Uphill struggle to farm on Cumbria's empty fells

By Ian Herbert,North
Saturday 16 February 2002 01:00

Only the grass is left in abundance on the fertile fells of the Eden Valley, bail after bail of it, bagged up in blue and black polythene and heaped across fields from the Solway Firth to the Lake District

In the natural way of things, the grass would have been nibbled away by the valley's cattle and sheep, but they have been absent – about 40 per cent of the famous Swaledale sheep were culled during the foot-and-mouth epidemic – and Cumbrian farmers, who'll tell you there's something abhorrent about "untidy land", have shorn it to make silage.

Making money from silage is a challenge at present. Its abundance has reduced the price to £5 a bag and transporting it is notoriously expensive, but some are trying. It's a metaphor for the way foot-and-mouth is focusing agricultural minds, which may previously have become comfortable with a subsidised existence.

Tom Lowther, a 35-year-old nephew of the last Earl of Lowther, has long since given up the illusion that there is good money in taking lambs to market, unlike his father, who bequeathed him his tenant farm at Askham, near Penrith.

Before foot-and-mouth put paid to his 700 Swaledales – killed off because he was within 2 miles of an infected farm – he had scaled down production, sold a third of his stock and concentrated on direct marketing. He sold lamb fed only on grass straight into the environmentally conscious, middle-class kitchen, under his own Whitbysteads Farm brand. "If it wasn't for that I'd have been bust before foot-and-mouth," Mr Lowther said.

But Mr Lowther is wary about the future. "Direct marketing is not a panacea and many farmers will fail at it – probably me as well."

He was slowly inching back this week, buying 300 Cheviots to reintroduce to his 230 acres. He has plans to sell mutton from quality two-year-old herdwick shearlings.

Mr Lowther is part of the Junction 38 co-operative, named after the M6 junction eight miles away, which is planning to invest in its own £600,000 abattoir, curtailing the costs of a 70-mile round trip when beasts are sent to slaughter, and selling the meat into a buoyant local farmers market.

For others like him, there is also the North Cumbria Cornerstone organisation, born out of the epidemic last July to help young farmers frustrated by the old generation to develop their ideas. One aim is to set up demonstration farms on which young farmers will establish the most profitable ways of producing what the market actually wants.

The new world's not for everyone, particularly around Askham, where a relatively high proportion of farmers are using the effects of foot-and-mouth as the opportunity to take their accountant's advice, re-appraise their business and perhaps get out.

At least one of the men whose hefted herds once shared common land with Tom Lowther's sheep has handed his farm back to the landlord. He's not talking about it but it seems his sons have all found more profitable work. "The conditions are bad and a lot of the boys around here just don't want to do it," said Mr Lowther.

The high volume and low margins of mass production for supermarkets never were for the faint-hearted and those returning to it are being bold. Mike Armstrong from Penrith, whose Holstein are legendary in national breeding circles, is among many returning with more cows than he left with.

There's no compensation to reinvest for men like Bob Shaw, though. He's a contract shepherd who was tending 18 flocks a year before foot-and-mouth took out 14 of them. His other line of business is shearing alpaca across Britain but he did not leave Cumbria last summer for fear of making dangerous contact with the infected national herd. He's £20,000 down but has been unsuccessful in his application for the post-foot-and-mouth business support grants which are decidedly easier to procure if you're in the tourism business.

For the first time in 12 years, the Cumbrian lambing season won't provide Mr Shaw with enough work this spring so he'll be off on a nationwide alpaca-shearing tour in the hope of seeing off the Australian and New Zealand shearers who pinched his contracts last year. "It's those of us who weren't directly affected, by not running farms or having infected herds, who have felt this most, financially," said Mr Shaw. "Things will never be quite the same."

Neither will the Eden hillsides. Herds and flocks that grazed common land and intuitively knew their home farm will take generations to regain the hefting instinct. There are to be only three men in Cumbria who know how to introduce the instinct.

Tom Lowther will just have to do the best he can.

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