The National Trust has been accused of re-enforcing Highland clearances as it takes land away from farmers to boost rewilding.
New environmental grants have prompted the Trust to reallocate land long used for agriculture to plant trees or leave to nature, farmers say.
Kevin Bateman, a land agent based in Devon, said he was aware of several cases in the area where the charity took over land from sharecroppers and took it out of food production.
He likened it to a “re-enactment of Highland clearings”, adding that the charity was taking advantage of new environmental schemes which compensate land managers for measures such as tree planting and reseeding.
New policies introduced after the UK left the EU are expected to replace EU subsidies – which were based on the size of land under cultivation – with rewards for environmentally friendly management.
But there are fears that landowners will seek to profit from this change by taking land out of the hands of farmers and managing it themselves.
“It’s not okay”
Patrick Greed, 61, received an inducement from the Trust to end his tenancy.
His children, who are in their thirties, are not interested in taking it on. He is therefore retiring earlier than expected and will leave the farm next year.
He said the lease of 150 acres of his land, which had been used as cattle pasture, was not renewed last year and has been planted with trees.
The main holding, on a different type of lease – which he had held for almost three decades and had been used for growing cereals and vegetables – will now also be taken over by the Trust.
“They gave me an incentive to leave, and I took it,” he said.
“I wouldn’t mind leaving the farm if it were to be run as a farm, but you have productive land, Tier 1 and Tier 2, where they will potentially plant trees. It’s not okay.
“There are other places where trees could be placed in the country, not on very productive land.”
Figures produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that the area of land in England held under the new form of tenancy, which had increased, fell by 3% between 2019 and 2020.
George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, said: ‘We are involved in a series of other cases across the country where landowners are trying to take back land for activities which could include tree planting, rewilding, and also you’ve got the whole issue of renewables, where you’re going the solar way for the earth. It happens across the room.
The group is pushing for landowners to be barred from accessing public funding for tree planting and reseeding if they have taken over land from a farmer.
“We all need healthy soils”
A National Trust spokesperson said: ‘We want to help our sharecroppers put nature at the heart of the management of our land while running successful businesses producing good food. We always strive to maintain a good relationship with them.
“Our sharecroppers, herders and common rights holders have an essential role to play in contributing to the conservation of landscapes and the fight against climate and natural crises. We want to be a landlord of choice for the many ambitious farmers for nature and climate action.
“The choice is not nature or food, we need both. A healthy natural environment underpins good food production.
“We all need healthy soils, clean water and thriving nature, including the many species that pollinate our crops. All of this will help secure the future of sustainable food production.
“We understand and take very seriously the impact on tenants when tenancies are not renewed, and we work hard to support them through the challenges they face as a result.
“It is important to stress that the vast majority of our rentals are re-let to the same tenant and our aim going forward is to begin discussions at least three years before a rental break point, so that options can be properly explored. .”
“A deeply traumatic experience”
Richard Benyon, Minister for Rural Affairs, has called on the National Trust to help its sharecroppers access environmental finance.
“When people’s families have cultivated these landscapes for generations, ending them can be a deeply traumatic experience,” he said.
“I hope the National Trust is doing all it can to help farmers continue to farm their land.”