Hill farmers cry for a lifeline from Europe

Esther Leach on the threat to subsidies vital to our landscapes
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The Independent Online
FROM her farmhouse window, Catherine Calvert looked across the fields and rolling moorland of Swaledale, one of Yorkshire's hardiest corners. "All this would fall into ruin," she said, "if it weren't for European money. The drystone walls would collapse; so would the barns. Sheep would no longer graze the fields and moorland which would then become scrubland."

The hill farmers of northern England, Scotland and Wales are enduring some of their toughest times. They know that working long hours out of doors in the bleakest conditions is an inevitable part of their way of life. But plummeting stock prices have made an arduous life even harder and as a last resort they are joining forces with five national parks to lobby British and European politicians to prevent them slipping into ruin.

They launch a campaign on 21 July which gives a warning of disastrous consequences for rural communities, the British landscape and its wildlife if current EU funding, which is now under review, is not maintained.

"National parks and their people have benefited in recent years from agri-environment grants and we have developed many other successful partnerships which maximise benefits for farmers, conservation and recreation," said Robert Heseltine, vice chairman of the Association of National Parks and chairman of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority. "But continued European funding is vital if upland rural communities are to survive and thrive. If hill farming founders then everything national parks were set up to do will be threatened."

There was complete agreement from Catherine Calvert, 41, and her sister- in-law Susan Calvert, 35, who with financial help from the EU have opened a visitor centre which has managed to keep their farm in Swaledale ticking over. Their husbands, David and Raymond, work the farm in the village of Low Row, with the help of their wives and older children. Half is meadowland and half pasture. They have 40 dairy cows and 400 Swaledale sheep. But as stock prices reached rock bottom and supporting their growing families became increasingly difficult so they looked for other ways to make their living. "People already stopped to watch us milking cows and clipping sheep," said Catherine, "so we sat down and thought how could we turn this into something that would pay." They created a visitor centre which tells the story of Hazel Brow Farm from silage making to breeding stock.

"There's nothing gimmicky about it," said Susan, who had an office job before becoming a farmer's wife. "We don't have pot bellied pigs or llamas because they are not part of the life here. Visitors see lambs being born and nothing is hidden from them." Such as the occasion a lamb was born with its intestines hanging out. "One of the visitors told us to wrap the lamb in clingfilm and we did. We took it to the vet who put the intestines back and the lamb was fine. If the visitor hadn't been there we would have knocked it on the head." Last year they reached their target figure of 6,000 visitors and hope for 8,000 this year.

"It's certain we would be unemployed without the visitor centre," said Catherine. "There is always another job to do on the farm but it doesn't pay. We have to be much more businesslike than 10 years ago." Some days the women long for large, flat fields enjoyed by low country farmers so they could use more machinery, making their work not only easier but more cost-effective. Instead they still help move bales of hay by hand.

Both women smiled at the idea that a farming life was an idyllic one, even on the finest day. "The days when we had a meal in the field during hay making are gone," said Catherine. "There are so many more pressures today. We have got to work much harder to maintain what we have." Susan said: "I hope we have reached the very bottom now and that soon we will be climbing back."

Next month's delegates to the Association of National Parks Authorities (Anapa) seminar in Northumberland, where the campaign will be launched, will represent a wide range of interests in the countryside including farmers, landowners, conservation organisations and wildlife charities. They will be asked to endorse a statement setting out the care for improved funding for the uplands.

Martin Doughty, chairman of Anapa and of the Peak National Park Authority, said: "Generations of farmers have created the landscapes of our national parks. The future welfare of these areas depends on their descendants continuing to live and work among the hills. We must develop new opportunities for farmers and local businesses to help sustain their communities."