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Comparing HNV to conventional farming

How is High Value Nature (HNV) farming different from conventional farming?

Conventional farming is characterised by high inputs – fertiliser, livestock numbers, machinery and pesticides in order to achieve high outputs of crops, livestock and milk. The land and livestock are managed more intensively to achieve these high outputs. It is predominantly found in the lowland areas of the country where fertile soils, terrain and climate provide more ideal agricultural conditions. Conventional farming produces the majority of the food we consume.

HNV farming is characterised by low stocking densities, low use of chemical inputs and often labour intensive management practices, such as shepherding and hay making. It is largely associated with livestock grazing systems and is typically found in more marginal areas of the country. It is predominantly found in the uplands of the United Kingdom where high rainfall, shorter growing season, poor, water logged soils affect the type of farming that can be undertaken. These physical limitations have prevented intensification to a certain extent. Farmers have limited production options, compared with more fertile areas of the country.

What are the issues affecting HNV farming?

Half of all species in the UK depend on agricultural habitats and these habitats were created by, and need to be maintained by, farming. However, agricultural intensification over the last 60 years has had a huge impact on the biodiversity of the UK’s farmland. Many previously common features such as hedgerows, wetlands and semi-natural grasslands have been lost, and there are now fewer varieties of animal and plant species. HNV farmland is at increasing risk from intensification or land abandonment as farmers try to make their system more economically viable.

European Union and Government rural development strategies have helped in some way to slow the risk of abandonment or intensification within HNV farming area by channelling funding into agri-environment schemes to support biodiversity and investing grants with rural communities. But the payments are typically insufficient to make HNV farms commercially viable.

In addition, the majority of the funding from these schemes go to non-HNV farming systems that are more intensive, produce the majority of the UK’s food products, have higher incomes but deliver fewer public benefits. HNV farms, on the other hand produce a comparatively low proportion of UK food products, receive the least amount of Government support payments, have the lowest incomes but manage some of our most important landscapes, habitats and species. On top of this, they provide a whole range of unpaid for services that benefit society.

Support for HNV farming should be greater than the value of the agricultural products they produce. Biodiversity and the other wider public benefits of carbon storage, clean water, soil conservation and flood alleviation should be factored into the funding mechanisms to truly reflect the value of these HNV farming areas.