• 7 Towards Balance?

    Richard Posselthwaite with his wintered swaledale and cheviot ewes.

    Over the last six months this project has unavoidably focused our minds on the fact that the uplands of Cumbria have many demands placed upon them. A balance that meets all these demands has seemed to me, at best, an elusive thing. In my more sceptical moments, I have even wondered if this could ever be possible. But a meeting earlier this week with Bill Kenmir of RSPB has given me a glimmer of hope.

    We arrived at Naddle farm on roads slippery with the fresh fall of snow; flakes the size of 50 pence pieces danced in the air. In this ‘thick’ of winter the farm buildings, some grey stone, others painted creamy-white, blended into the snowscape like etchings. Inside, we were welcomed into the kitchen. Kettle on, heater on booster, and Bill laid some chocolate biscuits on the table next to a map of the farm and the land around it.

    Bill is the area manager for RSPB in Cumbria, and his main task at the moment is to oversee the development and management of part of a vast area of land owned by United Utilities. It involves two farms, thousands of acres of upland spreading across three different commons, and some established Atlantic oak woodlands.

    The primary wish of the land owners, United Utilities, is to improve the quality of the water that flows off the land into Haweswater Reservoir (the water here ends up in one in every four glasses of water in the Manchester). For RSPB, the main goal is to support a healthy, sustainable environment. (Although RSPB automatically makes me think of birds, I soon find out that habitat conservation is the main driver for them. It is, after all, the starting point for a healthy bird population.) The objectives of RSPB and UU dovetail well, so working in partnership makes sense.

    Having poured some warming tea, Bill tells us the history of Naddle and RSPB’s association with this area. Bill himself has worked here, with RSPB, for over 20 years, and is obviously very fond of the land. It’s always full of surprises, he tells us – he might think he knows it, but an unexpected patch of birds eye primrose can take his breath away, and walking through tall trees that he planted as saplings twenty years ago makes him grin. Leaning on the kitchen units behind him, Dave Shackleton, who has also worked here (with RSPB) for many years, shares his knowledge of the land and its history. A younger lad, one of the RSPB volunteers, pops in a couple of times.

    It was only recently that Dave and Bill’s involvement with the actual farming side of things became closer. RSPB took on the tenancy of Naddle Farm last April the neighbouring Swindale Farm in November.

    To improve environmental quality of the land here, the aim is to preserve or improve the quality of blanket bog and sphagnum moss on the uplands, to increase tree cover, particularly around vulnerable soils and maximise the potential for creating flower-rich meadows on the lower ground – caring for sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) in the process. Although it’s possible to argue that one way to meet these ends is to take the sheep off, this isn’t what RSPB have chosen to do. They’re keen, Bill tells us, that this land remains predominantly a farmed landscape. RSPB considers farming to be fundamental to the health of the uplands, and the organisation is keen that any management works in a way that enhances biodiversity and supports farming success.

    They’ve taken a bold step. While Bill, Dave and other RSPB workers may know much of land and its wildlife well, they are at the beginning of a steep learning curve. While they may provide support (today their help was needed feeding sheep), they’re not the actual famers. For this, Richard Posslethwaite has risen to the challenge. Together with his wife, he has accepted the role of running not just one, but two farms. He’s young and keen. Fortunately, one of the things he likes most about hill farming is having a challenge.

    The RSPB have the farm on a 45 year tenancy, and Richard is also here for the duration. Richard lives at Swindale farm, while RSPB have offices at Naddle Farm. Richard will be supported by extra shepherds, shearers and gatherers when he needs to be, and will have year-round assistance from Dave and several others from RSPB, ranging from experienced managers to young volunteers. There will also be input from United Utilities. The trials of working this particular piece of land include a lack of in-bye land (most of the lower fields of Naddle were lost to water when the reservoir was created in 1940). Gathering sheep from the commons can entail long detours around the water, and eight or nine men from several farms (whose sheep collectively graze the commons) may take nine hours to retrieve just a portion of the various flocks from the fell top and bring them down to the farmsteads. This needs to be repeated several times a year.

    Winter ash near Haweswater.

    We’ve met several farmers, both those whose sheep graze the same commons as Richards, and some who herd sheep several valleys away who are wishing Richard well, and wondering just how this unusual arrangement will pan out. Will the cooperation work? Will the task prove too difficult?

    The commitment from RSPB, in consultation with Richard and with United Utilities, is to set up a partnership looking ahead for 45 years, or more. They want to monitor progress closely. Measurements of the impact of their choices will include checking the quality of the water United Utilities harvests and passes on to conglomerations further south; changes in vegetation cover, tree growth, moss quality and bird numbers; and also the quality of the livestock and the balance of the books on the farm. All these things come into the bigger equation of balance and reflect the expectations of, and the output from, the land.

    Farms in the uplands of northwest England need new generations of workers and managers to come in and take over from the old. There are a significant number where farmers are coming up to retirement age without a son or daughter to step into their shoes. Farming is a hard job – in fact, that’s not the word. Farming isn’t a job: it’s a way of life. And if you don’t love it, you’re not going to do it. We haven’t met a single farmer yet who wouldn’t agree with this. By supporting a working farm, with a young farmer prepared to give it his all, the RSPB is making a statement and pioneering a new system that could, with patience, trial and error and a good deal of cooperation, pave the way for a system of upland management that fulfils the many demands put on the land.

    As historical geographer Andrew Humphries said to us, the way for farming to survive in the face of the current economic, climatic and social situation is to recognise the ‘potential of mutuality’ – the super-additivity that can arise from a balanced and mutual give-and-take between land and people, and mutual support between different organisations. The RSPB farm is only in its first year, a mere fledgling, but it’s one worth watching.

    Atlantic oak on the edge of Naddle Farm

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