NEWFarmingMinister David Heath admitted he was not familiar with many aspects of hill farming on a recent visit to the North-West.

Touring Cumbria and Lancashire as a guest of the National Sheep Association (NSA), he showed a real passion for farming, but admitted he needed to know more about some sectors.

He said: “I know Somerset and I know dairy farming but I have very little experience in this area,” he told a roundtable discussion about the uplands.

The discussion was hosted by Westmorland County Agricultural Society with John Geldard, Cumbrian farmer and NSA chairman, introducing local farmers and organisations, including the NFU, Cumbria Farm Network and Natural England.

Topics raised, included the need to encourage new entrants, continue training existing farmers, the vital need for tolerance on reading EID sheeptags, and the urgent need to reduce on-farm bureaucracy.

On CAP reform, Phil Stocker, NSA chief executive, spoke about the importance of the post-2013 policy being holistic, so the environment was not prioritised at the expense of food production.

With a growing global population and increasing demand on resources, producing food from the uplands was increasingly important and, as it had done for hundreds of years, relied on grazing livestock.

Referring to an NSA report, The Complementary Role of Sheep in Less Favoured Areas (LFA), Mr Stocker said grazing livestock could deliver a huge amount of public goods, while being a source of healthy meat and milk.

But financial incentives were needed to maintain upland farms and livestock numbers, and given the pressure on pillar one funding (single farm payments), alternatives must be found under pillar two.

Mr Stocker did not want a return to headage payments, but said incentives for efficiency, health and welfare were a good use of pillar two funds and would do much to help farmers, particularly in the uplands.

Mr Heath acknowledged this: “It is possible to put together CAP in a way that works for public good and agriculture, but there is a lot of work to do first.”

With his colleague Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, leading CAP negotiations for England, Mr Heath said the priority had to be defending against regressive policies and preventing too much bureaucracy, rather than bringing anything new to the table.