• 1 Beginnings, Evolution

    Writing the first blog for this website when we’re already 4 months into the project seems a bit strange, but it has taken us a while to meet and talk to enough people about upland farming here in Cumbria and to begin to give it a fair representation.

    When I stepped into this, I knew very little about farming in the hills I love so much. I knew many of the fell names – I’d walked most of them – but I couldn’t, honestly, tell you the difference between a Swaledale and a Rough Fell sheep. I knew what a Herdwick looked like, but I didn’t know what a hogg or a shearling was. I knew the feel of the ground under my feet, but I had no idea what was involved in gathering hundreds of sheep in from the fells. I even (and here’s where the embarrassment creeps in) fancied myself in a wilderness up there in the hills, especially on wet, windy evenings when tourists head for pubs and tea rooms.

    I was a lover of the lakes, a walker, an enjoyer – but in many ways, a taker. Now that I’ve met so many farmers and spoken to so many people involved in the care and management of the land here in Cumbria, I see how they are the ones who give to the land – and that the uplands here are so much more than a playground. This is a living, working landscape, the cradle of a culture that’s held in the hands of families who farm areas that are neither owned nor walled, tending to a compact region that’s visited by more than 13 million people a year, and celebrated by many more.

    It is a privilege to be welcomed in, and to be given insights into the lives and tasks of hill farmers. I’ve encountered a group of people who are both gentle and proud; who are resilient, and humble, for the most part; who hold rare knowledge of the land and the specialist skill of farming hill sheep.

    For me, one of my expectations of doing this ‘project’ was that it would deepen my understanding of the land, and, through that, deepen my sense of connection with it. Part way through and I can say this is certainly happening – and to a greater extent than I could have imagined. My eyes have been opened and I see the landscape as I never could have before. I have helped to gather sheep, scrambled on steep fellsides to stop ewes running off; witnessed shearing; got wet and soapy cleaning rams ready for sale; been held back, and pushed forward, by the vagaries of weather; laughed with farmers; and even held my breath with a shed full of people as the bids for a champion tup got higher and higher. I’ve met vets, ecologists, land managers, MPs and realised that it is not all about beauty and fun: there’s a complex interplay of power, policies, tradition, natural forces and ecomonics that puts pressure on the land and on the people who care for it.

    Rob and I are hearing stories from farmers across Cumbria, and from others connected with the land. Each one is fascinating. And some strong themes are coming out again and again: what people love about the land; the complex balance between man, nature, commerce, leisure, carbon capture, food security & more; concerns for the impact of environmental policies on fell farming; and the importance of hill-farming culture to this region, to the nation, and to the wider world.

    To reveal more about these, in the words of the people we meet, we will be posting abridged transcripts of our interviews on this website, along with Rob’s photos, each one of which holds a story of its own. Off line, we’re developing the writings and the photographs to represent what we are discovering, and to capture our responses.

    The final outcome will be an exhibition that will be launched in March 2014 and tour Cumbria and beyond. Before the final exhibition, we will share what we create with the farmers we meet, and through this website. It’s an evolving process and we value feedback at any stage, so if you’ve something you want to share, please get in touch.

    Picture: Anthony Hartley, sorting sheep after a gather in June, Turner Hall Farm, Seathwaite, Duddon Valley

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