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Upland farming: 'It is not just the sheep who are hefted to the hills'

Balancing the competing concerns of agriculture and tourism was a flashpoint for some farmers in the hills.

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Upland farming: 'It is not just the sheep who are hefted to the hills'

With large swathes of the English uplands falling in National Parks or areas of designated importance, such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, there was sometimes tension between maintaining farming’s role and creating a visitor landscape.

 

Others believed the approach of National Park authorities on issues such as planning and development could be overly restrictive.

 

Earlier this year, farmers from the Lake District convened at Penrith auction mart to voice their hopes, aspirations and fears for agriculture in the region.

 

Stalwarts, such as Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association chairman Will Rawling, alongside Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association chairman Will Cockbain, spoke of their concerns regarding stocking rates in the hills and said if a policy of taking sheep from the uplands was adopted, then the indigenous shepherds of the area would be lost.

 

Mr Cockbain, who farms at Keswick, told Farmers Guardian organisations such as the National Trust needed to maintain stocking rates which allowed livestock and landscape to flourish.

 

He also said the success of Lake District shepherd and author James Rebanks showed the public’s love of landscape and their appreciation of farming’s role in it, and this should not be jeopardised by misplaced schemes, such as rewilding.


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He added: “People value culture and heritage and this is a massive economic driver for the Lakes; far bigger than environment. [Beatrix] Potter will rule over ‘wild Ennerdale’ any day.”

 

Isaac Benson, who runs 900 Herdwick ewes and 100 sucklers at Little Langdale, has forthright views and claimed bodies such as the National Trust were intent on stripping livestock from the hills as they pursued environmental and commercial agendas.

 

While such suggestions were rebuffed by trust bosses, there was concern in the Lakes and elsewhere that too much focus was given to attracting visitors and not acknowledging the key role farming played.

 

Third-generation farmer Mr Benson said: “This landscape is a by-product of agriculture, but they want to make agriculture a by-product of landscape preservation.

 

“We will have to destock because of Government and National Trust policies and this strips us of our assets [hefted sheep] when it comes time for us to retire. We then have no capital to exit with.

 

“If you want to manage the landscape you need sheep in the hills. Who else is going to do it and work for effectively minimum wage if we are not here?

 

“The National Trust is seeking to socially cleanse the Lake District and its landscape of farmers like me. Brexit has given them the chance to get rid of us via the back door.”

With old farmhouses either side of his farm being rented out for £1,200 a month, he said the only ones who could afford it were professionals, often in the older age bracket, who he said did not contribute to the social fabric of rural areas, be that schools or other clubs.

 

“Farming is not part of the equation for the trust any longer, at least not farmers who want good numbers of stock run in the way they want.

 

“We are bound to the land by our livestock, but if the sheep go there is nothing to bind us to these fells longer term. It is not just the sheep who are hefted to the hills, it is the people as well and the National Trust should remember that.

 

“Look at the stone walls. They are there to control livestock. If you take the livestock away there is no reason to maintain cultural assets such as the walls and the landscape therefore changes and suffers.”

 

However, outdoor and natural resources director at the National Trust, Patrick Begg, said ‘people and livestock are at the core of what we want going forward’.

 

On the issue of trust properties being rented out to those from outside, Mr Begg said the organisation would always rent them out at the ‘market rate’ appropriate to an area.

 

He said if a family of three from the locality was up against someone from, for example, Manchester, for a Lake District property and both could pay the same rent, then the local family would have the upper hand in getting the tenancy.

 

He stressed, however, the trust would not drop the price below the market rate, even for a local family.

 

For Tom Lloyd, who farms on the Long Mynd, Church Stretton, Shropshire, which is owned by the National Trust and attracts one million visitors a year, he was concerned rewilding could actually occur unintentionally via the process of land abandonment, which he said was already taking place because some farmers could not survive, even with subsidies.

Mr Lloyd, 30, who farms with his parents and uncle and also has a unit at Knighton, Powys, is part of the Common Cause project, which seeks to promote farming on common land.

 

He said while there was some tension between the National Trust and tenants when it came to use of the common, there were also concerns about where the next generation would come from.

 

He said: “On the Long Mynd there is a declining number of young people, and this makes getting enough people for things, such as gathering, more of a struggle as they are not around."

 

For Shearwell’s chief executive Richard Webber, who employs 90 people in Exmoor National Park, restrictive planning conditions such as agricultural occupancy or other items were squeezing out the next generation.

 

He said: “Recently, two lads were trying to set up a joinery business in an old garage, but a guy who lives nearby and who comes from London objected about the noise they would make.

 

“They had a covenant slapped on saying they could only work 9am to 5pm and, for youngsters trying to get a business off the ground, that is not realistic. We are seeing strange decisions being made.”

STRATIFIED SHEEP SYSTEM VITAL

STRATIFIED SHEEP SYSTEM VITAL

HILL farming’s crucial role in the stratified sheep system was reason enough for upland agriculture to be supported in the right way.

 

This was the view of Thomas Carrick, who runs a large Swaledale and Mule enterprise at Garrigill, Cumbria, and is vice-chairman of the National Sheep Association northern region.

 

Mr Carrick, 35, who has a degree in human genetics, said: “I am a great believer in the stratified sheep system and the genetic diversity of the national flock.

 

“We might never take on pure-bred sheep breeds for their ability to record performance, but it is not to say improvements cannot be made with Swaledales, Blackfaces and Bluefaced Leicesters.”

 

Pointing to a Swaledale genetic improvement programme being run by AHDB, he believed such in-depth analysis could be used alongside the desire to breed for type.

 

A regional adviser for Moredun, Mr Carrick feared withdrawal from the EU could affect the UK’s disease readiness.

 

He added: “Iceberg diseases are a concern and there is a threat of them getting a greater hold in the national flock, and this is not just a worry for hill farming.

 

“Moredun is doing great work on surveillance and it is key we support institutions such as this, which draw down EU funding, after Brexit.”

 

And he believed good animal welfare, particularly in the hills, was something which could be marketed more readily.

 

He added: “Animal welfare is so important for all of us. The standards on a hill farm are exceptional because the sheep are semi-wild, lambed outside and hardly ever handled. That is a good story to tell.”

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