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Upland farming: Hill farmers need support to maintain landscape

In the final part of Farmers Guardian’s upland series, Alex Black visits farmers in Northern Ireland where she hears it is Brexit which poses one of the biggest challenges to these systems.

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Upland farming: Hill farmers need support to maintain landscape

Northern Ireland’s iconic landscape would look very different without the families who have carved out the landscape with their sheep for generations.


And if the public want Northern Ireland’s countryside to remain the way it does, upland farming needs to be supported across the country.


The scenic hills and farms which maintain them boost the tourism sector, with people travelling from around the globe to see the Northern Irish countryside.


And the uplands also plays a vital role in the red meat sector, the single biggest part of Northern Ireland’s agricultural industry.


Ballygally sheep farmer Campbell Tweed highlighted the importance of these farms producing breeding stock, store lambs and, in his case, finishing them.


“The problem is we can be both physically and financially vulnerable,” he said.


Thomas Gibson, farming Blackface ewes and Belted Galloway cattle 274 metres (900 feet) above sea level in Ballymena, highlighted the importance of lamb farming in the area.


“There are a lot of people involved,” he said.


“There the farmers and farmworkers and then the contractors and agricultural merchants. That is a lot of jobs.”

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But Mr Gibson said the uplands faced hardships those lower down did not, most notably harsher effects from the weather which meant they had to have ‘the right breeds’ and extra feed.


“We have a lot of snow and there is no snow lower down. We can lose sheep in snowdrifts,” he said.


“Winter starts a month earlier and lasts an extra month.”


These farms were also keeping traditional farming methods and sheep breeds alive.


Mr Gibson’s grandfather had been farming in the same area with sheep and belted Galloway cattle and he had come full circle.


All the farms in the area were hill farms and while there were some younger people, such as himself coming through, many of the farmers had nobody following them on.


“There will be fewer in the future, definitely,” he said.


Swaledale breeder John Blaney said the methods he used today had changed very little from when his father bought the farm in 1957.


Before this, the family were tenants on the farm with Mr Blaney the fourth generation to farm in the hills in Cushendall.


Mr Blaney’s brother and cousins also farm nearby and the passion the family has for what they do is showcased all around the house.

Visitors are greeted at the door by a Swaledale shaped rug, made of wool, with ornaments and pictures of the sheep decorating the house.


Mr Blaney has seen many changes during his farming life, with many farmers now also working off-farm to earn a decent wage.


Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs figures showed 33 per cent of all farms now had off-farm income streams.


“There is not a good enough income from hill farming. In fact, without EU subsidies farmers would not be farming,” he said.


He said farmers were getting about the same price for their lambs as they had 30 years ago, but costs had rocketed.


And now people did not want to farm land unless they could get a vehicle, such as a quad, up there rather than walk the hills, particularly with farms getting larger.


He had recently invested in a quad and a drone and he hoped technology could improve access to the most remote areas and help farmers, particularly in bad weather.


And while hill farms were keeping traditional breeds and techniques alive, they were not opposed to change, with internet availability the biggest barrier to using new technology.

Environment goals hitting production

Environment goals hitting production

Campbell Tweed said since he had started farming there were now fewer people there and agri-environment schemes were making a lot of these farms less productive.


“The environment has not necessarily been advanced. In a lot of cases I would say it has not improved at all,” he said.


According to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, there were 4,349 cattle and sheep farms in less favoured areas in 2017.


But hill farming does not exist in isolation, with connections to local lowland farms, plus those south of the border and in the rest of the UK.


Mr Gibson said he sold all his store lambs to lowland farms and the family also had another farm lower down which was slightly less traditional.


Scotland can be seen across the sea from both of Mr Blaney and Mr Tweed’s farms, and Mr Blaney bought new bloodlines for his sheep in Northern England as well as having buyers all across the island of Ireland.


Many sheep also travel south to the Republic of Ireland before going on to France.


Brexit meant the farmers were unsure whether this market would still be open to them.


And the uncertainty meant they were struggling to make any plans.


“The Government knows nothing. We have no government,” Mr Gibson said.


“How can you plan ahead when you do not know what is ahead?”

Mr Tweed agreed there was too much uncertainty.


“Lamb and mutton in Australia and New Zealand has never been better. This suggests world markets are quite buoyant,” he said.


“The problem we might have is accessing those kinds of markets. We cannot neglect our core European market.”


Modern society 'too detached' from food

Modern society 'too detached' from food

JOHN Blaney said one major problem with support for the uplands was people in cities becoming less engaged with food.


“Those in Government and maybe Westminster in particular have never gone out and done a day’s work outside politics. They have no idea how ordinary people live,” he said.


“They certainly have no idea how farmers live and work and how dependent these rural communities are on a farming community.”


Mr Gibson also felt Westminster cared little about farmers.


“They definitely do not care about farmers the other side of the water and maybe up in the Highlands of Scotland. We are just so far away.”


There have been calls from environmental campaigners to rewild the uplands, but the farmers FG spoke to stated farms which had been abandoned did not necessarily have the outcome these campaigners envisaged.


Mr Campbell said it was an ‘interesting idea but totally impractical’.


“It is just a debating point.”


Mr Gibson was keen to ensure his farm was sustainable, using agroforestry and wind turbines to offset his carbon footprint, adding hill sheep and cattle were ‘quite environmentally friendly’ and low input.


“People do not want factory farming,” he said.


“They are quite happy to go in and buy a chicken which has been raised with thousands of others but if they want this lamb off nice green hills and that image in their head, they need hill farmers.”


Looking to the future, Mr Blaney was hoping one day his granddaughters would follow in his footsteps.


“I have four granddaughters and they all help at lambing. At the moment they are interested, so hopefully at least one of them will continue,” he said.


Mr Gibson was also keen for his young family to still be farming in the uplands.


“It would be nice if they stayed traditional, if they were not all planted with trees and it would be nice if we still had good Government support.”


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