News & Events

Farmer Network Workshop Notes

Paul Harper from The Farmer Network introduced the session and defined the work of “holistic farmer networks” from the research into farmer networks entitled, “Putting the Spotlight on Farming Communities” by Rose Regeneration in 2013. He identified the key challenges facing upland farm businesses and this was followed by presentations from Sandra Dodd (Dartmoor Hill Farm Project), Katherine Williams (Exmoor Hill Farming Network) and himself (Cumbria and Yorkshire Dales Farmer Networks)

All three speakers emphasised that the work they did was directed/driven from the farmers and there were many similarities in the type of activity they are undertaking. All three speakers said they place a lot of emphasis on events that help to keep people informed and up to date, with members working together. Activities included study trips, technical events with specialist speakers on topics asked for by members, farm trials and testing to improve animal health/grassland management etc. Other aspects included information on grants and regulations, projects for groups to take advantage of opportunities e.g. marketing, separate events for women in farming and young people.

The main difference between the networks was both Exmoor and Dartmoor relied on external funding to cover the core costs, whereas The Farmer Network (Cumbria and Yorkshire Dales) is charging members an annual fee, which together with income from sponsors, project management and consultancy, means it covers its overheads. This meant that extra services that give a quick and direct benefit are provided by The Farmer Network compared with others (fuel buying scheme, £200 training vouchers for young people etc.).

All networks emphasised the value to members of being farmer-led, how they were trusted by the community and as a result, reached many farmers that most other top-down public funded schemes did not. The service being provided by networks is wanted by members, is helping improve collaboration and also improve some of the core business skills needed (be open to change, more confident to find solutions to problems etc.) to enable their businesses to become more sustainable.

The sessions discussed how the Upland Alliance could help in future. It was agreed the needs were:

  • for these “holistic” farmer networks to meet occasionally to learn from each other
  • to better communicate to people deciding on funding priorities the work and value of networks as a way of increasing collaboration, business and technical skills to many farmers who do not engage with projects designed and delivered centrally and in a top-down manner
  • to be a communication link from members to policy makers
  • to support networks to help them become self-financing

Peatland restoration – what’s in it for me?

  • There is significant experience across the UK in peatland restoration – we are world leaders in the science and practice of restoration, and have a lot of good practice that can be shared, both across the Alliance and internationally
  • Although there has been significant investment in research into the climate, hydrology and biodiversity effects of restoration, there has been little research on effects relevant to landowners and managers, and significant evidence gaps remain in this area, for example effects on the productivity of grouse and sheep in re-wetted peatlands. The Alliance may be able to put these questions on research agendas and help find external funding and provide sites and data for projects that can answer these questions
  • There can be significant indirect, unintended consequences of restoration in some locations, and more research and sharing of experience is needed to raise awareness and find solutions that can ameliorate these impacts. These impacts arise from the complex interactions between different components of the peatland system, for example re-wetting may increase the abundance of bog asphodel, which are poisonous to sheep, requiring sheep to be taken off rewetted peatlands, which then makes it impossible to reduce the tick population on these peatlands, which increases risks from Lyme’s Disease in these areas. Other issues include potential increased risk from liver fluke and introduction of pests and diseases from imported material for restoration. Yet at the same time, there is evidence that re-wetting increases populations of crane flies, which are an important food for grouse, and may boost their populations. There is not enough evidence to demonstrate at present whether the effects of restoration on grouse and sheep are likely on balance to be mainly positive, negative or neutral. Losses due to Bog Asphodel in lambs can be catastrophic to the upland farmer’s economic viability as well as cause serious angst.
  • There are a number of barriers to peatland restoration among the landowning and managing community. In many cases, if payments associated with restoration are high enough, these barriers may be overcome. However, where there is a perception that restoration may threaten the viability of game or livestock production/survival, there is no level of payment that is likely to induce a landowner or manager to opt into restoration
  • There was a feeling among many landowners and managers that they had been manipulated into restoration or had it imposed upon them, whereas those in the group who organised, funded and/or carried out restoration described a range of good practices they carry out to ensure effective communication prior to any decision to restore peatland. Although there may be isolated cases of misleading claims about the financial or other benefits of restoration, it seems that this perception is most likely to have arisen from the limited financial options for farm businesses operating on peatlands, which means people feel they have no option but to accept restoration
  • At present it was felt that the groups with most money to put into peatlands were seeing their objectives fulfilled, and that instead, there should be a process (which the Alliance may be able to help facilitate) of seeking shared objectives, and then identifying funding to meet those objectives
  • Peatland restoration needs to increasingly be focussed at a landscape scale, for example including woodland planting in upland valleys on non-peat soils as an integral part of a catchment-based, integrated or “place-based” approach to restoration. But proper consultation again to tease out unforeseen consequences must happen by asking those on the ground about suitable sites and the consequences. Woodland corridors can equal predator corridors for example.
  • Moves towards increasingly targeted payments for restoration via Rural Development Programmes were welcomed, but only if this did not come at the expense of flexibility; it is important to be able to provide landowners and managers with a range of options or ways of meeting objectives. For them to come up with the best plan design. Examples of where it had gone wrong were plentiful e.g. more erosion downstream, raised up areas of gulley blocking that would ‘burst’ at some point, heather underwater meeting no one’s outcomes.
  • The Alliance may be able to draw together best practice evidence and experience about how to effectively engage with stakeholders in the development and implementation of restoration projects
  • The Alliance needs to celebrate positive, successful upland management, whilst sharing practical lessons on the benefits, pitfalls and practicalities of how to successfully restore damaged peat bogs