Cumbria looked good last week. Lush grass banished thoughts of the June drought and worries about fodder for the winter. As the autumn sun shone, there was even an occasional field of third-cut silage being made.
Silage pits and hay barns may not be as full as they should be, but new grass after August rain was coming through the stock faster than it should and a lot of cattle and sheep had mucky back ends.
Nor was it easy to visualise the devastation caused by last November’s floods. There are still repairs to be done but the most urgent work has been completed and the damage can now only be assessed by the miles of new fencing erected beside water courses and lakes.
One hill farmer told us how his flood-demolished lakeside wall had been rebuilt in 36 hours last spring by a bunch of 50 volunteers who formed themselves into a “wallathon”. It’s good to know community spirit is alive and well in Cumbria.
I was there with London Farmers Club members on one of the club’s regular tours. This year’s club chairman, Nicky Quayle, lives and farms in Cumbria with her husband, David. Their enthusiasm for and knowledge of the area meant we had a fascinating tour.
Those familiar with the county will know it is full of contrasts. Some farms in favoured areas are incredibly productive and we saw some on our tour. Hill farms, on the other hand, have it much harder. Agriculture might appear to be the dominant industry but that is a misconception. Tourism is the biggest earner generating some £2bn per year.
But tourists wouldn’t go there if the hills and fells weren’t managed for agriculture. The two are interdependent as was illustrated during the foot-and-mouth epidemic nine years ago. Forty seven per cent of all F&M cases were in Cumbria and a third of the sheep in the county were slaughtered. But at least farmers were compensated. The tourist trade received nothing and was devastated.
Several times our party was told how farming and tourism must co-operate for mutual benefit. And as we face imminent government spending cuts and the next CAP reform in 2013, hill farmers in particular must continue to receive aid to keep them on the land and managing the landscape. Subsidy was the wrong word, we were told. It should be termed “investment” in the wider economy.
We saw what was meant on a National Trust-owned hill farm overlooking Ullswater and tenanted by husband and wife Sam and Candida Hodgson. Running to 3500 acres it’s a beautiful spot and a honey-pot for fell walkers – several walked past us on their way to the fells as we stood in the farmyard.
The farm carries 1400 ewes comprising Herdwicks, White Faced Woodland and Swaledales and 500 hogs together with 22 Limousin cows. The only buildings are a small barn beside the house and a couple of sheds so the sheep are full-time on the fell – and that includes lambing. The husband-and-wife team do all the work except at gathering time when friends volunteer to help.
The farm is signed up to every possibly environmental scheme for maximum grant aid. Indeed Sam reckons 80% of receipts come from government rather than stock sales. But he’s still just scraping a living and his 14-year-old son regularly asks “why can’t we have a holiday like my school friends?”
We left wondering about the long term farming future for those hills.