Hill farming: grants and requirements for upland farmers

How to get funding if you are an upland farmer, explanation of less favoured areas and designated areas, and advice on hill farm management.

This guidance was withdrawn on

Replaced by guidance listed under Land management.


Hill farming is a specialised profession, and it takes careful management to ensure a productive, sustainable farm. Farmers must be careful to avoid soil erosion and overgrazing, as well as to observe Cross Compliance requirements. Help is available in the form of financial support through government-sponsored agri-environment schemes.

This guide is for upland farmers. It explains the sort of funding you may be eligible for, and the conditions you must meet to claim it.

It also provides advice on specific upland management issues such as grazing management, soil erosion, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other protected landscape features, and explains uplands Cross Compliance requirements.

Uplands and Less Favoured Areas

There is no statutory definition of ‘uplands’, but it is generally accepted to refer to areas of mountain, moor and heath, high ground above the upper limits of enclosed farmland, largely covered by dry and wet dwarf shrub heath species and rough grassland. Hill farms also have adjacent land in the form of semi-improved and improved grassland that are used in conjunction with the moorland and rough grazing. All of this land needs to be sustainably managed in order to safeguard the valuable biodiversity of the plants and animals that can only thrive in these habitats.

The majority of the English uplands can be found in the north and south-west of England, with a few other areas in the counties bordering Wales. They are nationally and internationally important for biodiversity, and have significant agricultural, landscape, archaeological, recreational, cultural and natural resource value. Agricultural activity shapes these valuable upland landscapes, and provides many of the tools to manage them. Without some form of management they would lose their environmental and landscape value.

Historically, hill farmers have carried out management of these areas, predominantly by grazing cattle and sheep. In recognition of their important role, the government provides specific funding to support upland farmers through Uplands Entry Level Stewardship.

Less Favoured Area (LFA)

LFA means land located and included in the list of less favoured areas adopted by Article 2 of European Council Directive No.75/268EEC on mountain and hill farming in less favoured areas.

In the UK, LFAs have two distinct classifications - the Severely Disadvantaged Area (SDA) or the Disadvantaged Area (DA). You can view a map of LFAs on the Multi Agency Geographic Information for the Countryside (MAGIC) website.

DA and SDA land is generally suitable for extensive livestock production and for the growing of crops for livestock feed, but agricultural production is restricted (and for SDA areas, severely restricted) by soil, relief, aspect or climate conditions.

Moorland Line of England

The Moorland Line was drawn as a means of establishing eligibility of farmers within the LFA for the Moorland (Livestock Extensification) Regulations 1995 (SI 1995/904).

Moorland is defined in terms of the vegetation present, which must be predominantly semi-natural upland vegetation, or predominantly made up of rock outcrops and semi-natural vegetation, used primarily for rough grazing. Moorland includes both open moors and enclosed land on the margins of uplands. The Moorland Line encloses just over 40% of LFA land.

Environmentally designated uplands areas

Much of the uplands includes areas that are environmentally designated and protected because they are valuable in terms of the environment, biodiversity, archaeology, cultural heritage and landscape. These areas include:

  • national parks - these protect and conserve the character of landscapes, facilities for access, wildlife habitats and historic features
  • areas of outstanding natural beauty - these conserve and enhance naturally beautiful landscapes
  • countryside character areas - areas of cultural heritage which should be preserved
  • Natural England natural areas - each area has a unique identity created by its mix of natural features and human activities and provides a broad context for local nature conservation work
  • common land - areas where people who do not own the land have rights to use it for farming or other purposes
  • national nature reserves - these protect and provide public access to important wildlife and geological sites
  • special areas of conservation - these protect various wild animals, plants and habitats under the European Union’s Habitats Directive
  • special protection areas - these protect rare and vulnerable birds and migratory species as well as geological and physiographical heritage
  • upland experiment areas - two upland areas where Natural England/Defra predecessor bodies piloted an integrated approach to rural development and nature conservation between 1999 and 2001
  • ancient woodland - land that has had continuous tree cover since at least 1600

Hill Farm Allowance, Uplands Entry Level Stewardship and the Uplands Transitional Payment

2010 was the final year of payments of the Hill Farm Allowance (HFA), which provided dedicated support to beef and sheep producers in England’s SDAs. If you received HFA you will be able to sign up instead to Uplands Entry Level Stewardship (Uplands ELS), a new strand of Environmental Stewardship supporting England’s SDAs.

But you will not be eligible for Uplands ELS if you have an agreement in place for the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme or Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS). If such agreements apply, you may instead be able to claim the Uplands Transitional Payment (UTP) until those agreements expire. For more information, see the guide on Uplands ELS.

Other support for uplands farmers

Upland farmers in Severely Disadvantaged Areas are eligible for direct funding from the Single Payment Scheme (SPS). The SPS is the principal agricultural subsidy scheme in the EU. Under the scheme farmers have greater freedom to farm to the demands of the market, as subsidies are no longer linked to production. Environmentally friendly farming practices are also acknowledged and rewarded.

You do not need to undertake any agricultural production in order to receive the SPS payment, but you will still need to comply with EU standards covering public, animal and plant health, environmental and animal welfare on all your agricultural land (whether you claim on this land or not).

For more information, see the guide on the SPS.

Uplands farmers and communities can also apply to the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) team at Defra or local Leader Action Groups to obtain RDPE funding for projects.

For further information, see the guides on the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE), ideas and funding for diversification and ideas and funding for diversification.

Cross compliance

If you receive payments through the SPS or through Environmental Stewardship, you must meet cross compliance requirements. This means your farm must satisfy SMRs and GAEC standards. The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) carries out inspections to ensure farmers are meeting SMR and GAEC requirements.

Uplands grazing management - GAEC 9

If you receive any payments under the government schemes, one of the main cross compliance requirements you have to meet is avoiding overgrazing and unsuitable supplementary feeding on natural and semi-natural vegetation under GAEC (standard of good agricultural and environmental condition) 9. This aims to protect habitats and limit damage to soil structure and soil erosion.

You must not:

  • overgraze, or allow to be overgrazed, the natural and semi-natural vegetation on your holding
  • carry out unsuitable supplementary feeding, except where it is necessary for the purpose of animal welfare during periods of extreme weather conditions

You must:

  • act on any notification of appropriate measures to prevent overgrazing and/or unsuitable supplementary feeding, sent to you on behalf of the Secretary of State
  • comply with any written directions, in relation to land subject to overgrazing and/or unsuitable supplementary feeding, sent to you on behalf of the Secretary of State

If supplementary feeding in the winter causes damage to the vegetation, it should be minimal enough to allow it to completely recover in the next growing season through natural re-growth.

If you want to significantly increase the level of stocking or carry out land improvement (eg by application of more fertiliser or reseeding grassland) on areas of moorland, rough grazing and permanent grassland, you will need to obtain an Environmental Impact Assessment to support an application for approval. For more information, see the guide on Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA).

Enforcement and inspection

Natural England is responsible for assessing whether farms are meeting overgrazing and supplementary cross-compliance requirements, on behalf of the RPA.

For more information on cross compliance, see the guides on standards of GAEC, SMR and cross compliance: the basics.

How to avoid overgrazing or unsuitable supplementary feeding

Many Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) are in ‘unfavourable’ condition because of overgrazing affecting upland SSSIs.

To avoid overgrazing on areas of natural or semi-natural vegetation, you should:

  • only graze as many animals as the vegetation will support, taking into account the most sensitive habitats
  • reduce livestock numbers in autumn and winter, when plant growth slows or stops - use away wintering and housing where possible
  • avoid using supplementary feeding to support animals on unproductive land, except when the weather is particularly hard
  • reduce stock numbers if there is frequent bare ground, suppressed heather or grass sward heights under five centimetres for rough grassland, and three centimetres
  • reduce stock numbers in harsh weather conditions (prolonged drought or wet periods)
  • reduce stock numbers in woodlands if animals frequently strip bark and/or destroy young sapling trees
  • maintain boundary fences to control movement of stock
  • shepherd open hill land to distribute grazing pressure evenly and avoid localised overgrazing
  • maintain hefts and lears on open fell or moorland
  • control the spread of bracken to maintain grass and heather areas
  • control rabbit grazing

Supplementary feeding in the winter artificially inflates the number of livestock that a given area can support and should be avoided. Wherever possible, livestock should be removed from the hill for winter, but where supplementary feeding is required you should consider the following:

  • try to avoid supplementary feeding for long periods
  • where possible, feed on sites with little wildlife interest
  • limit feeding on natural or semi-natural vegetation to periods of severe weather or to stock in late pregnancy
  • avoid feeding on wet areas such as mires and blanket bog that are susceptible to damage
  • choose feed sites over 100 metres from dwarf shrub heath, blanket mire, calcareous grassland or wet, flushed areas
  • choose feed sites more than 10 metres from a water course
  • do not choose feed sites on, or near, scheduled monuments
  • avoid feeding on or close to areas of heather
  • avoid feeding large numbers of stock at one site, especially at field entrances
  • rotate feed sites daily to minimise any damage
  • scatter feed sites throughout the area to encourage livestock to ‘rake’ across the ground
  • avoid the use of ring-feeders and troughs as they lead to localised overgrazing and poaching
  • use feeds such as loose hay, rather than concentrate, which cause less grazing of vegetation reducing the amount of dwarf shrub grazed
  • use vehicles with low axle loading to avoid wheel rutting on vegetation

Supplementary feeding of grazing livestock in winter is often necessary, particularly to breeding ewes in late pregnancy. In order to avoid breaking the standards under GAEC 9 you may wish to make changes to the system of management.

If following these guidelines would endanger your animals’ welfare, eg during very bad weather, you can temporarily abandon them. Cross compliance regulations in some circumstances, eg during severe weather conditions, may be relaxed by prior approval.

Soil erosion

Soil erosion is a particular risk in uplands areas because of harsh weather, thin soils, steep slopes and past attempts to drain peat land.

How to minimise soil erosion:

  • use vehicles as little as possible
  • use the entire grazing area to avoid localised overgrazing
  • burn heather and grassland safely to avoid damage to plants and soil which can lead to erosion - for more information, see the guide on heather and grass burning 
  • follow a bracken management plan
  • block moorland grips (small ditches) as these encourage peat erosion

Peat conservation has become a key part of farmland management. Every type of soil contains carbon, locked away from the atmosphere and the way we manage land is crucial to limiting climate change. Peat is especially important because it contains more carbon than any other type of soil. There is around 100 kilograms of carbon per cubic metre of peat - equivalent to the emissions from one car driving 2,000 miles.

Healthy peat is wet, covered in vegetation and protected from the air. If the peat is eroded, drained, over grazed or dug up, it comes into contact with air. The oxygen in air then combines with the carbon in peat to form carbon dioxide.

For more information on soil management, including GAEC requirements under cross compliance, see the guide on soil use, particularly if you are not aware of the changes in GAEC requirements for soil protection and management. As of April 2010, GAEC 1 incorporates all the requirements and standards that were previously set out in GAEC 1-4. In addition, you may have to carry out and submit by 31 December each year a Soil Protection Review.

Uplands and Sites of Special Scientific Interest and archaeological sites

SSSIs are legally protected in England. The designation of land as an SSSI allows Natural England to protect it by imposing necessary conservation measures on those owners and land managers who own or manage land within the SSSI.

If your land is an SSSI, or any other kind of protected area, you have special responsibilities. On land which is notified as an SSSI, you must conform to cross compliance requirements to protect and manage your SSSI. These requirements are spelt out in the standard of good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC) 6. See full details about SSSIs.

Works on SSSIs

If you are an owner or land manager in an SSSI area, you will be sent an SSSI notification package. This includes a list of operations that are potentially damaging and which you may not carry out on SSSI land without Natural England’s consent. If you wish to carry out one of these operations you should submit written notice to your local Natural England Office, containing the details of the operations you want to carry out.

When they receive your notice, Natural England will consider the likely impact of the operations on the special features of the SSSI. They will have four months to decide whether to issue consent, issue consent with conditions or refuse consent.

If consent is refused for an operation that may damage the special features of a SSSI, that operation may not legally go ahead. Natural England may also review existing consents, and withdraw or modify them if it finds they are damaging to the SSSI.

There is a right of appeal to the Secretary of State against Natural England’s decision.

Damaged or neglected SSSIs

If your SSSI is suffering as a result of neglect or a lack of management, Natural England may take action to prevent further damage and improve the condition of the SSSI.

Further information

Natural England Enquiries team

0300 060 3900

Rural Payments Agency

0345 603 7777

Forestry Commission England

0300 067 4000

Defra Helpline

03459 33 55 77

Cross Compliance Helpline

0345 345 1302

Published 10 September 2012
Last updated 13 June 2013 + show all updates
  1. Fixing references to specialist guides

  2. First published.