Dr Julia Aglionby, of the Foundation for Common Land, talked to Wendy Short about her work supporting commoners

COMMON land and upland farming champion, Dr Julia Aglionby, wears many ‘hats,’ as well as helping to manage the livestock at a therapeutic care farm near Carlisle in Cumbria.

Many of our readers will be familiar with Julia, as she rarely misses an opportunity to speak up in support of commoners in her role as the executive director of the Foundation for Common Land (FCL). She also chairs the Uplands Alliance (England) and is professor in practice at the University of Cumbria. This latter, part-time position has been created to bring together upland farmers, academics and policymakers.

Meanwhile, Julia runs a thriving practice as a chartered surveyor, specialising in common land and the uplands – she was based at the Borderway Mart in Carlisle for 15 years. At home, she manages 140 acres of organic grassland and herbal leys, with meat from the Longhorn herd and the Mule flock sold direct to the public. It supports the work of Susan’s Farm, a charitable incorporated care farm set up by her mother to host school visits and provide therapeutic work placements.

It might be imagined that Julia is a born countrywoman, but in fact she was brought up in London. However, her early interest in farming led to an agriculture and forest science degree at the University of Oxford, after which she spent a year working for a Cumbrian land agency. It was followed by a course in environmental economics and a three-year stint in Indonesian Borneo, where she was involved in running the national park in the 1990s.

“I worked with Indonesian commoners and it was there that I received my first lesson about commons – positive change can only be effected by working with the people who directly manage the land,” said Julia. “This principle applies whether in the UK or abroad.

“People who keep livestock in our uplands and on our commons have a strong commitment to their work, but their flexibility is extremely limited if they are placed under financial strain.”

Julia insists that common land management and upland farming must be profitable, in order to deliver the plethora of benefits that are being demanded.

“If it works for business, it will work for the environment. We are facing the biggest changes in agriculture for many decades and some of our most vulnerable landscapes are under immense pressure. It is a huge passion of mine to play a part in finding ways for farmers to adapt and survive during the coming upheaval.

“There are almost 4,000 registered commoners in England and my job at FCL is to empower both commoners and common land owners to sustain and improve the areas they manage. As a relatively small organisation, the FCL’s main strength is work collaboratively to ensure the continuation of pastoral grazing systems, while promoting biodiversity and cultural heritage.”

There is some overlap between the FCL and the Uplands Alliance, which aims to bring together producers, researchers and policymakers to recognise the special characteristics of the uplands and reward land managers. In 2020, the organisation focused on influencing the development of the ELMS (Environmental Land management Scheme).

“I have major concerns about farm support being phased out before the ELMS has been fully launched,” she stressed. “The Basic Payment Scheme makes up more than 90 per cent of the profits of an average upland farm and significant adaptation will be needed over the next three years.

“A large proportion of the capital grant aid for farm improvement and environmental measures offers 60 per cent of costs, but policymakers must ask themselves where the remaining 40 per cent of the investment is going to come from.

“I do not believe that the ‘income foregone’ method of calculation is the way forward. A whole farm approach is needed and it must recognise the labour and the natural and social capital that is required to meet governmental and public expectations.”

One example of what Julia describes as “flawed policy” applies to woodland pasture, or ‘agroforestry’.

“It is a fantastic asset in the uplands and offers enormous benefits for biodiversity and carbon storage, as well as a viable livestock farming system. But at present it does not attract grant aid and this is a missed opportunity.”

Julia has some advice for upland farmers and has put it into practice.

“It is essential to have a good grasp of both fixed and variable costs and compare them against income. Completing this exercise at home has highlighted just how little profit there is to be made from selling our meat direct to the public, once a figure has been allocated to labour.

“I have also made a list of the farm’s assets and looked at soil health and environmental features such as hedges and trees. The main question I feel that we should be asking ourselves is: what can we offer the British public?”