A DEFRA-FUNDED trial on 26 Exmoor farms and smallholdings in West Somerset has helped provide evidence to the UK government on the true cost of delivering public goods in a National Park alongside a viable farm business.

Working with the Exmoor Hill Farming Network (EHFN) and environmental consultancy firm Rural Focus, Exmoor National Park Authority was commissioned by Defra (the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) to test principles for mapping the delivery of public goods on individual farms, to help identify key areas for investment and collaboration.

It is hoped the findings will help identify ways to better support farmers in protected landscapes, ahead of the transition to the government’s new flagship scheme for Environmental Land Management (ELM), and a new pilot due to take place later this year.

Chris and Paula Williams work in partnership with Chris’ parents to run two farms on Exmoor - a family-owned Exmoor hill farm on the edge of Winsford Hill, and a National Trust-tenanted farm on the Holnicote Estate near Minehead.

They have a family of three boys, around 70 suckler cows and 700 ewes, and are in the process of setting up a luxury glamping enterprise.

Commenting on why they got involved in the trial, Paula said: “For us it’s about building resilience across our farms to help sustain the business and ensure that a future in farming is as viable for the next generation.

"We want to get to know every aspect of our farm’s potential and play our part in helping Defra understand the true contribution hill farming makes towards caring for the landscape.”

At an online EHFN event held on May 26 to report on the findings, Robert Deane of Rural Focus told farmers: “We combined several layers of data to build a picture of what each farm delivers for the environment and for people and created heat maps to show the potential to scale up these activities.

"The outgoing basic payments scheme simply isn’t set up to account for this level of detail and in some ways hasn’t properly incentivised farmers wanting to ‘do the right thing’ for nature.

"This is particularly true in upland areas like Exmoor, where a volatile market and tighter margins leave very little room for manoeuvre.

"Based on our findings, we hope the new system will be fairer and simpler.”

The work builds on an earlier ‘Exmoor’s Ambition’ report presented to former secretary of state Michael Gove on a visit to Exmoor in June 2018.

Dave Knight, EHFN chairman, said: “An idea that started with farmers around the kitchen table has grown into a living example of how the future of farm policy might work under a new system of awarding public money for public goods.

"Around 56 per cent of the National Park is farmland and we hope this report goes some way towards demonstrating to government what we have to offer, and how best our industry can be supported to deliver multiple benefits for people and nature.”

Alex Farris, conservation manager at Exmoor National Park Authority, who led the trial, said: “What’s been particularly encouraging about this trial is the sheer opportunity for farm clusters to link up their assets, like field margins, hedgerows, wood pasture and restored hay meadows, to make an even greater contribution.

"It’s this kind of landscape scale nature restoration that hasn’t been achievable until now, and that could prove the lifeline for many of our native species as we face the realities of climate change.”