Out of money and out of options: Upland farmers in England (part 2)

  • 25.10.2023
  • article
  • Labour and Livelihoods
  • People
  • Small Farms
  • Marianne Landzettel

As part of a new, two-part series, food and farming writer, Marianne Landzettel, meets with upland farmers in northeast England who explain why the shift to the new farm payments scheme – the Sustainable Farming Incentive – poses an existential threat for many upland farmers.

The post-Brexit changes to the UK’s farm subsidy schemes are proving a huge challenge for hill farmers. The shift from the Basic Payment Scheme, which previously accounted for over 90% of some upland farms’ income, to the Sustainable Farming Incentive, is likely to leave many with a severe shortfall. Hill farmers are understandably worried that they will be unable to close this financial gap. In the second of this two-part series, Marianne Landzettel visits two more farmers near Ridsdale in Northumberland to discuss their hopes and concerns about the future.

Nigel Moore and the SFI roulette

After visiting Michael Walton and Graham Robson, I continue west on the small country lane, through Bellingham, across another ridge and reach Nigel Moore’s farm. Moore farms 800 acres, half of them are his, the other 400 acres are rented from two different landlords. Roughly 140 acres are suitable for making silage.

Nigel Moore
Nigel Moore – the responsibility for the whole farm rests only on him


He has 1,000 sheep, a mix of Aberfield, Abermax, Swaledale and Blue Face Leicester and, like Michael Walton, he sells fat lambs to a wholesaler. Even though the higher value wool is separated out, overall, the price he gets for the wool of his herd does not cover the cost of shearing.

The cattle herd is a beautiful mix of Limousin, Angus, black Hereford and Simmentals, watched over by a Belgian Blue Limousin cross bull with a muscle definition that would have him win any body building championship. Moore sells the calves at 12 to 14 months. Twenty-five of the 80 suckler cows calve in autumn, which means the calves can be sold in January and February, which really helps the farm’s cash flow.

There is no area of farming where Moore is not trying to save costs and optimise the workflow. On his silage acres, he is testing herbal leys which do not need to be fertilised. That’s a plus, but the leys have to be reseeded every four to five years while grass mixes last six to ten years. And whether the silage made from the leys is as nutritious as the grass silage will only become apparent this winter. If he has to buy in more feed, the savings he made on fertilisers may be cancelled out.

A Belgian Blue Limousin cross bull watching over Moore’s Limousin, Angus, Black Hereford and Simmental herd.


When Moore took over the farm 12 years ago, much of the farm infrastructure was old. The feed was stored in old barns and had to be manually filled into sacks before it could be distributed to the cattle. And the old wooden holding pens and crush in the farmyard were dangerous, animals often jumped the barriers and ran straight onto the road. A decision had to be made: hire staff or invest in infrastructure.

In 2018, Moore had a new barn built at a cost of roughly £100,000, and he invested into a cattle chute with a curved working alley: the head and back of the animal can be fixated, and a chute gate allows for three animals to be kept waiting. Moore can now safely do much of the work, such as administer boluses, by himself, but the new set-up came at a price: £4,000 for the chute and £20-30,000 for laying the concrete foundation and the corral. On the day of my visit, two feed silos are being installed. The autumn calving cows and the spring calves have to be housed over winter. Feeding them will now be a lot easier, and Moore will no longer need help for this task either.

What does the financial future of his business look like? Basic payments accounted for 50-60% of farm income, says Moore. Much of the land has been in the Higher Countryside Stewardship programme for two decades. He used the government’s offer to get a free consultation from an agronomist. The advice was to enter additional land into a higher tier SFI scheme. But that would come with restrictions: he would have to keep a 70/30 ratio of cattle to sheep on the pastures. He might be paid £10,000 through SFI but would have to take 200 sheep off the pastures and introduce more cattle. It’s almost impossible to figure out whether the changes would result in a net financial gain and be worth doing. “You are forced to make choices, but you don’t know what the impact will be,” says Moore.

Nigel Moore
Checking on livestock – on a patchwork of pastures it would be impossible without a quad bike


There is no knowing whether feed and fertiliser costs will go up again and what the margins on beef and lambs will be next year. Yet decisions have to be made, farmers either sign up for a scheme or they don’t. That’s the point where the SFI becomes more like a game of roulette than a viable source of farm income for delivering public goods. In some cases, taking sensible environmental measures doesn’t pay anything – this summer, Moore planted 2,000m of hedges for which he is being reimbursed for the costs he’s incurred but nothing further.

Talking to Moore, the tension and the stress he is under are palpable. Two things are certain: once BPS ends, he will still have to service the bank loans and pay rent to the landlords. So, what are the options? Eventually he may have to speak to the landlords about a rent reduction, says Moore. And his wife’s off-farm income will no longer pay for extras but will become a vital part of the family income.

David and Annabel Stanners: getting out of farming has to be an option

Unlike the other farmers I visited, the Stanners are first generation farmers and neither comes from a farming family. In 2004, the Stanners became livestock managers on Lord Darby’s Knowsley Estate on the outskirts of Liverpool, but the couple always wanted to run their own farm. Competition for tenancies is fierce and it took six years until they got the tenancy in Ridsdale in 2016.

David and Annabel Stanners
David and Annabel Stanners – the world map in the office is not the only thing that reminds them of Britain’s newly minted trade deals


The farm has 600 acres, 100 of which are suitable for silage making. The 75 suckler cows are Luing cattle, a crossbreed of Beef Shorthorn with Highland cattle, hardy and with excellent meat quality. The 600 ewes are mostly a three-way cross of East Frisian, New Zealand Texel and Romney.

Ridsdale is not exactly on the tourist trail, but the surrounding landscape is beautiful and a few years ago the Stanners decided to buy and refurbish an old railway carriage as a holiday let – a plan to which the landlord agreed. It cost them roughly £120,000 to buy the carriage, refit it with two bed- and bathrooms, install a kitchen, have it connected to the grid and water mains and get a sewage tank installed. The stress and expense was worth it: “It earns us more than the farm business,” says Stanners. Could they invest into a second holiday let to make up for the loss of BPS payments? “We would need to hire someone to help with cleaning, but we wouldn’t get planning permission in any case,” says Annabel Stanners. Tourist accommodation can now only be built if there is ‘easy access to public transport’ – a bus that stops once a week probably does not qualify. “It is funny, the government in London asks farmers to diversify and go into tourism – and then local government prevents you from doing so.”

Luing cattle
Luing cattle a hardy crossbreed of Beef Shorthorn with Highland cattle with excellent meat quality


The Stanners have a very clear-eyed view of the farm’s financial situation. Before Brexit, the BPS payment was £56,000, another £11,000 came from a Countryside Stewardship programme. If the whole farm were to be placed into a higher tier SFI scheme, they would likely receive £36,000 which would leave a financial hole of £30,000. And because of the restrictions attached, the Stanners would face the same dilemma as Nigel Moore, having to weigh SFI payments against possible income losses because stocking numbers have to be reduced.

The free consultancy points only to one possible new income stream: upland woodland planting on pastures. The Stanners like the idea, but there is a risk that they will not be allowed to join the scheme. The pastures are a curlew nesting area and protected. Curlews are ground breeders and don’t like trees in the vicinity, which means it is up to Natural England to accept or deny entry into the programme. If they get into the woodland pasture scheme and the land rent can be renegotiated the Stanners might just be ok. But what if they don’t get accepted? Both agree that a £30,000 loss of income would make the farming business unviable. “We would have to give the tenancy up,” says Stanners. Annabel would once again work in insurance, David, too, would find a job off farm. Somehow, they would make a living. Both have poured their heart and soul into the farm – farming is what they want to do. They chose a long, hard road to get where they are today, but the family and the children come first, even if it means walking away from farming in the future.

The uplands in Northumberland – stunningly beautiful but hard to farm


All photos copyright and courtesy of @M.Kunz.

This is the second article in a two-part series on the issues facing upland farmers in England. To read the first part, click here. For more on the SFT’s vision of sustainable land use across the UK, including its upland regions, click here. And if you’re a farmer looking for information and resources on navigating the shift away from Basic Payments, head over to the FFCC’s Upland Farmer Toolkit.

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