More limitations or key to secure farm future?
SAM Hodgson admits he has some reservations about organic farming. The traditions of running a fell farm in the heart of the Lake District impose their own restrictions in terms of adding value to stock but could switching to an organic system be evenmore limiting?
Its a question that he has been mulling over for some time, but he reckons that 1999 may see him take the first steps to achieving organic status for his flock of 2000 breeding ewes.
"I am not a crank, Im just a farmer who is trying to make a living. Anything that will enhance my income has to be considered. It is a way of life but we have to be viable," says Mr Hodgson.
He took over a 15-year business tenancy on the 1295ha (3200 acre) Glencoyne Farm in December 1995. This National Trust holding on the shores of Ullswater is one of the Lake Districts most well-known hill farms.
The farm, which grazes fell land to 760m (2500ft) including some within the ESA, carries Swaledale ewes apart from a newly introduced flock of 150 Herdwicks. There is a quota for 18 sucklers.
The physical restraints of the farm – barely 20ha (50 acres) of mowing ground and a rainfall of nearly 2030mm (80in) – are restrictive when considering options to improve profitability. The existing flock had a poor lambing percentage and all lambs were sold as stores.
Improved flock management has lifted the lambing percentage to almost 90%. Last year (1997/98) the entire ewe flock was wintered on lower land running to 300m (1000ft) and fed hay and sugar beet from Christmas. Lambing starts in late April and all ewes are scanned.
"It was an expensive operation. We did it to improve performance and it worked, but when store lambs are making as little as £4 it takes some swallowing," says Mr Hodgson. This winter just under half the flock were kept on lower land and the rest turned back to the fell.
The lack of winter keep and suitable buildings means all wether lambs must continue to be sold off the farm in autumn. This years 750 Swaledale store lambs ranged from £4-£11; 100 Mule wethers from £14-£17 while draft ewes, sold as three-shear, sold for £33. Even other correct ewes were down to £9 apiece. In 1997 draft ewes averaged £41.
Despite the severe impact on income from such low prices Mr Hodgson remains determined to look ahead. "Its a case of survival, but breeding Swaledale sheep on a fell farm is what I want to do. To keep going means we have to look at ways of making more from the traditions that form the foundation of running a hill farm."
On the verge of changing to an organic system, his urgent quest is to find another organic farmer to discuss a business agreement enabling lambs from Glencoyne to be finished and marketed as organic lamb.
"Weve already looked closely into organic production. We would probably have to reduce our stocking rate and would have to split the 700 acres of lowland park grazing into about seven large areas to enable us to introduce a clean grazing system for ewes.
"We have a bracken problem and spraying would not be possible under an organic system. We dose lambs three times for worms and fluke, we scratch for orf and we use clostridial vaccines.
"Yes, compared with other systems hill farming is low input and is probably more easily converted to organic principles but there are still preventative flock health treatments that we would have to change to meet new standards."
But there would be savings. Mr Hodgson reckons he currently spends £4000-£5000 a year on flock health treatments. Small savings would also be made on inorganic fertilisers.
"The capital sum now available under the MAFF organic scheme runs for five years. That could be worth about £5000 a year to us but sheep will need more shepherding. Flock health is based on preventative treatments. Reduce those and sheep will need to be more closely monitored through increased shepherding and thats going to cost," says Mr Hodgson, who employs one full-time shepherd.
He believes lamb produced in the hills is second to none in terms of the type of lamb the consumer demands. "I believe that quality will always pay but the market will equally be driven by a demand for meat which is produced more extensively, something that consumers perceive as more naturally reared.
"Hill-bred lamb fits that criteria; add an organic tag and hopefully it will elevate these lambs into a premium price bracket. How long that will last remains to be seen, but can we afford not to consider something that may provide us with a more secure future by producing something that the market wants?" he adds. *
• Considering conversion.
• Boost hill income?
• More secure future?