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// Hill farming communities in danger of dying out
The traditional way of life on England's hillsides and moorlands is in danger of dying out unless action is taken, an expert has warned.
The National Trust has called on the government to develop a strategy to protect the UK's uplands, including keeping farmers on the hills
Dr Stuart Burgess, Chairman of the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC), said disease outbreaks like foot and mouth, flooding, a lack of young people and lack of affordable housing has brought hill farming to the edge of extinction.
But he said keeping livestock on the hills was key to maintaining the character of areas like the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and Dartmoor.
Launching an unprecedented inquiry into the future of England's upland communities, Dr Burgess, who is also the government's rural advocate, said new economic opportunities need to be idenfied if the countryside is to be maintained.
He said the contribution such areas make to the national economy could be doubled to £650bn if the right decisions are made to boost business and innovation.
English uplands, that cover 18 per cent of the country, have featured heavily in the cultural identity of Britain and continue to draw millions of tourists.
But Dr Burgess said he has come across "real hardship" in recent years as farmers recovering from the foot and mouth outbreak face further restricitons from the risk of blue tongue, rising feed costs, increased competition from Europe and now the economic downturn.
"If the livestock disappear up on the hills then it will change the character of the countryside," he said.
Dr Burgess cited the rising age of hill farmers, increased threat from flooding and drought due to climate change and lack of affordable housing.
"I have come across real hardship on hill farms and in discussion with hill farmers. There is a whole question over whether hill farming is sustainable in the future. It is important I think to keep the livestock on the hills but how do we do that? Some farmers have diversified but some are not in a position to do that.
"I am particularly concerned about the social effects if we do not have hill farmers. The knock on effect is a downward spiral for the whole community."
But rather than subsidies, Dr Burgess suggested the way forward is innovation and business development. He said the growth of home-based offices, high levels of entrepreneurship, improved internet access, the demand for renewables and new markets for country produce all present opportunities.
Hill farms are also a potential "carbon store" as the UK trys to reduce carbon emissions.
"England's rural economies have yet further potential to be unlocked. If for example we target underperformance in our rural economies [the £325 billion rural firms currently contribute to the national economy] could be doubled and with it worklessness and poverty reduced."
Will Cockbain, the National Farmers Union uplands spokesman, said the dry stone walls and grazed landscapes loved by many was dependent on farmers.
He said the alternative could be coniferous forests and wind turbines. But he said it was unlikely market forces would sustain hill farming.
"Society has to ask itself do we want the uplands to look like they do now?" he asked. "If the answer is yes then the system that manages them now needs to survive."
The National Trust has called on the government to develop a strategy to protect the UK's uplands, including keeping farmers on the hills.
© The Telegraph