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Anger as National Trust splits historic Lakes farm

Published in the Cumbria Farmer on 08/02/2005

The decision by the National Trust to split up High Yewdale farm near Coniston – the “Beatrix Potter farm” – has sparked an outcry from farmers across Cumbria.

Farmers such as Willie Richardson of Buttermere, Stanley Jackson of Borrowdale and Sid Tyson of Ennerdale have long regarded Yewdale as the cornerstone of the central fells with productive land which, given some funding help, could be very viable.

They say they cannot believe the action the trust is taking, and that it bodes ill for fell farmers across Lakeland who will now be “looking anxiously over their shoulders” to see who is next to go.

For 35 years, Jonny Birkett and his wife Ruth have farmed the 17th century farm that the creator of Peter Rabbit left to the National Trust, believing it would preserve the style of farming she so loved.

But, seven weeks ago, Mr Birkett, 71, was told by National Trust managers that the farm is to be split between four neighbouring farms upon his retirement in October.

The flock, which is directly descended from the author’s beloved Herdwicks, will be given to another farm.

The trust says its decision is based on the changing nature of agriculture. It says the farm can no longer be considered as a going concern.

“Beatrix Potter will be turning in her grave,” said Mr Birkett. “I’ve always given the National Trust top marks for trying to save farms, but now they’re just going against what they’re meant to be about.

“It’s a disgrace. This is one of the best farms in the Lake District. We’ve looked after it as if it was our own. Now they’ve just come along and said, ‘That’s it’.”

Mr Birkett knew Beatrix Potter when he was small. She would pay visits to the farm in her clogs and shawl.

The author picked his father, Robert, as tenant of High Yewdale, because she thought highly of his prowess as a shepherd and stockman.

In 1985, the Queen paid a visit to what was, by then, the Lake District show farm. Mr Birkett remembers Laurence Harwood, then of the National Trust, saying to the Queen: “This will be a farm farmed in the traditional way as long as there are any farms in the Lake District.”

A spokesman for the Beatrix Potter Society said: “It is regrettable that the farm may not be retained as a single unit. Perhaps the decision is not irreversible. We hope the National Trust will do all it can to be sympathetic to Beatrix Potter’s wishes.”

However, since this plea, National Trust area manager John Darlington has said that he will not go back on his decision to split up the farm.

“To stay the same is not an option,” he said. “There are major changes in agricultural subsidy which are going to have a impact.”

Great-nephew of Beatrix Potter, John Heelis, 83, who lives outside Appleby, told the Sunday Sun: “I think the National Trust are being rather naughty.” He said his great-aunt would have been shattered by the plans to divide High Yewdale and spoke of his own sadness at the trust’s decision.

“I do not think she would have approved,” he said. “Beatrix had a very up and down history with the National Trust, which is seen in her books, and I think they are living up to what she expected of them.”

Willie Richardson, 46, of Gatesgarth Farm, Buttermere, the fourth largest farm in the Lake District, says he can understand the trust breaking up a small farm that isn’t viable. “But,” he added, “High Yewdale is a good, viable farm. It has some of the best Herdwicks in the Lake District.

“These National Trust folk should be made to work on these hill farms for a year, then they would understand it a lot better.

“They have no practical understanding of fell farming. They have one or two good men on the ground, but not many.

“I think it’s a disgraceful decision.”

Stanley Jackson, of Nook Farm, Rosthwaite, agrees.

“I think it’s scandalous that the National Trust should break up a farm like that,” he said. “I don’t know what Beatrix Potter would have thought. They say it’s going to cost too much to convert the buildings. Yet they’re supposed to be guardians of the Lake District.

“What they should do is redirect some less important funding into keeping one of main central Lakeland farms going.

“If a lot of sheep are going to be taken off the fells it’s going to affect the heafing system.

“At the moment Yewdale is a fell farm. The sheep are gathered by the traditional way. But now they might be gathered from other unfamiliar areas on the fell and in-by land.

“It’s just going to make a mess of things.

“Why don’t they take a smaller farm and a willing tenant who would be glad to farm High Yewdale?

“They’re splitting one of the most important and famous farms in the Lake District and giving the land to little farms that few people have heard of.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Sid Tyson, 76, of How Hall Farm, Ennerdale, is in no doubt the trust is making a mistake.

“The trust was preaching about Herdwicks and how they were going to preserve them,” he said. “Now they’re doing the dead opposite.

“If it was a la’al, tiny spot you could have understood them splitting it up, but it isn’t.

“What are they going to do with the sheep? To keep Herdwicks on the fell they need all the Yewdale land for them to lamb in.

“It will be gone forever. Farming’s hard enough these days. It just needs a young active fellow to farm High Yewdale in the traditional way.

“I don’t know what old Bob Birkett, Jonny’s father, would think. I knew him. He was a true, solid fellow; a chap who wouldn’t tell a lie.

“I think the trust has let Beatrix Potter down.”