Hill farmer faces struggle for survival

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The Independent Online
LOOKING from the crags at Knottrigg down the valley, David Norman surveyed his domain, Grasmoor and the Buttermere fells. His farm is in one of the most beautiful areas of Britain but he is finding it increasingly difficult to make a living from it.

The reduction in subsidies for hill farmers and a catastrophic fall in the price of wool mean that he faces another grim year with no profit to speak Eof.

He made a profit of just pounds 1,632 last year. He recognises that it is a poor return on some pounds 40,000 of capiTHER write errortal investment in machinery and stock. He could not continue without his wife's earnings from her bed and breakfast business, which made a profit of more than pounds 6,000 for the year.

Mr Norman has about 800 sheep and lambs at Knottrigg and another flock of about 100 on the other side of the valley. He also keeps five cows for beef but it is the price of lamb which is crucial to his business and this has dropped by about half over the last 10 years.

The drop in prices has been made worse for hill farmers because the subsidy on lambs for slaughter was abolished last year, and now the Government is proposing to reduce the subsidy for ewes, the hill livestock compensatory allowance, from pounds 8.75 to pounds 6.50 per animal. 'That amounts to pounds 1,600,' Mr Norman said, 'and that's a lot of money to me.'

The Government justifies its reduction of the hill livestock allowance because an EC subsidy, the ewe premium, has been increased. Hill farmers should be 50 per cent better off as a result, the Government says, but the farmers think differently. They see it as taking away money that the EC intended for them.

The average income of hill farmers is about pounds 6- pounds 7,000. With such a low base, a 50 per cent increase only brings a living wage and they need a good year to give them a working margin, argues the National Farmers' Union.

The price of wool tumbled when China stopped buying two years ago because, after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Communist-style woollen jackets went out of fashion. And now the British government is de-regulating the Wool Marketing Board. As a result wool from hill sheep is expected to be virtually unsaleable this year - but the sheep still have to be sheared to keep down ticks and maggot-fly.

The future seems to be either social security - and several farmers in Cumbria have already had to seek such help - or tourism. The National Trust, which owns almost a third of the Lake District, has considered negative rents. That would mean paying tenant farmers to take on farms and look after them.

'It may not be many years down the road before we will be paid to sit here and look after visitor people,' Mr Norman said. 'Maybe we will be paid to keep a few dozen sheep to give them something to look at. That's the top and bottom of it.'

(Photograph omitted)