Over the last fortnight, the media have focused on the state of the Brexit negotiations and preparations for a ‘no deal’ scenario. Against this background of continued noise and uncertainty, this week I am going to focus on what Brexit might mean for agriculture – a sector expected to be more profoundly impacted than most, and a land use that covers over 70% of the land area of the UK and the biggest driver of change in species populations over the past few decades.

To help us understand how Brexit might impact farm businesses and the farmed landscape, we commissioned an independent report from Cumulus Consultants which was published today. The report focuses on two potential drivers of change – a decrease in financial support for farmers, and a failure to agree a trade deal with the EU – acting as a ‘stress test’ to help identify key risks and opportunities for the environment.

Given that focus, it is perhaps unsurprising that the report predicts declines in farm incomes in a vast majority of cases. This is not a prediction, and does not represent what we want to happen, but rather looks at what could plausibly happen. Doing this work now, despite the inherent uncertainty of our situation, is really important in understanding how farmers in different sectors might respond to these changes, what this might mean for their businesses, for the countryside and of course for wildlife. This also allows us to consider what policies we need in order to mitigate the risks, and realise any opportunities for both farming and the environment.

What does the report tell us?

The headline economic analysis is based on average farm business income for each sector and country, and therefore masks a huge amount of variation in terms of farm business performance.

Some farms achieve above-average incomes – often through improved production efficiency, better management of costs, economies of scale, diversification or by achieving higher value for local or niche products. Even in the uplands (where average income is lower and dependence on subsidy higher), there are trends on some farms towards improved economic performance. These sorts of farm businesses are likely to be more resilient to change, and the report suggests that existing trends in these directions are likely to continue on some farmland.

Some of these changes could be beneficial for the environment (e.g. more efficient application of fertilisers could benefit water quality; enhanced yields could be achieved through improved soil stewardship etc.); but if poorly regulated could equally pose environmental risks (e.g. increased stocking densities in some areas could lead to biodiversity loss, soil damage and water pollution).

At the same time, the report highlights the challenges that would face some farms, particularly where a majority of their income is from subsidy, and where opportunities for improved productivity or diversification are inherently limited. This is particularly true of upland livestock farms in so-called ‘Less Favoured Areas’ (LFA). Under all scenarios in the report, average income in this sector was projected to fall by more than 50%. For many of these farms, and particularly those within Severely Disadvantaged Areas, their future direction may depend hugely on the shape of future government policy, and some significant shifts in land management are plausible. If financial support is available – which we argue for – some such farmers may focus their business around the delivery of public goods (carbon storage, flood protection and biodiversity) including through continued nature-friendly farming. Others though may shift towards other upland land uses including sporting interests or forestry and some land may experience significant de-stocking, or in the extreme, land abandonment.

Again, the environmental impacts are mixed. Some of these economically marginal farmland systems are characterised as ‘High Nature Value’ and their loss would have negative consequences for a range of sensitive species and habitats. For example, the loss of stock from some important upland habitats could reduce their suitability for open-habitat species like curlew (shown in Andy Hay's image from rspb-images.com), and under-grazing could lead to a deterioration in SSSI condition. On the other hand, a shift in policy support towards a ‘public goods’ model could deliver a wide range of environmental benefits. Reduced stock numbers could allow the natural regeneration of native woodland on some suitable areas, with benefits in terms of carbon storage, soil protection and flood risk reduction.

In terms of detail, the results of this report chime with other recent publications for the UK and devolved governments, for the Land Use Policy Group, and for the farming sector itself, with broadly similar findings. The picture it paints is complex, and highlights the huge uncertainty that farmers are facing about their future. It doesn’t present any answers, but we hope that by identifying the potential challenges and opportunities, it contributes to ongoing conversations that we are having with farmers, land managers, other NGOs, Government and other stakeholders across the UK now, and in the months ahead.

Over the next couple of days, I’ll be hosting guest blogs from Janet Fairclough, an RSPB farm advisor working closely with farmers in the uplands; and Chris Clark, an upland farmer from  Langstrothdale in the Yorkshire Dales, to share their perspectives on what Brexit could mean for the farmers at the heart of this story. At the end of the week, I will share my own reflections on the important role that public policy has to play in shaping the future of the countryside.