The Landscapes of Lakeland – what value?

I took this photo one afternoon from the summit of Hardknott Pass in Cumbria. In my role as a livestock auctioneer and land agent, I had spent the day visiting farms in Eskdale and other western valleys of the Lake District and i was on my way over the top, heading for Wrynose and then Kirkstone before driving home along Ullswater towards Penrith. It was a great day and i was feeling fortunate to live and work within the farming communities across Cumbria. What a commute home!

I spied her whilst i was driving. A lovely young Herdwick sheep, the indigenous breed of the Lake District. She stood there with her two front legs on a small rock and she was just watching the world go by. I could not help myself. I stopped my car and doubled bac to her. She saw me and carried on watching me intently. She seemed to be saying, “this is my world” and we stared at each other for a long time before she turned tail and ambled off down hill, in an instant lost from view. She was not frightened of me. She was at ease in her surroundings. I have sold many thousands of Herdwick sheep in my lifetime. it’s part of our culture and our heritage in these remote valleys and high, challenging fellscapes.

These sheep are heafed to the fells. They are bred to live here, attached to hills, acclimatised to them and very much part of them, as are the people that shepherd the flocks.

These green hills attract 40m visitors a year who love the landscapes as they are. Trees could not grow here but grass does. The sheep produce wool and meat and the soils store carbon. But the sheep are worth far more than that. They are a linchpin to communities, vital for so much more than just meat and wool.

Last night, to see them on a Channel 4 tv programme, plucked from a model landscape with such ease, betrays an ignorance and shows a lack of understanding and knowledge or worse still, regard for rural life, and the public benefits that sheep on the hills, cattle in the valleys and people working the land actually deliver.

That is not to say that managed landscape cannot be improved. We can make our soils better, we can improve the natural environment, create more habitats and plant many more trees in the right place but these sheep and our rural communities and what they deliver, cannot be over- valued and i hope, will never be destroyed.

Your local farmer is your friend, not your problem!

Decades ago, my Cumbrian farming grandmother would prepare for long winters by filling her ample chest freezer with home produced lamb, half a pig, and a few large beef joints. The freezer was like the Tardis in that it seemed much bigger on the inside! It also contained racks of frozen vegetables from the allotment and pies with fruit picked from the hedgerows. The blackberry pies were the best, especially on Easter Sunday! Anything bought fresh from the shops was only what was in season at the time. 
In the modern world, we now expect by right to have cheap food delivered fresh from across the world. We care little about the people producing the food and even less about the provenance, the traceability and true cost of production.
We don’t actually perceive food to be cheap, because we know nothing else. We have forgotten the true age of austerity, ration books and queuing for food, in an age when no food could be wasted. Grandmother would have baulked at the idea of throwing out perfectly good consumables. Sell by dates meant nothing to our forefathers.
Today 4 pints of whole milk can be bought in most supermarkets today for about 1.10p. Many dairy farmers will be paid less than  half of that. The product is sold for a pittance and farmers are paid a pittance. Bottles of water are sold at higher prices! How can this be? And how would we manage today if more than 30% of our weekly wage had to be spent on basic food items? This is how it was in the 1950’s.
Because food is so cheap today,  very few people outside the agriculture industry have any inkling of the systems, processes, regulations and hard work that goes into producing a pint of milk or a prime lamb. As a population, we have lost knowledge and respect for the farming industry. We don’t understand and we don’t appreciate where our food comes from, and how it is produced. The constant supply of globally  produced cheap food means that UK farmers are any easy target on climate change issues, pollution, animal welfare and just about the ills of the world. This is a  seriously misguided blame game.
In the 1950’s UK farmers were truly the housewives friend. Government policies encouraged production at all costs. The nation was hungry and in post- war crisis. These days the government will not support home food production. In fact they barely recognise it. It’s a curious thing but many members of the public believe farmers get free handouts in the form of production subsidies. The reality is that those days are long gone.  Current support payments are based on environment and conservation outputs only. The UK farmer is always at the mercy of a painfully thin market. There are no fall back measures. If the beef price drops even lower, the beef farmer has to take it on the chin. It’s the same in every sector.
So where will the food to feed the British people come from in future? The answer if we continue as we are, is an even greater reliance on imports. Frankly it is the road to disaster. Worse still it is morally and ethically challengeable. 
My heartfelt belief is that we need to grow our own food and look after our environment at the same time. These are not separate portfolio’s. This work goes together. Too many people with vested interests seek to promulgate the polarisation of farming, food production and conservation. As a nation we are now less than 60% self sufficient in food and it continues to fall by more than 1% per annum. This troubles me greatly. Sure, we are ok now. Lots of food to bring in from all over the world! But where will we be in 20 years time if this trend continues? only 40% self sufficient? desperate to secure even more food from around the world for a growing population? it is madness. We have a 25 year environment plan, but no food and farming plan. This should be one and the same.
Instead we shove it under the carpet as we focus on “saving the planet”. Of course we need to do this urgently but we also need to focus on sustainable food production to feed the human race. We cannot continue a growing trend of importing out of season, cheap food products. If we do and this is more important than supporting UK food production, then we are simply exporting our problem, sweeping it under the carpet in the name of environment and conservation. Many of us will have seen the BBC programme on global meat production this week. I believe many of the findings in that programme actually back up much of what i have discussed earlier. This is a global issue but cannot be blamed on the UK farming community. We’ve been hung out to dry by those who support and promote cheap imported food and we know fine well who they are!
Take a look at the photo above. This is how fruit and vegetables are grown in parts of Spain, much of it destined for the UK market. It is grown this way using the cheapest labour that can be found, people often working in shocking conditions. There have been tv programmes about this recently. Think of the carbon footprint and the use of plastics yet we choose to ignore it. Sweep it under the carpet- again. Cheap food for the masses, stocking the supermarket shelves! “cheap food is our right. We are entitled to it”!
Cheap food is ours by right! That’s one hell of statement, but it must be true because clearly supermarkets support this policy (just as long as their margins are maintained). Clearly the UK government supports this policy wholeheartedly. Cheap food means we have more disposable income to spend on other consumer goods and this keeps the public happy. It’s a measure of economic success to have a tv in every room and be able to eat out several times a week in fast food restaurants or via the take- away. The grim reality is that food is too cheap and we don’t deserve it by right. The grim reality is that global food systems are ensuring the planet is paying a high price, to keep food prices low. The system is broken and most of us don’t even know it. Or if we do, we lift that carpet yet again. We readily accept these global food systems whilst ignoring our own UK sustainable farming systems. We’re even allowing some sections of society to blame UK farmers for the global food production mess!
I steadfastly believe that we have to change our ways. We desperately need to invest more in home- grown food production. As a result and as a condition of this, we need to achieve better environmental goals in offering the public benefits in clean air, clean water and conservation in the natural environment. To do this our farm businesses need to viable and sustainable. The farm business is the key to all this. The government does not recognise food as a public good. Absolute madness and they are missing a huge trick.
Our mentality has to change. Food needs to be priced fairly to respect the producer and the way in which in which our food is grown. We need to return to seasonal purchasing instead of importing goods from across the world. What is the true cost of this in terms of food miles and carbon footprint? no one is saying and we’re sweeping under the carpet yet again in order to protect a 52 week food supply season. It’s easier to criticise our own farmers rather than admit the true cost of food importation.
We must invest in local markets, in other words locally produced food purchased by local people. We must reduce food waste, Millions of tonnes of the stuff, binned each year. Why does this happen? Again because its cheap and not respected and therefore neither is the producer. In fact almost 2 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK annually of which 240,000 tonnes is binned by supermarkets alone. Ask yourself why this is allowed to happen?
With education and investment we can do much better. Feed our nation more sensibly than we do now. Make the best of our natural assets to grow more food, not less! and at the same time be proud to improve our natural environment.
it’s time to big up the UK farmer, one of the best assets we have. Once again in the future the farmer will become our best friend. Start the planning now and let’s do this on our terms rather than in desperation some years down the line when we run out food and run out of ideas.
This will mean huge changes to the farming industry, new skills to learn, new technology to embrace as we seek to grow more food using less inputs. Our future farmers will be skilled food producers but they will also be upskilled conservationists. And if they are, then they must be rewarded for it. Farmers already offer a huge range of benefits to their communities and the wider public, but we’ve lost the knowledge and understanding of this, again through cheap food and a lack of education about food and farming.
We can get it back but we have to act now to protect our home- production and in doing so our natural environment. Food, farming and conservation go together side by side and it is so easy. We need a Rural Grand Plan to encompass all of this.
But don’t just take my word for it. In 2017 the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a stark warning in a report entitled “The Future of Food and Agriculture: Trends and Challenges.” The message was this: –
Because of a growing global population (7.3b today rising to 10b by 2050), agricultural output will need to increase by 50 percent. This needs to happen alongside the necessary steps to mitigate climate change.
This is perhaps more evidence that farming, food and conservation go together. People are now understanding the significance of climate change. Why the hell aren’t we talking about sustainable food production? All of the good conservation work will be destroyed if we start to go hungry. The bad conservation work needs to be called out for what it is. Time to end the polarisation! Bring it together….. “A Rural Grand Plan”.
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Grandmothers roast lamb dinners followed by homemade blackberry pie will never be surpassed. it’s time to re-discover her old fashioned values from a time when food was so much more important than it is now. My grandparents in their own little way were proud farmers, feeding the nation. That pride remains today within the farming industry especially among young people who are desperately keen to farm. We’re in danger of losing this in the next generation unless we start respecting, appreciating and supporting them. We’re in danger of losing far more if we continue to import cheap food from abroad, without any consideration of those production systems. You have been warned!
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FROM CAMBRIDGE TO CUMBRIA.

A Cumbrian farm visit for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Amid the clatter of stone on stone, I took a deep breath and surveyed the scene across the upper reaches of the Ullswater Valley in Cumbria. 150 years ago my forefathers were engaged in hewering iron ore from the deep depths of the Helvellyn range. My maternal Grandfather X4, William Jackson, owned the contract or “bargain” which from the 1860’s allowed him, followed by four sons, to spend several years breaking through from Glencoynedale to Greenside Lead Mine in pursuit of the grey gold. You simply cannot imagine their working life in those conditions as they trudged up the miners trod from their home at Seldom Scene six days a week.

I was pondering my local family heritage as I watched William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge   gap- up a dry stone wall above Deepdale Hall, Patterdale. It was a rather surreal situation. I offered His Royal Highness a pair of work gloves but he politely declined. That being the case and not to be outdone, the Duchess also declined the offer of gloves.

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As they set about their task, the farmer, Jimmy Brown was telling them that the walls on his farm were over 250 years old. This was part of his heritage and they weren’t going to be allowed to fall down on his watch. He does this work with pride to enclose and protect his sheep. However the general public, walking the many miles of footpaths that cross the farm, gets the benefit of this landscape free of charge.

It is truly a working landscape and it is is free for everyone to enjoy. For Jimmy, this work is unpaid and an on-cost to the farm business. It is simply part of his life and the traditional way in which farms are maintained. Jimmy and many more farmers get little recognition for the work they do. As we talk of placing a value on the natural capital of beautiful areas like the Lake District, what value do we place on our people and our communities? What is our cultural worth and how do we define it?

Heritage is a current buzzword in Cumbria. Whilst few families can compete with the documented history of the royal family, those of us accompanying the royal couple were struck by their knowledge and understanding of rural life, farming issues and the importance of farmers to local communities.

Taking part in a Royal Visit was a huge honour that I shared with a number of farmers from all over Cumbria. Inside Deepdale Hall farmhouse kitchen,  we were struck by their easy- going nature as we took tea and cake whilst having a chat. They genuinely appeared to be having fun with us on the day. The huge media presence and a blur of whirring cameras and TV lights did not detract. In fact it gave many of us the chance to give a positive spin on Cumbrian farming and also raise some of the many concerns.

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Jim Cockbain talked of how he engages with tourists on a daily basis, explaining what he does to build understanding about sheep farming in the hills above Keswick. Many visitors to Rakefoot have little or no understanding of sheep production or the life of a working shepherd. Jim can often dispel many of the falsehoods perpetuated by certain anti- farming groups or others who would seek to reduce sheep from the hills yet further. 

Young couple, Jack and Rachel Cartmel discussed their difficulties in securing a viable tenancy in Martindale, to enable them to farm together and simply make a living. These days it is so difficult for young people to get a foot on the farming ladder. Despite coming from strong farming backgrounds, in order to simply make ends meet and pay the rent, both Jack and Rachel have other jobs as well. Rachel is a sheep dog trainer and runs the farm bed and breakfast business. Jack is a professional sheep shearer, clipping thousands of sheep for many farmers, throughout the summer season. His expert guidance ensured that the William and Kate did not put a foot wrong when clipping some Deepdale Hall Herdwicks. The Duchess stuck to her task with much determination when the young sheep which had not previously been shorn, started to kick. This caused some merriment for William and clearly they are a quietly competitive couple!

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Sam Rawling raised fears of future agricultural policies and the pressure of not wanting to be the first to fail in a 500 year old family farming tree in Ennerdale. He is forceful in his belief that Farmers who voted for Brexit may have committed a huge mistake. No one knows for sure and therein is the uncertainty for all farmers at this time. 

Mary Bell talked about her 40 year career in Patterdale, producing and promoting wool based products, to add value to what is now a loss- leading commodity to many farmers. Mary wants more commitment in trying to raise the profile of wool and thereby the price. In times gone by an annual wool cheque could pay the farm rent or even buy a tractor. Nowadays, sheep shearing is a huge cost to the farmer, the excercise only performed for the health and wellbeing of the sheep. There will be little payment for the wool from Deepdale Hall, being dense and thick fleeces from one of the hardiest of hill breeds.

Danny Teasdale spoke with passion about embracing farming with conservation, side by side in the Ullswater catchment, rather than the polarised views which too often grab the headlines. These hills and valleys are not for blanket re- wilding but can be farmed and conserved in equal measure with the right support and policies. With all the talk of climate change and greenhouse gases, perhaps extensively managed farms like Deepdale Hall actually store much more carbon than they produce. If this is true then it will fly in the face of those who constantly seek to do down the farming industry. This must also have a value and gain some recognition. 

All the while the Duke and Duchess, listened, questioned and commented. At the end of the visit when the goodbyes were said and the royal procession took off down the dusty track (it didn’t rain all day!), we were left in no doubt that our future king understands who we are and what we do. Farmers are one of the greatest public goods of all and we need to shout louder. What a great afternoon!

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