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What the Hill Farmer does for you

The Hill Farmer is first and foremost a food producer.

      He does this by adapting his farming methods to the geography which may be the tops of the fells, or land right down on the coast, at sea level.

      Surprisingly one third of the land surface of England and Wales is above 800ft and in order to use this land to contribute to our food supply we have developed a remarkable integrated system. Hills may not be suitable for arable crops but they grow grass and grass is meat.

      The hill land is where the young livestock is reared. The hill farmer keeps sheep on the open fells and cattle on the valley sides and bottom. In this way he manages the whole of the valley from top to bottom in a system which produces the open views on the fells for the tourism and the walker and the biodiversity; from the curlew on the fell top to the wrens in the stone walls.

      The beauty of the fells overshadows the importance of the work done on them. Many people including politicians think the fells unproductive wasteland but they are the ‘prairies’ of the sheep farmer.

      Britain is one of the two largest producers of sheepmeat in the world. The other is New Zealand. Both countries have a mild climate and sufficient rainfall to keep the grass growing for a large part of the year and no major predators.

      The young sheep and cattle move from the hill farms to the lowland farms to fatten on the pastures and cereals grown there. The cross bred female sheep become the ewes of the lowland breeding flocks so nearly all the sheep in Britain come out of the hills originally. In this way we use all our land for food production and the by-products of scenery and wildlife have come largely for free.

      In recent times food production and food security has been less important. We have been able import cheap food so the reason given for supporting farmers has been that they provide the view for tourism and the biodiversity for the ecologist.

      Many people ask why farmers should be given government support, in the form of subsidies at all. Well let's imagine the farmer turns up at the ‘Dragons Den' and reports he has a good plan for a business into which he will invest maybe a million pounds but in which he has no control over the conditions of production [ the weather and disease] and as he has to sell his product when it is ready, in a market situation in which he is hostage to the buyer. Do you think he would get a good hearing or be shown the door ?

      Natures boom and bust in production makes for an unstable commercial business and yet we need a reliable supply of food. Most responsible governments have to address this in some way in order to provide a safety net and make farming a viable business.

      Modern production depends on oil which is running out. It takes twenty-five tons of manure to replace one ton of fertiliser, made from oil. All agricultural production has to obey the basic equation that whatever fertility is taken from the land when a crop is produced has to be returned. We have been able to short -circuit this by using chemical fertilisers.

      The work of the farmers as food producers has never been so important.

H.W. March 2009


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