Saturday 30 October 2010

Hill farming – its future?

Sheep trade has been good this back end, a huge relief to those who are dependant on sheep production for a living. It is a roller coaster of a ride with many highs and lows, obviously dealing with livestock and natures elements there will be many highs and lows but there are also the pitfalls of economics – money, cash flow.

The sheep sector has had many knocks in recent years, the last being 2007, an outbreak of foot and mouth linked to laboratories in Pirbright and the consequent movement restrictions enforced both nationally and internationally brought about a natural lack of confidence in the industry especially with it being close behind the devastating outbreak of 2001.

When farmers have money they reinvest in their own industry and the many networks which support it, when they don’t have money they tighten their belts, expand their overdrafts and loans and basically baton down the hatches and try to battle through the storm.

So why should the sheep sector have a decent trade this back end? Shep doesn’t fully understand all the elements but I have been lead to believe by press reports that there are far fewer sheep in New Zealand than there were, reports of 3-4million head being dispersed of last year and the probability of more this coming year due to a change in direction towards dairying. Why would New Zealand have any affect on our sales? Imports. There are thousands of tons of New Zealand lamb meat imported into this country every year. If that lamb isn’t coming from New Zealand it has to be found elsewhere.

Elsewhere brings about the question of the strength or weakness of the pound, international exchange rates don’t always provide the returns required to match the demands which then brings in the question of whether exports are viable or not. This leaves the option of the product to be found on your own doorstep - British lamb.

I’m sure there’ll be many other factors influencing the successful sale of fat lambs, such as a smaller lamb crop throughout the country this year due to the inclement weather over the winter and spring and one wholly important factor – the dwindling number of breeding sheep in Britain.

The dwindling number of breeding sheep in Britain. This statement brings me back to the title of this posting Hill Farming - its future?

Hill Farming and hill sheep have always traditionally been the mainstay of the sheep sector in this country. The tough, hardy hill ewe living out there in the wilds of the countryside nonchalantly munching away on heather and course hill grasses is the grand dam of them all. She eventually retires to lowland (in-bye) pastures where she’ll find herself producing a cross bred lamb which will become a lowland breeding ewe producing all those prime fat lambs which find themselves on the butchers shelves from late spring onwards.

The hill ewes own lambs are later born and slower maturing, some finding themselves ready to be eaten in the autumn whilst others are sold in-bye and fatten as the winter runs through, keeping the butchers shelves full until the prime lambs are available later in the spring. It is a system that has worked well and there is no doubt about it the hill ewe (what ever her breed) is a hugely important link in the chain.

Unfortunately her numbers are dwindling and have been for many years now. She is not dying out, unable to withstand the harsh climatic conditions she lives in – no she is bred for such conditions, it is in her nature to be a survivor, a domestic animal who is as close to being a wild beast as could be found. She can follow her ancestry back generations, living and surviving on the same ground as her fore bearers before her. Not unlike an elephant that has a memory able to recall all the best watering holes regardless of the severity of a drought, the hill ewe also knows where the shelter is, the best foraging at certain times of the year, the hidden dangers on the ground where she belongs – in shepherding speak it is known as hefting and acclimatisation. Hefting being knowledge of where they belong, acclimatisation being bred to withstand that particular climate unique to the ground on which they live.

So? What’s the problem?

The problem is the gradual and yet escalating demise of hill sheep.

Hill farming has seen too many years where the financial return was poor, it is a way of life and for that reason alone it has continued. The modern day sees governing bodies showing a grave concern for the environment. The countryside is a beautiful place and ought not to be spoilt is basically the message which was being put across and one which I would fully agree with. However, these self same governing bodies can tend to be somewhat short sighted.

Financial incentives were offered to farmers, a compensation package if you like. Get shot of a percentage of your flock, allow the countryside to flourish and payments from the EU will cover the shortfall. These financial incentives came under the heading of ‘Countryside Stewardships’ and ‘Environmental Schemes’.

To many it would be a life line, to others it would be a financial opportunity not to miss. Either way it has worrying consequences.

I’ve mentioned before on forays up into Scotland that there were vast areas of scrub hill ground, not a sheep to be seen anywhere – is this to be the future for Northumberland hill farms also?

Do we want hill ground which is unkempt, unloved, left to become a wilderness? Do visitors want to go out and hike the higher ground, struggling to find a footing through thigh deep heather or twisting ankles whilst trying to negotiate the thick coarse humps and bumps of deep hill grasses? No sheep tracks to follow to ease the journey, willows, birch and self seeded spruce trees causing dense undesirable obstacles? Beautiful wild flowers smothered out of their natural habitat, bird and wildlife in declining numbers – is that really what the great British public would like to see when they come out to enjoy the hill ground in their country?

Unfortunately that may well be where we are heading.

I was relieved to read in the press lately that one Northumberland farmer has spoken out at a conference held in Newcastle. The article states that “Stuart Nelson received the loudest applause of the day after an impassioned speech about the harsh realities of bringing up a young family in the shadow of the Cheviot Hills” I take my hat off to him, it is a huge relief to hear of someone willing to stand up in public and put the views across which many of us share.

I noticed in the local rag today an advert for a 300 ewe reduction sale from a hill farm up the Breamish valley, there was a 600 reduction last week off a farm in the Coquet valley, also in the same week 300 stock sheep went under the hammer off another farm up the Coquet. Last year was the same and previous years too.

I spoke last Friday to a farmer I used to neighbour in my early shepherding years, he went into an Environmental Scheme nine years ago and claims it was the worst thing to do for his stock, his ground is overgrown and his sheep aren’t doing well for him, financially he felt it was the only way forward at the time. The scheme has one year left to run and he can’t wait to try and get his sheep numbers back to their original state.

Getting sheep numbers back? That ain’t so easy either. Hefted and acclimatised, remember those two words? We’re not talking about fields here, nice grassy ring fenced small areas of ground where you can go to the auction and buy a handful of sheep and they’ll graze away merrily. We’re talking about vast acres of hard ground, buy in a field sheep and it will pine away and die, it may be struck down with louping ill as it would have no immunity to ticks or it may just wander off its heft and never be seen again.

One hill shepherd I know had the daunting task of restocking hill ground after the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. Stock was bought in off similar ground to his own, some off neighbouring farms. Fences were erected and herding twice a day for over three years was necessary to teach the sheep where they belonged – to heft them on to the ground, almost ten years on this was the first year he stood back as the sheep left the shearing shed and he watched them head back onto their own ground unaided.

Many who have decreased their ewe flocks have done so by selling draft ewes at younger ages, therefore keeping sheep on the hill only up to 3 or 4years old where as they would often remain until they were six years old. By doing this they can increase their flock size naturally by retaining the 4, 5 and 6 year old sheep on the hill and keep more replacement ewe lambs each year. Unfortunately to do this there will be no spare ewe lambs or draft ewes to sell for a number of years which in itself will cause financial pressure.

I don’t know what the answer is regarding the future of hill farming, I do know that farmers are the custodians of the countryside and they are the ones which governing bodies ought to be listening to, an overgrazed hill is of no use to anyone – environmentalists or farmers and neither is an under grazed hill but at the end of the day it is the farmers that know this, their livelihoods depend on it, they understand land management, conservation and livestock, they have been at the job for generations just like the flocks that they tend, hopefully someone like Stuart Nelson will have got the grey cells working and the future of our hills and those that work in them will be secure.

Interestingly enough an article in the Scottish farming press mentioned a carved walking stick which is to be presented to the Pope by a Fort William crofter along with a prayer for the widespread re-introduction of the Blackfaced breed to Scotland’s hills……….