Hill farmers in a small area of dales country in North Yorkshire have embarked upon a landscape conservation project that links beef production, Higher Level Scheme payments and a meat marketing scheme driven by premium prices.

The Limestone Country Project has already been set up in the Malham and Ingleborough area of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. It has been EU-funded for five years but the 15 farmers involved hope to use their environmental gains to qualify for the HLS.

The project’s aim is to conserve unique limestone pavement grazings by paying farmers to replace some of their sheep with native cattle breeds.

But this project has gone a stage further and set up a beef marketing scheme to put more cash into farmers’ pockets when the cattle are sold.

Limestone Country Beef has already attracted the attention of top chefs like James Martin and is starting to appear in leading restaurants and butchers’ shops in the region.

And conservationists say the concept could be adopted on similar limestone pavement sites across the UK.

It would enable hundreds of hill farmers – many of whom feel they could struggle to qualify for HLS payments – to meet conservation objectives on the back of branded beef with a premium retail value.

Jim Caygill, who farms at Rylstone near Skipton, has limestone land running to 1400ft in the heart of the project at Kilnsey where he grazes Luing cattle.

His 125ha (300 acres) of limestone now carry 20 Luing cows and calves (5ha per cow) alongside 200 ewes.

“This will allow the limestone flora to regenerate,” said Mr Caygill.

More than 200 cattle will be reared by Limestone Country Beef over the next year – a figure expected to steadily increase to almost 700 head.

Neil Heseltine of Malham Tarn has set up a herd of 20 Belted Galloways and expects his involvement will qualify him for the HLS at the end of the five-year project.

“I received 50% towards the cost of the cattle and get an annual payment of £30 a hectare for the 63ha (150 acres).

If I was running sheep alongside the cattle in the summer the payments would be £20/ha,” said Mr Heseltine.

jh@jeremyhuntassociates.com