High Yewdale Farm in CumbriaThere is huge affection, both locally and nationally, for this small family run fell farm and the beautiful environment in which it is located.
It is an affection that we thought was shared by the National Trust, particularly as this was the farm that the National Trust selected for a visit by Her Majesty the Queen when she last came to Coniston in 1985;
It would be wrong not to give friends of the farm, as well as National Trust members, the opportunity to retain this way of life as Beatrix Potter intended.
It is very encouraging to see that the National Trust has changed its position on Stonehenge (see Save Stonehenge.org) and is now actually fighting hard to ensure Stonehenge gets the future it deserves. They are to be congratulated on this and similar consideration should now be given to Beatrix Potter's bequest..
If you are a member of the National Trust, please be sure to mention your membership when you write or email to Fiona Reynolds CBE in support of High Yewdale
36 Queen Anne's Gate
London SW1H 9AS
Fax: From UK: 0207-222-5097
From overseas: International code +44 207-222-5097
Email: Fiona Reynolds CBE
Some of the arguments that may have slipped the notice of the National Trust
The current tenants – Jonny and Ruth Birkett retire later this year and Jonny’s father, Bob, farmed the land prior to Jonny. Bob Birkett was ‘headhunted’ by Beatrix Potter as the ideal tenant for High Yewdale. The farm (Herdwick and Swaledale sheep and beef cattle) is one of many in the Coniston and Little Langdale area that formed part of the Monk Coniston estate bought by Beatrix Potter in 1930. The arrangement is that 374 hefted Herdwick sheep pass down through the tenancy agreement, although there is provision for up to 1,200 sheep and followers to be kept. Jonny has never kept these numbers as the fell and mountain grazing must be managed sympathetically in such an environmentally sensitive area.
Beatrix Potter’s main purpose in buying land in the Lake District was to prevent the break-up of farms and estates. When she died in 1943, she left over 4000 acres of land, her farms and her cottages to her husband, and thence to the National Trust on condition that they “let and manage the same on the same lines as far as possible as previously let and managed during the lifetime of myself and my said Husband”.
The National Trust’s recent decision that the farm should be split up and the land divided between the four neighbouring NT farms (Yew Tree Farm, High Arnside Farm, Tilberthwaite Farm and Boon Crag Farm) has been reached without proper consultation with the tenant farmers, local people and other stakeholders. High Yewdale Farm is likely to be the most viable agricultural enterprise of the five farms in the group and Jonny has won many livestock prizes during the long period of his tenancy. The Herdwicks on this farm are descendants of Beatrix Potter’s Herdwicks and, of course, they are hefted to the fells and mountains on which they graze in the area that includes Wetherlam.
A number of farmers with the crucial fell and ‘mountain’ farming experience had either approached the National Trust, or were waiting for the tenancy to be advertised, so that they could apply for it.
The National Trust Area Manager sent a letter to all tenant farmers in the Coniston and Little Langdale area on January 6th 2005 setting out the reasons for the Trust’s decision to amalgamate. There are a number of points worth emphasising and they are raised in the chronological order of the letter.
- “By restructuring farm holdings we anticipate benefits to the neighbouring farms that are both immediate, such as those that will occur from ESA and HFA payments, and those that will accrue over the eight year transitional period leading to a fully de-coupled Single Farm Payment. At the same time we also envisage that the changes will bring benefits to the environment, to animal welfare, for the control of pollution and for public access”. The reasons for restructuring may sound impressive, but are not really relevant to the situation, especially as there is already progressive emphasis on funding the environmental aspects of farming. High Yewdale farm and land is an environmentally sensitive area with a number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest; it is vital that farming here continues in an environmentally sensitive fashion, by someone with the necessary expertise. The current plans are likely to have an adverse effect on the environment and animal welfare, pollution control has not been a problem and there is already public access to most parts of the farm and its land.
- “The National Trust has been giving careful consideration to various options for its future use, and we have concluded after a long period of internal consultation and discussion with our partners in the farming community”. This is not what took place.
- “We will subsequently re-let High Yewdale for residential purposes and, potentially for appropriate rural business use”. This is not what Beatrix Potter intended.
- “The primary reason behind the decision to amalgamate has been to strengthen the long-term viability of our farms within the wider area at a time of great change within agriculture”. High Yewdale farm is profitable and the National Trust has a responsibility for ‘beautiful places’; a responsibility that cannot be easily defined in strict economic terms.
- “The Trust has looked long and hard at retaining High Yewdale as a farming unit. To do this would involve a substantial investment particularly in buildings needed to accommodate cattle. Such investment is difficult to justify when set against the long-term requirements for farming within the surrounding area, including our past involvement in the neighbouring farms and their current capacity, and the benefits of restructuring outlined above”. The Trust has made these proposals without consultation with the tenants. Substantial investment, in the form of updated accommodation for beef cattle, is not essential. The current accommodation can be modified for this purpose, or fewer beef cattle kept, or there are a number of potential sites where the Trust could build new cattle accommodation.
- “The Trust appreciates that there are concerns within the farming community, particularly with regard to the maintenance of a hefted Herdwick flock. As it stands the proposal ensures the retention of a hefted Herdwick flock in the area, it ensures the same number of shepherding farms and it will afford opportunities for younger generations interested in agriculture to be involved”. The proposed plan means that sheep pens at High Yewdale may no longer be used and the hefted flock will need to travel further for handling. Gathering from the fells takes 3 days on this farm, so this restructuring may have an adverse animal welfare impact. There seems to be poor understanding of running a fell-based hefted flock by those making these proposals, indeed the farmers in this part of the Lake District feel that those involved in local decision making lack the necessary experience and there is great uncertainty about the number of Herdwicks that will be retained. It most certainly does not “afford opportunities for younger generations interested in agriculture to be involved”. A number of young people with the right qualifications would love the opportunity to farm at High Yewdale; they have been given no such choice.
- “There is also concern about the loss of a Beatrix Potter farm. Beatrix Potter was a staunch supporter of the hill farms in the Lake District, but her legacy changed both during her lifetime and subsequently. Of the sixteen farms within the Coniston and Little Langdale area purchased by Beatrix Potter and the National Trust (largely from the Monk Coniston estate), now only six survive as working farms. High Yewdale Farm, like many of its neighbours, is itself a product of amalgamation and restructuring (with Low Yewdale). Importantly, all of that area is still being farmed and the ownership and boundaries remain intact. Beatrix Potter believed that the Lake District should not be fossilised and that it had to change and adapt. Our long term approach means that we are indeed maintaining the Potter legacy, and we hope very much that you, as tenants and partners, will feel positive about joining us in developing the next stage of farming in the Lake District”. Reference to the terms of Beatrix Potter’s bequest would seem to undermine this argument and to infer that the terms of her bequest have not been met. Furthermore, if the Trust had taken the time to speak to people who actually knew Beatrix Potter, they might have a firmer grasp of her intentions.