National Trust lakeland
All but devastated by foot-and-mouth disease, the
north-wests farming community is picking up the
pieces and looking to the future. Jeremy Hunt
provides an insight into a region which is
undergoing massive change
WORKING in partnership to run entire Lake District Valleys as single units is just one of the innovative ideas put forward by the National Trust as part of its post foot-and-mouth recovery plan for Cumbria.
Details of a series of pilot schemes aimed at creating a sustainable and secure future for Lake District farming have been issued by the NT which describes the F&M crisis as a "watershed" for farming in the north west.
"In our view any vision for the future should be dynamic and holistic and should recognise the key significances of the Lake District – its spectacular cultural landscape, its massive tourist potential and its vulnerable upland farming – all of which are intertwined," says the NT.
The trust cares for 25% of the land in the Lake District. The total area extends to 55,000ha (136,000 acres) and includes 91 farms and 25,000ha (62,000 acres) of common grazing. As landlord, the NT owns 21,000 Herdwick sheep.
Three of the trusts farms were hit by F&M and a further four farms were taken as contiguous culls. Five of the farms ran hefted flocks of Herdwick sheep; the breed lost 30-35% – around 30,000 head – of its entire UK population during the height of the epidemic.
"The situation for hill farmers was dire before F&M. Now things are even worse but because the trust cares for a quarter of the land in the Lake District we are in a position to make things happen and to implement many of the ideas being put forward to create a better future for our hill farmers," says Oliver Maurice, the trusts regional director.
As a keen supporter of the "added value" concept as a means of bolstering farm incomes, he believes now is the ideal opportunity to evaluate the potential market for "branded" farm produce carrying the National Trust logo.
Some individual NT tenants have already started selling their own Herdwick lamb and the response has been good. Their experience has undoubtedly paved the way for a co-ordinated marketing project open to all the trusts sheep farming tenants.
"Lamb produced on the trusts farms, meeting welfare and traceability criteria, slaughtered locally and marketed within the region – thats the sort of scenario we are aiming for," says Mr Maurice.
The NT will soon appoint a project officer to raise the profile of Herdwick sheep and to investigate the lamb marketing scheme. The proposed farmer-owned abattoir being planned at Tebay, near Penrith looks likely to play a vital role in this marketing venture.
Looking further ahead it is hoped the accreditation scheme could be extended to cover other products such as sheeps milk cheese, preserved meats and even bio-mass.
The NT would like to see greater partnerships develop between land owners and the local community to achieve a management strategy for entire Lake District Valleys.
Nationally the trust is committing £1m a year to its Whole Farm Plan project which seeks to develop sustainable farming practices with tenant farmers.
While these initiatives are commendable none can be achieved without the farmers themselves – but there are already the first signs that some are preparing to leave.
Although there is no indication of an avalanche of relinquished tenancies, uninhabited farms are not something the trust can contemplate. There have been suggestions that in order for the NT to fulfil its obligations as landscape custodians it may be forced to pay tenant farmers as an incentive to keep them on their holdings in the role of managers.
That situation may yet be some way off but changes are underway. A farm tenancy currently available is being advertised as "part-time". While the trust is aware that this particular holding cannot support a full time farmer, it is equally concerned that a part-time tenant may not undertake a 100% commitment and the farm may suffer as a consequence.
"We have to look at all the options. Five years ago the trust was opposed to amalgamation of farms. Today we take a more pragmatic view and have to treat each individual case on its merits.
"Part-time holdings have the advantage of helping to maintain the rural structure of a community but we are aware its not a perfect solution and does pose certain risks."
Oliver Maurice is cautiously optimistic about the governments plans for farming in Cumbria.
But he stresses with five times as many cases of F&M than any other county, Cumbria must be treated as a special case.
"I believe the government is much more aware now of the interdependency between farming and tourism in an area such as the Lake District. The maintenance of this special landscape depends on a sustainable future for agriculture," says Mr Maurice.
NORTH WEST FARMING FACTS
Counties Cumbria, Lancashire, Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside.
Agricultural land area 0.86m ha (2.12 m acres). Nearly 65% is grassland excluding sole right rough grazing.
Farm numbers 17,944, which support 38,897 workers. Over 63% of the land farmed is owner occupied.
Cattle Total cattle and calf population 1,062,907 – 17% of the total population in England and Wales. Total dairy herd 348,192; total beef herd 97,464.
Sheep Total sheep and lamb population 3,704,482; breeding flock of 1,742,074.
Pigs and poultry Total pig herd 246,755; poultry flock of about 9m birds.
Arable area 105,283 ha (260,154 acres) is cropped – nearly 70% of this is down to cereals.
Source: DEFRA June 2000 Census. Livestock figures will have changed as a result of the foot-and-mouth epidemic.