Maintain farming as a major land use and an important part of rural life in the
Forest, promoting and supporting changes towards more sustainable farming
which puts the Forest First
4.2.1 From the time of the earliest prehistoric Forest settlements, agriculture has been the basis of the rural economy and way of life on the more fertile land surrounding the Open Forest. Much of this area was enclosed as private farmland at the time the Royal Forest was formed, and many of the fields still show typical medieval boundary patterns. The farming economy of the enclosed lands has always had close links to the centre of the Forest, for instance through the practice of fattening livestock from the Open Forest on the richer pasture land of the Avon Valley. Although the contribution of agriculture to the overall economy has declined, it is still the major land use in the Forest, centred on the many large privately owned estates. The conservation of the New Forest landscape as a whole, together with its cultural heritage and wildlife, is to a very large extent dependent on sympathetic land management by farmers and landowners.
At present the most important agricultural land use in the Forest is permanent grassland for pasture (comprising over 50% of the total area of agricultural land), with the majority used for dairy and beef cattle. There has been a marked decline in sheep farming over the past ten years, while at the same time numbers of pigs have increased. Arable crops (especially wheat, winter barley and vegetables) are also important on the better drained and more fertile soils, particularly in the south of the Forest.
There has been an overall loss of agricultural land, by around 8%, over the last fifteen years. This is partly due to development pressure in the Waterside parishes and the coastal towns, with nearby open land taken out of agricultural production, and also to an increase in amenity and recreational uses such as golf courses, stables and private grazing for horses. At the same time there has been a general decline in the total number of people employed in agriculture, and an increase in part-time farmers and farm workers. This reflects changes in farming practices as well as the difficulties many farmers face in gaining a living from farming alone.
Since the 1950s the farming economy and the way the land is used have been heavily influenced by national and international farming policies. The drive towards the intensive production of cheap food has governed the industry for nearly fifty years. However, over the last decade there has been a major shift away from this ethos. Through reform of the Common Agricultural Policy production-related subsidies are being reduced and greater emphasis placed
on financial support through a range of agrienvironment and rural development schemes, although this still accounts for only a small proportion of overall agricultural support. These schemes are linked to wider rural development objectives, all of which are brought together in the ‘England Rural Development Plan’, introduced in 2000.
The issue of farming practice has been highlighted by the recent BSE and Foot and Mouth crises and the continuing controversy over irradiation and genetically modified foods. There has been a considerable loss of consumer confidence and a greater demand for foods which have been produced in ways which are perceived to be environmentally safe. The recommendations from the Government’s ‘Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food’ include the introduction of a two-tier system of farm support through schemes designed to both maintain and enhance the quality of the rural environment. These will be introduced in 2005. A new ‘entry level’ scheme aims to attract as many farmers as possible, through payments made for good farming practice and the maintenance of features of landscape and conservation importance. The current Countryside Stewardship and Environmentally Sensitive Areas schemes will be combined and simplified into a higher tier to encourage positive conservation measures based on a detailed whole-farm action plan.