Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Improving skills in the uplands

Hill farming makes a vital contribution to livestock production in England, however those who farm in upland areas face a unique set of challenges.

The majority of England’s upland agricultural land is defined as being part of the Less Favoured Area (LFA)[1] due to its poor climate, soils, and terrain, which result in higher production and transport costs as well as reduced yields and productivity. The LFA accounts for 17 per cent of the total farmed area in England (1.55 million hectares)[1] and, crucially, is home to 30 per cent of England’s beef cattle and 44 per cent of breeding sheep[1]. Aside from this important contribution to agriculture, upland farmers also play an essential role in maintaining the distinctive landscapes they manage.  

The need to create a sustainable future for the English uplands has risen up the agricultural agenda in recent years and was the subject of a Defra policy review in 2011. That, in turn, was the catalyst for a recently-launched campaign aimed at delivering technical and business skills to those involved in managing the unique upland landscapes.

Managed by ADAS and delivered in part by EBLEX, the 15-month project kicked off in January and targets those working in agriculture and forestry in the uplands. The programme is the result of a successful bid by ADAS under the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) Skills and Knowledge Transfer Framework, which is jointly funded by Defra and the European Union.

As one of the delivery partners for the project, EBLEX is running a range of upland beef and sheep production events, which offer a great opportunity for farmers to learn from their peers and identify practical solutions to the challenges they face. With environmental constraints often a particular barrier to productivity for hill farmers, the events will give those involved an insight into how a balance can be achieved between the environment and productive agriculture.

A key part of the project involves establishing focus farms across the uplands of northern England. Each of these farms will take part in investigation and trial work into specific elements of upland farming, covering everything from the use of alternative forages to fill feed gaps, to investigating worm resistance in sheep, to the use of artificial insemination in upland suckler herds to help tighten calving patterns. The focus farms will host a number of meetings over the next year, which will demonstrate best farming practice and allow them to share their experiences of managing an upland farm business.

In addition to the focus farms meetings, there will be a number of demonstration events over the course of a project, plus a range of workshops designed to give farmers a more in-depth understanding of a specific subject area. The final element of the programme involves a series of study tours to visit upland farming and research organisations in other countries, as well as farm exchange visits across the UK to look at different upland farming practices.

Hopefully initiatives such as this will go some way to equipping hill farmers with the skills to meet the challenges they face.