20 March 1998

Young blood for

the hills is one of top priorities

WANTED: Young people for the hills. Nearly three-quarters of northern hill farmers are over the age of 55.

There is a desperate need to get young blood into the hills if the natural beauty of the landscape is to be preserved for future generations, according to industry leaders.

But its tough going for youngsters like Gary and Gillian Schofield as they struggle to establish a viable farm business. Plummeting livestock prices, which have slashed farm profitability by 50%, could not have come at a worse time.

"We were lucky that breeding sheep was a good trade last year and this cushioned us from the effect of bad beef prices," says 30-year-old Mr Schofield. "But this year everything is flat. Our accounting year to the end of June will show income well down – at best only half of last years total. And we still have an expensive time of the year to come with sheep feed."

Another problem is the late arrival of MAFF subsidy payments which stretches cash flow even further. "The business has rent going out, without subsidy payments coming in. We are on tick over; not investing on anything unless it is funded from elsewhere," says Mr Schofield.

Previously involved in lowland sheep share farming, the young couple secured the tenancy of the 360ha (890-acre) Heber Farm, Buckden, Upper Wharfedale, three years ago. The farm had been bought by the National Trust for its landscape value. The Schofields fought off stiff competition to win the tenancy.

Strict limits are imposed on their farming business by the trust, in an attempt to balance economic farming activity with environmental issues and landscape conservation. But the Schofields are determined to make the most of the opportunity.

They accepted a stocking limit of 650 ewes and 40 suckler cows – considerably fewer than run by the previous owner occupier. They also have to contend with restrictions on fertiliser use similar to those operated in Environmentally Sensitive Areas and hay meadow cutting dates. The recipe for success, say the Schofields, is hard work and tight cost control on all expenditure.

They began their career running a hill sheep farm without quota, and therefore, without the vital financial support of hill ewe subsidies. But that handicap was removed by a full allocation of quota from the national reserve.

Family farm finances have been supplemented by Mrs Schofields earnings as a full-time nurse.

The farm had two good years to kick-start the couples farming career. They had planned to devote much of this years farming profit to reducing the substantial bank borrowings that were necessary to stock and equip the farm. But the sharp drop in profitability has put that on hold.

The arrival of the couples first child a few weeks ago also puts a question mark over important off-farm income. But Mrs Schofield hopes to continue her contribution to family income working two days a week as a district nurse.

Half the 650 flock of Swaledale ewes is bred pure, the remainder go to a Blue-faced Leicester tup to produce Mule breeding gimmers.

Careful ewe management is resulting in a lambing percentage of 120-130%. "We try to get as many twins as we can and keep them going," explains Mr Schofield. The unit aims to fatten all lambs which are held back to finish inside rather than selling them as stores. But the tactic will not work this season, he says.

The farm carries only 12 suckler cows, although the stocking limit is 40. Mr Schofield does not feel the farm is particularly suited to sucklers and keeps them to aid grazing management.

Instead, a beef rearing unit has been introduced. Bull calves are bought in and reared on a silage and barley diet to 10-12 months of age when they are sold as 350-400kg stores after claiming the beef special premium payment and extensification top up. Farmyard manure from the bull beef unit is particularly useful given the National Trusts restrictions on the use of artificial fertiliser.

Mr Schofield takes his environmental responsibilities on the hill unit very seriously. He has taken advantage of many of the grants and payments available under various environmental schemes to maintain the farms network of drystone walls.

New hedges have been laid and planted on the boundaries of some of the units 81ha (200 acres) of in-bye pastures and meadows.

The Schofields are determined to work their way through the current prices and incomes crisis. For youngsters thinking of a future in hill farming, they say there is no easy way. "You just have to get stuck in and be economical in everything you do," advises Mr Schofield.

"It has to be something both partners desperately want to do. And you have to be prepared to work hard over long hours," he adds.

Gary and Gillian Schofield of Heber Farm, Buckden, Upper Wharfedale, are struggling to establish a viable farm business.

Garry Schofieldwith a few of his Swaledale ewes on rising ground.

HEBER FARM

&#8226 325 head of pure-bred Swaledale ewes.

&#8226 325 Mule breeding gimmers (Swaledale x Bluefaced Leicester).

&#8226 Lambing percentage 120-130%.

&#8226 All lambs finished inside.

&#8226 12 suckler cows.

&#8226 Bull calves bought in and reared on a silage and barley diet to sell as 350-400kg stores.