Future of hill farming

Hill farmers may switch from producing sheep to farming water and carbon in the near future, according to the National Trust.

Iwan Huws, the National Trust's director for Wales, predicted that hill farming in England and Wales is set for a radical shake-up in the next decade, as we move into an era where farming water, wildlife, carbon and landscapes could become the norm.

Speaking at the tenth anniversary of the National Trust acquiring Hafod y Llan, a 1,500 ha (4,000-acre) hill farm in Snowdonia, he said: "Ten years ago, any notion that hill farmers would farm for water or for carbon would have been dismissed as fantasy. But with the pressures of a changing climate and the need to protect and value our natural capital, the future of hill farming will focus on a mixture of food production and providing wider environmental benefits for society."

At present the National Trust manages 250,000 ha (660,000 acres) of land in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the majority of which is in the uplands.

There are currently 2,000 tenant farmers on National Trust land, but the rising costs of production and the global recession are threatening to cut returns from food sales, making the economics of hill farming very challenging.

The hills are not just farmland - they provide vital services such as supplying drinking water, holding back floodwater and storing carbon, as well as producing food. Hill farms like Hafod y Llan also provide large areas of habitat, which is particularly important for wildlife as it tries to adapt to a changing climate.

By 2018, hill farms will have to focus on using fewer resources, such as energy to produce food, and any financial support will focus on their role in managing water and carbon storage. Farms such as Hafod y Llan will continue to produce high quality food, create space for wildlife to flourish and provide good quality public access to the hills.

"The uplands are particularly rich in natural resources and much-loved by the public. But the role of hill farms in managing these assets is largely unrecognised," said Huws.

"With the right investment, these farms could be rewarded for their important contribution to our wildlife, as well as the management of the finite resources such as water and soil, which will benefit us all."