Exmoor farmers have produced evidence for the government on the true cost of delivering public goods in a National Park alongside a viable farm business.

The Defra-funded trial took place on 26 Exmoor farms and smallholdings.

It’s hoped the findings will help identify ways to better support farmers in protected landscapes ahead of the move to the new scheme for Environmental Land Management (ELM) and a new pilot due to take place later this year.

Chris and Paula Williams took part in the trial.

They work in partnership with Chris’s parents to run two farms on Exmoor - a family-owned Exmoor hill farm on the edge of Winsford Hill and a National Trust tenanted farm on the Holnicote Estate near Minehead. They have a family of three boys, around 70 suckler cows and 700 ewes, and are in the process of setting up a luxury glamping enterprise.

Paula said: “For us it’s about building resilience across our farms to help sustain the business and ensure that a future in farming is as viable for the next generation.

"We want to get to know every aspect of our farm’s potential and play our part in helping Defra understand the true contribution hill farming makes towards caring for the landscape.”

Robert Deane of Rural Focus, a rural consultancy firm that worked on the trial with the Exmoor Hill Farming Network (EHFN), said: “We combined several layers of data to build a picture of what each farm delivers for the environment and for people and created heat maps to show the potential to scale up these activities.

"The outgoing basic payments scheme simply isn’t set up to account for this level of detail and in some ways hasn’t properly incentivised farmers wanting to ‘do the right thing’ for nature.

"This is particularly true in upland areas like Exmoor, where a volatile market and tighter margins leave very little room for manoeuvre.

"Based on our findings, we hope the new system will be fairer and simpler.”

Key findings fed-back to Defra in the final report include:

• Potential threats to important designated habitats in upland areas like Exmoor. Any fall in farm payments could drive a drop in land under agri-environment schemes. Sites such as heather moorland, wetlands and wood pasture were identified as particularly vulnerable, because the grazing regimes that sustain them often only marginally benefit the farm business. Figures reported by National Parks England already show a downward trend, with a nearly 17 per cent drop in the amount of farmland on Exmoor under such schemes since 2015.

• Potential barriers to farms being able to access ELM funding. The report draws attention to high demand for skilled advisors to help draw up ELM proposals, with 88 per cent of respondents to a survey of EHFN members stating they expect to need the services of an adviser to help them complete their ELM Land Management Plan, but only around half knowing where they might get this advice.

• Opportunities for achieving nature recovery at landscape scale. Mapping of farm clusters helped provide evidence for collaborative working on shared environmental outcomes. For example helping to create nature corridors or deliver improvements to water quality or flood resilience. This could help with mapping out Nature Recovery Networks, which may become a requirement for Local Authorities if proposals in the new Environmental Bill are enacted.

• Difficulty accounting for farming’s contribution to ‘sense of place’ – the features of the landscape and local culture that come together to create the overall experience. The report highlights more research is needed to be able to quantify aspects such as cultural heritage, historic features, wildlife, public access and engagement.