FARMING experts have hit out at Natural England's decision to pull the plug on one option open to upland farmers in Cumbria in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

They claim abrupt changes to the Wood-Pasture Restoration option could have a devastating impact on the pockets of farming communities in the county.

Natural England, has suddenly announced that the Wood-Pasture Restoration Option (WD5) within the CSS is being withdrawn from the uplands with immediate effect. With many farmers already mid-application or planning to apply for this option in the future, the impact could adversely hit both the environment and upland communities, it is alleged.

David Morley, Head of Conservation & Environment for H&H Land & Estates, said: "Wood-pasture – open woodland that is managed by grazing livestock – is a tremendously valuable habitat, in terms of biodiversity, landscape value and carbon storage, which is key in the fight against climate change. Because of the open structure, trees tend to become wider and more complex in form than in closed-canopy woodland, and upland wood-pasture typically supports a unique range of plants, fungi and invertebrates. It is a fundamental component in the upland landscape, as in Dovedale near Hartsop, Deepdale, Borrowdale, Rydal and Kentmere, to name but a few examples in the Lake District. The restoration of high-quality wood-pasture usually requires a significant change in management, often involving the adoption of a low-intensity, native cattle grazing regime and the minimal use of any inputs, as well as planting more trees.

"The rationale behind Natural England’s decision is that the “income foregone” by undertaking the WD5 option (which pays £244 per ha) is much lower in the uplands than on lowland farms. Therefore, they argue that the option represents poor value for money in the uplands for the taxpayer. However, the new policy sends out entirely the wrong message, i.e. that trees have no value in the uplands. It directly contradicts the Government’s target to plant 11 million trees by 2022 and flies in the face of the Government’s future plan to pay 'public money for public goods'."

Alistair Mackintosh, west Cumbrian farmer and National Farmers Union (NFU) Cumbrian Council Delegate said: "It would be good to know the logic behind this decision. I can only think that they are looking at putting the option into ELMS to try and make that more attractive to farmers. The challenge for farmers is payments are decreasing and whatever is put into place will not be like for like. Farmers need to waken up to that."