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Denniff family relish the challenge of moorland farming

Taking on the grazing of one of the country’s most visited moorland areas has brought its own problems but Nick Denniff is optimistic for the future. Chloe Palmer learns more about farming on Sheffield’s moorland fringe.


Balancing the needs of conservation grazing with food production has always proved difficult but add in several million visitors each year and it might seem unworkable. For Nick Denniff, it is a challenge he welcomes, despite the frustrations and setbacks it brings.


Mr Denniff’s family have farmed for generations and for much of the first half of the 20th century, they were one of the best known butchers in Sheffield.


He says: “I always wanted to farm but after my father lost the family farm I trained as a tree surgeon and have run a fencing company since 1996. Until last year, despite farming part-time in my own right for 25 years, I never claimed any single payment or headage payments.”

Mr Denniff began his farming career by buying a small block of land adjacent to his house near Holmesfield, south of Sheffield, and has since extended his acreage by renting, but until recently was still some way short of his aspiration of farming full-time.


In 2011, the Eastern Moors Partnership was established between the National Trust and the RSPB to take over the management of a 10sq.m expanse of upland landscape on the edge of Sheffield.


In 2013, a tender process culminated in Mr Denniff securing the grazing tenancy for 1,820 hectares (4,500 acres) of moorland in partnership with Bo Scholefield, a farmer from Halifax.

The Eastern Moors

  • Stretch from the western edge of Sheffield to meet Beeley Moor, part of the Chatsworth Estate, to the south
  • Owned by the Peak District National Park Authority and leased under agreement to the Eastern Moors Partnership, which is managed by the National Trust and RSPB
  • Designated as a Special Area of Conservation and a Special Protection Area because of its unique bird assemblages
  • More than 5,700 archaeological sites have been identified, including medieval guide stoops, industrial millstones and WW2 mortar scars on the rocks
  • Are used by millions of visitors each year including walkers, mountain bikers, climbers, horse riders and naturalists

Mr Scolefield is the sole tenant on a further 2,025ha (5,000 acres), but Mr Denniff manages a herd of cattle on his behalf across the whole moorland area.


Mr Denniff says: “We manage the moor in a traditional way but have to meet the prescriptions laid down in our tenancy agreement and the Higher Level Scheme. We also have to work around the high visitor numbers so we only put ewe lambs on Burbage and Houndkirk moor because these areas attract the highest number of people.”


Mr Denniff runs a pure-bred Scottish Blackface flock and is pleased with how they cope with the inclement conditions on the Eastern Moors.


“My son Will has a small flock of Herdwicks but the Blackfaces seem hardier. A typical Blackface will produce 10 per cent more meat than a Swaledale without compromising any of the qualities they need to thrive on moorland.


As a previous winner of the Best Tasting Lamb Award for his Herdwick mutton, Mr Denniff is well qualified to judge the quality of Blackface meat. He says: “We did a taste test of the Blackface last year and thought they tasted as good as the Herdwick, but a little less fatty. The breed society has done an excellent job encouraging an animal which has a heavier frame and achieves a better carcase grade.”


The conditions of Mr Denniff’s tenancy agreement stipulates the sheep can only be fed hay or haylage in extreme weather which must be spread out to prevent poaching.


He says: “The supplementary feeding restrictions are manageable because of the low stocking rates and there is plenty of grass for the sheep to find under rocks, alongside footpaths and under the bracken beds.”


A proportion of sheep are removed from the moor at the end of summer providing Mr Denniff with a chance to monitor their condition.

blackface ewes

Scottish Blackface ewes lamb on in-bye land and those with singles quickly return to the moor

“We have bought a weighing system and EID equipment and every time the sheep come back to the farm we weigh and record all ewes and lambs individually. I am pleased with how the ewes are coming off the moor, but they are still young and I think this is the crux of it.


“Up to three-crop ewes cope with the conditions but I think we will need to draft out ewes as they become older as they may not thrive on the moor.”


All ewes come back to the farm to lamb and those with singles are returned to the more remote moors where there is less disturbance.


Ewes with twin lambs remain on in-bye ground. High energy and protein feed blocks are available at all times but concentrates are not fed to ewes or lambs.


Mr Denniff has kept injections and worming treatments to a minimum, believing the extensive nature of his system will reduce the incidence of parasites and infection.


The size and fragmented nature of the Eastern Moors poses a challenge at gathering but Mr Denniff says help from neighbouring tenants and the way sheep congregate makes the task easier than expected.


“Ewes spread out across the moor but they tend to graze in groups of 30-40 which makes life easier when gathering. My dogs are vital for shepherding although we do use a quad bike as well.”

Highland cattle

Highland cattle are managed in a traditional way on Higger Tor

The introduction of cattle to the Eastern Moors has also caused controversy, particularly with dog walkers who do not welcome them. The RSPB and National Trust believe cattle grazing will contribute to the restoration of the desired moorland vegetation and Mr Denniff is required to manage them accordingly.


“The RSPB want cattle to graze some of the areas of purple moor grass, bracken and rushes, so we place the blocks there as it encourages them to trample these areas.


“Cows are very transient, moving around the moor continually and this is exactly what the RSPB want because they believe it will help to break up the rank vegetation and bracken.”


The herd of more than 100 cows owned by Mr Scholefield comprises mainly Highlands with some Beef Shorthorns, Whitebred Shorthorns and Luings. Despite initial concerns aired by some recreational users of the moor, Mr Denniff has been pleasantly surprised by the cows’ easy temperament.


“We can walk in among the cows with no fear because they have been handled well. The Highlands have over-wintered well but I have found the Shorthorns need more supplementary feeding.”


Mr Denniff admits he has reservations about grazing cattle on parts of the moor.


“Totley Moss is just what its name suggests, a bog. It is not really suitable for cattle grazing. Historically, it would have only been grazed by sheep for this reason.”


Another hazard of farming on the Eastern Moors is the ongoing battle with a small minority of irresponsible visitors to the moor. A number of near-fatal incidents involving dogs on the moors this spring has caused significant concern to Mr Denniff.


The Eastern Moors Partnership has been very supportive, taking up the issue with authorities and the police as well as issuing press releases, but Mr Denniff has also taken steps to highlight the issue.


“We have set up a Lydgate Hill Facebook page to try and educate people about the potential problems caused by dogs. I try and explain what it is we are doing in the hope they will think more carefully when visiting the moors.”


Looking to the future, securing a suitable premium outlet for beef and lamb from the Eastern Moors will be essential if the arrangement is to be financially viable for Mr Denniff and Mr Scholefield.


“I think if the National Trust set up a farm shop on the estate it would be a great success and it would provide an opening for beef and lamb from farms across the Peak District.


“Located so close to Sheffield, the shop would have a high footfall and there is a fantastic story to tell about the meat produced on these moors because it is the least intensively reared meat money can buy. Producing our lamb and beef delivers so many environmental benefits.”

Farm facts

  • Nick Denniff, his wife Liz, son Will, and daughter Hannah, farm at The Hawthorns, Holmesfield
  • 91 hectares (225 acres) of in-bye grassland as a number of separate parcels which are either owned or on grazing licences
  • Mr Denniff has the tenancy of 1,820 hectares (4,500 acres) of moorland in partnership with Bo Scholefield, a farmer from Halifax who is the sole tenant on an additional 2,025ha (5,000 ha).
  • Flock of 520 Scottish Blackface ewes and ewe lambs
  • Also manages Mr Scholefield’s herd of 270 cattle comprising Highlands, Beef Shorthorns, Whitebred Shorthorns and Luings
  • Will Denniff runs a flock of 30 pure-bred Herdwicks. Lamb from the flock is sold locally and kept for the freezer at home
  • Mr Denniff and Will also run a fencing business which has helped to fund investment in the Blackface flock
  • Liz Denniff runs an equestrian business, importing and selling on a small number of Irish Sport Horses and Connemara ponies
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