What is High Nature Value Farming and why should we support it?

Recently I came across High Nature Value farming (HNV) as an ‘alternative’ approach to looking at the food and environmental sustainability debate. The more I have read the more embarrassed I feel to not have heard about it before. In fact, it has deep roots as an idea and has been European policy for some time but knowledge about it, even by those who own what would be classified as ‘high nature value’ farmland, remains low profile. According to the RSPB HNV farming describes ‘low-intensity farming systems which are particularly valuable for wildlife and the natural environment’. The focus is on ‘landscapes that contain a significant proportion of farmland in a semi-natural condition (vegetation comprised of native plants and maintained by grazing and/or mowing which has not been agriculturally ‘improved’), such as unimproved pastures and hay-meadows or traditional orchards, inherently of high biological richness.’ According to proponents of HNV if we are serious about biodiversity decline then we must look at ways of conserving these particular habitats which means providing extra fiscal support.

Across Europe in recent years there has been a general movement of intensification of production which has led both to intensification of land with greater potential for productivity and the abandonment of land considered to have limited potential. The result is that ‘semi natural’ farmland is in decline and the wildlife it supports is going with it. 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 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, although recently it has been re-introduced to the Nene. Proponents argue that both abandonment and tree planting lead to loss of biodiversity and low intensity livestock grazing is much the best way forward (although I’m sure that Mr Monbiot would have something to say about that!).

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has identified three broad types of HNV farmland:

Type 1 – Farmland with a high proportion of semi-natural vegetation.
Type 2 – Farmland with a mosaic of low intensity agriculture and natural and structural elements, such as field margins, hedgerows, stone walls, patches of woodland or scrub, small rivers etc.
Type 3 -Farmland supporting rare species or a high proportion of European or World populations

In a UK context, HNV farming can mainly be associated with extensive beef and sheep farming in the uplands and marginal farming areas, because of its reliance on semi-natural vegetation and unimproved pastures for grazing. However there are also examples from the lowlands which include some low input arable/mixed farming systems and coastal habitats which contain a mosaic of semi natural features which support a significant biodiversity. HNV 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 there are separate conservation measures with the aim of putting wildlife value back in (for example, by leaving room around the edges of fields or by adapting farming practices). HNV farming is using the landscape that is already there and farming in an extensive way that does not significantly reduce the biodiversity.

HNV farming is often uneconomic due to the geography of HNV farms, which often face much higher transportation and other costs. Existing support mechanisms such as agri-environment schemes (ELS/OELS/UELS/HLS) are therefore an important income stream for many HNV farmers.  It is sadly however not often enough to prevent such businesses from struggling. HNV farming gives the taxpayer, who ultimately pays for it through the Common Agricultural Policy, numerous benefits including storing vast amounts of carbon, supporting clean water supplies, holding water to prevent flooding downstream, providing areas for recreation, protecting cultural and historic heritage, and supporting rural communities and economies. Yet many HNV farms continue to struggle principally due to the failure of the market to pay a good price for what is usually delicious, high welfare food. The reformed CAP has failed to sufficiently support farms that go further in not only protecting the environment but working towards a system of agriculture that is truly sustainable within their environmental context. Society needs to remember that the countryside doesn’t look after itself and requires management by skilled professionals if the public benefits we currently enjoy are to continue. Currently we are doing a very good job at discouraging the next generation from wanting to take on the role of our farmers today. In the long run I believe we should looking to scrap pillar 1 payments (market support) which will mean the market will have to adapt and food prices will have to be more realistic in the context of the costs of production. However, I believe it is right that we continue to provide support through pillar 2 and environmental payments. These payments should increase for those who do the most to keep their farms as biodiverse as possible. HNV farming is one form of sustainable farming at least that I feel we should firstly be supporting fiscally but also supporting socially and culturally. We all need to do our bit to raise its profile.

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