Pay hill farmers to protect water supply and carbon sinks, report urges


Carbon storage and protecting water supplies could rival tourism in terms of income generation for upland areas

Peat stores 200m tonnes of carbon in England and hills are source of 70 per cent of the country's drinking water, say rural experts

This article is reproduced courtesy of the Guardian Environment Network

The government faces a new call on its diminished resources today with a recommendation from rural experts that hill farmers should be subsidised to safeguard water catchments and protect huge carbon-storing wildernesses of peat.

But the Commission for Rural Communities has softened its request by suggesting that Whitehall target European funding for much of the proposed scheme, taking advantage of pending reforms in the EU's common agricultural policy.

The lengthy inquiry into the future of England's uplands, which cover 17% of the country, but are home to only 4% of the population, also argues that the hills have a good chance of paying their way in future. Although the ancient staple of sheep-farming will continue, more money – and therefore initial subsidy – is likely to be found in carbon storage and keeping water plentiful and pure.

Alternative to tourism

The report suggests that these sectors may come to rival the other main earner for England's hill country – tourism, which has generated an average of £1.8bna year in the last five years, from more than 40 million annual visitors to the largely upland National Parks.

Peat's ability to store some 200 million tonnes of carbon in England, and the hills' source of 70% of the country's drinking water will become 'increasingly important as population grows and pressure increases on all the world's resources', says the report.

The commission says that help is also needed to sustain everyday life in the uplands, from more accessible healthcare and faster broadband to cheaper housing for residents rather than second-homers. Current policy is criticised as too fragmented and "top down", although the report is at pains to pitch a positive spin.

'Rather than defining these areas purely by their agricultural disadvantage, the nation should be considering them as areas that offer great public benefit and environmental value,' says the report. 'Not only are they iconic landscapes, providing space, tranquility, beauty and the protection of our cultural heritage, but they are also working areas that deliver crucial goods and services to sustain and support human livelihoods.'

Ian Woodhurst, senior rural policy officer for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: 'We need to banish the negative mindset many people have when thinking about upland communities. They are not just disadvantaged, declining and remote. 'This report rightly recognises their important role in tackling future challenges by providing food, water management and carbon capture.'

The main landowners' body, the Country Land and Business Association, welcomed the report but called for a wider relaxation of planning restrictions than the commission suggests. The group's vice-president Henry Robinson said that 'green energy' could be released if more land in the hills was released for local housing and commerce, particularly firms offering sustainable services or goods.

Useful links
Commission for Rural Communities

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