THE RHYTHM OF THE HILLS

 

 

Here in The Dales, Autumn sees the crop of lambs being brought down from their high, limestone pastures to the lower land, and the valley bottoms are now filling with lambs-This is part of the comfortable order of the farmer working together with the seasons and the land the that has gone on for generations.

 

But shortly the gravity of this thing that has been with us for the past eight months is about to turn the kilter of this age-old rhythm of the hills.

Normally at this time of year The Dales would be busy with land rovers and trailers rattling along the little roads, shuttling the farmers harvest of lambs to market. And the farmer might be looking forward to the short time at least, when his bank balance might be in the black!

 

But just now everything is held tight on the land, and the only animals going anywhere at the moment are animals gong directly to kill-to the slaughterhouse or into a disposal scheme

 

We have seen the scourge of FMD running down our valleys and DEFRAs brutal response, wiping out our flocks and herds.

 

Now we are set to see an even more malignant and tragic effect on the ones that are left.

 

The potential misery of this, one hardly dare contemplate. The lambs that went into the culling pens at the sides of their mothers on a summers day, I should say were the lucky ones.

 

The job of these upland farms is largely to provide breeding stock for lowland farms, and also to produce stock that goes on to be fattened in the lusher lowlands.

At the onset of foot and mouth in February, all the sheep were in lamb and the cows if not already calved were calving. Early summer saw most farmers managing to get their shearings and hogs back home that had been away for winter. These are the lambs from the previous summer and the first year lambers. The young stock always goes away to the lowland for their first two, winters as it is considered too harsh for them to stay up in the hills.

 

The situation at the moment is that everything has returned home and the adult stock has all had young, which should now be moving on - but with this full house, it is a situation of pin down.

 

As the temperature falls and winter draws nearer, and grass stops growing, there are already too many mouths to feed on these little upland farms.

 

At all costs if these family farms are to survive they must preserve the well being of the core of their native breeding stock.

 

The farmer is facing a dilemma. He has good breeding sheep that would normally go to lowland farmers. There will be culled out farmers who would love to have them to restock. Even though they cannot go yet, they could be tupped by arrangement and arrive hopefully ready to lamb and what a lovely way for a culled out farmer to get going again.

If we could move them, I think I would much rather give those sheep to that farmer rather than send the ones the way weve had to send some of the smaller lambs this last week. Before my husband had washed out and disinfected his trailer before leaving the collection point, the perfectly healthy lambs had been dispatched and were being lifted high in a bucket to be tipped all jumbled together into the back of a cull wagon to go off for landfill.

 

He came back sickened.

 

Appalled by the massive waste of good stock to land fill and incineration in the last six months, and the ongoing destruction of perfectly good stock, this is my response.

 

It has always saddened me when we have taken stock to market that we know are of excellent quality. and weve taken so much pride in are put into the ring to be beaten down by an increasingly small cartel of buyers who have prices sewn up between them..

 

These chaps have huge animal transporters outside the back, and are buying for many buyers. Once your lambs, the epitome of your years hard work, leave the ring, they immediately lose their identity and become just a living commodity.

 

They can set off on an interminable journey through many markets before they are killed. What a torment. What a trade. I have never liked the idea of exposing our lambs to that.

 

Coming home I have always felt that that was not really a satisfactory solution.

 

Our salvation, I think could partly be in the fact that the visitors who like to come to the Dales are the kind of people who are very sensitive to issues such as welfare of animals, food miles and environmental concerns. Many understand that grazing animals are part of the balance of this beautiful landscape, and the purity of the food produced in the Dales.

 

We have it all here. How lucky we are. And to me, part of the experience of the Dales is to tie all this up together. You walk on the hills, you breath the air, and you eat the food.

 

People are only too keen to take on board this concept if it is presented to them.

 

 

Our lambs, raised on the pure, high limestone pastures of Wharfedale, grazing freely in family groups on a very natural diet of sedges, heathers and wild herbs develop a lean, well-flavoured sweet meat. This is meat that bears no resemblance at all that of the intensively reared lambs born in sheds and often finished in fields of muddy turnips. Yet there is nothing to differentiate between the two when they are displayed in their plastic trays on the supermarket shelves.

 

Surely they should be given some identity? From the welfare aspect alone, I think I know which one people would like to think they were eating.

 

 

I know that people, who are passionate about cooking, as I am myself, know exactly what they want. It is important to them to be able to get it in the form that they want it. That is why I know that they will want their lamb hung for at least six days. Our lambs spend the night before they go away in in the field at the side of the farm so are in a very relaxed state.

 

They are spared all the whooping and shouting and shallying of the interminable round of the auction mart. They are booked in for an exact time at Agars in Ilkley, with whom we are extremely pleased with the calm efficient way the stock is handled.

 

They trot down the ramp, into a very clean pen to be checked by a vet, then trot round the corner with no fuss what so ever, and as we leave them, Im confident that they will be handled humanely.

 

They do an excellent job that a large slaughterhouse could never do such as returning the caul which is important to John Toppham at the Angel for making his Confiture de foie.

 

Jonn and Denis Watkins of The Angel at Hetton and The General Tarleton at Ferrandsby are quite particular about their cutting specification and Im confident that Weatherheads of Pately Bridge are the best butchers to cut it . The Weatherheads are a lovely family of very highly skilled traditional butchers and it delights me to be the link between this very high quality meat and the best production, preparation and presentation.

 

Anne Binns, the chef at The Racehorces in Kettlewell requires an entirely different specification. Anne is passionate about sourcing food locally and keeping the jobs and vitality of a living working community in the Dales. People travel for miles to do a walk in the Dales, deservedly rounded off with a one of Annes famous suet crust lamb pies and gravy. The sweet essential flavour of the cubed shoulder meat of our little Dalesbred lambs is unsurpassed in flavour of the filling, She also does a stuffed breast of lamb which sells at #10.00, which I would say was an excellent solution to a boned out breast.

 

The rate at which they go down shows that its obviously what Annes customers want and this is the secret; determining exactly what people want, and getting it onto the plate.

 

And that is getting our wonderfully pure Dales lamb to people in exactly the form that they want it. I must say that this can only really be done for wholesale customers, but we do do whole and half lambs in a considered selection of whole and boned out joints and carvery cuts with mince and cubes too. All, vacuum packed, labelled and boxed and available to order from Redmire Farm. (inquiries to Redmire Farm)

 

The small joints of the Dalesbreds make ideal small half lamb boxes for elderly people and couples.

 

 

Im not saying this is the way ahead for everybody. For some, marketing co-operatives will be a much more satisfactory solution; ideally with their own abattoir.

 

But for me with a keen interest in food, I am delighted to have formed the contacts I have with like minded people who are driven by the love of and reverence for good food. We are determined that the life, culture and tradition of good food of The Dales will survive despite the whims and directives of transient politicians of the day.

 

 

I think given the distinction of its origin, appropriately marketed to afford it the differentiation by distinct and accurate labelling of all meat, the discerning customer will be willing to pay the extra money to buy food from a sustainable farming system. I certainly hope so.

 

But sadly, this brings me to the ever-widening divide in society. Through no fault of their own, some people will have to opt to buy the cheap intensively reared imports of dubious origin, ethical and welfare standards.

 

 

It seems a shame to me that with a little more thought determination and strength to stand up to the E.E.C. and the eradication of self interest, our Government could define a truly sustainable broad standard of decent food. Decent food for all British people while keeping the life, vitality and jobs in our countryside.

 

Can we really not feed our own people in our green and pleasant land with a willing workforce, with the understanding and the sophistication of sustainable technology?

 

One wonders if this clearing of our supermarket shelves is a precursor to the receipt of food from other countries. But I suspect it might not be ploughshares our Government would have in mind to sell to them in return.

 

Maybe the events of the past month will bring home the reality of an oil dependent society

 

Politicians come and politicians have gone and hopefully the Dales will in its simple way endure all this.

 

Lambing time will be particularly poignant for a lot of people in the hills this next year. Dales men have evolved with adversity, but not since the winter of 47 does the prospect promise to be as tough; they will need all the grittiness and resolve they can muster to get through the winter ahead.

 

The preservation of the well being of the hardy indigenous breeding sheep that are so vital to the ecology of the hills, and these small family farms is paramount.

We have already seen enough good herds and flocks wiped from our hillsides. We have seen too many perfectly good lambs wasted through bungling bureaucracy. This is my attempt to stop this obscene waste and get the fine produce of the Dales onto peoples plates and into the pockets of our publicans and hoteliers and maintain the kilter of this age-old rhythm of the Dales. Not just next Spring , but we hope for generations to come , our hill sides will be dotted with grazing animals and our valleys will ring to the sound of the new born.

 

 

The effects of Foot and Mouth Disease will be a catalyst for many people.

 

Foot and Mouth Disease - and the Governments brutal and indiscriminate response to it, has left many people with their lives turned upside down. Many people are left with a lot of unanswered questions to which only a full and open enquiry will put an end .

 

But the catastrophe has happened and the effects are still ongoing. There are many who are still living with the cull in Cumbria and Northumberland. But as the people of The Dales attempt to put their lives back together as best we can, we are tuned to listen to the plans Mrs. Beckett has for us.

 

But the messages are not coming out clear. Just murmurings about being in tune with market differences. One wonders if this is the precursor to softening the blow to learning something we would not like to know?

 

Now with the confidence of being on home ground of the Labour Party Conference, we get no clearer message than: There is no long term future for an industry that cannot develop in line with market forces, no matter what the industry, its history or the wider contribution it makes to society.

And

there isnt even a rosy short term future for an industry if it becomes completely out of tune with those on whom it depends for its markets, its custom and consequently its prospects for survival

 

I would prefer that Mrs. Beckett, in her position as Secretary of State for The Department of Food Environment and Rural Affairs would, rather than spelling out how in the future we would stand little chance of survival, instead told us the way we can become sustainable. Tell us what the consumer wants. Gives us some practical lead as to the direction we should be going.

 

One cannot help feeling that the decision makers in charge of agriculture are more at home with manipulating global trade rather than having real understanding and concern for the countryside. They seem only to see it as part of the big overall economic picture of global trade and tourism. One gets the feeling that agriculture is being lost to obscurity, but necessary in its limited janitorial role of keeping things neat and tidy.

 

Real food production will become dispensable if, as they are, potentially huge amounts of cheap food are waiting to be brought in from the Eastern European countries,. They will be bringing huge profits for some along the way.

 

Vast tracts of the deep black rich soil of the former collective farms of Eastern Europe are being bought up and developed by foreign investment; some of our large food producers amongst them.

 

Dont tell me people would do that if they were not convinced that these countries were to be brought into EU sooner or later.

 

Within the E.E.C at present, there seems too much potential for abuse and corruption. The policing of such an unwieldy enlarged set up seems to me well nigh impossible.

 

It concerns me that there is so much at stake, decided by so few, that will have such an impact on so many.

 

One has to wonder about the underlying motives of the elected and non elected decision makers, and of the interests and influences that are involved. Anyone who is an elected representative has to declare business interests; I would think it even more important that this applied to non-elected makers of Government policy.

 

It has always puzzled me why we cannot get on top of this issue of specific and informative food labelling and the ambiguities and lax control of imported food.

 

I just wonder if this is protectionism;- not for the consumer, but in the interests of the importer. How has this influence gained such a powerful hold? Without the tightening up of these controls, an influx of foreign goods, replacing British goods on our supermarket shelves, will be inevitable. The British consumer will be denied decision and choice.

 

Increased global traffic in a world so dependent on oil, an increasingly perilous climate, the advancing of arid margins .. one cannot help wondering if in generations to come we will look back to this period in history as one of catastrophic folly. We gave up our ability to sustain ourselves as a nation. To me sustainability begins at home and with a Nation being able to feed its own people  not a New Labour buzz word for justifying further restrictions on farmers.

 

When I used to come back to this country from abroad, it never failed to delight and reassure me how green and pleasant is our land. But what I have discovered in this last eight months fills me with sadness. I am saddened to recognise the denial and rejection of a workforce so willing and obliging to provide for us. The remaining people who know the primeval joy and satisfaction of working with the land; our land that has been so good to us.

 

Mrs. Beckett, do you know what you are doing?

 

A countryside must have a living working sustainable vibrancy, otherwise it will stagnate and die It cannot exist just to sustain visitors. We have seen how inextricably linked Tourism and Agriculture are. The quality of one will complement and enhance the other.

But tourism must be sustained by agriculture. Not the other way round or it will be forever searching to recognise identity; returning to a worn out clichis of an image of an archetypal countryside becoming increasingly tawdry, and twee for tourists.

 

Farmers in the past have taken advice from the government . There have been incentives to go in a particular direction and invest heavily - but when all the wrinkles are smoothed, and production is under way, the goal posts change or the market changes, and farmers are left high and dry, paying off the consequences.

 

Everyone was encouraged to go for the lean beefy continental breeds that produce the stark ,square, bright red blocks of totally non fat beef, clingfilm clad on polystyrene trays . They cook correspondingly dry and rigid. Thank goodness Granddad knew our Aberdeen Angus suckler cows, that rear their young on our tops each summer, were the best ones for our land . We like a nice bit of marbling through our beef!