Cumbrian hill farmers and environmental agencies have conflicting demands on England’s largest National Park. Hill farmers are facing falls in income, a lack of young farmers to take up the baton, and pressure to reduce their stock numbers. Upland farming would not be sustainable without payments from government stewardship schemes but these often entail a reduction in flock size to protect sensitive habitats.
Sheep on the fells of the Lake District National Park have become part of the landscape. Many farmers have kept sheep on the same hills through many generations. Hill sheep, especially Herdwicks, become ‘hefted’ to the landscape: they learn where to graze, shelter, and roam on unfenced land. However, as numbers are reduced, pressure on this system and on the farmers’ livelihoods is increasing.
Environmental bodies such as the RSPB and Natural England are working to increase biodiversity on the fells, protect water clarity, and improve peat bog quality so they are able to store more carbon. This often involves tree planting and reduction or exclusion of grazing. It is a difficult situation in which to find a balance – how can we deliver the environmental benefits whilst maintaining sheep on the hills.
25% of the Cumbrian uplands is common land: privately owned but often unfenced and worked by farmers who have grazing rights. This system has evolved to fit the landscape and provides more benefits to both the public and the environment than any other type of farmland. With the new Common Agricultural Policy reform being put into practice, we will have to wait and see what effect the new policies will have on our struggling hill farmers and how a balance is struck between their needs and the environment.
Source: Telegraph online March 2014