Train for work on the hills

A new initiative to fund an apprenticeship scheme to safeguard the skills of hill farming for future generations is as much in the interests of the public as it is for agriculture, according to Lake District fell farmer Pauline Blair.

It’s something she said had been neglected by the government.

And, now that she had been appointed chairman of the Cumbria county CLA branch, she said it’s one of many issues she intended to pursue in her pledge to defend the future of hill farming.

Mrs Blair runs 700 Herdwick and Swaledale ewes near Buttermere.

She told Farmers Weekly that Lake District fell farming was suffering from a “labour crisis”.

“My neighbour has been trying to organise a gather to bring ewes and lambs off the fell.

Trying to find the six men needed to do the job is almost impossible,” said Mrs Blair.

But she’s convinced that a pay-and-train programme on the skills of hill farming aimed at younger people – and that included walling and other tasks now carrying an environmental tag – would plug the drain on labour.

“It’s about time some cash was directed towards retaining the hill farming skills that are under threat of being lost forever.

“It’s not just the fact that young people aren’t coming into hill farming, farmers can’t even afford to pay an apprentice so it makes sense to introduce a scheme that would pay young people to master the skills and at the same time boost the labour force while they’re in training,” said Mrs Blair.

She remains concerned that environmental schemes introduced in the Lake District to reduce over-grazing are starting to backfire.

Although some regional staff from English Nature – the organisation that implemented the destocking of millions of hill ewes off the fells – are starting to heed farmers’ warnings, she said senior staff at English Nature refuse to acknowledge their mistakes.

“They don’t seem to realise you’ve got to have a certain number of hefted sheep on these fells or the entire hefted system will breakdown – and that’s already starting to happen.”