THE LAKE DISTRICT – OUR LAND, OUR LIVES, OUR HERITAGE.

He talked of his spirit being lifted every time he visited the Lake District. This he said would be the same for the many who come to our county to appreciate the landscape and the views. The landscape, he said, was created by communities, a living breathing landscape where sheep roamed the fells. To him this agro- pastoral system was important, vital and must be protected.


Much of my family history is entwined with Cumbria and the Lake District. We can get back to the early 18th Century through a number of lines. Along the East Fellside of Cumbria and in the industrial villages of West Cumbria we’ve worked the ground above, as farmers and labourers, and we’ve worked the ground below as miners of iron ore and coal. One thing hasn’t changed too much in all that time. My forefathers, had they lifted their eyes, would have seen the same craggy fells, rolling Pennines, the green valleys and the deep lakes. For this land is our land. It’s where we belong. There are many more people just like me, with same ancestry.

Today I attended the opening of the Lake District UNESCO World Heritage Site on the shores of Derwentwater, at Keswick, one of Cumbria’s most popular tourist destinations. I had no idea what to expect other than a few scant details on an e- mailed invitation from the Lake District National Park Authority. What we did know was that His Royal Highness Prince Charles was to officially open the World Heritage Site accompanied by Michael Gove, Minister for the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs. This is the department that governs farming without actually mentioning it in the title. That is a pretty good clue as to how farming has been viewed and treated over the last couple of decades. Our food producers have been unloved, unappreciated and frankly down- beaten. The public perception has been one of greedy, subsidised farmers doing little for it and driving round in large expensive 4 x 4’s. Reality is far from perception. Food health scares, disease crises, years of dreadful farm gate prices and poor support from supermarkets and over- zealous, ill- informed government agencies have left their mark. Things must change. Perhaps that’s why so many farmers supported Brexit. A huge leap of faith for them, or a belief that things must be better for them?

In Keswick I bumped in to several farmers as we arrived together and went for coffee prior to the ceremony. I caught up with Joe and Hazel Relph who farmed at Yew Tree, Borrowdale before retirement. It was common knowledge that the Prince of Wales regularly used to stay at Yew Tree farm on his annual Lake District break although they would never talk about it. Will Cockbain was with us too. I’ve sold hundreds of sheep over the years for the Cockbain family at Cockermouth Auction and admired Will’s common sense approach to the politics of farming as he has fought on behalf of Lake District farmers at a high level. Then a great catch up with Brian and Jayne Knowles who farm the Southern reaches of the Shap Fells and are leading lights in the Rough Fell sheep breeding world.

Soon it was time to go outside. We walked on to Crow Park to await the special guests’ arrival. In bright spring sunshine I took a few deep breaths and savoured the view. Catbells seemed almost in our pockets. Beyond lay the Newlands fells and then the Grasmoor range. To my left the massive round of Skiddaw, once a huge volcanic plug three times the height it is now, and the namesake of my old school house. Friends all. Some of my forefathers knew these hills as I do today, walked them and mined them. This is part of my heritage.

Six months ago I stood in Crow Park with a group of volunteer farmers and their sheep as we met the general public, showed them the animals and explained what farming in Cumbria means and what it delivers. There were visitors from all over the world. Just talking to them for a few minutes, opened up a new horizon for them. Many were simply clueless about the landscape and its guardians. Several promised to look at farming in a whole new light. We went home tired yet quietly satisfied, wishing we could do more.

His Royal Highness Prince Charles
His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, opening the Lake District UNESCO World Heritage Site. March 2018. Photo’s courtesy of Ashnessfarm.co.uk

Back here once again, the sun continued to rise above the Helvellyn range, with a little warmth on the face against a cool spring day. What else could you expect in Cumbria in late March? Soon in a blaze of flashing lights, the royal cavalcade arrived. Hundreds of school children screamed and waved Union Jack flags as his Royal Highness took his seat. There were songs and dance performances from local children all of which was entirely fitting. Soon it was time for the unveiling of the New World Heritage Site. Prince Charles took to the microphone. His speech was frankly music to the ears of many rural Cumbrian people. He talked of his spirit being lifted every time he visited the Lake District. This he said would be the same for the many who come to our county to appreciate the landscape and the views. The landscape, he said, was created by communities, a living breathing landscape where sheep roamed the fells. To him this agro- pastoral system was important, vital and must be protected. It was a message of support for farmers, their businesses and their very real contribution to communities and this land – our land.

I found myself murmuring “here here” on more than one occasion, impressed by a man who clearly knows and understands the pressures rural communities in Cumbria face. These pressures are economic, social and environmental. The Princes words flew in the face of the ardent some would say misguided environmentalists who seek to rid the land of livestock, turn farmers in to park keepers and and in doing so, see the demise of local people living in established and real communities. His words drew rapturous applause from many local people.

All the while I stood next to or rather just in front of Anne Cornthwaite who farms at Ashness Farm just above the famous pack horse bridge a few miles south of Keswick on the road to Watendleth. Years previously, Joe Relph’s father Charlie farmed here. As a young auctioneer I actually sold implements in the field at Ashness at Charlie’s retirement sale. Later as manager of Cockermouth Auction, I always tried to help and support young farmers at the start of their careers. Anne’s son Henry used to bring sheep to the market. He was only a young lad, recently left school and now responsible for the marketing of their sheep. I wanted to give him confidence, so that he enjoyed his trip to the auction and would go home happy to his mum. “Ring me on a Tuesday” I used to say “and I’ll tell you what the trade will be like tomorrow”. This I continued to do until it was time for me to move to fresh pastures. As I said earlier, these are real people in real communities. We all have our part to play.

I asked Anne what she thought of Prince Charles speech. She said “rather uplifting for upland farmers like us”. She went on to say that she just hoped Mr Gove was listening and taking it all in. Many farmers were thinking the same thing. For he has a singularly important role to play in the future of rural landscapes going forward.

Soon we will be released from the common agricultural policy that has shaped our farming industry and regulated our land use over the last forty years or more. Now Mr Gove must decide what package should replace it. Farmers and environmentalists are vying for government support. The government has said it will support payments for public goods without explaining what public goods actually are. Those of an environmental bent will say this is about improving the natural environment, habitats, wildlife and clean water. This must come first. They rarely mention food production, or human communities. Farmers, particularly keen younger farmers are proud stockmen for whom the sheep and cattle often come first.

My personal belief is that the truly successful farmers of the future, particularly in the upland areas of Cumbria where farming and tourism go hand in hand, will be proud livestock producers that can also farm in an environmentally sound and productive way. As the world population continues to rise, the truly successful farmer will be one that produces great food and protects our rural landscapes better than ever before. It is a balanced land use policy for the future and it is my definition of public goods. I whole heartedly would want to see this encouraged and supported by both the government and the good people who visit our county, eat our lamb and beef and drink our milk. Support farmers, allow them to make a profit, reinvest in the farm and the community. Reward them for getting it right.

If Mr Gove and his successors get their bit right then Cumbria and the Lake District will remain our land, part of our lives and our heritage for generations to come. It’s not just about the Lake District though. The East Fellside and the western slopes of the Pennines where farming is so important must also be included in this. Here communities rely so much on farmers particularly in difficult times like the recent snow storms. Losing the farms would be a death knell. Many in The Yorkshire Dales will feel the same.

That is pretty much as His Royal Highness Prince Charles called it, on a bright spring morning on the shores of Derwentwater in 2018. The alternative is too bleak and too barren to contemplate.

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.