Why the hills must be farmed

Over 20 years ago the then Ministry of Agriculture published a weighty document entitled A Future for the Hills.

It was the government’s first official post-war admission that all was not well in the uplands.

The romantic image of the self-reliant shepherd, tending his sheep in blissful harmony with some of Britain’s most spectacular scenery, was suddenly not all it seemed.

All this came on the back of the TV programme about Hannah Hauxwell, the indefatigable lady who lived at barely subsistence level on a remote sheep farm deep in the Yorks Dales.

It put hill farming in the spotlight at a time when millions of tourists were taking to the road and infiltrating fells and dales hitherto undiscovered by the masses.

Almost overnight the role of our uplands as a source of food, environmental riches and a playground for the public was brought sharply into focus.

Three decades after Hannah and two decades after that famous Ministry tome, we are still struggling to find a solution to the challenges facing hill farming.

And we still seem no nearer sorting out the problems that beset our most valuable environmental resource.

Three decades ago there was time to plan and to formulate a structure for hill farming and put the building blocks in place to enable our upland communities to thrive.

But the opportunity was missed and the luxury of time is no longer on offer to today’s decision makers.

Several basic elements need to be addressed.

The government sees the hills as an environmental resource where it can justify spending money to support the landscape instead of supporting livestock.

But the cheapest way to maintain the landscape is through the farming practices that have created and maintained it.

Undermine the pure farming that underpins this environmental equation and there will be no one left to manage the landscape that is now the government’s priority.

Hill farming is a sector that should be appealing to entrepreneurial and dynamic youngsters looking to get a foothold in the industry where the most traditional of farming practices can learn to live alongside new ways of earning a living.

Hill farming deserves financial support from government that would allow producers the breathing space to generate new sources of income to sustain the uplands and inspire commitment from the next generation.