Losses from Unchecked Bracken Expansion
Costs and penalties resulting from bracken encroachment are many and varied and would include the following:-
- Livestock Losses (unthriftiness and/or death)
Whilst significant numbers of livestock do die as a result of the presence of bracken, this in itself may not represent a serious loss to the agricultural economy overall (although some farms do suffer quite badly in this respect). However there is a more insidious or underlying loss due to an often serious level of unthriftiness in livestock on farms with significant areas of bracken land; this can greatly affect the economic sustainability of such farms. It should be noted also that game birds (particularly grouse) suffer badly in some areas from Louping Ill transmitted by ticks living in the bracken litter (as stated in the Animal Health sector of this website) and the mortality rate can be quite high. This causes the landowner with a game enterprise considerable loss.
- Strategic and Management Costs
A small upland farm that loses a significant portion of its mountain grazing pasture to bracken also can suffer a strategic loss in that flexibility of the grazing regime is compromised. It is necessary for both management and disease control purposes to move stock around the farm, and loss of this land can disrupt that flexibility. Further, it is almost impossible to fully gather (round up) sheep which have run into bracken, then even the dogs have difficulty in flushing them out. This adds greatly to the cost of each hill gathering exercise in terms of man hours wasted (and often sheep undiscovered); gatherings have to take place several times a year for a variety of reasons, each of which being vitally important.
- IACs/Basic Payment System Losses (BPS) – This supersedes the previous payment regime (Single Farm Payment)
The BPS is a payment made by the Rural Payments Agency to encourage farmers to farm in a sustainable manner. This payment is in relation to the productive acreage of the farm, (derived from IACs returns). Land which is discounted includes woodland, rocky screes, and dense bracken. The farmer’s BPS can reduce significantly if the farm is badly infested by this pest which may make the long-term viability of such farms somewhat questionable.
- Loss of Land Value
Hill land upon which is growing good grazeable pasture will often be worth £3 000 per hectare or more depending upon location, whilst land in a similar location but covered in bracken will only be worth a few hundred pounds per hectare, or maybe not even attract a buyer at all. Bracken cover therefore represents a considerable economic loss to the farming sector, indeed, if bracken was left to grow unchecked, this loss would within very few years run to several billions of pounds over the UK as a whole. Indeed, it is of course a well known fact that bracken only grows well on the deeper better quality moor, heathland and mountain pasture soils, which is why the resultant economic losses can be so serious.
- Viability of Bracken Infested Farms
Should a significant percentage of a particular farm become inundated with bracken, and nothing done to control it, a stage is likely to eventually be reached where it will become totally unviable as an agricultural unit it its own right. In other words when the remaining farmable acreage falls below a certain level (the critical acreage will vary from location to location) the whole farm unit would become economically unsustainable and the business will then fail.
- Loss of Sustainable Rural Socio-economic Infrastructure in Upland Regions
Bracken infestation, as well as affecting the sustainability of the afflicted farms is also likely to impact upon local rural socio-economic infrastructures (and in the not too distant future, maybe other economic facets of this country as a whole).
Farming is the main engine that drives the economics of the local villages and rural townships. The more farms that cease trading (their land usually being taken over by larger farming enterprises, the farm houses often being sold off as holiday homes, and the original farm families having moved on), the less there are to support the local economy. There is a critical level of farm business in any rural area, and once that has dropped below this level, many other businesses that were dependant (directly or indirectly) upon farming would also be likely to fail, and the area would then stagnate. This would, in turn, impact heavily upon the tourism industry which, being a significant part of the whole country’s economy would tend to create a “knock on” effect. After all, tourists naturally want to see attractive and vibrant villages and rural towns. A scenario of boarded up shops, closed garages, pubs and hotels would prove highly detrimental to this important industry.
Reduction in numbers of farming families is already happening but at the moment is more to do with numbers retiring rather than bracken growth. The average age of farmers in the heath, moor, and upland regions at present is approx. 55 – 60 years (NFU figures), and due to a combination of poor financial return and excessive bureaucracy, the sons and daughters of many farmers have (often regretfully) had to take the decision to pursue more lucrative and stress free careers elsewhere.
With the underlying economy of the farming sector in these regions being at such a low ebb the industry as a whole is still very much on a knife-edge. Unchecked bracken infestation may well be a factor that will “tip the balance” and thus render many more farms unsustainable with the results as set out above.
- Loss of Essential Food Producing Land
This could possibly prove to be the most disastrous effect of unchecked bracken expansion. With the world food shortage crisis now clearly in view (predicted to be upon us within the next 25/30 years or so), it is fairly certain that the hitherto abundance of cheap food out there in the market-place will not then be so readily available to us. This clearly will be due to seriously reduced agricultural output by countries badly affected by climate change (already beginning to happen) allied with the expected significant rise in world population.
We, as a country, will therefore have to become fully self-sufficient in essential foodstuffs which will mean a far greater percentage of our lowlands being given over to the production of food crops for feeding directly to our people rather than via livestock. Such meat as can be produced when the crisis arrives will have to be derived to a larger extent from livestock raised on moorland, heathland and upland pastures, i.e. land suffering from location/altitude and terrain difficulties; meat being the only human food that such areas can efficiently produce (as WAR-AG efforts demonstrated in WW2). Indeed sheep and hardy upland breeds of cattle are the only “devices” that we have which are capable of accessing and “harvesting” the rough vegetation and poor quality herbage growing in such hostile terrain and converting it into edible human feeding protein. We stand to lose much of this human food resource if such land is allowed to become inundated with bracken.
It is quite clear that large scale bracken control must be continued with, and not just at present rates, but at substantially increased levels. Indeed, this work seems set to become vitally necessary for not just maintaining the well-being of the uplands but to play a significant part in helping to feed the nation in the coming difficult times.