Refreshing honesty deserves a hill-farming refresher
It's not always easy to come up with a sentence combining the words "honest" and "politician" but it may become simpler if David Heath hangs on as Farming Minister.
This week he displayed a rare example of political integrity, declaring that while he knew dairy and lowland farming very well, "to be perfectly honest, I've not had much experience with hill or arable farming".
It will, naturally enough, be the hill farmers who will be most intrigued to read that because they feel – and not without justification – that their needs, and the special circumstances under which they operate, have not always been accorded enough Government attention.
Hill farming, indeed, remained a closed book to the succession of dismal failures who held the Defra brief under Labour – though perhaps that was something to do with the way the Exmoor farmers skilfully ambushed that monumental walking disaster Lord Donoghue a few years back.
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The fact that David Heath needs to grasp is that upland farmers in the South West represent a relatively small but vital cog in the British agricultural machine, providing a reliable supply of livestock for fattening and finishing.
Few of us who farm in more temperate conditions would be all that keen to swap places with them and none of us underestimates the skill, expertise and dedication necessary to farm successfully on poor soils and under an even heavier quota of rainfall.
But what Mr Heath also needs to get a grip on and realise is that in order to keep going, those farms have been relying on subsidies for decades – without special support, whether delivered through the old HLCA or under the auspices of LFA or ESA agreements, they would not have remained in business.
That situation has not changed. Neither Mr Heath nor the Government should delude themselves that there has been some miraculous shift in the economics. Hill farms have not suddenly become profitable. They may – thanks to the stronger beef market and the only recently-curtailed flying export trade for lamb – have been able to record more robust incomes on the balance sheet.
But without the help of subsidies the final figure would still have been written in red. Indeed, it often still is.
It is, however, not merely a price worth paying but one we cannot afford to stop paying if we are to maintain that stream of top-quality livestock.
And the taxpayer does, after all, get a very good deal – some of the finest uplands in Europe, maintained in immaculate condition and one of the greatest tourism assets.
Looked at in those terms, hill farming provides much more than a modest return on the investment represented by farming subsidies. And that is the message Mr Heath – if he hasn't already absorbed it as a result of his visit to Lancashire this week – needs to accept and take back to his political masters.