From the dramatic Cornish coastland to the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland National Park, many of England’s most special and best loved places are farmed. With around 70% of England’s land area being farmland, agriculture is of vital importance for the outlook for nature and also influences a range of other services provided from land alongside food production.
Although this agricultural landscape has been influenced by humans for centuries, the most significant changes have occurred over the past 60 years as a result of changing market requirements, agricultural policies and technological and cultural changes. There has been a shift from smaller, family and mixed farms to larger units specialising in arable or livestock production. Livestock farming practices have also changed with grassland management becoming more intensive, with widespread agricultural improvement (increased use of fertilisers, drainage and so on) and a shift to silage production with earlier and more frequent cutting.
Much of our semi-natural  farmland has been lost in the last century. Unimproved pastures (which are maintained by grazing and/or mowing) include some of our most threatened and important habitats. In England and Wales, 97% of semi-natural grasslands were lost between 1930 and 1984, and losses have continued more recently. This has affected many of species that depend on unimproved grasslands including pollinating bumblebees, butterflies and birds such as the corncrake, once a widespread breeding species which became extinct in England in the 1950s, but has recently been re-introduced to the Nene Washes.
Fortunately, High Nature Value farmland still exists in England, and its survival is often down to the motivations and sensitive relationship that individual land managers have with the land and the local skills and knowledge farmers have retained. On HNV farms, many wildlife species depend on the productive land itself and on the existing farming practices (such as grazing with low stocking rates or traditional mowing of meadows) for their survival. This is different to other types of agriculture seen in England (such as lowland arable or more intensive livestock systems) where the farmed land is managed intensively and conservation measures aim to put wildlife value back in (for example, by leaving room around the edges or by adapting farming practices).
HNV farms in England are generally characterised by the presence of considerable amounts of unimproved pasture and/or a mosaic of habitats and semi-natural features (such as wetlands and hedgerows) which support a rich assemblage of wildlife.
Most HNV farming in England is associated with extensive beef and sheep farming. Some habitats of English uplands and commons dependent on extensive livestock grazing include upland heath, calcareous grassland, moorland and hay meadows These grazed habitats support a suite of species such as curlew, lapwing, ring ouzel, red grouse, black grouse, marsh fritillary and moss carder bee. In the lowlands, a mosaic of coastal heathland/grassland, species rich grassland, wet grassland, saltmarsh and low input mixed farming systems helps maintain a rich assemblage of wildlife such as the cirl bunting, chough, greater horseshoe bat, brown hare, oil beetles and rare arable plants.
The current focus on ‘sustainable intensification’ in England seems to ignore the vital wider benefits HNV farms provide, alongside high quality food or stock for the food chain. These farms are managed in tune with the natural environment in which they are situated and often play a significant role in delivering services such as carbon storage, water quality and flood alleviation. They form a unique part of our cultural heritage, maintain iconic landscapes and support fragile rural communities and economies. Despite all this, many receive inadequate recognition and as the market does not reward the wider benefits they provide for society, many HNV farms struggle to survive.
Existing support mechanisms such as agri-environment schemes (ELS/OELS/UELS/HLS) are an important income stream for many HNV farmers. Although this funding has helped slow the loss of these extensive farming systems and retained many of the threatened wildlife dependent on these practices, alone it is often insufficient to make HNV farms commercially viable against market pressures. It is vital that we do more to secure these important farming systems.
In Northern England an exciting new project is just emerging with the aim to build a shared vision with the farming community for safeguarding the future of extensive farming and the wildlife it supports (i.e. High Nature Value Farming) within the Northern Upland Chain Protected Areas – Nidderdale AONB, North Pennines AONB, Northumberland National Park, Yorkshire Dales National Park. To find out more please download and read the attached summary.
Download the High Nature Value Farming in the Northern Upland Chain Summary – PDF 1.4MB
For many of us, these special places conjure a sense of uniqueness, maybe a cherished landscape or a place to experience and enjoy the countryside, but we need to ensure that long term sustainable solutions are found for the people who work in these challenging areas. The next England Rural Development Programme (ERDP) needs to recognize and provide a secure future for the thousands of environmentally friendly farmers who maintain and enhance England’s natural and cultural assets.View Case Studies of HNV farming in action in England ›
Photo credits: Hawswater, Hay meadow & Sheep shearing – Deborah Deveney (RSPB), Brown hare – Chris Gomersall (RSPB-Images), Oil beetle (Ben Lee).