A tough farm
Environmental schemes could offer a lifeline to hill farmers.
On one of the toughest hill farms in northern England a family
is proving that sheep, grouse and heather management can
exist in harmony as Jeremy Hunt found out
ON the highest hill farm in England, remote and at the end of a mile-long track, two grouse whirr out of the heather calling their familiar "get-back, get-back" as they sweep out of sight into the seemingly endless moorland that stretches to the horizon.
The only other sound to break the silence on this isolated steading is that of a tractor. Muffled by the framework of an impressive new building, the tractors work is hurried. Its early October and the Mitchell family want most of the building finished before winter sets in.
And it can be a long one. The stone cottage at Birkdale Farm sits 490m (1600ft) high on the moors just a few miles north of Middleton-in-Teesdale. Heavy snowfalls have been known to drift well above the front door. No chances can be taken with the weather on this bleak but awe-inspiring upland landscape.
Its a landscape under pressure – one where those who strive to earn an income from sheep face dwindling returns while others, sympathetic to the plight of hill farmers, seek to achieve a balance between agriculture and a sustainable moorland environment.
John and Alison Mitchell have only recently taken over the tenancy of Birkdale Farm. Owned by the Oughtred family, the farm had previously been tenanted for 40 years by Mrs Mitchells parents. The continuity will be good for such a huge and environmentally important slice of the northern uplands.
The Mitchells have two lower-lying farms a few miles away near Barnard Castle. Their son Martin, 21, has been involved in the business since leaving school while his sister Susan left agricultural college last year and will soon be taking over day-to-day responsibility of Birkdale Farm.
The Oughtred family are deeply committed to their 2200ha (5400 acres) of heather moor. While they are to be applauded for their determination to see it remain a viable farming unit, they fulfil a vital role as custodians of an environment in which they invest heavily – not only to guarantee its sporting value but also to safeguard its environmental status.
The appointment of Mr Mitchells eldest son Robert as full-time gamekeeper forges even stronger links between landlord and tenant, both of whom share the belief that efficient farming practice and effective grouse management is the bedrock of successful moorland habitat improvement.
Straddling the Cumbria-County Durham border, Birkdale Farm carries ewes on 1214ha (3000 acres) of the all-heather moor which runs to 760m (2500ft). As part of a Farm Stewardship agreement every stretch of stone wall is being improved.
Just below the house, around 12ha (30 acres) of enclosed ground provides the only land fit to yield a crop of hay. Under the agreement this small patch of green is being allowed to return to traditional meadow land.
There are rights on the moor for 1050 Swaledale ewes and 310 replacement gimmer hoggs. But under an agreement with the landlord to reduce the pressure on the heather – and ultimately benefit the grouse population – the flock is restricted to 800 ewes and 200 hoggs.
But thats only part of the story. To ensure the heather is not overgrazed and damaged during the harsh winters, 600 ewes and all the hoggs are trailered-out to spend the first part of the New Year on tack. But even with a voluntary agreement with English Nature, which agreed to pay the cost of lowland winter grazing for 400 of these ewes, it has become an expensive operation that can no longer stack-up against the income-abyss into which hill farming has fallen.
Off the moor
"Its been costing £11,500 a year for away-wintering plus another £1000 for haulage. In the first year we were here, when our lambs were making £28-£30, it was feasible. With lambs now worth £5-£12 we have to reconsider the whole approach to getting sheep off the moor for the winter," says John Mitchell.
But winter-breaks for sheep are getting shorter as dairy farmers want pastures cleared of stock by Mar 1. Hauling over 700 head of sheep back to a hill farm still in the grip of winter in late February is not ideal. And heavily pregnant ewes swapping gentle lowland dairy pastures for a storm-swept moorland on the highest farm in England is not an ideal way to shepherd sheep. There had to be a re-think.
Last year, piece by piece, the framework of a second-hand sheep house was driven carefully up the narrow track to Birkdale Farm. Measuring 24m x 21m (80ft x 70ft) the building is part of the long-term plan to house a proportion of the flock over the winter – relieving grazing pressure on the heather but also easing the costs and inconvenience of sending sheep away.
This spring the building – paid for by the Oughtred family – was used for lambing from late April. It made a huge difference. In-bye land was saved from heavy poaching at lambing time and shepherding conditions were greatly improved. And with this years hill-bred store lamb prices offering a pittance of profit, the intention is to use the sheep house to finish lambs and to sell them on the anticipated stronger prime hogget market in February.
As you drop down the track towards the steading you see a second shed thats recently been completed. And its this building thats serving to prove just how fast a new raft of cash incentives being offered to north country hill farmers can actually be put to work.
While scepticism has held back some hill farms from taking advantage of environmental schemes, others have grasped the opportunity. John Mitchell and his landlord will be the first to have completed an ambitious plan of improvements under the Northern Uplands Moorland Regeneration Project.
Financed through the EUs 5b initiative with equivalent MAFF funding, the project has provided 40% of the £35,000 cost of the new sheep house. The balance has been paid by the landlord. Measuring 36m x 17m (120ft x 55ft), it will provide the farm with the luxury of being able to bring 800 ewes under cover for the latter part of the winter and hold them through until lambing.
Although writing a cheque for £12,000 for winter grazing is painful, the cost of a prolonged housing period for 800 ewes could equally make a big hole in the bank balance. So just how the new sheds are incorporated into the flocks management will largely depend on the severity of the winter weather. This year 100 ewes are being housed from early January and carefully costed.
"We want to see how much it costs and how things work out. And we need to get confirmation from English Nature to ensure that we can still qualify for some financial help even if the ewes are taken off the moor but kept on the farm in the new buildings."
Proved the benefits
Saya Harvey of the Northern Uplands Moorland Regeneration Project says the scheme has proved the benefits of an integrated approach to moorland management.
"Although the scheme has now closed to new applicants, its success will hopefully encourage MAFF to instigate other agri-environmental projects in the future."
Robert Mitchell has been keeper on Birkdale for four years. Hes very proud of his heather. Now well under way with a programme that aims to burn 160ha (400 acres) a year, areas of heather that were fired 12 months ago are already showing the first signs of re-growth.
Kneeling down to examine the bright-green shoots of young heather emerging from the charred peat, he explains why he believes farming, shooting and conservation practices can consolidate this upland habitat and work in unison.
"It can all come together. There doesnt have to be conflicting interests as there is understanding on all sides that moorland management can work for everybodys benefit," says Robert.
The lower numbers of ewes on the moor has undoubtedly improved the heather. "I can go up there sometimes and youve a job to find a ewe. But the heathers better for it and so are the sheep and the grouse."
The Land-Rover travels effortlessly across the moor now that a boggy peat track has been replaced by a stone road. Thousands of tonnes of stone were tipped at the farm and moved out on to the moor to create a track over half-a-mile long. The Northern Uplands Moorland Regeneration Project has paid for 40% of the cost and made an equal contribution to restoring a row of grouse butts.
"Grouse numbers are improving. On heather that has been burned the numbers can double as feeding resources are increased," says Robert.
The future of Birkdale moor, its farming and its shooting, is in good hands. This close working relationship between farmer and landlord is a shining example of conservation, sporting and agricultural interests working in tandem and capitalising on readily available grant aid. Hill farming is under intense pressure but here compromise and co-operation are building a sound foundation for success.