British Farming in the Uplands

Discouraged by economic policies favouring high production rates, many of today’s farmers in the mountain and moorland areas of the British Isles have abandoned the traditional rough husbandry which formerly maintained the wild and exceptionally beautiful character of the hillsides.

In 1902 the geographer Sir Halford Mackinder proposed a simple division of the British Isles into highland and lowland zones, roughly defined by a line drawn on the map from the mouth of the Tees at Middlesbrough to the mouth of the Exe in Devon. To the south and east, the landscape is characterised by gentle, rounded hills and broad plains, underlaid. By soft sedimentary rocks which have weathered into fertile soils under the influence of a mild climate. The land is intensively farmed and densely populated.

To the north and west of the Tees-Exe line the character of the landscape is determined by a geology of resistant rocks forming upland ranges, cut by narrow valleys eroded by streams and gouged out by glacier ice. Here the climate is harsh, and most soil is poor.

Hill farming

Traditionally hill farming is restricted to the rearing of hardy sheep and beef cattle. The area of valley land on the average hill farm is comparatively small, and the farmer needs it all to grow enough forage crops to maintain the animals through the cold months and meet the extra demand caused by lambing and calving in the spring. During the summer, the sheep and cattle are grazed on the natural vegetation of the hills where they find enough for maintenance and milk production (to feed their lambs and calves), but certainly insufficient to achieve the growth rates desirable in animals reared for meat.

Traditionally, therefore, much of the hill farmer’s income is derived from young animals sold on to better land for ‘finishing’ to a good weight. Known as store cattle and store lambs, they respond well to improved conditions after an early life on the hills, and can make a handsome profit for the purchaser.

The other main product of the hill farm is the draft ewe. This is a breeding female sheep which has spent two or three years on the hills, and is unlikely to manage another season without loss of condition. ‘Drafted’ from the hills and sold into better conditions she can manage another two or three lambing seasons, and may be mated to a lowland ram to produce the very efficient hybrid ewes which form the basis of commercial fat lamb production.

Selling stores and draft ewes is not a particularly lucrative business. Such animals are the raw material of farming, not the finished product, and the prices they fetch at the sales are often low and always unpredictable. For the enterprise to be viable, therefore, the farmer must cut costs to a minimum or find another source of income.

Counting the cost

Cutting costs is difficult, simply because hill farming is, and always has been, a very low-input activity. Most of the land is of low agricultural value, and the animals feed mainly on wild, self-sown vegetation; the herds and flocks are largely self-regenerating, and they are normally wintered in the field, requiring no special housing. The small area of cultivated land demands little in the way of tillage equipment; recent trials have suggested that under such conditions horses may be more efficient than the tractor. The capital equipment of some hill farmers amounts to little more than a shepherd’s crook and a couple of sheepdogs.

With costs already at a minimum, the hill farmer in search of improved profit margins must look for another income. In the past this was provided by supplementary occupations: quarrying, mining, weaving or estate work. Farming was regarded as a part-time activity for a large family; there was always someone on hand to look after the interests of the animals — they were, in any case, largely self- sufficient.

By the end of the 19th century, however, a decline in local industry was beginning to throw the hill farmers back on their own resources. Finding it impossible to make an adequate living from farming alone, many gave up altogether and moved out. From being an advantage, a large family became a liability on a farm which could barely support the parents, even in a good year. By the middle of the 20th century it had become apparent that the future of hill farming could only be assured by some form of subsidy.

Subsidies In 1945 the British Government was anxious to maximise food production. In the hills this encouragement took the form of substantial capital grants and `headage’ payments on beef cattle and sheep. Originally intended to give farmers a safety net in a bad year, the payments soon became an indispensible supplement to their annual income.

When Britain joined the EEC in 1972 this system was retained but the official object of the policy was changed. From being a purely agricultural subsidy, designed to maintain farm incomes and production, the system was adopted as a response to the EEC directive of Less Favoured Areas (LFA): a measure aimed not at production, but at conservation.

The idea of the LFA directive is that, by giving support to small farmers in upland regions, traditional agricultural methods remain viable, and the landscape with its associated wildlife is conserved. Depopulation is arrested, services are maintained, and the cultural identity of each region is preserved. In Europe this policy has been applied with some success, much to the irritation of many British taxpayers who complain about subsidising inefficient peasant farmers.

In Britain, until recently, the social and environmental aims of the LFA had been neglected by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which remained preoccupied with maximising production. The problem with this is that the area covered by the support policy includes not only hill farms on poor land, but also ‘upland’ farms consisting entirely of improved pasture and arable land, where the potential for production is higher. As such, small farms which did not clearly constitute a full-time occupation for the farmer were previously ineligible for some subsidies and grants. However, they can now benefit from such schemes, which is fortunate since many of these ‘part-time’ enterprises represent the total income of the farmer involved.

The result of this is that the larger, more efficient farmers have previously received a disproportionate share of the financial support which should, according to the LFA directive, be supporting the relatively inefficient traditional hill farmer. The environmental and social consequences have been profound. In the mountain and moorland areas small farmers have continued to go out of business despite the subsidies, while their counterparts in the richer uplands have been able to undertake extensive cut-price reclamation and improvement schemes, so enabling their farms to become more productive, yet still officially remaining part of the ‘less favoured areas’.

With the aid of grants, the big upland farmers have taken the plough into the roughlands, and although the actual costs often exceed the real benefits, the grant aid and high guaranteed prices for the produce mean that such ventures can be made to show handsome profits. It is the landscape and wildlife of the hills which bear the loss.

27. July 2011 by admin
Categories: Farming, History | Tags: , | Comments Off on British Farming in the Uplands

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