Beef and sheep farmer, Ian Bell says he is still learning how to best manage an RSPB unit for farming and wildlife, but believes the two can co-exist.
Taking on the tenancy of more than 2,630 hectares (6,500 acres) of RSPB land has given Ian Bell an opportunity for expansion and demonstrated that low input sheep and beef systems in challenging conditions can be profitable.
The key factors which make the Tarnhouse Farm tenancy work effectively are the flexibility offered by its large acreage and the selection of cattle and sheep breeds which can cope with the harsh environment, according to Mr Bell, who took over the farm in 2015.
His land is part of the 5,400 hectare (13,343 acre) RSPB Geltsdale reserve near Brampton, Cumbria, and rises to over 2,000 feet above sea-level, with just 40ha (100 acres) suitable for mowing.
Meanwhile, Mr Bell is a third generation farmer at the 142ha (350 acre) Hallbankgate Farm, his own family unit adjoining the RSPB reserve.
Assisted by partner, Rebecca Dickens and one full-time worker, he runs a pedigree Charolais herd of 40 cows which calve mainly in the spring.
Most bulls are sold privately at home, although some will go to breed society sales, with a recent top of 11,000gns achieved.
The hill flock at Tarnhouse is split across three contained fells and comprises 300 Scottish Blackface ewes and 100 North Country Cheviots, as well as 100 Herdwicks which have recently been purchased to assess their performance on the high ground.
The lowland flock is mostly Cheviot Mules, which are put to a Beltex or Beltex cross Texel sire.
All lambs are finished at home and sold through the live ring at Kirkby Stephen, with the last consignment averaging £97.80/head. Meanwhile, the best of the ewe lambs out of the Cheviot Mules are retained for breeding.
The aim for the lowland flock is to achieve a lambing percentage of 200.
In general, the livestock on the two farms are run separately, although store hill cattle are sometimes housed at the home farm.
Tarnhouse carries 110 cows and the group that grazes the higher hill is predominantly Highland cross Beef Shorthorn and pure Luings; heifers go to a Luing bull and thereafter a Charolais is used across the herd.
Meanwhile, the lower hill ground carries Sim-Luing cows and Beef Shorthorn crosses.
“Lambs are sold all year round,” explains Mr Bell.
“The majority of the hill lambs are finished on stubble turnips and leave in the spring, because at that time of year they will finish easily.
Feeding is minimal and it is a priority to keep costs down, but the large acreage allows scope for the animals to grow on naturally. The low stocking rate also promotes good health and worming costs, for example, are minimal.”
He has been surprised at the rapid growth rates of the Charolais crosses out of the small hill cows.
“They graze at around 1,500 feet and the Charolais bulls also cope with the environment.
The only concentrate feed they receive is very occasional, but it means they will come to call readily and will follow us for several miles, if necessary.
It is an essential element of their management because of the nature of the terrain and any animal with a poor temperament is culled from the herds.
“Supplementary forage for the hill sheep and cattle is limited to snow conditions, but it is usually rejected due to their excellent foraging abilities.
Many of the finished cattle will have roamed the hill all their lives before being finished on lower ground, keeping costs to a minimum, but some of the more lowland types are winter-housed.”
The hill calves are left with their dams for 10 months and will finish at about two years old, with a percentage sold to a local butcher who supplies high-end restaurants and local pubs.
If market conditions are favourable, some of the hill calves leave as stores and the most recent group averaged £1,000 at 16 months. Finished cattle have sold to a top of £1,275.
The RSPB offered a 10-year tenancy agreement, but at present it is renewed every two years, due to the uncertain future facing hill farming. However, Mr Bell is planning to commit to a longer-term tenure, once post-Brexit arrangements have been finalised.
The farm is in Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship and Mr Bell stresses that the RSPB demands very little that is not already contained in the guidelines. Examples of co-operative tenancy and stewardship management include Stagsike meadow, a 15.4 ha(8 acre) plot which is permitted to carry 200 sheep over winter.
Numbers are restricted to 25 from March and through to the spring. Another compromise has been the restriction of the mowing acreage through the installation of scrapes, or small man-made depressions, which fill with water periodically.
“The spring is generally when Stagsike would be cleared for silage ground, so its management has been well planned, with consideration for both parties,” says Mr Bell. “The scrapes can be grazed in late season and therefore forage losses are minimal.
“One 101 ha (250 acre) field adjacent to a tarn is limited to cattle grazing at present, but I am in discussion with the RSPB to allow sheep to graze in the winter; I feel this will benefit ground-nesting birds, as well as providing extra grazing.
The RSPB staff members are very open to discussion and the team is a pleasure to work with.”
Other opportunities have opened up for the tenanted farm business.
“We have recently gained access to part of a 240 ha (593 acre) forest that was fenced off and planted with woodland species 20 years ago.
The cattle have done very little damage to the young trees and it is now ideal for black grouse, as well as numerous other species.
“The RSPB would prefer the cattle to out-winter on the high ground for as long as possible, but I have the final decision on whether they need to be brought further down the hill or even housed, depending on the weather.”
Mr Bell enjoys helping on the RSPB reserve, using his 13-tonne digger for scrape and pond creation when time allows.
“The advantages to the local wader population are significant. Before I took on the tenancy I had already built several ponds on my own farm, including one I designed for Redshank. It was very satisfying to see the birds nesting on it last year.
“It is a great pleasure to see the wildlife on both farms. When the neighbouring RSPB tenancy came up I was very pleased to be given the chance to take it on. It has not disappointed and I think there will be even greater benefits for both sides as we progress in learning how to manage the land as a partnership.”
The RSPB ownership of the reserve dates back to the early 1990s.
It is a haven for Black Grouse, Short-eared Owl, Golden Plover and a variety of breeding waders including Redshank, Lapwing and Curlew. Osprey, Hen Harrier, Whinchat and Ring Ouzel are also frequent visitors.
The reserve has several tenants and graziers and went out of organic production in 2017 in order to facilitate its management, although the farming principles have remained largely unchanged.
RSPB Geltsdale farmland warden, Ian Ryding points out that sheep numbers have been reduced from 2,000 to 500-600 over the past two decades, but cattle grazing has gradually increased.
Black grouse numbers have gone up from five males in early 2000 to almost 60 in 2015.
“The reserve’s wildlife requires a variety of habitat with prescriptions that change throughout the year,” he says. “Sheep play an important role, particularly for keeping the vegetation open for Golden Plover on the tops, but at a high stocking density they lead to a lack of diversity.
“Cattle are selective grazers and create a patchwork of habitat.
Their cowpats support a range of invertebrate species which in turn provide food for the birds.
There is a place for both sheep and cattle on the hills; it is simply a question of achieving the correct balance. We also have a grazier with Exmoor ponies and the results of their influence to date look very promising; they have helped to control bracken in areas which are difficult to gather for sheep.”
He highlighted the risks of using ivermectin on upland livestock.
“The drug effectively sterilises the dung and this minimises its benefits for insect life.
It is thought to take about 140 days before it breaks down in the material.
To counter this issue, Mr Bell treats some of his animals at housing, but at present it is still used on the out-wintered livestock, due to a lack of viable alternatives.”