Hill Farming - a permaculture perspective

Katie Shepherd
Wednesday, 24th April 2013

Farmer Katie Shepherd explores why hill farming in Britain is in crisis and how applying permaculture design can help.

I have lived and worked as a hill farmer for the past nine years in a remote part of the depths of the Yorkshire Dales. Hill (or Upland) Farming, is related to any farming undertaken above the level of moorlands. The challenging soil, relief, aspect and climatic conditions of the land occupied by hill farms means that forage for animals – such as grazing in the summer and cut for hay/silage in the winter, and sometimes woodland – are the only crops that are viable. The Uplands in Britain are also home to globally significant wildlife habitats (over 50% of areas designated SSSI (Special Site of Scientific Interest) are in the Uplands, as is the majority of the UK's carbon storage and 70% of the UK's drinking water. Although farmers who work in this unique and critical environment actively manage the land to promote and maintain its essential functions, hill farming in the UK is in crisis.

Many Hill Farm businesses operate on the margins of financial viability, with 25% of hill farming families living below the poverty line in the UK.1 Over the last decade there has been a marked reduction in livestock numbers as a result of the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in 2001 and in response to the Single Farm Payment and other agri-environmental subsidy schemes.2

Hill farmers are generally significantly financially worse off as a result of the complex changes in the subsidy system introduced a few years ago, where payments are now land-based rather than the old system, which was based on numbers of animals.3 While the politics and ethics of subsidy systems in agriculture globally is too vast a subject to be discussed here, hill farmers rely heavily on these payments to support their income. The rising price of animal feed, reduction in price of lamb and geography of many farms (i.e. long distances to travel to market/feed supply), all contribute towards the financial hardship that many hill farmers face. The future of the subsidy system is also very uncertain, but changes that further reduce money paid to farmers are likely to happen again in the next few years.2

The average age of a hill farmer is 59. On many farms, the main farmer is well above this age. Farms, which at one time will have had several people doing the work, are now often just run by one person. Reasons frequently identified why more young people choose not to farm in the Uplands include: lack of profitability, long hours of work, increased regulations, and lack of affordable housing.Loss of skill and knowledge about farming, and managing some of the most ecologically rich and biodiverse landscapes in the UK is a real threat. Ultimately many small hill farms could cease to exist and this will result in unmanaged land and the massive reduction of many species of flora and fauna. In addition the impact on rural communities, many of which are currently struggling with expensive living costs, reduction in health, education and transport services, would be enormous.4

There is a high incidence of anxiety and depression amongst hill farmers as many have become isolated, overwhelmed by bureaucracy and fearful for the future and their ability to continue farming.5 Recent reports also show that the increased stress brought about by worsening financial poverty is also taking its toll on physical health.

Climate change is also a major factor of uncertainty affecting all farmers.Repetitive adverse weather conditions will certainly impact greatly on farms that are only just managing, as this past year of abnormal rain fall is currently showing.

Where I Live & Farm
The farm is about 49 hectares (120 acres) of rough grazing land and meadows, situated at 396m (1,300ft) in the remote depths of the Yorkshire Dales. The growing season is very short, winters are long and cold, and the average annual rainfall is around 254cm (100in). My partner's parents ('the Elders'), who are in their 80s, own the farm and we moved into the cottage attached to their house nine years ago as they had begun to need some help and care.

Over the time we have lived here I, along with help from my partner, have gradually taken over more of the responsibility for the farm and have slowly introduced changes and new ideas using permaculture ethics and principles as a guide. Having said that, the farm very much belongs to the Elders and they have ultimate say on any major decisions etc. The farm is in a National Park and also has the usual subsidy agreements and SSSI status attached as previously discussed, both of which have the potential to be a limiting factor when attempting to make changes to land use, for example.

General Changes Made
We planted mixed hedgerows on field boundaries to improve the shelter from the dry stone wall, increase biodiversity in bird/mammal/insect populations and hopefully to also reduce the human time/effort in repairing walls, as it will provide protection from the adverse weather conditions. We've also utilised additional land, including having negotiated with the neighbouring forestry company to be able to graze cows on the boundaries between the farm and the forestry plantation, therefore making use of the positive aspects of edge. In addition we decided to invest time, energy and finances in fencing land that had not been grazed for many years, due to poor access and insecure boundaries. This has meant we have been able to introduce a more considered grazing routine resulting in healthier sheep and cows and more diversity in flora and fauna.

Animals on the Farm
Over the time we have lived and worked here we have made changes to both species and varieties of animals on the farm. When we first arrived, just one breed of sheep was being reared on the farm. Breeds of sheep, cows, pigs and chickens are now chosen for their suitability to the often challenging environment. These breeds are hardy and slow growing with course, thick, waterproof wool/skin/hair/feathers providing protection against adverse weather conditions. This means that animals need housing for much less time over the winter (if at all), resulting in less need for bought-in straw which reduces human time and effort.

In addition, I have observed that the carefully chosen breeds tend to be more content and healthier not housed for long periods. This means less need to intervene with vet treatments, increased quality and quantity of meat produced and again less human time and effort in dealing with stressed, unfit/unwell animals, in addition to a high standard of animal welfare of course. Decisions regarding animal breeds have also been based on reducing the need for bought-in feed, which is hugely oil dependent to grow and transport.

Each farmed animal has multiple uses in order to obtain maximum yields. Sheep provide grazing for managed habitat, meat and wool. Cows also provide grazing for managed habitat and meat. Their manure is also used to provide fertility to my edible gardens, the pastureland and forestry edges, where new tree planting has occurred. I also hand milk one cow to provide the farm with dairy products. An added function undertaken by the cows (and only observed in the last year or so) is the deterrent their presence makes to deer that often destroy newly planted trees.

Chickens provide eggs and manure and pigs, meat, manure and ploughing skills to clear land of weeds etc. Choosing a diverse range of breeds and species has also meant that routines to maximise the grazing patterns, animal parasite control and grass/herbage growth can be used. In addition, having a variety of breeds of hill sheep has increased the range of outputs relating to different types of meat and wool, improving choice for people who use these products. Working sheepdogs are fundamental to my role as a farmer here. Not only do they make most sheep work much easier, training and living with them all day, every day provides an essential relationship and bond that enhances the worth of even the most challenging of days when I spend hours and hours in torrential rain and freezing gales.

Edible Garden
The beneficial relationships enhanced between the different elements on the farm can be seen clearly in my creation of an edible garden system. Over the past five years I have grown a wide variety of annual edible plants, and am now in the process of establishing a small forest garden in which to grow fruit and perennial plants too. The manure from cows, pigs and chickens is used not only for providing fertility but to increase heat in some of the growing situations to extend the growing season. Creating sheltered microclimates in general has been fundamental to the volume, quality, variety and success rates of the edible plants grown.

I've experimented with a range of ways of creating these protected growing spaces: 60cm (2ft) high raised beds, cloches of fleece, netting and polythene covering the beds, a small polytunnel, heat from rotting cow/chicken manure, a black painted oil drum filled with water to use as passive solar heating in the polytunnel and planted willow to use as windbreaks. Again I have chosen species and varieties suited to the challenging climate and short growing season here. With these design elements in place we are able to eat homegrown veg and herbs for most of the year.

Social Permaculture
We provide small scale meat, wool and egg production for local friends, neighbours and artists, often in exchange for other products, services, skills or time rather than money. Using permaculture to guide farming activities has also generated interest from some of our neighbours, many of whom are also hill farmers, and beneficial relationships have been made in terms of sharing information, skills and time. One farmer in his mid 80s has recently gone back to growing his own fruit and veg after being impressed at the abundant produce of my garden at such an altitude (he lives a lot further down the hill from me!), a couple of other local farmers and myself now have regular discussions about using permaculture in farming systems.

Moving to the farm has enabled the Elders to remain living here and to engage and take interest in its activities according to their health and energy levels. I have also gained knowledge and skill about farming here in the Dales from them. Applying permaculture design to other aspects of the farm and to the farm as a whole has meant that I am able to adapt to their care and support needs on a day-to-day basis.

For financial resilience we rely on one at least half time wage outside the farm, and with my partner's work in forestry, mine in palliative care nursing and both of us able to work as shepherds for other farmers, means we have a pool of different ways of earning money according to the changing needs of ourselves, job opportunities, caring responsibilities and the needs of the farm.

My own health and wellbeing has really benefited from my attempts to make the farm a more resilient place to live and work. Implementing positive changes, beneficial relationships with our immediate community, producing a lot of our own food, creating a level balance between caring and farming, feeling a deep spiritual connection to the farming routines and the animals I care for and a good level of physical fitness has meant that I am mentally and physically very healthy.

So, to conclude, I've demonstrated a variety of ways that solutions to some of the problems facing farmers in the Uplands can be found using permaculture design. There are many more permaculture design elements that I would like to develop in the future, but slow and small solutions are working well. Hopefully, along with the growth of permaculture knowledge and skill at farm scale, the future of some of our most ecologically and socially valuable landscapes can be one of abundance and growth.

Katie Shepherd is a hill farmer, carer and palliative care nurse. She is also a permaculture diploma apprentice and is on the newly formed Farming Working Group for the Permaculture Association. For her diploma work see: shepherdwithattitude.weebly.com

1 Hill Farming Systems Project Cumbria Fells and Dales, Waller V, 2008: www.cumbriahillfarming.org.uk/pdfs/Appendix4.pdf
2 Challenges Facing Farmers, Oxfam, 2012.
3 A Future For Hill Farming, Palmer C, 2010.
4 High Ground High Potential – A Future for England's Upland Communities, Commission for Rural Communities, 2010.
5 Farmers, Farm Workers and Rural Stress, Health & Safety Executive, 2005.