How new agri-environment schemes will be applied in the New Forest

Following a consultation, the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) has changed the way New Forest Commoners are allocated subsidies for forest stock (cattle, pigs, ponies and sheep) which are turned out to graze the open forest.

The background

Historically commoners were paid based on the number of stock that they had paid their marking fees on and then allocated a share of the Forest’s eligible agricultural area, akin to carving up a very large land holding. Marking fee is the payment to the New Forest Verderers which must be paid before any animals are turned out to graze in the forest.

This way the Verderers (a body appointed by the Queen to oversee the protection of the Forest) can control the number of animals on the forest. New Forest Commoner’s animals are essentially providing a very important service of shaping and landscaping the unique habitats of the forest by grazing their animals out there. Without them the New Forest would look very different.

A recent change

The allocation process has been challenged recently because it was felt that this method encouraged commoners to keep more animals in order to claim more subsidy. Environmentalists were concerned that the forest was being overgrazed.

Commoners will now be allocated a grazing reference amount based on the maximum number of marking fees they declared between 2015 and 2020. This will be taken as an expression of their grazing rights and used annually to perform the area allocation calculation for payment. So, it will be irrelevant how many animals a commoner turns out each year as payment will not be paid based on the turn out figure.

In the consultation run by the RPA 87% of respondents supported the new calculation.

This change in the way New Forest farmers are paid subsidies reflects the ongoing flavour of protecting the environment that the Government has adopted for farming which was highlighted in the Government’s publication Path to Sustainable Farming.

Opportunity and challenge

With the biggest shake up in half a century as to how farming subsidies are paid there is a planned approach to help farmers do the right thing for their business and the environment. It will be interesting to see with the reduction in payments to farmers how some businesses will survive.

I am sure some will thrive and embrace the culture of environment and animal welfare at the forefront of the business, which so many have been doing for years whilst others may find the challenge too much resulting in many a family farm on the market. I hope this will not be the case and that all farmers will rise to the new challenge of being environmentalists, farmers and of course food producers, after all this country will always need feeding.

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