The Government’s recent decision to abandon farm subsidies for land used for both solar power and grazing could have the opposite effect to that intended, according to a Carlisle-based rural advisor.
The Environment Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, said the move would help ensure agricultural land is dedicated to growing crops and producing food, thereby boosting an industry worth £97bn to the economy.
She was also responding to concerns raised by people in rural communities who believe their countryside could be blighted by solar farms.
But Victoria Lancaster, of H&H Land and Property, believes the move is shortsighted and could ultimately make farming less profitable.
“There are significant areas where lower grade agricultural land is only suitable for limited permanent grazing, and the livestock sector in general is struggling,” she said.
“The returns per acres can be boosted by diversifying into renewable energy and having the same land grazed, so they are effectively in dual use and should be recognised as such.
“Removing the farmer’s ability to claim subsidy may well cause a reduction in the contribution to the agri-economy overall.
“Adding solar maximises the use of the land. It can still be farmed and offers a secure income stream when the economy is less than sunny.”
According to the new rules, no farm subsidies will be paid on land with solar panels after January 2015.
Ms Lancaster said this appeared to be a “knee-jerk reaction to those who think only about the look of the countryside rather than its viability”.
For many farmers, she added, the income per acre from solar panels is greater than from grazing, meaning that in spite of the changes to the Single Farm payment scheme, some would still be considering solar schemes.
She advised such individuals: “Do not drop the idea of solar panels, as it does offer a secure income stream whilst enhancing the viability of farming overall.
“Visual impact is of utmost importance but that is a matter for careful design, siting and planning rather than this blanket approach.”
Ms Lancaster, who works with farmers as part of H&H’s farm business management service, in fact believes that having solar panels combined with grazing provides a “win-win situation for everyone”, especially since the Government’s own targets for green energy are unlikely to be met.”
She concludes: “It shows a lack of understanding of the farming industry by Government to come out and make this statement. It’s another barrier to stability in the farming sector.
“Whatever the outcome of the subsidy threat, it may well be that the markets may set the amount of development of solar energy the country sees in the long run.”
H&H Land and Property, which has offices in Carlisle and Durham, works with farmers throughout the North of England and Scottish Borders, advising them of the most appropriate renewables opportunities for their enterprises.