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Good news, bad news for Dales hill farms

Friday 06 June 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, a long-time supporter of hill farming, the forgotten branch of British agriculture, welcomes a new initiative that could save a threatened Yorkshire Dales way of life - but worries that the horse may already have bolted

IT HAS been a week of good news, bad news, for hill farmers, that sturdy, self-contained but often lonely band of Yorkshire Dales folk who for centuries have - for nowt - husbanded the landscape which has made the area a magnet for visitors from around the world.

For years now I have been writing that these stalwart custodians of the Dales uplands have been under-rewarded for the work they do - not so much abused as forgotten. Those millions of visitors who come here rarely understand that although it may have been God who created the landscape, it is the hill farmer and his ancestors who shaped it into today's picture postcard image.

swaledale sheep in yorkshire dales winter
Hill farms: recognition at last

Their work has always been a non-stop struggle against poor land, towering hills and rocky pastures plus, of course, the weather. It may not snow as heavily today as it did in bygone winters, but it is just as damp - and wet weather is the biggest enemy to the hill farmer's major crop, the spring lamb.

For all these efforts, including maintaining the landscape which they throw in free, the hill farmers have been paid buttons. When the hours they put in are counted, many receive less than the minimum wage of just under £6 an hour: they would be better off scrubbing out the loos in the local pub. Not surprisingly, they - or rather their sons and daughters - are leaving the land in their droves.

This problem, and the threat it could face to our countryside in the future, has at last been recognised by officialdom. The Government agency Natural England staged a conference in Sheffield earlier this week entirely devoted to the uplands and its farmers - at last, their importance have been finally recognised (see News)..

Tricia Henton, the agency's Director of Environment Protection, told the conference: "The uplands are the underdog of our countryside. We rarely talk about them and with the current debate on the future of farming and food shortages, we risk moving the attention away from them once again.

"Covering about 40% of our landscape, uplands provides many benefits to us and are some of our best national assets. They produce clean water and store huge amounts of carbon dioxide. They provide a home to some of our best wildlife and protect lowland from flooding by having the capacity to store water."

Now whilst this warms the old cockles after years of crying in the wilderness, I wish I could be more optimistic about the future outcome of such deliberations. For there is a global food shortage not merely looming but actively underway with people starving in parts of the Third World.

And although Natural England has made a pretty good fist of its work in its first two years of existence, overall control of future farm planning is in the hands of the Government and, even worse, the European Union. That's a thought that fills me with dread.

Governments always seem two work twenty years behind the times. In defence, for instance, we are stripping the army of men and equipment to buy hundreds of Tornado jet fighters designed to go into dog fights against the Russians in air battles conceived at the height of the Cold War. Now our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan go into battle in 40-year-old Land Rovers without helicopters, body armour and working radios.

Without them, the Yorkshire Dales would quickly revert to scrub, bracken and bog

Apply this sort of thinking to farming, and to hill farming in particular, and we are halfway to defeat already, a sentiment that was taken up on Thursday by the Tenant Farmers' Association (also see News).

The TFA also says that the Government's thinking is 20 years out of date as the food crisis begins to bite here with soaring prices. We need a long term strategy for future food and energy production, it says, which the Government is totally lacking. To make things worse, it keeps piling on the red tape which means that farmers spend ever more time husbanding paper rather than their crops.

If and when such a future policy is ever delivered - it might take a change of Government to do it - I hope they will build in some safeguards for hill farmers which will pay them for the work they do as countryside custodians. Because, frankly, they will never be able to produce cheap food and stay in business.

Without them, the Yorkshire Dales would quickly revert to scrub, bracken and bog, which in turn would mean disaster for the tourist trade and the many small businesses and jobs which depend on it. The times call for clear heads and steady hands on the tiller. Where they will come from I have no idea.

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