Recently a journalist from a national newspaper described the Lake District as a sheep- wrecked wasteland. It is not the first time journalists have sought to de- cry farming in Cumbria. This man has been making a habit of it having written about the need to re-wild areas like Cumbria, claiming that sheep compact the vegetation and soils on Lakeland’s fells, exacerbating surface water run- off, contributing to flooding issues, destroying flora and fauna and so on. You get the picture.
His comments were generally not well received in Cumbria. It wasn’t just farmers that bristled but also owners of tourist businesses and I have to say some environmental bodies who work with farmers in Cumbria too and found the approach unhelpful. People who know and love our county may not be dissuaded by controversial sound bytes designed to increase the author’s profile, but to anyone reading newspapers and considering visiting Lakeland for the first time, they may well have been dismayed to read those damaging and deliberately provocative comments. Farmers maintained a dignified silence to the point where they were goaded on social media by the journalist, desperately seeking a reaction. Few bothered. The most ardent environmentalists are of course singing the praises of this re- wilding approach.
I cannot comment on those books or articles. I haven’t read them in full. I have however heard other people’s thought’s. Whilst most have found the extremes of sheep removal and re- wilding unpalatable and for some quite laughable, there was an acceptance that farm management could and should make positive contributions to protect and conserve Lakeland’s environment in future, but not at the expense of the farmers or all of their sheep!
So is our beloved Lake District a wasteland or a wonderland? 40 Million Tourist’s visit Cumbria annually spending around £2 Billion. That doesn’t sound like a wasteland to me. I’ve never met a tourist yet who doesn’t love to see sheep on the fells as they grind and sweat their way up the well- trodden paths of Lakelands finest fells. What better a back drop can you have as you sit and eat your sandwiches in the gentle summer breezes on the tops, watching the Herdwicks grazing the slopes, listening to the faraway bleat of lambs, momentarily lost from their mothers in the thick grasses and swathes of bracken?
Farmers tell me that on many fells and commons the grass sward is quite thick these days, butterflies are returning and most of the land managers I know are proud of the wildlife, birdlife and other habitats on their farms.
So what is the story? Well, it is common knowledge that in the austere years following WW2, this country and many other European countries were counting the cost of war. There were food shortages and rationing. Successive governments sought to get the country back on track. The farmer was the housewives best friend. She needed the dairy man, the shepherd, the beef farmer and the pig producer like never before. Over one third (33%) of the weekly wage was spent on food. Our farmers were respected for the fine job they did. Food was a necessity and not that readily available.
Gradually over the next few decades food austerity began to dwindle. All the while food production was in full swing. The new common market gave farmers quotas and targets, positively supporting increasing production through various measures. Add to that new technology, better farming methods and increasing yields and it did not take that many years to reach saturation- point. Crazy as it sounds we were soon over- producing. We well remember the Butter Mountains and wine lakes as excess stocks were bought and stored under what was simply called “EU intervention”!
In Cumbria during my working life our farmers were paid subsidies to keep more breeding stock via a host of support measures. There were headage payments for breeding cattle and sheep, top- up measures to ensure a guaranteed price on some prime stock at the time of slaughter and tradeable quota’s for milk production and sheep. The result in nearly all upland areas of the UK was that farmers kept more and more stock to take advantage of the subsidies. Who could blame them? I would have done it and so would most people. As a result, more sheep were kept on the fells than ever before, more cattle grazed in the valleys and more milk cows put through the dairy parlours all across the country.
The general public did not complain because food was becoming cheaper year upon year. This has continued to the point where the average food spend as percentage of earned income is now estimated to be as low as 11%, a far cry from 1950. What this means is that the consumer has far more disposable income to spend on other goodies. Food is so cheap it has become disrespected. My grandmother would scrape every last scrap of margarine from a tub. Nothing was wasted. Food would be re used or re- heated by her in the following days. Grandfather raved about three day old lamb hotpot which he claimed he would happily eat every day as the flavour matured with each re- heat. Today it is not so. Food is no longer valued by the consumer. In 2015 UK households binned over £13 billion of edible food, nearly £500 per household per year.
Out with the rubbish has gone public and political respect for farmers and also consumer knowledge about food production. It is a travesty that young people learn so little in schools about farming, food production and the environment. Indeed all the talk about farmers for many years has been the misguided myth that they are production subsidy junkies, living in high old- fashion, driving large country cars and abusing the animals they farm in search of maximum production and profit. A visit to and a chat with any lake district farmer would soon put paid to that.
Many farmers in the Lake District are very good at talking to the public. They have to be as most Lakeland farms are criss- crossed with public footpaths leading to and from the fells. My old friend and auction mart director Stan Edmondson positively revelled in meeting the stream of visitors trudging past Seathwaite farm in Borrowdale, heading for Great Gable or the Scafell’s. “Where’ve you been and what have you seen?” was a phrase that many will remember him by. In this and other respects farming is linked arm in arm with tourism, indeed perfect bed- fellows in areas like Cumbria. So much so that Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership is currently drafting a rural growth plan linking farming and tourism tightly together.
By the late 1980’s it was clear that some of the Lakeland fells were becoming over- grazed. Solutions were offered and on some fells farmers were financially encouraged to reduce the numbers of fell ewes grazing on high during the winter months. At this time a plethora of non- governmental organisations began to grow with a very fixated view on how the environment, rivers, lakes, habitats, flora and fauna should be managed in areas like the Lake District. By the mid 1990’s production support had disappeared. European and government policy dictated that support payments to farmers should be based on environmental rules and outcomes.
At this point the relationship between the farming community, government agencies and environmentalists began to sour. Farmers were now being asked to keep even less sheep and cattle in the name of environmental protection. Blamed for the loss of habitat, over grazing, water quality and all the while being ordered by supermarkets to offer uniformity in supply, quality and conformation (remember the wonky vegetables) and at reduced or even penal prices, times suddenly got pretty difficult for farmers.
The BSE crisis of 1996 followed by the collapse in Beef prices, then a collapse in sheep prices, Foot and Mouth disease in 2001, an subsequent years when there was no export market, brought the livestock farming industry to an all- time low. Hard farming areas like the Lake District suffered as badly as any other area of the country. Many farm businesses were able to survive only with the subsidy payments available, using this money to prop up loss- making livestock enterprises. Profit almost became a dirty word in farming.
Sound business advice would have suggested that those farmers doing worst should actually cut and run, sell up and let those of the biggest size and scale swallow the smaller poorer farms. It didn’t happen. Why? Well here is the rub to all of this. Despite all of the issues and problems that have beset the farming industry over the last thirty years and more, there is one factor that remains unaccounted for and that is the human factor, farmers themselves.
Generations of farming families have worked these hills and valleys. There is pride and stoicism. It is passed from generation to generation and is bred- in, rather like the hefting gene in genuine fell sheep. In the bad times young farmers have perhaps had to take second jobs and work elsewhere but so often there is hope and expectation that one day, the farm will be theirs. The cycle will continue.
At this stage of my own career as a Lakeland auctioneer I have worked with at least three generations of family farming and my how times have changed. What does not change is the passion and the care to farm the Lake District “to the best of our ability”. I talk to many young farmers whose priority is to learn the skills peculiar to farming in their valley or on their fell. Every fell or common is different. Now they are also challenged with learning new skills, how to improve the bio- diversity on the farm, how to manage the water, how to deal with flooding. These are all part of the modern Lakeland farmer’s new challenges and working practice. The good news is that I haven’t met many farmers who are not up for the challenge. I see this a huge positive for the government, general public and all those concerned principally with conserving the environment.
So how is it going to work in the future? No one has crystal ball good enough to see through the hazy maze of Brexit, future government policy, climate change, international politics, and a world population set to increase from 7 billion to over 10 billion in the next thirty years. These are global issues we have to address. It is now clear that we have to put the past behind us and craft a land use policy in this country which achieves some very simple aims: –
- Sustainable food production
- Viable farming
- Conserve and enhance our natural environments
- Protect our fresh water supplies.
- Farmers collaborating with farmers to achieve all of the above.
We cannot stick our head in the sand. At some stage in the next couple of decades we will go hungry in this country. We have such a reliance on cheap imported food from all over the world that it is dangerous. The reality is that food importation costs are going to rise, climate change will effect food production, pressure on fresh water supplies will increase significantly and the potential for political and religious disagreement is only going to strengthen.
As a nation we have to plan for the future. We have to get past short- term government thinking with manifestos designed only to win votes at election time. As a country we have to be bigger than that. The four aims I suggested above or not in any way exclusive. Instead they are totally linked and mutually inclusive.
In my opinion, the group of people best placed to deliver those aims are farmers. The cheapest, most cost effective way to deliver those public benefits is by supporting farm businesses. They have the skill sets and the ability with training and guidance to make this happen and achieve those aims. How do we do this?
I would be crunching the numbers to see what level of sustainable food production will be required to feed a population in the UK expected to exceed 80 Million by 2050. I’d be working with the farming community to improve productivity and efficiency under the concept of “more from less”. In other words how to grow more food with reduced inputs and costs. This means embracing new technology, improved working practices, better training and exchange of knowledge.
At the same time I would be engaging the UK leaders and experts in environmental protection. I would be asking and agreeing a set of goals and targets focusing on areas of greatest need. I would be looking to improve bio- diversity in those areas, encouraging improvements to habitat, improving our water quality and how we actually manage the land particularly in water catchments and areas of potential flooding.
All of this has to come at a public cost. Food production and environmental management is not a freebie. If you want cheap food in the shops sold at or under the cost of production, then food producers have to be subsidised. This is where reality has to kick in for supermarkets and other food processors. Environmentalists cannot expect farmers and other land managers to carry the cost of environmental protection and enhancement. Nor can they reasonably demand that their need of financial support is any greater or more important than the farmers. If the population starts to go hungry, they will forage the environment to survive. A balance is clearly required. We’re already past the “them and us” stage. They have to work in partnership.
If government buys in to the goals I suggested above, they then need to gather all parties together. All of them have their own goals and agenda’s. Through discussion and negotiation, a common set of goals and targets can be achieved. Everyone will have to settle for wins and losses, but at the end of an embryonic and totally new land management policy will be tabled and agreed to with which to go forward.
The final job will be to cost and apportion the level of public funding required to achieve the goals and targets. Again it will an inclusive subsidy regime rather than exclusive. Leading the field will be the farmers who will be tasked and supported in producing great food, cheaply and economically whilst at the same guaranteeing to conserve and where possible improve the natural environment.
This has to happen on a regional or even local basis. One size fits all national policies have not worked. Local knowledge on the ground has been ignored far too often by government people in far- away offices who have neither the knowledge nor the experience to administer agriculture and environment policies. Someone at a high level needs to grasp this fact and put their head above the parapet. DEFRA and other agencies are simply not fit for purpose in their current state.
Once the policies and goals are fixed, a public purse needs to be tapped in to in order to fund food production and environmental support. All the while the government must actively promote the new land use policies to the public. Consumers need to be educated in a number of ways. This will include the importance of all the land- use goals, British Values whereby it is no disgrace to promote “buying British” or even better “Buying local”. Incidentally British values are already supposed to be taught in Britain’s schools and colleges.
The public would then hopefully realise that once again, the farmer is a friend, perhaps in an even stronger way than 70 years ago when food production was the only goal. In the words of Bob Dylan “the times they are a- changin”. The problem as time goes on is that the changes are happening faster and faster. While politicians dither leading up to Brexit we are losing valuable time to get our agriculture industry in order and set up for the next round of challenges.
We need to be preparing the next generation of young farmers right now. They will be tasked with managing our lands and producing our food in future. The challenges facing them will be harder than ever before. Their position and status in society will be a key driver. The public support package needed has to be identified and put in place as soon as possible. Farm business support organisations like our own Farmer Network have been promoting these policies for years and have been in some ways, ahead of the game.
Farmer’s work best when they work together, but over the years the collaboration between farmers has reduced or even disappeared. In that respect we lag way behind our European counterparts. We need to get it back. Why? Because everyone is good at something, but no one good at everything. There is the opportunity to network, share and learn together. All of this will help achieve the land use policies we need. The same goes for government agencies and other land- use organisations. Too many are skilled in their own speciality but know nothing about the practicalities of farming. Just as our farmers need to become more environmentally savvy, so the environmentalists must become more farmer savvy. It has to happen in order to create joined up policies. There has to be a balance.
In thirty years’ time, I would love to think that our “wonderland” Lake District still attracts visitors from all over the world, but it may not be the case. If it is not, then I pray that at least we can feed our population and protect our precious little corner of the planet. I cannot get away from my strongly held belief that is the young farmers of today who will provide this for the generations of tomorrow.
The good news, and I know this because I work with them regularly, is that our young farmers are keen, enthusiastic and totally committed to farming the Lake District in the future. Far from the wrecked wasteland that some have sought to portray I believe our marvellous landscapes will be enhanced in future, our food production systems and our water quality improved. All of this will be achieved by our farmers many of whom are just starting their careers now, but only if they are properly and sensibly supported.
What a responsibility, what a challenge!