Farmers in the Lake District have voiced concerns large landowners are seeking to drive family-run farms from the uplands.
Fears have been reignited by United Utilities’ (UU) decision to replace the tenants of West Head Farm, Thirlmere, with a hired shepherd, citing the 1,600-hectare unit, which is home to the Lake District’s largest and hefted Herdwick flock, had ‘suffered from over-grazing’ and it would therefore be retaining a smaller number of sheep.
UU said it was approached by the tenant of West Head Farm about the possibility of surrendering the tenancy early to pursue other opportunities in farming.
Farmers Guardian reported in its special series focusing on the uplands last October how some farmers in the Lakes, including National Trust tenant Isaac Benson, Little Langdale, felt large landowners were pursuing a policy of rental increase which left tenants with little choice to either stump up the extra money or seek an agreement to leave the farm.
Mr Benson, who runs about 900 Herdwick ewes and 100 sucklers, said: “As a shepherd, it is soul-destroying. We have got to a point where our sheep no longer belong on this landscape. A hired shepherd is enough for the sheep, but what about the land management? Who is looking after the land?”
He added decisions such as these pointed towards a fundamental shift in land use policy which was undermining the history and culture of the landscapes, while also making hill farmers ‘incredibly vulnerable’.
NFU uplands chairman Thomas Binns said the move was symptomatic of what the sector had been seeing in recent years and that it was likely large land owners were taking farms back in hand due to fears over Brexit.
It is understood West Head Farm, where the Bland family is the tenant, will bring in a hired shepherd for the flock this November.
Fellow Lake District farmer James Rebanks, Matterdale, said on social media there was a growing feeling of despair that ‘large organisations with power over this landscape cannot be bothered with its traditional farms’.
The move by UU was also being closely monitored in other parts of the country.
Robin Milton, chairman of Exmoor National Park in south west England, said there was mounting concern about the attitude of large landowners, such as UU, towards family-run upland farms.
He said: “It is really concerning the route which has been taken with this traditional upland farm. [It] is actively dismantling the management and long-term social structure of the landscape which has been there for generations.
“To my mind they are looking to take ownership of the land management [and] guarantee ownership of any payments.”
Julia Aglionby, executive director of the Foundation for Common Land, said UU should instead be setting a new model, enabling the continuation of an authentic and evolving pastoral management system.
She said it was disappointing to see the company, which supported the application for the Lake District’s World Heritage Site designation, was no longer letting West Head as a farm despite such flocks ‘lying at the heart [of it]’.