The National Trust has been accused of reintroducing Highland clearances as it takes land from farmers to boost rewilding.
New environmental subsidies have caused the fund to reallocate land that has long been used for agriculture to plant trees or leave it to nature, say farmers.
Kevin Bateman, a land agent based in Devon, said he knows of several cases in the region where charities have repossessed land from tenants and removed it from food production.
He likened it to a “re-establishment of the Highland clearances”, adding that the charity was taking advantage of new environmental schemes which pay land managers for measures such as tree planting and rewilding.
New policies introduced after Britain left the EU are expected to replace European subsidies – which were based on the size of farms – with rewards for environmentally friendly management.
But there are concerns that landlords want to take advantage of this change by taking land out of the hands of farmers and managing it themselves.
“It Doesn’t Feel Right”
Patrick Greed, 61, has taken an incentive from the Trust to end his tenancy.
His children, who are in their 30s, are not interested in taking it on, so he is actually retiring earlier than planned and leaving the farm next year.
He said the lease for 150 acres of his land, which had been used as beef cattle grazing, 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 nearly three decades and had been used for growing grains and vegetables – is now also to be repossessed by the Trust.
“They gave me an incentive to leave and I’ve taken it,” he said.
“I wouldn’t mind leaving the farm if it was going to be run as a farm, but you have productive land, class 1 and 2, where they are potentially going to put trees in. It doesn’t feel right.
“There are other places where trees can be placed in the country, not on highly productive land.”
Figures produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that the area in England held under the newer form of tenancy, which had grown, fell by three per cent between 2019 and 2020.
George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, said: “We are involved in a number of other cases up and down the country where landlords are trying to reclaim land for activities which can include tree planting, rewilding and also you have the whole issue of renewable energy, where you go down the solar road for land. It happens across the play.”
The group is pushing for landlords to be excluded from access to public funding for tree planting and rewilding if they have taken back land from a tenant.
“We all need healthy soil”
A National Trust spokesman said: “We want to support our tenants to put nature at the heart of managing our land while still running successful businesses that produce good food. We always strive to maintain good relationships with them.
“Our tenants, grazers and joint rights holders have an important role in helping to preserve landscapes and cope with climate and nature crises. We want to be a landlord for the many farmers who are ambitious for nature and climate measures.
“The choice is not nature or food, we need both. A healthy natural environment is the basis for good food production.
“We all need healthy soil, clean water and thriving nature, including the many species that pollinate our crops. All of these will help to secure the future of sustainable food production.
“We understand and take very seriously the consequences for tenants when tenancies are not renewed and we work hard to support them with the challenges they face as a result.
“It is important to emphasize that the vast majority of our tenancies are re-let to the same tenant and our aim in the future is to start discussions at least three years before a lease break so that options can be properly explored.”
“A deeply traumatic experience”
Richard Benyon, the rural affairs minister, called on the National Trust to help its tenants access environmental funding.
“When people’s families have farmed these landscapes for generations, it can be a deeply traumatic experience to see it end,” he said.
“I hope the National Trust is doing everything it can to support farmers to keep farming their land.”