A texel tup marches past in upper Wensleydale. Taken last week on 19 November 2019.

Tupping time gives us hope but change is needed

Monday 25 November, 2019, by Andrew Fagg

Most trees are bare now in Upper Wensleydale, but bright colour still abounds.  You see it on ewes’ backsides.  The raddle on the Bluefaced Leicester tup I was watching the other day was yellow.  He was just getting to work in a small enclosure by Appersett bridge.  The Swaledales appeared uninterested; only a couple of them were bearing yellow.   But the ready vigour of the tup was conspicuous.   I confess as a car came over the bridge I turned away.   Was it decent to be caught observing sheep in the act?  I shouldn’t have been so prudish.  Tupping time gives us hope in our hearts.  It helps us see beyond the long nights and cold days to spring.

A mile east from Appersett is the market town of Hawes.  There you might rest a while in St. Margaret’s Church on the hill.  If the sun breaks through, your eye will likely be caught by a stained glass window in the south aisle.  A shepherd is the dominant figure.  He looks to the distance while holding a lamb in the crook of his left arm. 

The window is a reminder that the people of this part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park are proud to be at the centre of an agricultural district. 

Some people in the business remain chipper.  I think of the farmer whose lamb I ate for tea.  Good lamb, he said, when I saw him in the street (and there would be good turkeys at Christmas, too).  

But not everyone is able to retain high spirits.   A friend dropped off my lad after he’d been on a half-term ‘play date’ at their farm.  How’s dad, I enquired.  He seems to be getting grumpier, they replied with a laugh, explaining that he does spend a lot of time on his own.

That is one of the challenges of modern day hill farming in the Dales.  It has become a lonely job.  A typical Dales farm can barely support one worker never mind two or more, even though many tasks require a second pair of hands.  My uncle, who retired from his hill farm a couple of years ago, said towards the end that he was on 50 pence an hour.  Others like him have told me the same.    The margins on breeding sheep or fat lambs are thin; prices haven’t really moved in decades.   It means that many local farms are entirely dependent on the Basic Payment to turn enough profit to keep going.

The Basic Payment, though, has produced unintended consequences, some of them negative.  As the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers said late last month, rewarding simply ‘the occupation of land’ has produced a situation where much land is not being used effectively.  I am no expert in land management, but I see this with my own eyes every day; here in the hills, so much more could be done for biodiversity.  There are plenty of hard working Dales farmers.  You can still find the man (or woman) of the church window out on the fells today.  But the public is really going to have to get behind them in a new way if the great opportunities are to be realised. 

** This article was first published in the Yorkshire Post – ‘Yorkshire’s National Newspaper’ – on Saturday 23 November 2019.

Picture of Andrew Fagg

Andrew Fagg

Media Officer, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority

Website: www.yorkshiredales.org.uk

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