A LAKE District common has become a battleground in the war of words between hill farmers’ groups and ‘re-wilding’ environmentalists.
The trust that owns Grasmere Common has blocked graziers’ applications for ‘active’ farming subsidies which would support sheep production.
Now some farmers’ representatives fear the decision by the Lowther Estate Trust could lead to swathes of the common being left to ‘nature’, turning the clock back on hundreds of years of landscape history.
One source close to the commoners’ cause, who did not wish to be named, said that the idea of ‘re-wilding’ large areas of the Lake District was one of the reasons behind the decision.
The fears were not dismissed by the Lowther Estates Trust when pressed by The Westmorland Gazette. Instead, manager Andrew Fox admitted the trust’s vision for the common ‘might lead to a reduction in sheep grazing’, with ‘areas of fell fenced off’ in favour of environmental schemes.
Owners of common land are required by Natural England and Defra to sign Uplands Entry Level Scheme (UELS) applications to confirm they have been notified and they know no reason why the scheme cannot be delivered.
Now, farming, environmental and landowning organisations have rallied to condemn the trust’s decision to block the graziers’ applications for subsidies under the Uplands Entry Level Scheme (UELS).
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Mike Innerdale, North West assistant director for the National Trust, which owns more than 25,000 hectares of common land in the Lake District, said: “It is totally inappropriate for common owners to obstruct payments intended for active farmers.”
Julia Aglionby, executive director of the Foundation for Common Land, said: “Commons provide more public benefits than any other type of land in England.
“Imbalances of power which allow non-active owners to veto hill farmers entering schemes must be addressed, otherwise key landscapes are at risk.”
One Grasmere commoner, Peter Bland, claimed the Lowther Estate Trust’s decision would cost him ‘thousands of pounds’.
“They should not be allowed to take a decision which effectively puts my livelihood at risk,” he said.
Mr Bland, of Knott Houses Farm, Grasmere, said the UELS was designed to support active farmers.
“The estate trustees should help us out by signing the form,” he said. “Otherwise, it will have a knock-on effect on my livelihood, making it difficult for me to find enough money to pay my farm rent.”
Mr Bland claimed he would also have to pay between £3,000 and £4,000 to cover the administration costs of making the application.
“Normally, you would get that back when the payment is made, but it looks like that won’t happen and I’ll have to stand the cost myself.”
Richard Leafe, chief executive of the Lake District National Park Authority, said: “I truly hope an agreement can be reached. These payments both help sustain our fragile cultural heritage and support the many benefits good land management can bring. These include reducing the risk of flooding, improved water quality and more wildlife.”
In Cumbria, the Federation of Cumbrian Commoners represents the views of more than 500 commoners.
Committee member Carl Walters said: “Data from 2013 tells us that a hill farmer in the Lake District has on avereage annual drawings of only £8,000. Their businesses are at risk without these payments.”
Mr Fox said it was up to the commoners to lobby for the rules to be changed.
“We do not understand why the rules of the UELS require Lowther Estates Trust to become legally involved without beting practically involved in the management of the common,” he said.
“Therefore, the graziers who do not want us to actively participate in the management of the commons should get the rules simplified so they can enter the scheme.”