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The Westmorland Gazette 4th February 2005

Outcry merits farm scheme re-think

THE National Trust has, we suspect, been somewhat surprised by the level of opposition to its plans to split up High Yewdale Farm at Coniston.

The tenant farmer who currently occupies the farm is due to retire later this year. The trust says that it has looked long and hard at the 160-hectare farm and concluded that simply finding a new tenant is not the best way forward.

It cites the changing nature of agriculture, including reforms to the farming subsidies system, as reasons why High Yewdale, as it currently sits in the context of the valley (which has five farms), is not viable.

Instead it plans to divide High Yewdale's land between each of the four neighbouring trust-owned farms, re-let the house and rent out the other buildings as homes or for commercial use. It stresses that not one inch of farming land will be lost and, visually, the farmstead will remain in its iconic, beautiful setting.

But the decision has sparked an outcry from local farmers and from some other members of the public. They say High Yewdale is the corner-stone of the Coniston fells and has productive land which, given some funding help, could be very viable.

They also say that the trust is not taking into account the importance of the system of farming heafed sheep, which involves sheep grazing the same land over generations developing a homing instinct, which means they tend not to stray.

They argue that dividing farms like High Yewdale undermines the Lake District's cultural landscape, tearing the heart out of the social fabric of our community', as one contributor to The Westmorland Gazette's Letters and Opinions pages put it last week.

Some of the strength of the public outcry may be down to the fact that the farm was donated to the National Trust by children's writer and early conservationist Beatrix Potter, who evokes huge loyalty among her fans.

There also seems to be a feeling among some people that the trust does not understand the land as well as locals who have farmed it for years.

Whatever the root cause, there is a great deal of consternation out there. Despite this, the trust this week re-affirmed its plans to split up High Yewdale.

We would argue that it should take time to look again at its decision in the light of the strong public feeling. There are clearly experienced farmers who believe the organisation has got it wrong in this instance surely reason enough to step back and reconsider.

It is clear from the major upheavals faced by farming in recent years that agriculture is changing. A correspondent to this paper this week suggests that another option could be to let High Yewdale to a new tenant but seek funding to set up a research project into hill farming, based at the site.

Such research could prove invaluable in discovering new ways to maintain hill farms such as High Yewdale, and also ensuring they remain viable.

It's an imaginative idea, which deserves to be explored further. In the meantime, the trust should put a hold on its plans and keep talking to local people to find a more mutually acceptable way forward.

12:04pm Friday 4th February 2005

Listen to the local farmers...

By Letters

Sir, After working on National Trust farms as a farm worker, mainly in the Troutbeck area, I became a tenant farmer at Coniston Hall Farm. I am totally disgusted at the National Trust's approach to Yewdale Farm.

I have been a tenant since the 1970s and I feel that the young farmers wanting to take the tenancy of Yewdale (and there are some) should be given a chance.

When John Birkett's father started farming at Yewdale things were a great deal harder than they are now. They survived and brought up a family.

I feel it will be the beginning of the end of all fell sheep in this area as Yewdale farm is the corner-stone of the Coniston fells.

Some managers of the National Trust do not understand the gathering of fell sheep.

It is no good people in ivory towers and college boys coming to work for the National Trust trying to tell farmers in the Lake District how to farm fell sheep. They should listen to local farmers, local people and those of us who make a living in and around our community.

Alan Wilson,
Coniston Hall Farm

Sir, Your report (Gazette, January 21, Beatrix farm to be broken up') about the plans of the National Trust to split up High Yewdale Farm, near Coniston, and rent off its buildings is of concern to The Beatrix Potter Society.

The Society endeavours to promote the study and appreciation of the life and works of Beatrix Potter; it also strives to uphold and protect the integrity of her inimitable and unique work, her aims and bequests.

Beatrix Potter left, in her will, High Yewdale Farm to the National Trust (through her husband) on condition that they "let and manage the same on the same lines as previously let and managed during the lifetime of myself and my said husband."

We appreciate that the National Trust endeavours, with limited resources, to preserve the many properties which they own.

While it is indeed regrettable that High Yewdale Farm may not be able to be maintained as a single unit at this time, perhaps this decision might not be irreversible in the future? The Society hopes that the National Trust will do all it can to be sympathetic to Beatrix Potter's wishes.

The Society, through the generosity of its international membership, intends to continue to give financial support to selected projects connected with the legacy that Beatrix Potter left to the world.

Roger L. Cutcliffe
Chairman,The Beatrix Potter Society

Sir, I read with amazement the letter from John Darlington giving his reasons for not re-letting High Yewdale Farm (Letters, January 28, Trust premise no farming land will be lost').

His reason; the farm is not viable because there are four other farms in the valley. What nonsense! What kind of logic is this?

Surely if a tenant is prepared to take the farm on it is up to him to make it viable, as Johny Birkett has done for over 50 years and his father before him.

Anyone who has had dealings with the trust on a landlord/tenant basis will know that they are not easy to deal with, (this is putting it politely), and find that they are inflexible with their decisions, so to anyone hoping for a change of heart from the trust I would say don't hold your breath'.

It would be interesting to know who these people are who make this decision, I bet not many of them are Cumbrian.

Will we ever know?

Mike Nicholson,

Sir, The decision of the National Trust to close down a historic farm and dispose of a heritage flock of sheep highlights the realities of hill farming. In spite of it being the foundation of tradition, culture, and appearance of the internationally acclaimed area, it is apparently not worth paying for.

The fine words about respect of indigenous populations and protection of local breeds of animals, evaporate when it comes to money, and the lure of cheap' food looms large. Although the tourism industry is derived from the beauty of the landscape, produced by the farming families, these people are deemed irrelevant and the focus is, rather deceitfully, in preserving the view only.

The problem is not unique to this area or even Britain. All over the world the small farms are disappearing in the rush to pander to global big business.

With the loss of the farms goes the unique co-operating culture, which demonstrated a balance in competitiveness and social cohesion. The real heritage is the human network stretching over generations, not just the walls, fields and open views which they created.

I suspect that many people within the National Trust regret their role is reduced to protection of the view and not the heritage but they are faced with the reality that they are asking young people to commit themselves to a life with little financial reward, time off and even respect, in order to create an environment for other people to enjoy and benefit from.

The vacancy on this farm would seem to be a good opportunity for the tenancy to be taken on by someone linking in with research being done on the total value of hill farming so that direct, hands-on conservation experience could be fed in. We have both Newton Rigg campus and an Uplands Centre in Cumbria so would be well placed to monitor such an experiment if money could be found to support it.

H. Wilson,

Sir, Having read about the National Trust's sell off of High Yewdale Farm at Coniston, and the letters in The Westmorland Gazette (January 28), I am appalled by the trust's total lack of sensitivity and disregard for the wishes of local people and farmers alike. Furthermore the trust demonstrates a crass disregard for the wishes of one of this country's most celebrated authors, Beatrix Potter.

John Darlington, Area Manager of the National Trust, is reported as stating that in order for the farm to remain viable it would involve "substantial investment, particularly in buildings to accommodate cattle", also that this investment is difficult to justify when set against the long-term requirements of farming within the surrounding area.

I feel it is pertinent then to ask why the trust does not make this investment in what was Beatrix Potter's showpiece farm if only to meet her wishes. She is one of the main reasons that people travel to this part of the world and she continues to raise vast capital sums for the good of the area. Where does this money go?

The depth of feeling over this issue, both locally and nationally, shows that something needs to be done to re-think the current proposal, so that all views are considered with equal merit and the correct and only real course of action is carried out.

That is to realise the wishes of Beatrix Potter and ensure that the farm is brought up to whatever standard is required by the organisation she thought would be responsible for ensuring that Herdwick hill farming remains a part of South Lakeland's heritage.

C. Heaton Coniston Sir, On behalf of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders' Association, I would like to make the following points about the potential splitting up of High Yewdale at Coniston.

Yewdale is one of the larger and better Herdwick farms. Its viability has been demonstrated over many years by the dedicated custodianship of the farm and its sheep flock by successive members of the Birkett family.

We feel that the farm needs some relatively simple investment to sort out its pollution problems (for which there could be some grant aid) and that if it were allowed to operate largely as at present it would create a viable holding for someone wishing to progress from a smaller farm or even would be suitable for a new entrant.

We feel that given the right opportunities good younger people with the required skills and knowledge will continue to emerge, just as they have in the past.

We are particularly concerned to hear that there may well be in future more farm amalgamations in order to create a smaller number of full-time income farms. But we wonder where this process might stop.

We accept that the National Trust is an environmental charity. But we feel that within that traditional remit in the Lake District, the preservation of the cultural landscape also remains vital.

The potential bid for World Heritage Site status rests in part on the continuation of traditional farming and land management by the local farming community and landowners like the trust.

The National Trust over the years has been left or acquired farms, especially Herdwick farms, that it presumably intends to keep for posterity as part of the cultural landscape and heritage of the area. The carrying out by local people of traditional farming practices and tasks and managing flocks of fell sheep is part of that heritage.

Investment in the maintenance of something like the current number of farms makes an essential contribution to the viability of the fell farming system and to the wider rural community.

We accept that achieving these things might cost money, but that surely is the price of custodianship of this important legacy of traditional farms.

Geoff Brown Secretary, Herdwick Sheep Breeders' Association

9:13am Friday 4th February 2005