Saturday, 16 May 2020

Lambing at Kexwith, 2020

George Monbiot, the environmental activist and writer, is famously anti-sheep, having said memorably in one 2013 Spectator article, “We pay billions to service a national obsession with sheep, in return for which the woolly maggots kindly trash the countryside. The white plague has caused more extensive environmental damage than all the building that has ever taken place.”

The thing is, he might have had a point, historically. However, UK hill farmers are being encouraged to adopt new working practices that have benefits for the natural environment, rather than simply owning land and having a large number of animals. The UK’s Countryside Stewardship schemes are available to reward farmers who manage their land and livestock in ways that encourage biodiversity and sustainability.

On their farm at Kexwith in Arndale, Sue and Ray Ridley have been involved with the schemes for a number of years, and it is something that keeps Sue very busy with the necessary planning and paperwork. They have a flock of Swaledale sheep, a practice that has been with the Ridleys of Kexwith for generations and it is clear that there is an increasing importance of nurturing their local environment in traditional and sustainable ways.

While the rest of the country was busying itself with COVID19 in late April, Kexwith was busy lambing. That is much later than most sheep farms: some lowland farms will have lambed by January, but then again, at Kexwith the daffodils are only just starting to appear in mid-April. Its position means that spring comes late (and winter comes early), and even tough Swaledale lambs are at risk if the weather turns nasty: some of the lambing fields extend up to 400m. For reference, the tip of the Shard in London is 310m. And this isn’t farming as many would recognise it, with heavy tractors in huge fields of crops: up here there are no crops, and the vehicle of choice is the quad bike, riding up and down escarpments that are close to being cliffs.

Despite the altitude, Kexwith farm has an abundance of wild flowers, including wild orchids, which are a sign of important subterranean mycorrhizae fungus. There are also large numbers of seasonal ground nesting birds. Lapwing, curlew and oyster catchers swoop and cry over the heads of the sheep. A visiting ecologist will give advice on the best use of the fields to support these annual visitors. When up on the hills with the quad bike, Ray is very careful to note where they are on the ground so as to not risk disturbing any nests, or lapwing chicks darting among the reeds.

Swaledale sheep are, like the farmers who look after them, a rugged and independent breed. During lambing season this is shown by their impressive degree of autonomy when they give birth: the ewes find a sheltered spot, lie down, and all of a sudden a lamb is sliding onto the ground in a puddle of amniotic fluid. The mother licks away at the afterbirth (a good bit of protein), and after about ten minutes the lamb will be tottering onto its feet for its first steps, and looking to fill its belly with some protein of its own. Give a lamb a squeeze just in front of its hind legs and hopefully you’ll feel the squishiness of a full belly of milk.

In order to know which flock they belong to, all lambs born in the UK need to be tagged within a few days with a unique management tag and marked with a coloured pop (each flock has a different mark – Kexwith is red). This is quite a lot of work each day, roving the fields looking for new lambs, tottering around in the beauty of their surroundings.

Sheep know their offspring primarily by smell. It is good to let a lamb get a bellyful of milk so that it smells fully of the mother before tagging and marking, and potentially rubbing off a bit too much of one’s own smell on the lamb, leading the mother to reject the lamb – it is not a job to do while wearing perfume. (Though strategies exist for bringing them back together again if necessary.)

After tagging each one, Ray watches carefully to make sure that lamb and mother are happily reunited, wandering off together to enjoy the field and views over the valley. In good weather, it’s a pretty blissful way to spend a day, potentially even in a t-shirt under warm sun. In bad weather, with rain, snow, and cold that is more like winter, it can still be a blissful experience, but wrapped up rather warmer. Some farmers struggle to keep up during lambing time, but with experience and a carefully thought out system, it can be a very enjoyable time of year.

Once the lambs have spent a few days in the fields and have grown a little bigger, it is time to push them out up onto the high moors, which extend to over 500m. This is a task that Max the sheepdog will be only too happy to help out with. Once out on these moors, the sheep will graze independently for the next few months, with little supervision: generational knowledge keeps them from straying into unknown territories even though there are often no walls to keep them contained.

Swaledale sheep have a lot of character. Whereas with most breeds of sheep there doesn’t seem to be much going on upstairs except for rumination (and not of the mental variety), when you look into the eyes of a Swaledale sheep you are looking into the eyes of a rather cunning and intelligent creature planning its next mischief.

After all the sheep are put out onto the moor, annual farm maintenance tasks take over for the summer.

Ray knows all the springs that emerge on his land, and makes good use of them in fields that do not have access to a beck. He has designed a ram pump that pumps water to the house and sheep shed, without using electricity. Water management is an increasingly important issue for farms everywhere, and flooding is an issue that has become large in the public consciousness in recent years: the Countryside Stewardship schemes provide natural and traditional approaches to lessening flood risks. These encourage landowners to maintain waterways, including methods such as “leaky dams” made of logs and branches that slow down water flow, a simple and cost effective method to reduce flooding. More tree planting may be undertaken, in a plan produced by the Yorkshire Dales River Trust.

Farmers and land owners are once again becoming custodians of their land, managing it on behalf of the environment for future generations.

So, back to Monbiot. Yes, he might have a had a point about previous agricultural methods, sustaining a potentially unsustainable system, but a lot has changed since 2013, and many of the points made in his 2017 essay “The Hills are Dead” are now being addressed. Countryside Stewardship schemes are potentially able to breathe new life into upland hill farming by focussing on the ability of farmers to look after their land conscientiously. Mr Monbiot would likely be very pleased that the occasional farm may take part in “wilding” as part of their long term plans.

There is still room for improvement: at the moment, the concept of incorporating wilding with lower stock numbers is still a fairly niche movement. Many farmers feel unable to shift in that direction due to a pressing need to provide for their families, and for those in the schemes the amount of complex paperwork and bureaucracy can be daunting.

Nevertheless, the movement is underway. Upland hill farms are naturally suited to the concept, though the lowland example of the Knepp Estate in Sussex has successfully turned a huge farming estate back into a semi wild landscape using specific grazing animals to wild the land.

Letting some lambs frolic freely and joyfully over responsibly managed Yorkshire Dales hillsides seems a rather victimless crime: upland hill farming done in the traditional way is more sustainable and environmentally friendly than many forms of agriculture, and is a very important way of life in many parts of the UK. Preserving the natural beauty of one of the UK’s unique landscapes will provide benefits to all. Long live the “woolly maggots”, who are characterful and wonderful inhabitants of the hills.