JUDGING HERDWICK EWES AND A FUTURE FOR THOSE WHO FARM THEM.

In early October there is a prize show and sale of Herdwick draft ewes at Cockermouth Auction, a market town on the northern edge of the Lake District. The sale has taken place here for over a century. Draft ewes are older sheep that are perhaps no longer fit enough to survive a further winter on the fell. So they are sold to lowland shepherds where conditions may be less harsh.  The ewes may go on producing lambs for several more years away from the fell.

Many years ago in the old Cockermouth town centre market, not long after I had become the market manager and therefore the Herdwick Sheep Breeders official auctioneer,  Joe Folder from Cockermouth produced a fantastic pen of  ten ewes, some of the biggest and best in the market. He presented them in the prize show. They were to compete against some equally magnificent fell sheep from top Lakeland breeders from every corner of Cumbria.

Joe had spent a lifetime in the Herdwick breed, working hard fell farms across Cumbria. For many years he was a National Trust tenant at Baskell farm in the hills above the Duddon Valley. In his later years he had retired to Cockermouth but his passion for Herdwicks remained undiminished. He continued to breed superb sheep none of which would live on high fells. This meant that his sheep were always bigger than many traditional fell- going ewes. This was not in any way a fault, but simply a product of their environment, living and breeding in fields around Cockermouth and the Vale of Lorton. His sheep were always sought after and sold well.

The show judge picked out two pens to contest the draft ewe championship. Side by side stood Joe’s sheep and a lovely pen of draft fell ewes from Gordon Tyson, Troutbeck Park. Standing on the lower slopes of Kirkstone Pass, the farm was purchased by Mrs Heelis (Beatrix Potter) in 1923 to prevent it being developed thereby preserving it as a working sheep farm which was her avowed intent. She did this by personally taking the farm in- hand and establishing a celebrated flock of Herdwick sheep. The sheep grazed to the top of High Street at around 2,700 feet and still do to this day.

After her death in 1943, Mrs Heelis gifted a total of 14 farms covering 4,000 acres including Troutbeck Park, to the National Trust. She did this to ensure that her will would be met and the farms remain viable working holdings for future generations. Gordon Tyson, farmed the sheep for many years and continued to improve a fine flock of sheep until he passed away in 2015. The sheep he brought to Cockermouth market had spent every winter living on the high fells above the farm. Now it was time for them to leave the fell and live the rest of their lives on lower pastures.

Both pens of sheep looked beautiful in the market, fleeces rudded- up along their backs with gleaming white faces in contrast to the grey- blue of the coat below the “rudd”. The Judge asked me how I wanted him to assess the sheep. Joe’s sheep had a size and condition that the fell sheep as strong and as good as they were, simply could not achieve. Stupidly, I said that he should just pick the best pen of draft sheep. I thought I was being diplomatic. The judge awarded the championship to the Troutbeck Park fell sheep and then apologised to Joe because he thought he had the strongest sheep. The judge quoted what I said and explained to Joe why his sheep were placed second. Joe just smiled and shook his hand.

Later in the bar, long after the sale was over, Joe lay his wizened old hand firmly on my forearm. He was approaching 80 years of age but his grip was still like iron. “Young man” he whispered in my ear, using his other hand to remove the pipe from his mouth “You should have just said nowt”. He smiled and released his grip. His point was made and he was quite right. I learned a valuable lesson.

Joe became a friend after that and would rarely miss a Herdwick Sale and the subsequent gathering of shepherds in the bar, right up to the end of his life. In the happy glow of the auction bar following the Herdwick sales, we would enjoy a drink and some good craic above the singing and the raucous laughter of Cumbrian fell farmers, letting their hair down and enjoying the end of the sale season before hunkering down for a long winter often in semi- isolation deep within the Lakeland’s frozen valleys.

I would go on each year for many years to sell those super Troutbeck Park draft ewes, which had it not been for Mrs Heelis, probably would not have been there. Now once again we look to an uncertain future. If we do not find some balance to allow farmers to work the land, farm the fells sensibly and make a living then there may be no future at all.

How important then that we bring the young people through, to learn the fell craft, preserve the sheep flocks and manage our Lake District landscapes. We must persuade them and give them confidence that they have a future in shepherding. Their role is vital not just to Lakeland but every upland area in the country. Farmers are the lifeblood of many rural communities. Their work shapes the landscape for all to enjoy. They are the true conserver’s of the countryside. The days of over- grazing the fells are gone. Now farmers look to balance careful flock management with preserving habitats and protecting fresh water supplies to a greater extent than ever before. It is called stewardship. Tourists are welcomed for they too are an essential and important part of the fabric of the Lake District.

Balance is the key word in all of this. When the correct balance is finally achieved, we will have found a way to allow Lake District Farmers to farm sustainably and with some profit to re- invest, manage the countryside and cater for the visitors, almost 20 million of them annually, most of whom are thrilled to see proper sheep wintering on the hills that they were bred to graze. This includes the Troutbeck Park flock and so many more Lakeland Farms. Famous flocks that some would seek to destroy with unctuous talk of re- wilding and introducing lynx in their place. Madness and utter folly in an already green and pleasant land.

National Trust farms have been breeding grounds not only of fine Cumbrian fell flocks, but also successive generations of young farmers, starting their own careers, getting a first step on the ladder, learning unique skills and local knowledge often from previous tenants in order to survive and farm in Lakeland. Many farmers like Joe and Gordon chose to stay on and enjoy long and successful tenancies, happy in their work.

Today’s farm children, long after our generation has gone, will still be selling at Herdwick sales, gathering at shepherds meets and shows,  singing songs and enjoying a drink or two in the bar with the proud auctioneer, whoever he or she may be. We must never let this die. How important then that landlords like the National Trust and others never lose sight of the fact, that their farms are a vital weave in the fabric of Lake District farming life, it’s heritage, history and as importantly, it’s future.

I’m sure Beatrix Potter and possibly many of today’s Lakeland tenant farmers would agree. Perhaps now is the time to say something, rather than follow old Joe’s advice to “just say nowt”!

FOOD FOR THE MASSES – MAINTAINING STANDARDS AND WHY WE SHOULD SUPPORT ALL BRITISH FARMERS.

Over the last 30 years I’ve worked in the farming communities of Cumbria and to a lesser extent the Yorkshire Dales and the Lancashire Pennines too. In that time several million sheep and maybe a hundred thousand or more cattle have for a tiny part of their lifetime been in my care within an auction mart. I’ve worked with high turnover, low margin feeders, operating highly intensive fattening systems and also very extensive, low production, high nature- value farmers. No one can persuade me there is a right way or wrong way. The best and most successful farming systems are conducive to the type of farm, the area, topography, soils and climate. It is horses for courses. A one- size fits all policy of land management could never work despite what some “experts” believe.

In the auction mart, I owed both the farmer and his animals a duty of care. For the farmer it is important that the animal has safe passage to the buyer’s farm or indeed the abattoir for slaughter. For the animal we try to ensure that whilst in the confines of the auction it is as stress- free as possible, comfortably penned and where necessary fed and watered if the on- going journey is delayed. The duty of care is always impressed on auction staff. Most auction staff now have an NVQ qualification in livestock droving.

Animal welfare continues to be a major contributing factor in the design and operation of auction marts. Quite rightly the performance of the market and its systems are regulated and policed by DEFRA and Trading Standards. Sometimes marts are visited by other groups such as RSPCA and Farm Assurance inspectors. There are also occasional visits from other less desirable organisations, whose mission is to disrupt the market and by subterfuge or even plain lies, seek to pervert the truth about the welfare of animals in our care.

Most markets will always welcome the general public in to the auction environment as long as they too are respectful and keep out of harm’s way. A Health and Safety inspection once recommended a total of 22 different warning signs to be placed in one of my markets between the unloading docks and the sale ring! By their very nature, markets must be efficient, smooth and professional work places. Knowledge and experience of working with livestock (and People!) is essential.

Markets are very much favoured by the farmer. They are seen to be independent sales centres, helping to add value (on most occasions) by bringing a range of buyers to the ring. In other words, a buyer for everything regardless of quality or size. The market also guarantees payment to the farmer. In an age where some meat companies can go in to receivership on Friday and their directors back in business by Monday, this is a very useful safety net for the farming community. There is also a very strong social element to the market in an industry where rural isolation can play a part. I know some farmers in these parts who only leave the farm and socialise with others on auction day!

On Prime stock days, cattle and sheep are brought to market and sold to a ring full of buyers representing a range of wholesale and retail meat buyers. These range from the high- ranking supermarket chains to catering butchers and local high- street butchers. Buyers from the ethnic communities are vitally important, particularly in the sheep meat sector. This market continues to grow year upon year.

Our job as an auctioneer is to ensure that any animal must leave the market in at least the same condition as when it arrived. It must not be bruised or otherwise injured. It must not be stressed, as this can affect the meat quality and the way in which the carcase cools and sets. Also it must not have lost condition or meat quality during that time. Buyers will only visit the market if they are confident that animal welfare is high on the auctioneer’s agenda and that what he buys, he will get delivered to the point of slaughter. In this respect there is a trust and a bond.

There is also a trust and a bond between the farmer and the auctioneer. Most farmers genuinely care about the animals they rear and want them to live the best lives they can. This maybe particularly so for farmers with favourite dairy cows, beef cows and even some breeding ewes. The message is hard to get across to the general public and one which needs to be done far better in future. Even among the more commercial and intensive farming operations, where there may be less of a bond between farmer and animal, there is a desire to ensure that the animals are healthy, in the best of condition and able to be sold for optimum value. In order to achieve this, animal welfare has to be a top priority.

The regulation in the auction mart industry as described above is even more intense and just as robust on livestock farms. Every bovine and ovine animal in the UK has an individual ear tag number specific to it. This must be recorded by the farmer or he may be financially penalised at a later date. Everywhere those animals go during their lifetime, their ear tag goes with them. As a result we have the best traceability system in the world. Without any shadow of doubt, our livestock production and welfare rules are of the most stringent with few countries able to bear comparison. This has been embraced by UK farming to a great extent despite past farmer grumblings about farm assurance being only for the supermarkets benefit.

As an industry we are passed that now. We are genuinely proud of the high standards we have achieved and are maintaining. That is why supermarkets, government and the general public should recognise that our standards, food provenance and traceability comes at a price, an on-cost to the producer which is not redeemable at the point of sale nor re- reimbursed by the supermarket. There is no added value to the farmer for giving assurances to the general public. It could be said that only supermarkets benefit when they choose to promote “assurance”, hence the grumbling.

Worse still is the fact that supermarkets are very happy to promote “farm assurance” with brands like “Red Tractor” but only at a time when it suits them. For when farm gate prices rise and there are several reasons why this can happen, the supermarkets like to have a Plan B. This takes the form of imported frozen meat such as New Zealand lamb which is pre- purchased several months before it is to be sold to the British consumer, shipped half way around the world and kept in frozen storage until the supermarket decides to off- load.

Time and again in recent years this has occurred at the time of peak lamb production in the UK, often in the autumn and winter months when public demand is highest. The frozen goods are then given premium shelf space, advertising and of course clever “two for one” offers designed to make the consumer think they are getting a real bargain. At this point our un- rivalled standards of welfare, traceability and provenance go out of the supermarket window. This is the biggest heresy of supermarkets who hide behind their public facing statements that British lamb is “out of season”. It is a lie and a slap in the face for the UK producer. It is disrespectful to both the farmer and the consumer as is the often deliberately confusing and misleading labelling system on meat products. There are many examples of this. Some of the larger supermarkets play on the consumer’s lack of knowledge and information. Time and again they market price over quality and provenance.

If we are to maintain our standards, support viable and sustainable farm businesses then these issues have to be dealt with and things must change. It is clear that governments are not prepared to act in any meaningful way. The Supermarket ombudsman has proved to be pretty toothless up to now.

We are at a crossroads leading up to Brexit. The farming industry perhaps like other industries too, is in a state of limbo. Few farmers may be prepared to invest in future development. Without the safe but some would argue penal umbrella of the EU common agriculture policy, we neither know what or where our markets will be. Like for like support measures are only guaranteed until 2022. We do not know what support measures (if any) will be in place thereafter for farmers, especially those that have in the past helped to keep food prices relatively low and stable (another supermarket win!) Also we don’t know what trade deals government may agree to increase the volume of imported food from around the world, where we know production standards, animal welfare and ethics are simply not up to scratch. Food production and farming may be the throw-away bargaining chip to sustain other industries through trade deals.

If future, farming policies are to succeed, government, supermarkets and other industry players need to step up to the plate. There is no shame in encouraging the message to “Buy British”. There will be no shame in explaining to the public why farming needs to be financially supported. Viable and sustainable farming business’s will ensure investment, best practice, encouraging a culture of more production from less inputs and in doing so, protect and conserve the environment. I have concentrated on my area of knowledge however I am well aware that across the country we have a wide portfolio of highly productive farms growing arable crops, field scale vegetables and fruit all of which I fear are under- valued and under- utilised by the good people of Britain.

There may be multiple benefits to be had in creating such a farming policy. As the population of Britain and indeed the rest of the world continues to rise, the pressure on food production and by association our landscapes and environment will continue to grow. We can make plans to tackle this head- on and be ready to do so but only by starting now. Ten years hence will be too late!

By that time, we may well be regressing to post- Second World War food policies, rationing, poaching and black marketeering to combat food shortages, and the pressure on clean water supplies. In that respect, and I have said this repeatedly since 2001, once again the farmer will become the “housewife’s” best friend. Forgive the term “housewife” in the modern age, but you get the gist. My concern leads me to question, at what price to our landscapes and environment?

The public will need our farmers and their food. Let’s make sensible plans and provisions to stock the larder now. It will provide far better value for money than crisis management, which is where one day we will end up, as the country starts to go hungry.

Finally there is a sadly misguided and ill- informed belief among many politicians that if the supply of imported goods fails and prices rise that British farmers can just “turn the tap on”. I have actually heard that phrase used. The connotations of such a policy are frightening. Trashing the land to feed a starving population would be such a backward step, akin to the American mid- west in the early twentieth century. I believe such stupidity adds even more weight to the argument to invest and support balanced sustainable farming and food production with looking after the land, improving soils and maintaining the environment. Take the fetters off farming, release the handbrake now and we have every chance in being able to sustain the British Isles and our people for generations to come.