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New Forest commoners' livestock cash set to be halved in funding shake-up

This year more than 13,000 cattle, ponies and donkeys were marked to graze on the New Forest (photo: Graham Wiffen)
This year more than 13,000 cattle, ponies and donkeys were marked to graze on the New Forest (photo: Graham Wiffen)

GOVERNMENT payments to commoners for turning out livestock onto the New Forest look set to be halved by 2024 as part of a government strategy to shake up funding to farmers.

The planned changes to the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) are the subject of a nine-week consultation which runs until 3rd February 2021 before changes are set to come in next spring.

Currently commoners can apply to the BPS and be allocated a share of the subsidy based on the marking fees they paid to the verderers for animals turned out to graze in the previous year.

The fund for the New Forest is a fixed pot of around £3m a year so as animal numbers increase the payment per head is reduced. As reported in the A&T, there have been claims that the number of animals is now damaging the environment.

A New Forest commoner, who asked not to be named, explained: “The difficulty is that in order to continue getting the same share of the pot, commoners are paying marking fees for more and more animals.”

Figures from the verderers revealed that in 2020 there were 13,628 cattle, ponies and donkeys marked to graze on the New Forest and its commons.

This is up from 8,880 animals in 2015, and is a 65% increase.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Payments will reduce by around 50% by 2024 for the majority of farmers and the money used to fund new grants and schemes to boost productivity and reward environmental improvements.

“Support and advice will be available to help those most affected by the phasing out of direct payments during the agricultural transition period.”

As part of the consultation, Defra has put forward three suggestions for how cash could be allocated to commoners.

Under the first idea a “base” year would be selected, such as 2019, and commoners would receive fixed payments based on marking fees paid during that year for the remaining duration of the subsidy scheme.

A second suggestion is that payments are based on levancy and couchancy, an old system to calculate payments using the “home-holding” land a commoner owns or leases for animals to overwinter.

However, this system would have difficulties because some landowners already claim

subsidies for land leased to commoners, and it could also be time-consuming to assess every commoner’s holding in the New Forest.

A third option would base an element of payments on any conservation work commoners undertake, such as bracken clearance. However, this would also be problematic to quantify and throws up difficulties because commoners are not the land owners of the Forest, and other conservation schemes are in place.

A spokesperson for Defra said the Rural Payments Agency, which administers the BPS, was open to other suggestions about how payments to commoners could be calculated.

Charlotte Lines, chair of the Commoners Defence Association, welcomed the consultation, saying: “We hope it will result in a system which is more suited to supporting commoning in the New Forest for the remainder of the BPS.

“BPS is being phased out over the next few years and we are currently working with our partners to design a new system, through the Environmental Land Management Scheme which will replace BPS and will continue to support commoning in the New Forest.”

New Forest West MP Sir Desmond Swayne told the A&T he would follow up any representations from commoners with Defra ministers.

The consultation has been fuelled by concerns that the current method for making BPS payments has encouraged commoners to keep more animals in order to be paid more subsidies, harming the environment.

The Defra spokesperson added: “The Rural Payments Agency is now seeking views on ways to replace or amend the present allocation method for BPS 2021 and the remainder of the life of the scheme.

“It does not intend to continue with the present method after this year.”

The consultation will run until 3rd February 2021. Visit bit.ly/2HW03Nk

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