National Trust tenants threat

30 March 2001

National Trust tenants threat

By Jeremy Hunt

and Johann Tasker

THE foot-and-mouth epidemic could force the National Trust to abandon the traditional system of renting farms to tenant farmers in the Lake District.

In a radical move which could mean the end of the landlord-tenant system, the Trust believes it may have no option but to pay farmers to stay on the land and manage its farms. An ongoing cull of livestock and the first case of foot-and-mouth in the Lake District last Sunday (Mar 25) is already threatening to drive many Lakeland producers out of business.

The Trust has 89 tenanted farms on 23,808ha (59,000 acres) in the Lake District. Oliver Maurice, the Trusts north-west director, said: "If the virus spreads on to the common fell grazings many farmers may decide to quit. Old or young they may not be able to face the prospect of limited returns and the hard work needed to re-build their flocks."

Trust officials have already discussed the prospect of a major policy change. Mr Maurice said: "It is something we have thought about – it may be forced upon us… If we have tenants who do not have the stomach to carry on we will be faced with a lot of farms to let. Its dilemma we will be forced to address."

Hazel Relph, who farms with her husband Joe on a trust farm in Borrowdale, said: "This is a desperate time. If the hefted flocks of fell sheep are lost many farmers will not have the heart to carry on. We have all been battling to survive for so long. This is a nightmare we could never have imaged would happen."

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, said many producers would be unwilling or unable to restock their farms after the crisis. It was too early to make any hard assessments about what the future may hold but it was clear that the nature of agriculture would change, he added.

"If the trust are looking in that direction then we will want to work with them in developing and communicating their ideas to our members. It would be a significant sea change in the way landlord-tenant relationships work. There may even be legal implications that we have get across."

The initial Lakeland outbreak was at Seathwaite. But Trust officials are worried that the disease will take in vast areas of open fell and affect tens of thousands of Herdwick and Swaledale sheep if, as they fear, it now spreads.

In an effort to contain the disease, some 95% of Herdwick replacement gimmer hoggs, traditionally away wintered on lowland grazing, have already been slaughtered.

One third of all Herdwick rams – also sent way for the winter – are thought to have been killed in an extended cull.

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