Yorkshire: Where farmers with healthy stock face bankruptcy

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The Independent Online

The hill farmer struggles to speak, as though each word is a ewe that needs pulling from a ditch. He is preparing to say the unthinkable. "Don't want to lose the stock to foot and mouth," he begins, squinting to survey his flock in the sun. "Took us a lifetime to get this lot together." His brother nods. "But it is the talk, when lads who've not been taken get together in the pub." Another pause. "Cull might be the best way out."

John and Alan Sharp have been tending sheep on this isolated moorland north of Settle for half a century. It must really hurt to tell a stranger that they wish their flock could be destroyed by a disease. If that does not happen, however, they face ruin.

A train passes over the Ribblehead viaduct, a few miles away across open land. Its passengers see a wide valley scattered with sheep, a reminder of how things were before foot and mouth came to the Dales. They must think it idyllic, and those who can still farm here lucky.

Things look different from where the brothers are standing, by a gate in a drystone wall at the foot of a fell. Their grey farmhouse and its tumbledown outbuildings are hard to spot from the train, lost in a grand landscape.

"It's a bad way to be in, thinking like this," says John, a bullish man with a black moustache, who was born on the farm at Ivescar 55 years ago. "It's hellish."

Alan is a year younger, but his handlebar whiskers have silvered on a weather-blasted face. When he takes off his tweed cap to wipe the sweat away there is a flash of white baldness.

"You get a fair price in compensation for the sheep," he says, reluctantly considering the advantages of a cull. "Start again. Stock up on a different kind of animal. What the market requires."

The apocalyptic roar of an RAF jet coming low across the valley breaks Alan's mood, and he shakes his head as though unable to believe what he has just said. "I don't want that. I don't, but..."

At least they would have a chance to start again. Those who lost everything to the disease in the spring have been compensated. Even if the long process of disinfection has been suspended for a while, farmers with culled stock can plan for the future.

Meanwhile the Sharps and many like them face imminent disaster for a very different reason. Their sheep are still alive but unwanted. The National Farmers' Union estimates that there may be up to 500,000 sheep on the Dales this winter that ought not to be there.

Low-income hill farmers are on the verge of going bust because they cannot sell animals that are ready for market, or move younger sheep to safer pastures for the winter. They have no money coming in, and no hope of any soon. No compensation is available to those on the edge of infected areas who have "escaped" the disease.

"We are seeing the tip of what could be a huge and terrible iceberg," says Stephen Dew of the NFU in Skipton. "Four farms I know of have already run up overdrafts in excess of £100,000. On a marginal hill farm that's an awful lot of money. The sales which normally take place in six weeks' time and bring in up to 80 per cent of their annual income are not going to happen. If nothing is done farmers will go out of business left right and centre."

When the markets do eventually reopen, the needs of buyers will have changed. The Sharps might not have the right kind of sheep. "I think we're seeing major restructuring of the way sheep are farmed, and we're just at the beginning of it," says Mr Dew. "So how do you quickly change an enterprise to produce an animal that is suitable? The quickest way is to shoot the lot and restock. If your animals are taken due to foot and mouth you're in quite a fortunate position to gear up for the future – notwithstanding all the hurt and pain."

The Sharps were due to send 400 animals to market in September but it has been cancelled. Nobody is buying. Another 400 ought to be sent away to graze on lower ground but the farmer they are normally sent to won't take them. He will not risk taking sheep raised so close to the outbreaks, which have not yet crossed this valley.

So the Sharps will have to care for 800 unwanted sheep in the harshest months. Some will die. Is the weather bad on the shelterless hillside? "This is the last place God made," says John. "The wind howls through, rattling bones and chilling blood, and that's just inside the farmhouse. The ground is soft out here – it's like a bog in the rain."

The grass will stop growing in September. There is not enough fodder to get all the animals through winter, and no money to buy more.

"We just haven't a clue what to do," says Alan.

The bank has been understanding, but won't be for ever. The Sharps hope Defra make some culled, cleaned-up land available on low ground, so at least young sheep can be saved and fattened up for possible sale or lambing next year.

"This is the worst it's been here since the Depression in 1937," says John. "If nothing is done lads like us will not be here anymore. Those that come to walk will find that it's not so nice. This will all go to scrubland."

And what will happen to the brothers? "We know nowt else," says John. "We're unemployable, aren't we?"

"I wouldn't want to be told what to do," says Alan, after a life spent working side by side on the moor with his brother. "We'll go bankrupt. Lose this place. Then? I just don't know."