While Britain was an EU member, farmers received money under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) which was part of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. The British government is replacing BPS with the three tier Environmental Land Management scheme, ELMs that promises to pay farmers ‘public money for public goods’. On upland farms direct payments made up between 30% and 60% of farm income.

In summer, my (photographer/driver) husband and I spent time with tenant farmers in Northumberland to see how they are trying to cope with the loss of BPS.

Part 1 ended with our visit of the Robson’s farm. We continue west on the small country lane, through Bellingham, across another ridge and reach Nigel Moore’s farm.


Nigel Moore and the SFI roulette

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. “I’m farming four types of land”, says Moore “fertile acres here in the valley, good pastures, medium pastures and rough land with a lot of bracken and rocks”. 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.

Moore takes us to see some of the cattle, 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. 25 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.

Nigel Moore did a three-year degree at Kirkley Hall agricultural college. He then worked for a year on the farm where he’d been an intern during his training before returning home. His uncle, who owned the neighbouring farm had died of cancer and shortly after that Moore’s father, too, had been diagnosed with cancer and needed help. Since he passed away 12 years ago, Moore has been managing the farm on his own. 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 farm yard were dangerous, animals often jumped the barriers and ran straight onto the road. A decision had to be made: hire staff or invest into 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, a chute gate allows for three animals to be kept waiting. Moore can now safely do much of the work, such as administer boluses[1], 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 coral. On the day of our 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, 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 to 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. 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 SFI becomes more like a game of roulette than a viable source of farm income for delivering public goods[2].

Talking to Moore, the tension and the stress he is under are palpable. Two things are certain: once BPS ends, he will still have 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

We make our way back to Risdale and the farm of the Stanners family. Unlike the farmers we have visited so far, David and Annabel are first generation farmers and neither comes from a farming family. Annabel grew up on a council estate in Hexham, David was born on the outskirts of Newcastle. From an early age he loved being in the countryside and spending time with his grandma in the Cheviots. To him, city life was just stressful. Like Nigel Moore, he attended Kirkley Hall Agricultural College where he also met Annabel who was training to be a farm secretary. He was offered a job at the farm where he had done his practical training. He enjoyed working with livestock, but as farm subsidy rules changed, the business model of the farm wasn’t working anymore and Stanners decided to strike out on his own. In 2004, he became livestock manager on Lord Darby’s Knowsley Estate on the outskirts of Liverpool.

Should you ever find yourself fighting for survival as a contestant on a reality TV show, Annabel Stanners is the kind of woman you definitely want to have on your team. Not yet married to David, she gave up her job as an insurance broker in Newcastle where she had been on a clear career path and decided to move with him to Liverpool. “We left with a hired van and furniture bought on credit”, she says. Sandwiched between the Knowsley Safari Park and a rough, crime ridden housing estate, life on the Knowsley Estate wasn’t as idyllic as it may sound. But David enjoyed the work and got on well with the land agent, Annabel worked for NFU Mutual until the couple had their second child. “I thought: what’s the point of having children if you just rush like mad to drop them off at the nursery every day?”

The Stanners always wanted to run their own farm, and in 2010 they began looking for a tenancy. The search took them from Cornwall in the southwest of England right up to Scotland, but competition for tenancies was fierce. Then, in 2016, the tenancy in Risdale came up. “We went for an interview and when we were invited back I thought we had made the shortlist, but when the landlord showed us around the farmhouse and said the tenancy was ours if we wanted it, I just burst into tears”, says Annabel.

The farm has 600 acres, 100 of which are suitable for silage making. The 75 suckler cows are Luing[3] 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. There are also some traditional Northumberland Black Face. “I really don’t like working with them”, says Annabel Stanners, “their horns make them quite dangerous to handle and they won’t go up a mountain”.

The area around Risdale is not directly on the tourist trail, visitors mostly head straight for the National Park or hike the Pennine Way. The landscape around the farm with its beautiful vistas across the valley towards the mountains has a serene tranquillity – perfect for a weekend retreat. Planning permission for holiday cottages are hard to get, but from the start, the Stanners had a different idea. From 1862 to the middle of the 20th century, the Wansbeck Railway or ‘Wannie’ Line ran right through the farm – why not refit an old railway carriage as a holiday let? The landlord agreed to the plan, but it took the Stanners two years to find a suitable carriage. And that was just the beginning. Road access had to be built, the carriage had to be connected to the grid and water mains, a sewage tank had to be installed. The railway carriage itself was redesigned and fitted with two French windows opening onto a porch. There are two bedrooms with en suite bathrooms on either end and a lounge area and kitchen in the middle. It cost the Stanners roughly £120,000 to build ‘Wannies Retreat’ but it 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? “Right now, it really is a retreat”, says Annabel, “a second carriage would spoil that. We would also need to hire someone to help with cleaning, but we wouldn’t get planning permission in any case”. 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”.

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 come from a Countryside Stewardship[4] 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, a nature conservation agency, 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.


A mental health crisis in the making

As awful an option as leaving farming is for a famer and as heart breaking as it would be for the Stanners to have to take it, they have worked in different jobs and locations. With that experience comes some clarity. There is a plan B. And being a first generation farm family makes a difference, too, farming is not their heritage.

Sarah, who asked for only her first name to be used, is a psychiatric nurse. She comes from a Northumberland farm family and works in the region for the NHS. Most of the families have been farming for generations. “On the shoulders of these farmers lies the whole weight and responsibility to maintain the farm and pass it on to the next generation. These are salt of the earth people. Farming is all they’ve ever done”, says Sarah. Often, they have left school at 16, as early as possible. Why sit in a classroom when you are needed on the farm? “Asking these farmers to diversify, for them that’s a huge U-turn to have to make. Phasing out BPS brings such financial and social hardship and they are left to deal with it on their own, with no thought for the consequences and no compassion”. For tenant farmers, one of the potential consequences is homelessness because the use of the farmhouse is part of the tenancy agreement. Once it ends, the farmer and his family have to move out. “They simply have nowhere to go”, says Sarah, “there is no available social housing, there aren’t even places to rent. During the pandemic, a lot of people wanted to move to the countryside, house prices and rents have gone through the roof”.

Sarah and knows many farm families, some since she was a kid. She sees the changes: “Farmers withdraw into themselves, which is an indicator for a low mood, they go quiet and they don’t talk to friends or family”. They have a lot of anxiety, they are angry, they worry, they feel ashamed but they are unlikely to ask for help, says Sarah, to them, asking for help means being a failure. “These men see themselves as the providers, they cope, they feed the world, everything is on their shoulders. They don’t ask for help, it is not in their mindset”. She sees a wave of mental health issues coming. “Most farmers aren’t forward thinkers. They think from season to season. Their strategy to deal with Brexit and the loss of BPS has been avoidance. Payments are down to 50% this year. It is becoming real. And now that the pandemic is over, avoidance is turning into panic. We may well see a spike in suicides”, she says, and then there is ‘suicide by misadventure’. Money is tight on farms already, machinery is not serviced as frequently as it should, repairs are not carried out. Farmers are overworked, tired and in a hurry – that’s how accidents happen. Agriculture, forestry and fishing are the riskiest industries in any case. And farmers often work alone. It leaves them time to worry which can quickly become very dangerous, you can’t get distracted when you are handling livestock. At present, Sarah sees no increase in referrals and she doesn’t expect that to happen. “To get help, farmers would have to talk to their GP and most of the farmers I know pride themselves in not having seen a doctor in decades. It’s not going to happen now.”

There is not much worried family members and friends can do either, no intervention can happen without the explicit approval of the person concerned. There is no special service or helpline available for farmers, says Sarah, “all you can do is phone the Samaritans”.


Rewilding and the loss of biodiversity

On the upland farms the reality of what the loss of BPS means is becoming visible. In the more remote, mountainous regions of Northumberland many farms already stand abandoned. On the final day of our stay, David Stanners takes us for a drive to the Scottish border and the Coquet Valley. As the road climbs we pass through dense forests, mostly spruce and pine plantations. Loggers are at work, on cleared areas logs are piled up for collection. Only the stumps remain in the ground. A narrow, single lane track takes us into the valley. On and off we see some sheep grazing, but mostly the slopes are deserted. As are many of the hill farms, the loss of BPS has accelerated the exodus. “They just couldn’t make a living here anymore”, says Stanners. He points out a dozen or so plastic tubes sticking out of the ground: tree guards for freshly planted tiny saplings which will take decades to grow. “Rewilding means taking the animals of the land and planting a few trees”. When the pastures are no longer grazed rushes will spread where it’s wet, on drier ground bracken will take over. “Cattle managed to keep both in check, they don’t graze it but trample it and they lie down in the bracken which crushes it”. Without the farmers and their livestock, the upland meadows[5], a unique, species rich habitat for breeding birds, will soon be gone, too.


A version of this article was first published by the Sustainable Food Trust https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/


[1] A bolus contains slow release nutrients and vitamins, or, if necessary, medication. It’s a large pill or tablet for animals.

[2] In some cases, taking sensible environmental measures doesn’t pay anything: This summer, Moore planted 2,000m of hedges. He is being reimbursed for the costs incurred, but that’s it.

[3] Luing is a small island off the west coast of Scotland, the breed is extremely hardy and the cows know how to look after their calves even in foul, windy weather. David Stanners is a member of the Luing breeding society and finds the animals are doing well on higher pastures. And preparing two steaks upon our return home, we can attest to the excellent taste and texture of the meat.


[4] In addition to BPS, Countryside Stewardship schemes were already available before Brexit. SFI is replacing BPS and some of the schemes available are similar to the Countryside Stewardship agreements. Land can be in either scheme, but not in both. The main difference between the two schemes are the duration: Countryside Stewardship schemes last for five years, SFI schemes for three only.

[5] https://www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk/about-us/looking-after-the-park/ecology/border-uplands-restoration/other-restoration-projects/

Marianne Landzettel is a journalist and author writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years. Follow her on X at @M_Landzettel Images used with kind consent of @M.Kunz

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