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A tale of two countries: farming north and south

Friday 03 October 2003

Country columnist John Sheard reflects on the news that profits have soared for British cereal and beef farmers - but asks when some relief will arrive for northern hill farmers?

HALF of Britain's agricultural industry - the fatter half - is celebrating the news that profits on cereals and beef soared this summer, thanks to influences totally beyond the farmers' control.

Because desert-hot weather in France and other parts of southern Europe destroyed cereal crops and dried out grazing pasture, there is a continent- wide shortage of wheat and beef.

And because the value of sterling has dropped slightly, wheat and beef farmers here will get more pounds to the euro when they sell their produce across the Channel. Well, bully for them - any extra money going into British farming after years of crisis is welcome.

Sheep

But this will do little for the most important agriculture in the Yorkshire Dales and other upland areas of the UK: hill farming and the tough, independent and, some might say, downright dour farmers who have kept it going for centuries.

Tough and dour they may well be - they have to be to survive 70-odd hour, seven-day-a week working, often in appalling weather conditions. Many of them have not had a holiday since they took over the family farm and, on an hourly pay rate, would do better cleaning the toilets in the local pub or hotel.

And there's the rub. The new generation of farmers' sons and daughters have seen their parents battle day and night for a pittance and are saying in their thousands: Not for me.

So they are selling up - and making a great deal of money - on their farmhouses, barns and cottages which are being snapped up by wealthy offcumdens and moving into the cities to jobs which give them more money and infinitely more leisure time. And who can blame them?

Trouble is, if this mass exodus continues, who will look after the Dales landscape in the future? For our priceless landscape, famous throughout the world from TV series, calendars and picture post cards, was shaped into its present form by scores of generations of farmers.

Their descendents maintain it as it is - for free - except for the small minority who receive grants from bodies like the Yorkshire Dales National Park. If the Dales were to go back to its natural state, the moors would be covered with bracken, not heather, the valleys half bog, half scrub. And who would visit and keep our tourist trade afloat to see scenery like that?

Fifteen years ago, Earl Peel, then owner of a huge shooting and farming estate in Swaledale, told me that hill farmers must be paid for their conservation work is we were to save the Dales. His close friend, Prince Charles, and many other eminent people agree.

But have the politicians listened? Well, they have talked. They have, in fact, been talking about such schemes for at least a decade. And have they done anything? Well, they've formed a few more committees in Brussels - but the French are being awkward, of course.

In the meantime, the lifeblood of the Yorkshire Dales - its farmers' sons and daughters - is seeping away. I'm glad the farmers in the south and East Anglia have had a good year. Unless our hill farmers get one soon, there won't be any left!


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