Hills on slippery slope
In the first of our regional specials, designed to highlight
the key issues facing farmers throughout the UK,
Jeremy Hunt focuses on farming in the north-west.
Although hill producers are under more pressure than
ever before, a gritty determination underlines their
efforts to cut costs and maximise output
WITHOUT urgent action the hill sector is set for long-term decline, warns Lancs upland producer David Neave.
"Something has to be done. The impact of freezing livestock support payments has unjustly starved the hill sector of cash. There are many farms in the north-west which depend on up to 50% of their income from subsidies.
"Sheep hill livestock compensatory allowances have been unchanged for four years and the ewe premium is £8/hd down this year. Hill producers have also lost the extra £50/head paid on suckler cows under the HLCA scheme.
"When the government wanted to avoid paying that again they deemed it a BSE hand-out. Very convenient," says Mr Neave.
He runs 800 Lonk ewes and about 90 suckler cows at Leaches Farm and Cockshouse Farm on moorland running to 305m (1000ft) at Ashworth near Rochdale. The farms lowest grazing stands at 183m (600ft). He and his wife Louise run the farms between them. They cannot afford extra help.
Part of the flock is crossed with the Suffolk to produce prime lambs which can be ready for sale as soon as late May or early June.
But poor weather in early summer held lambs back last year and by the time the first were sold in July the price was falling fast.
"We ended up selling a lot as stores last year and we have kept all our 300 pure Lonk wether lambs. They will be finished inside as hoggs but who knows what the price will be?"
Those in government who have calculated hill farm incomes have been way off track in recent years, says Mr Neave. He believes the current crisis proves how unstable hill farming has become since it has been starved of the cash it deserved.
"We have had no increase for four years. Hill farmers are exasperated and defiant in the face of renewed pressures on livestock values caused by the strength of green currency and beef imports."
Louise Neave has considered taking a job away from the farm but she is an essential part of the team and is involved in the day-to-day management of stock.
"Earning extra income from outside farming is not an option for us. But its a scandal that family farms are at the mercy of monetary policy and the open-house the UK has operated on beef imports.
"Like so many hill farms we are just ticking over at the moment with a big overdraft; I dont know what will happen if things dont improve," says Mrs Neave.
Support payments, based on providing environmental skills, rather than livestock production, may be an option the government will consider, says Mr Neave. "It will be better than no cash at all but there is no equity being built up by repairing stone walls."
The tangible impact of the financial state of hill farming is summed up by the management of the suckler herd: "We were aiming for a younger herd by operating a strict culling policy. Thats gone by the board and we are now keeping cows that we would normally have sold.
"Our herd improvement plans have been shelved. No one can afford to improve a herd when a strict culling policy puts beef cows in the incinerator and brings you in a fraction of their true value," he says.
Challenging times…the Neaves are modifying the management of their suckler herd to reflect falling hill incomes. Inset: Louise Neave.