The hills aren’t alive…

PUBLISHED: 13:11 13 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:28 20 February 2013

Fields in shropshire

Fields in shropshire

Shropshire, its landscape and its wildlife needs hill farmers but they are an endangered breed. What can you do to safeguard them?

The hills aren't alive...

Shropshire, its landscape and its wildlife needs hill farmers but they are an endangered breed. What can you do to safeguard them?

Contentment is not the natural condition of most farmers. I don't mean to be harsh, but happy farmers and hens' teeth do go together. I think anyone whose livelihood is dependent on the vagaries of the British weather is bound to be slightly on edge. Take this year, good grain yields and high prices being paid, but the soggiest of harvest-times means that farm incomes aren't all they might have been.
Farming, like any other industry, goes through its ups and downs. After many years in the doldrums, farmers have finally begun to see brighter prospects as world commodity prices rise. This has resulted in agricultural land prices bucking the trend of the falling housing market. There is an argument that, as farm incomes rises, so there is greater investment in wildlife conservation. On that, we'll see.

Endangered breed
However, not all farmers are the same. While those tilling the fertile flatlands of north Shropshire have half a smile on their face, we should spare a thought for those farming in the hills. Like much of the wildlife they work amongst they are becoming an endangered breed. Hill farmers are the ones who run sheep and cattle on the heaths and pastures of the Clees, Stiperstones, Clun Forest and Oswestry Hills. Their life does not consist of ploughing, spraying and combining vast rolling fields; rather it is their livestock that produce their income. And livestock prices have not kept pace with the soaring costs of feed and fuel. Hang on. Isn't this meant to be a column about wildlife? So why is he blithering on about farmers? Well, naturally enough there's a link. A very strong link, and one which if broken could change the face of Shropshire's wildlife.

Man made the land
The great landscape historian WG Hoskins wrote a book titled Man Made The Land. The rocks that form the hills and valleys and weather-down into soils are just the canvas onto which centuries of farming has painted the Shropshire landscape. Heathland, grassland, hedges and woods are all the product of farming practices and, as farming changes, so associated wildlife changes.
Take the Long Mynd. Its heather and bilberry are home to birds like wheatear and whinchat, red grouse and ring ouzel. Its tussocky acid grasslands brim with yellow mountain pansies. But it is only by maintaining grazing at the correct level that they survive. In the early 1990s the madness of the Common Agricultural Policy encouraged huge numbers of sheep on the Mynd. With this pressure, bracken - a pernicious weed - began to dominate the heather. Slowly, thanks to the National Trust, Defra and graziers, the hill is recovering.

Farm 'til you drop
Today the problem is reversed. It's a simple equation: if the cost of producing a lamb is greater than its selling price why bother? If that's the case, why are there still sheep on the hills you may ask? Never under-estimate the power of "custom and practice". Many hill farmers are at retirement age and will happily continue to do what they have done all their lives till they drop. The problem will come when their sons and daughters, with families and mortgages, decide that life is better elsewhere.
Many of our most iconic hills are subject to common rights. This means that the right to graze a set number of animals is vested in a property - not a person. You can choose to exercise your common rights or not as you wish, but you cannot transfer them to another party. This is a wonderful relic of mediaeval society and has worked well. However, the number of commoners exercising their rights is falling with each new generation. A worrying prospect for the future of the Stiperstones and Clees.

Vanishing skills
As hill farmers finally hang up their boots and sticks they take with them their livestock, but much more importantly their knowledge and skills. Already nature conservation organisations like Shropshire Wildlife Trust have had to become livestock owners. This is not our forte, it is a job we would prefer to see done by the experts - hill farmers.
One positive twist to a Wildlife Trust owning stock is that our aim is not maximum profit. This means we can opt for less-commercial breeds that do a better job of conserving wildlife habitat. So look out on Nipstone Rock for black Hebredian sheep and on Rhos Fiddle (near Newcastle on Clun) for Highland cattle. These breeds produce meat that is considered to be of superior quality and flavour by some.

Partners
Shropshire's hills are simply too important to be left to neglect. But economic forces are mighty powerful and you can't force someone to become a hill farmer. However, you can help someone to farm the hills. Shropshire Wildlife Trust along with partners such as the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is working with young farmers and those with an entrepreneurial bent. They bring the skills, the hard work and the dedication while we can offer a charity's access to funding and our 10,000-strong membership as a potential market.
So please give a little thought to how you can support Shropshire's hill farmers. Perhaps you can buy your leg of lamb from a butcher who sources his meat locally, or visit one of the many farmers' markets. Whether it is to prevent the loss of our timeless landscape, extinction of its rich and diverse wildlife or the passing of a way of life hill farmers need your help. The consequences of not bothering are too dire to contemplate.

John Hughes is Development Manager at Shropshire Wildlife Trust,
Old Infirmary, 193, Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury, tel: 01743 284280
www.shropshirewildlifetrust.org.uk.

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