proportion coming from payments made under both pillars of the Common Agriculture Policy (direct payments under Single Payment Scheme and environmental stewardship payments) and from farm diversification and other activity.

The headline point is while most upland farms appear to be making money, when looked at in detail, it is apparent that the farming component is often actually losing money, with many businesses reliant on support payments and income from diversification. The High Nature Value farming systems which are such a characteristic and important feature of many upland areas are known to be particularly vulnerable and are in need of targeted support (beyond what is currently available) to secure the benefits delivered by these systems.

Farmer feeding Highland cattle out of doors

The Less Favoured Area

The Less Favoured Area (LFA) is an area of land defined on the basis that it is agriculturally unproductive or disadvantaged.

Across Europe, Member States have identified three broad categories of Less Favoured Area – Mountain Areas, Intermediate Less Favoured Areas and Areas Affected by Specific Handicap. In the UK, where the LFA comprise 53 per cent of the utilised agricultural land (91,200 square kilometres), the land has been further classified as Disadvantaged and Severely Disadvantaged.

Member States are permitted to support farming activity within the LFA to improve the economic viability of farming businesses without necessarily targeting those farm systems (eg High Nature Value farming systems) which are particularly beneficial. Historically, this measure has been used as a socio-economic measure, in effect to 'top-up' farm incomes in areas that are agriculturally disadvantaged. 

This makes the LFA measure a fairly blunt policy lever. Indeed, because of the way payment rates have been calculated, farmers in Disadvantaged Areas have received more support than those in Severely Disadvantaged Areas. This perverse outcome highlights the need for a policy tool which positively rewards the delivery of agreed environmental and societal outcomes.

LFA support is delivered via country-specific policy measures. For further details on changes in livestock numbers across the UK Less Favoured Area, download the report commissioned by the RSPB.

In 2010, Defra replaced the LFA based Hill Farm Allowance in England with a new Upland Entry Level Scheme (UELS). Entry to the UELS was conditional on managing land in accordance with the delivery of some broad environmental outcomes. The RSPB welcomed this positive step and urge Defra to make sure any replacement scheme should further target LFA (or successor scheme) support in a way which targets those farming systems (eg High Nature Value Farming systems) which are delivering a suite of environmental outcomes.

LFA and Areas Facing Natural Constraint policy

The European Commission are currently replacing the Less Favoured Area policy with the introduction of a new policy - Areas Facing Natural Constraint.

As with the LFA, this policy is intended to support those farm businesses that are in some way naturally handicapped. 

Whilst the RSPB recognises the value of supporting environmentally positive land management (eg High Nature Value farming systems) activity in the uplands, we firmly believe that future measures would achieve more if support was positively targeted at securing the goods and services the uplands are best placed to deliver (eg carbon storage and sequestration, provision of high-quality drinking water, infrastructure to support access and recreation (vital to our physical and mental wellbeing) and wildlife-rich landscapes). At the present time, the primary driver is food production. 

Balnakeil farm, Durness, Sutherland, Highland region, Scotland,

Sporting management

Large parts of the uplands are managed for red grouse shooting and, in Scotland, for deer stalking.

Many sporting estates also release and shoot large numbers of pheasants and red-legged partridges to increase their sporting offer. 

An estimated 43 million pheasants and 9 million red-legged partridges are released each year in the UK, with many released to supplement shooting incomes on upland estates. Whereas grouse shooting is underpinned by a range of management activities, deer stalking, pheasant and partridge shooting is less reliant on wider land management activity.

Red grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus, adult male in early morning sun. Cairngorm. Scotland.