A hill farmer and former rugby union player from Malhamdale has been elected Chairman of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.
Neil Heseltine has been a Member of the Authority for six years and is one of four Parish Council-appointees on the board.
He is an upland farmer, producing beef, lamb and wool at Hill Top Farm, alongside ‘public goods’ such as wildflower meadows and pastures rich in biodiversity. (**Further biographical details are contained in the Q&A below)
He was elected Chairman at today’s annual general meeting of the Authority and succeeded Carl Lis, who stepped down after serving a total of 12 years in the role. Addressing the full Authority meeting, Mr Heseltine highlighted the importance of continual improvement.
“I’d like to thank members for their support. Becoming chair of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority is a huge honour,” he said.
“I’m motivated by what’s outside the window – the Yorkshire Dales National Park – the landscape, the environment, the wildlife, and the people who live in that landscape, work in its environment and who visit.
“It’s important that as an organisation we recognise the collective work that has gone on before and strive to improve. That was something that resonated with me from my sporting life, where the principles of continually striving to be better are the same.”
“I’m not suggesting that’s going to be easy, we’re in the midst of one of the biggest challenges of our lives, but with that challenge comes opportunity and new ways of working.”
The Chairman of the National Park Authority is a key leadership role. Mr Heseltine will speak for the Authority; guide its work; maintain political links with local councils and other agencies; and support the Authority in fulfilling its statutory purposes.
New Chairman Q&A: ‘Rugby, cows and a Geordie lass…’
Why did you want to become Chairman of the Authority?
I first got involved in National Park Authority work about ten years ago. I was broadly a supporter of the NPA, but obviously it got quite a bit of stick, as it still does, as the planning authority – the local view was ‘bloody National Parks, all they do is stop us doing owt’.
I was invited to be part of an advisory group on green lanes. This was quite a contentious subject at the time, with motorbikes going over the moors. The first three meetings were full of squabbling. But then the processes kicked in and the group came up with a sensible approach to how green lanes are used.
What it opened my eyes to was how the processes work and I was impressed with that. The whole situation was very good, involving professional, passionate and diligent people.
Then I joined the Local Access Forum and being impressed by the whole process, I wanted to continue to be part of it. I ended up becoming a Member of the Authority six years ago. I am largely impressed by how the National Park Authority works. What you start to realise is that the work that gets done outweighs massively any of the negative stuff we get portrayed as doing.
I never set out with a personal ambition to be Chairman. The main ambition for me is to achieve the objectives outlined in our Management Plan, which is, in effect, a five-year programme of work for a whole range of organisations operating across the area.
My role as Chair is to ensure that we steer the ship so that all those objectives are achieved, so that overall we’re making the National Park into a brilliant place.
What’s really important to me is what’s outside the window: the landscape, the wildlife, the environment and critically, the people that live and work in the landscape and the people who come to visit it.
How long do you go back in Malhamdale?
My grandfather took on the tenancy of Hill Top Farm in 1949. He came from Swinacote in Bishopdale. My dad – who is now 88 – bought the farm as a sitting tenant in the 1980s.
It was at that time that farming incomes in the Dales started to fall, especially from suckler cattle. So they decided to convert one of cattle sheds into a bunk barn and a barn into a holiday cottage. It was one of the earliest diversification schemes in the Dales.
Mum is a local girl to Malham, born in Malhamdale. She farmed along the road from Hill Top. Hill Top had been in her side of the family.
What sort of a spot is Malhamdale?
People have moved in to Malham and brought dynamism and diversity of thought and background. It’s a good thing to open up and broaden horizons. These families have been very beneficial for the area and bolstered primary school numbers. They aren’t any better than local families. I’m not saying that. Having rooted families – which is what you see in some of the northern dales – gives strength, and it’s great to have communities which have socialised and worked together over generations.
Malhamdale is not as big as Wharfedale and Wensleydale. It’s shorter and broader. There are 20 or 30 farmers in Malham parish. Often the Dales all get lumped together but each dale is different and the characters who have grown up in each dale are completely different to one another, too.
Why did you choose to become a farmer?
There was never any pressure put on any of us to farm. It was my good luck that none of my [four older] sisters wanted to farm. It was not until I got into my upper sixth at school that I decided to go to an agricultural college.
For ten years after college my main focus was playing rugby. I played for Kelso in the Scottish Borders and then first team at Wharfedale for 8 or 9 years. All the farming work fitted around the rugby playing.
Wharfedale got promoted up through the leagues four times when I was playing and that was because all of the people involved in the club felt part of one club. We were trying to be successful on the field – that was incredibly important – and create a club spirit so that we were a critical part of the community. That was very enjoyable to be involved in.
After the rugby finished I guess I had to grow up. Foot and mouth happened [in 2001] and that meant I was able to work less on farms. That pushed me to come home and work on the farm at home. Around the same time I met Leigh. She’s a Geordie lass from Wallsend. The fact she wasn’t from farming stock wasn’t an issue for me, and we have our lovely daughter Violet, who will be 7 this October.
What did you learn from your rugby career that applies now?
The most important thing you learn is you have to pull together as a team and you’ve got to be trying to achieve the same thing to be successful.
I see parallels between that and where we’re at as a National Park.
My belief is that we are in a really good place. But there are areas we can improve on. What continues to happen generally across the National Park is that numbers in primary schools are still falling. That concerns and worries me. Another tricky nut to crack is delivering affordable housing. We need more affordable houses built and at the moment we’re not getting them. I know these are not National Park Authority responsibilities, but we can play our part alongside our partners in local councils.
It seems appropriate that a farmer has become Chairman at a time when massive changes to agriculture and land management are coming in because of the UK’s exit from the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy?
Maybe so, but this cuts right to the core of what National Parks are about. As a National Park Authority, we support the proposed changes in the Agriculture Bill. It’s encouraging the direction the bill has taken. It is looking at the environment and at biodiversity. As a National Park Authority, I believe that it is a huge opportunity both for farmers and for the environment because it allows us to play our part in mitigating climate change, influencing future land management and delivering more plant, animal and bird life.
For the past few years you’ve identified yourself as a ‘nature friendly farmer’ – how did that come about?
By the late 1980s we’d gone out of cattle like a lot of others. The Dales had always been a place for mixed grazing but then there was a period with a lot of sheep and not many, or no, cattle.
In 2003-4 I got involved in the Limestone Country Project, which was delivered by the National Park Authority, and that was about countering the loss of biodiversity.
I started to see that the things people had been telling me about – people that some people thought didn’t know what they were talking about – were right. We bought cows again. As time went along, you could see things changing. Managing the land in a different way made a difference to plant, animal and bird life.
It was that involvement in the Limestone Country Project that set us on a different course in terms of our agricultural careers. And that’s really why I’m of a mind now that what the Government is putting forward is an opportunity. I believe as a National Park that we can still produce food but at the same time capture carbon and improve nature – and get paid for all three.