• 21 At Glencoyne

    The clouds have been pressing down heavy on the fell tops, rain has been hammering the leaves from the trees, and Ullswater is rising and pressing at the edges of roads and fields. But it didn’t stop me from getting to Glencoyne today, on the west side of Ullswater, to meet up with Sam and Candida Hodgson, and their apprentice, Lizzy Weir.

    They share a joke while looking at the tups in the field between the farmhouse and the lake shore (the joke is either about a tup, or about Sam’s concern that I’m taking a picture and he hasn’t shaved). We’re all watching ‘the Lion’, a strong tup with a thick and bushy fleece that is thickest around his jowels and chest - it looks like a mane. He’s an eight shear that came originally from Turner Hall: one of Anthony Hartley's fine rams. One of the younger tups striding alongside him was sired by this Lion, and it shows in his gait.

    The Hodgsons know their sheep well, like any of the stockmen in the Lakes. As we watch the tups stomping on the wet grass they talk about each one’s characteristics and laugh at the origins of some of their names. Inside one of the barns, two Swaledale tups are in quarantine, having just arrived from the sale rooms in Kirkby Stephen. They stand proud and look straight at you – Candida says they know they’re good. One of them is the grandson of a tup the Hodgsons sold several years ago: just goes to show how a good blood line can keep producing strong rams.

    The wellbeing and quality of the stock are at the heart of what the Hodgsons do here at Glencoyne. But caring for the land is equally important: they believe that keeping the land in a good state is part of what it means to be a hill farmer. They don’t diversify in the usual sense of the word – no B&B here, no cafe or holiday houses – but, Sam says, their diversification is in caring for the land, and they do it as best as they can, in conjunction with the HLS agri-environment scheme delivered by Natural England. And it works well for them.

    ‘Since we came here,’ says Sam, ‘we've always tried to be farmers sympathetic to the landscape, that's how we work. And it's important, is people's perception of what you do. We're hill farmers with a slight bent towards the environment and it’s good to feel as if you're wanted - in the past you've not always thought you're wanted, different governments, a brush of a pen and they can affect whole income streams. That's the nice thing about Natural England, I think they want us, and when they appreciate what you're doing, that is even better ...’

    I spent the afternoon with Sam, Candida and Lizzy, and as they talked to me about their sheep and the way the landscape around them has reacted to changes, I felt no shortage of appreciation. It’s clear they are blending sensitivity to the environment and sensitivity to their stock in their day-to-day work on the farm. I was interested to hear about the way heather is flowering and sensitive plants are thriving, even woodland is regenerating, on areas where grazing is low, and about areas where grazing has been excluded. Ten years, says Candida, is not that long in the grand scheme of things, and they are fortunate that their farm is large enough to adapt to changes in land use. Sam and Candida assure me that sheep and natural biodiversity can, and do, go together if the shepherding is done right.

    As we sat drinking tea in the kitchen, warmed by the AGA, we talked about wild flowers and hawthorns, regeneration of woodland, how sheep behave among the trees, the impact of cattle on the ground and, of course, the quality of the sheep and the stories that run through generations of ewes and rams. And Lizzy shared her passion for hill farming and herdwicks. She’s happy doing the apprenticeship, and may well be one of the fell farmers of the future. On her course, there’s almost a 50-50 split amongst students between those who come from a hill-farming background and those who do not – and if they have anything near the interest and acumen of Lizzy, that’s good news for the fells in the future.

    I left Glencoyne feeling positive, reminded that farming is not, at its core, about politics. Though it may be affected by politics, it is driven by the engine that is the farmers who get up each morning to look after their stock, and the land they depend on.

    Here's a link to a walk around the farm, from the National Trust

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