How Brexit could affect the hill farming industry

PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 April 2019

Sheep farm in the Edale Valley

Sheep farm in the Edale Valley

andrew griffiths

Hill farming has found itself in the Brexit front line as CAP funding comes to an end. In the third of his series, Andrew Griffiths samples a slice of sheep farming life with Derwent shepherdess Kath Birkinshaw, and speaks to Andrew Critchlow of the NFU about what ‘public goods’ might mean for the moors

Derbyshire County Advisor for the NFU, Andrew Critchlow at his farm in EdaleDerbyshire County Advisor for the NFU, Andrew Critchlow at his farm in Edale

I met farmer, shepherdess, and dry stone waller Kath Birkinshaw at a crossroads in a track beside the reservoir in the Derwent Valley. It was like an old-style, Cold War, East European pick-up, as the track became too rough for the car that had brought me so I jumped up into the cab of Kath’s workhorse of a Land Rover to climb the rutted track.

Kath pulled over near the line of a gate that opened out onto the moors, jumped out and let out her sheepdog, Dan. We stood overlooking the clough off the Derwent Valley as she worked her dog to bring in the sheep. She sent him half a valley away, it seemed, then with barely perceptible whistles and calls brought the dog – and the sheep – steadily together and up towards us and the moor.

‘You don’t want a dog that is going to run round and bite the sheep, you want a dog that is going to go round them cleanly and what we call honestly,’ says Kath. ‘Honestly’ seemed like a good word to use when surrounded by the open moor and billowing sky.

‘Technically, our sheep could wander next door and keep going for miles. The reason they don’t is because they are hefted to our piece of ground. It is where they were born, where they grew up, and it is home to them. That is the unique thing about hill sheep, they have that hefting ability.’

Kath and Dan looking over the Derwent ValleyKath and Dan looking over the Derwent Valley

Kath must have a similar ability, I thought. She was born on this farm in the Derwent Valley. Her grandfather farmed here, and also his brother. Before that, her great-great-grandfather farmed at North Lees. ‘It is all I’ve ever done, worked with sheep, hill shepherding,’ says Kath. ‘I have gathered sheep off practically every moor around here. I have walked thousands and thousands of miles with my dogs. But my knees are worn out.’

As little more than a rootless urbanite myself, a part of me envies this continuity, this attachment to the land. Looking up, beyond the flock of sheep Dan is diligently nudging up the hill, across the clough and up onto the moors, it is tempting to think that things never change here. What must it be like to live with such stability?

But things do change of course, they are constantly changing, just very slowly. This is in part a consequence of time, but also of the ways we are working the land – or farmers are doing on our behalf. It is easy to think that these moors are a ‘natural’ environment, but they are not. The moor fires last year revealed traces of farming activity further down the valley dating from the Bronze Age, so we have been shaping and re­shaping these moors for thousands of years.

Modern hill farms have long depended on a subsidy of some sort. In recent decades that has been the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which has changed the terms of its funding over time, in particular to the numbers of sheep that are put out to graze. At one time there was a ‘headage’ payment, which predictably led to farmers keeping large numbers of sheep. More recently this has changed to a subsidy system that encourages farmers to keep fewer sheep, but concentrate more on environmental improvements.

On the hilly track up to the moor lineOn the hilly track up to the moor line

It is easy to forget – and farmers get a hard time of it from many quarters – but farmers can only live in the funding landscape that is given to them, and it is society which shapes that landscape, sets the terms of their contract.

But these changes in funding leave their mark on the land, in every sense of the word, particularly the much lighter grazing in recent years.

‘The moors are so different to what they were,’ Kath says about the deeper cover of vegetation now. ‘Not necessarily worse, just different.’

This reminded me of the photograph I had taken of Tim Birch, head of living landscapes for Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, for the rewilding feature in last month’s Derbyshire Life. We had been in the same valley I was now in with Kath, and Tim was showing me how he would like it to be. They had both drawn pictures in the air for me across the same landscape.

Kath and Dan herding the sheep to new pasturesKath and Dan herding the sheep to new pastures

Tim wanted to take down the fences and free the treeline to creep up onto the moor. He wanted an end to ‘pest control’ on the grouse moors. He wanted a reduction in the number of sheep, reintroductions of pine martens, beavers, and a full complement of birds of prey to return. He wanted to encourage eco­tourism in the valley and the moor above to begin its slow journey back to scrub, and ultimately to upland woodland again.

Kath though, overall, is happy with things as they are, and doesn’t want much to change.

Once the sheep had been seen onto the moor, we drove through the last gate in the inbye ground (walled­-in land on the edge of the moor), and parked to look back and see the extent of the farm. We talked about the sheer number of people who visit the valley and the moors, and the different reasons they come here. We talked about the latest craze for running and mountain biking at night. ‘They come at night, and they have these massive head torches. It is like a spotlight going across the moor all the time,’ Kath told me. ‘The way we farm, we bring our sheep off the moor and lamb them on the fields. As they lamb, we put them back on the hill and we do it very carefully, making sure they have their mother, then walk them out quietly. You know there is a woodcock nesting there, snipe and a ring ouzel over there, and it is nesting time. Everything you do you have to do very carefully.

‘Then we were here one night, and some runners set off from the top of the hill and ran straight down. It is a thing now where people try to do the most extreme running they can, to make it as difficult as possible, so they deliberately run through the longest vegetation as it is hard work. And they ran straight down the hill, down that valley and up this side. All the sheep we had just put out went running back, and the snipe and the woodcock were all around the areas they were running through.

‘You’ll put your sheep out and suddenly find one on your neighbour’s moor. You know it has been chased by someone’s spotlight at night and probably has a lamb somewhere and how far have they chased it from its lamb, and is it going to find it again?’

There are two ways of interpreting this story. One is that these are people who don’t care about the countryside. The other is that they are just unaware of the effect they are having in a landscape they understand largely from a visitor’s point of view.

Farmers and rewilders too often find themselves in conflict, but how much of that is down to a mutual lack of understanding of each other’s world?

At another farm now, on the Edale side of Kinder, and I’m sitting in a large, farmhouse kitchen with Andrew Critchlow, Derbyshire County Advisor for the National Farmers Union (NFU).

At the time of writing (February 2019) we are due to leave the European Union in 33 days. We still haven’t got a deal. All business is unsure what the future holds, but farmers in particular are living in a fug of fear and uncertainty.

Farmers know the CAP is ending and Environment Secretary Michael Gove has told them that it will be replaced by what he is calling payment for ‘public goods’ – services farmers provide to society that cannot find a market value, such as carbon storage (in the peat on the moors) to help the fight against climate change, encouraging biodiversity and helping to maintain some of our most beautiful and visited places.

‘Michael Gove has clearly stated that any future payments to farms will be linked to environmental payments,’ says Andrew. But exactly what these payments will be for, and how they will be administered, is still not known, just that they will be phased in during the 2020s.

‘It is all in the development phase, they haven’t even tried trialling different systems yet,’ says Andrew. ‘Yes we have concerns, clearly concerns in the uplands because they tend to be marginal farms. It is virtually impossible for them to make a significant profit out of what they produce, particularly the smaller farms.’

Andrew points out that the idea of paying farmers for ‘public goods’ is a continuation of a theme that has been developing in agricultural funding for decades now. ‘Public goods is a new phrase but being paid to deliver an environmental benefit is nothing new in the Peak District,’ he says. ‘It is actually 30 years since the first environmental scheme started on these moorlands. In 1988 the North Peak Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) came in, and we had 25 years of ESAs. Now most moorlands are in a Higher Level Scheme, and most agreement holders will be about five years into that, about half way through.’

Rewilding is a term that means many things to many people, but perhaps because of the way it is often portrayed in the media, where its more eccentric sides can become the focus, farmers tend to be wary of its growing popularity.

There is no doubt that within the rewilding community, there is a political element that is very ‘anti farmer’ – a cursory glance at the interminable bickering on social media demonstrates that.

But Andrew is concerned about the relationship between the public and farmers and senses that the gap is widening. ‘We are being portrayed as if we are not delivering for the environment, and I think the rewilders are driving that wedge between us,’ says Andrew. ‘It is difficult for a lot of farmers who spend all day working hard on their farms and haven’t got the time to get involved in the agri­-environment politics, to see all those degrees of what rewilding means. So they just hear rewilding, and to them it instantly says: “Well this is the end of farming on the hills, because they are going to rewild it.” They immediately see that as a threat.’

Yet I can’t help but think that when Andrew says of the moors, since their restoration began 20 or so years ago: ‘There aren’t many people in the environment sector who remember what these moorlands were like in the 1980s, as a result of all the industrial pollution. Those 100s of acres of bare peat are pretty much gone. The level of grazing pressure now, on what is still grazed, is, I estimate, probably about 25 per cent of what it was in the 1970s and 80s.’ There must be common ground between the farmers and the rewilders somewhere.

For those ardent anti-farmers, particularly those who would like to reduce still further the number of sheep on the moors, it might be worth remembering the adage: ‘Be careful what you wish for’. There is a danger of the law of unintended consequences setting in here.

There is a point at which grazing pressure is reduced to such an extent that it barely makes sense to keep any livestock at all – particularly when food is not classed as a ‘public good’ and so livestock will not in itself attract subsidy. If that happens, says Andrew, then the whole fabric of the rural community could start to unravel – that subtle interaction between the people and the land. This could affect seemingly unrelated businesses in livestock market towns such as Bakewell, and such famous views as that from Kinder down the Vale of Edale.

For instance, if livestock numbers fell below a certain amount, it wouldn’t make sense for farmers to maintain the walls that create the aesthetic of the vale, Andrew explains, talking of his own farming area at the foot of Kinder. ‘You’re not telling me that Edale would look better if it just reverted to what it was 500 years ago, just a wet, scrubby mass?’

Kath Birkinshaw was born into the National Trust. She has spent all her life on farms owned by the conservation body. She is fearful for the post-Brexit future. (‘Nobody can tell you what is going to happen. How can you plan when you don’t know what is going to happen?’)

At this time of seismic change for agriculture, the pressure has been on these upland farms to try to find new ways of generating income. The National Trust has been at the forefront of thinking about roles and funding models for these upland farms, as well it might because as a major landowner it is a current beneficiary of the CAP subsidies. But it has been criticised by some in the farming community for encouraging the ‘hobby farmer’, and taking the emphasis away from food production.

Kath thinks that there is only so much innovation possible given the reality of life in the hills. ‘They are trying to get them to “think outside the box”. And I’m thinking: “What’s outside the box?” What can you do? You’re in a hill farm for goodness sake, and they have evolved like they have. But there is a limit to what you can do, otherwise it would have been done, wouldn’t it?’

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