News Analysis: De-stocking is devastating our hills

Compliance has forced the removal of hundreds of thousands of sheep from the UK’s hills and uplands to meet a scientifically concocted environmental agenda. And hill farmers are resolute in their condemnation of de-stocking.

They accuse scientists of an “ill-conceived concept” which they say has caused an unstoppable de-stabilisation of the hill farming sector and destroyed the fabric of rural life in upland communities.

This is certainly a complex issue and one that comes sharply into focus at a time when sheep prices in the UK are at an all-time high and when pre-election utterances from all major political parties suggest future agricultural policies will seek a better balance between food security and landscape protection.

The Lake District may now be deemed a World Heritage site, but the maintenance of its landscape remains firmly in the hands of hill farmers. Proud though they are of their identity, it’s one that’s now being phased out as hill farming – in the lingo of the enviro-scientists – is being re-branded as “composite farming”.

The reason is simple. The deeply held traditions of hill farming – underpinned by a system of husbandry governed by the stock, the climate and the landscape – are rapidly being broken down. Replacing them is a way of farming that relies less on grazing sheep flocks on the hills and more on the use of rented lowland pastures as part of the strategy to de-stock the higher land to “maintain” the upland environment.

That’s the theory, but although it’s 20 years since this methodology was first put into practice, no scientist is prepared to say whether or not it’s been successful. And as many hill farmers reach the end of the Higher Level Stewardship schemes that instigated the first de-stocking programmes, they must now brace themselves for even greater reductions in their hill ewe numbers as the new Higher Entry Level scheme takes over.

This new generation of environmental prescription appears to take no heed of the concerns already widely expressed by hill farmers over the impact of even more stringent cuts to sheep numbers, or the suggestions from politicians that policies that securing the nation’s food supply must now be prioritised.

Traditional shepherding of Lake District hill flocks is a system that has evolved over generations of farming. No fell farmer would disagree that it’s now in tatters.

Many fell flocks have had no option but to reduce sheep numbers by at least 35% in order to qualify for environmental payments, but in addition they’ve had to take their remaining sheep off the fells for prescribed periods of the year.

The solution, according to the scientists, was simple. Rent lower land for part of the year and use that to graze the sheep to alleviate grazing pressure on the uplands.

In essence that simplistic answer to a deeply complex problem has been the architect of a policy responsible for the destruction of the traditional infrastructure of hill farming in the Lake District. It has wiped-out the hefting instincts of flocks that have grazed the same unfenced fells for generations and led more ewes to produce twin-lambs – a level of productivity makes it impossible for these ewes to be turned back to the fell for the short permitted summer grazing period.

The Cumbrian Farmer’s View

Herdwick flock owner Will Rawling of Ennerdale has always maintained the de-stocking programme imposed a “Draconian system” on Lake District fell farmers. His calls to DEFRA for a change to an environmental protection strategy based on the farms and flocks within individual valleys, rather than imposing a blanket scheme, have been ignored.

“I’ve always suggested that scientists responsible for these schemes spend at least three weeks with us each year so they can see at first hand how we have to practically deal with their theories. That offer has always been rejected,” says Mr Rawling, who is chairman of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association and chairman of Cumbria Farm Network.

The on-going dilution of the hefting instinct in fell flocks – accentuated as more female Herdwick lambs retained as replacements can’t develop the instinct because they are born as twins and so aren’t turned on to the fell – means those that do eventually have to graze the fell at some stage in their lives not only stray more easily but are also “sucked” on to adjoining fell land which has also been heavily de-stocked.

“Gathering sheep off the fells is now a major problem because sheep are no longer where they should be. It’s a job that used to need big teams of men and dogs; now we need them more than ever but because there aren’t the job opportunities in fell farming those men aren’t there.

“The entire infrastructure of our farming system is crumbling at an alarming rate – and that includes the grazing of commons. There’s less and less incentive for farmers to get involved with grazing rights on common land and there’s very little to encourage new entrants to take on a fell flock because traditional fell farming doesn’t exist any more.”

Hill farmers, who should now be reaping the long-awaited lift in sheep values, say the high cost of rented winter grazing needed to carry stocks of sheep that can’t be wintered on the fell, is eating hard into any increase in sheep income.

“And the scientists took no account of the health issues we now have to contend with. Sheep grazed on lower land are more susceptible to fluke, are less resilient to tick-borne diseases and are losing their “hardiness” as increasing generations of sheep never experience the hard conditions of life on the fell.

“We’re told this has all been about creating favourable conditions of vegetation on the fells, but anyone whose knows this area will tell you that huge areas of fell are now seriously under-grazed – and that’s allowing coarse grasses to smother and choke the heather. So after 20 years, where are these so-called favourable conditions the scientists wanted to create?” asks Will Rawling.

The Government’s View

There will be no respite from the de-stocking of sheep flocks in the hills and uplands. More sheep will be removed from traditional upland grazing systems as DEFRA continues to apply its environmental agenda to future support payment programmes under the Higher Level Stewardship scheme.

Mervyn Edwards, DEFRA’s ESA project manager based at Penrith in Cumbria, has been closely involved with the de-stocking programme since the outset, and he believes many hill farming businesses would have been in a far worse state had such schemes not been introduced.

“The rate of de-stocking to comply with environmental schemes was not based on figures pulled out of fresh air. Proven scientific data has always been the basis of any removal of sheep off upland grazing but in many cases it has recommended far lower levels than we have actually applied – and in some cases it has recommended that all sheep be removed.

“It’s still too early to quantify the level of improvement since sheep were removed, but in the case of heather it’s often been a case of simply maintaining the heather in its current state – by avoiding further deterioration – rather than seeking full restoration. Good heather has maintained its condition but poor heather has often continued to decline.”

Mr Edwards says hill farming must “stay ahead of the game” and believes that the financial incentives on offer through the current environmental support agenda have created a stability in a sector that has suffered from poor profitability and admits to an ageing workforce.

“Traditional hill farming is becoming known as ‘composite farming’ but it’s providing an opportunity for hill farmers to increase output by incorporating lower, more productive grazing into their sheep management systems.”

The Welsh Farmer’s View

Hill farmer Simon Bennet-Evans of Llangurig – whose flock of 4000 ewes is now reduced to 2300 – says de-stocking of the Welsh hills has been a “total failure”.

“We should all be receiving our payments from the Ministry of Bracken and Gorse because that’s what we’ve been left with now that the sheep have gone.

“It’s been a huge shock to the system to see this happen to such a wonderful landscape, simply at the whim of the scientists. Anyone who has anything to do with grazing management will tell you that what they imposed on us was doomed to disaster from the start.

“Our hills have de-generated into a mass of bracken and gorse and it’s a tinder box, too. Apart from ruining the landscape, no-one seems to have realised that the vegetation that has encroached into these areas is bound to increase the risk of fires sweeping across huge areas of adjoining timber plantations.”