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Backbone of Britain: 'I want people to value hill farmers because, generally, people don’t'

Andrea Meanwell is on a mission to become a spokesperson for upland farmers. Emily Ashworth speaks to her about why it is important to recognise one of country’s most historic ways of farming.

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A voice for the uplands

Not long ago, Andrea Meanwell wrote a poignant piece for The Guardian in response to claims that described the Lake District as ‘sheep-wrecked’.

 

She wrote of how generations of families, like hers, had dedicated their lives to the land and watched ‘closely the interaction of our Cumbrian breeds of animals and our environment.’

 

Her adoration for the uplands is apparent in everything she does, from writing four books to posting out positive social media updates on a daily basis.

 

But the proof for Andrea, however, shone through when her article became the most commented on article that week, despite the release of the Budget by the Treasury, and it was the first time she had attempted to get her views on the subject published.

 

Moving to Low Borrowbridge farm, near Tebay, Cumbria, in 2018, she now thrives off telling the upland story in a bid to replenish people’s faith and interest in this way of life.

 

“I wanted to put the farmers’ point across,” says Andrea.

 

“In the valleys where I live in, who else is going to say anything?

 

“There are loads of people with such dedication to farming and who have done it their entire lives, but none would have had the confidence to write or speak up about it.”

 

Her interest in farming began as a child, when she would spend school holidays with her uncle, Alan Birbeck, a Swaledale breeder in the north Pennines and a founding member of the North of England Mule Sheep Association.

 

“We would go and help at lambing time,” she says.

 

“We’d just move in and he would give me pet lambs to look after. He was experimenting crossing Leicester and Swaledale sheep during the 1970s and that is what sparked my interest.”

 

After teaching for 10 years, it was while Andrea was on maternity leave for the third time that she began to create knitwear during what was, she recalls, a time when there was a movement towards championing local produce.

 

Then, after many years of restoring and selling on houses, Andrea and her husband, Antony, finally found Low Borrowbridge, a farm which has land classed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and which rests on a Roman fort.

 

She says: “It felt like coming home. Moving here has not just been agricultural, but environmental and historical too.

 

“We’ve had to reconsider everything and it’s like a big jigsaw – how does it all fit together?

 

“We have got to consider the archaeological aspect too.”


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Opposition

 

Andrea works with her son, Hector, across 69 hectares (170 acres), running 165 Rough Fells, 52 Herdwicks, 37 Welsh Hill Speckled Faces and 30 Ouessants, a short-tailed breed originally from France.

 

It is the native breeds that Andrea is vocal about, challenging anyone who questions their place, and in an era where upland farmers have come under much fire from those believing it is an unnecessary way to farm, she is working tirelessly to change those perceptions.

 

She says: “We have otters, red squirrels and a variety of habitats here. In my mind, the two are equally important – the environment and the native breed animals.

 

“I feel we are under attack from environmentalist organisations and Government agencies – everybody has an opinion about the uplands even though they’ve never lived here.

 

“They have no experience of the practicalities and what they tend to do is push their own agenda, which is often about rewilding, disregarding cultural aspects of how important the farms are in this area.

 

“I’m really interested in wildlife, but I get a whole lot of stick from people who think the farm should be entirely wild.

 

“I try to answer all the questions. If someone is telling me I shouldn’t farm here, which I get a lot, I show them photos of the environment that we’ve got here.

 

“I’ve posted pictures, for example, of me and my son deciding which deadwood we needed to remove so that the plants can grow through, and which needed to be left for the wildlife habitats.

 

"Nobody is paying us to do that. We did it because it was good for the environment.

 

“I want people to realise what the average hill farmer is doing, because they think we’re sat by the fire on a huge subsidy with a load of raggle-taggle sheep, destroying the environment.”

 

But, says Andrea, the two need each other and if you like the landscape of the Lake District or the Yorkshire Dales, for example, sheep are vital to the maintenance of it.

 

In the summer, Andrea started doing farm walks where she takes members of the public around the Roman fort and area, discussing the intricacies and the benefits of her way of life.

 

“I explain the three-tier sheep system, how we still need these pure-bred flocks and how important their genetics are,” she says.

 

“Then, I have a wall chart which shows the cost of production for one of my lambs and the price I got for them.

 

“People can’t believe the best price I got was the price of production.”

 

Walking through Andrea’s fields, the distinctive peak-and-troughs of the landscape surrounding is enough to certify why she is so set on preserving this land and with it, its heritage.

 

But it is also about creating a future for Hector, who has recently finished at Newton Rigg College, Penrith.

 

And with Andrea keen to help him progress, the farm now allows the mother and son team to work together in pursuit of a sustainable future, combining Andrea’s love for traditional methods and Hector’s drive to implement new techniques.

 

“I needed to provide a challenge for him,” says Andrea.

Heart

 

“Fifty of the Rough Fells are bred pure and we’re really interested in breeding a good replacement, but Hector now puts the rest of them to a Texel.

 

“We’ve done that because I’m interested in native sheep and he’s more interested in the commercial side. I’d say that I farm with my heart and he farms with his head.”

 

But Andrea’s final words ask for nothing more than consideration from outsiders before they tar upland farmers as inessential due to perhaps, she says, misleading information on social media.

 

“I want people to reconnect with the countryside,” she says.

 

“People to realise where food comes from, the different ways in which food is produced, and how food that is produced on a hill farm like this is beneficial for the environment.

 

“I want people to value hill farmers, because generally, people don’t.”

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