COMMONERS appear to be turning out more livestock onto the New Forest than ever before to take advantage of a cash payments scheme.
Figures released by the verderers revealed that there are currently 13,641 cattle, ponies and donkeys that have been ‘marked’ to graze on New Forest and its commons.
This is up from 8,880 animals in 2015, representing a 65% increase over four years.
The swell in animal numbers has been blamed on the Basic Payment Scheme, which is funded by the EU and was introduced five years ago. Commoners can claim for an unlimited number of animals but as it is a fixed pot the more claims there are, the less each payment is.
Claims figures show that this year there are more than twice as many cattle on the Forest than in 2015 – with the verderers receiving marking fees for 5,520 animals in 2019 compared with 2,441 animals in 2015.
However, Tony Hockley, chairman of the Commoners’ Defence Association, told the A&T that the marking fees paid by commoners no longer represented a true picture of the number of commoners’ animals grazing on the Forest.
Dr Hockley said: “We are very worried about the growing discrepancy between the number of animals actually on the Forest and the number of animals that marking fees are paid for.
“When making fees have been paid the farmers can claim the Basic Payment Scheme payment and then sell the animals.
“There is a situation where far more animals are marked than are turned out onto the Forest which can be very misleading, especially when people don’t understand how it works.”
Dr Hockley’s analysis of the situation is supported by the head agister Jonathan Gerrelli. He said that although the number of animals, and especially cattle, had increased on the Forest in the last decade, there were nowhere near as many as the figures suggested.
Mr Gerrelli told the A&T: “Farmers and commoners have to mark all their animals in order to receive payment under the current subsidy regime, but that doesn’t mean all those animals are on the Forest.
“Some of them will never been on the Forest and others only for a couple of months – it is constantly fluctuating.
“When you first look at the increase in numbers it can been quite shocking so it is important to drill down into those figures to get a true picture.
“We work very closely with Natural England and Forestry England to monitor the conditions of the Forest and the animals, and there are no issues with overgrazing – the Forest and the commoners’ animals are in good condition.”
Currently commoners turning out animals onto the Forest are also able to benefit from the Verderers Grazing Scheme for which they receive a fixed amount for up to 40 animals.
Dr Hockley said that when the UK leaves the EU on 31st January it is hoped that a better subsidy scheme will be introduced to meet the needs of the New Forest.
“We have a system that doesn’t tell us anything about the Forest,” he said. “In the future we would like to see something more like the Verderers Grazing Scheme introduced where payments are capped per commoner.
“We don’t have any details about what will replace the Basic Payment Scheme but we know that the amount of money going into the environment will be kept the same for this government.
“We would like see a scheme that is locally sensitive to the specific needs of the New Forest.”