Brexit will impact on many aspects of life in the UK but none more so than agriculture, with a resulting knock-on effect on rural Britain.
Why? Outside of the European Union the UK will be released from the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) meaning that the current EU subsidy scheme to farmers will end and be replaced with a UK payments programme with different rules, an approach signalled by the present government.
The good news for farmers is they have much to offer the UK public that a majority of us would think was well worth paying for with high quality food being top of the list, plus good animal welfare, flood prevention, wildlife promotion, climate change mitigation, enhancing the beauty of the countryside etc. It is a long list and one that many ‘townies’ would be willing to see their taxes paying for.
The bad news is that there will be significantly less money after 2020 because the UK is a net contributor to the EU and without us they will have less money. Hence after this date a cut to the CAP of somewhere between ten and 20% is coming which the UK government will then match – something they have yet to be honest about and state publicly.
One consequence of Brexit, not much talked about, is that the landscape of the UK will change as result of the funding to farmers being tied to specific services rather than for holding a certain acreage of land. This will lead to a hullabaloo, akin to when oil seed rape production in the UK really took off in the 1980s. Some people found the bright yellow flowers that popped up in great streaks across the British landscape unacceptably alien resulting in letters of outrage being printed in The Times. Going forward I predict an increase in fields of solar panels, a ‘crop’ you can increasingly see along the route of the east coast mainline, especially near Peterborough.
A switch away from sheep to trees – visually a big change - is both inevitable and desirable. Inevitable because hill farmers currently can receive up to 80% of their income in CAP subsidies, a state of affairs that seems highly unlikely to continue after Brexit. Desirable because over-grazing on some upland areas has led to excessive run off of rainwater during heavy downpours resulting in flooding downstream being exacerbated. Yet, a place for some sheep will remain not least because of a growing demand for lamb from the UK’s Muslim community.
Trees can also be inserted into existing farm landscapes, a practice known as agroforestry. Currently 9% of EU agricultural land is given over to agroforestry, meaning it is not merely a fringe activity. It comes in many forms, for instance Simon and Claire Bainbridge, who farm near Wallington, Northumberland, have recently planted trees scattered over several fields to provide cover from birds of prey to encourage their 12,000 chickens to wander further from their hen house as they produce organic free range eggs for a major supermarket.
Trees can help deliver a whole range of public benefits including absorbing climate changing CO2. The new forest at Doddington near Wooler will store 120,000 tons of carbon - the equivalent of taking 25,000 cars off the road for a year. The trees at Doddington will also provide a haven for the red squirrel and boost the local timber industry, ultimately putting twice as much money into the local economy as farming on an equivalent acreage.
Whether on farms or in forests, our region needs more trees not least because wood is a raw material that can be used by the emerging bioeconomy. The bioeconomy seeks to replace fossil fuels, the primary cause of climate change, with renewable and sustainably sourced products. We can now make from wood most of the items we have traditionally made from oil. It is a huge opportunity for the region. The North East could lead the way on the bioeconomy and in so doing create the well-paid jobs we need if we are to succeed in the 21st century. A beautiful rural landscape, high standards in farming and a thriving economy will help to build a future for the North East that we can all be proud of.