'Farming is the last of the great industries to be wrecked'

Yorkshire's hill farmers are facing their bleakest winter ever. Sarah Freeman reports on the crisis facing the countryside.

Alistair Davy has not slept much recently.

When not tending his livestock, the North Yorkshire hill farmer has been driving hundreds of miles across the county to sell produce at various markets, and the few quiet moments have been filled with writing letters to MPs and trying to make sense of figures which just don't add up.

With prices for lamb and beef plummeting, the single farm payment they receive each year is no longer enough to make up the shortfall and with many still hurting both financially and emotionally from the recent outbreaks of foot and mouth and blue tongue, many fear they have just 12 months before they, and the countryside they tend, are forced to shut down forever.

"I don't know what we would do without our wives," says Alistair, who came into farming 40 years ago after leaving the army. "We were told to diversify and that's just what we've done. I'm out much of the time travelling to farmers' markets, leaving my wife and my son to look after the farm. Other people have opened bed and breakfasts or are trying to make a go of contracting. People are doing everything possible to avoid leaving the farms which they love, but everyone has a

breaking point.

"The problem is that the money we make from other things is no longer compensating from the loss we are making from livestock. Basically, it's us, not the Government, who are subsidising farming."

The seeds of the current crisis were sown during the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. Movement restrictions left the British countryside in a state of suspended animation, and the subsequent domino effect, which has seen the industry strangled by red tape and forced to suffer the fiasco of the single farm payment scheme, has left many business on the verge of bankruptcy.

The new subsidy was introduced in the hope of simplifying the previous system and cutting the link between the amount farmers produced and the money they received, which helped create the infamous butter mountains and the like, but its birth was far from easy. Complications in calculating who received what meant many were left waiting months for the money and, with hill farmers also having to cope with falling prices and increased regulation, even when it arrived it was a case of too little too late.

It was the same story with this year's outbreak of foot and mouth. While not as severe as 2001, even conservative estimates put the cost to agriculture at 250m, so when Environment Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, Hilary Benn announced the Government was going to make 12.5m available to ease financial difficulties, he was accused of shutting the door to the last chance saloon.

"It just seems that every time we try to get back on our feet something else comes along to knock us down," adds Alistair. "Even before the latest foot and mouth outbreak, livestock was making a loss, but that, together with blue tongue, just about castrated us. No one seems to want to take responsibility for what happened, even though it was traced to the Government laboratory in Purbright.

"My worry is that there are various other viral strains currently making their way to this country, and no one is doing anything about it. When the last foot and mouth outbreak happened, we went on holiday to Eastern Europe and you know what happened when we came back through Customs? Absolutely nothing. No one checked whether we had brought food back and there was no process for disinfecting. Another outbreak of some nasty disease will happen, but while we should be using this time to develop vaccines we are too busy turning a blind eye."

With sheep now selling for around 30 rather than the usual 50, Alistair, who gradually built Low Oxque Farm, near Richmond, to a 500-acre operation at its peak – home to 120 heritage cows and 600 breeding sheep – has already reduced the number of animals by half. Like his neighbours, he is used to hearing the argument that farming should stand or fall like any other business, but it's an argument he says is only put forward by those ignorant of the complexities of the countryside.

"In rural communities, everything is interdependent and that's what they don't seem to understand," he says. "Each farm is probably helping to support 20 other businesses. It's not like the city where things operate independently, the money we earn is shared back around the community and if we go, other businesses will also feel the brunt.

"The effects are already being felt and the bigger the operation, the more you stand to lose. In terms of sheep, we will probably make a 7,000 loss this year and that's a big chunk of the money we will get under the single farm payment.

"It's a crazy situation that we are importing more meat from abroad than ever before, yet livestock farmers in this country are struggling to make ends meet. The Government talks a good talk about sustainability, about reducing food miles, but they don't seem to be able to put the theory into practice.

"Most people I know are looking for second jobs so they can keep their farm going, but we can't live off thin air. Everyone seems to be tightening their belts at the moment, even at the farmers' markets people are not spending as much as they did last year. Unfortunately, hill farmers have run out of belt to tighten.

"Basically, we've got 12 months to turn the situation around, but if nothing changes we will be out of business."

Under the banner Food and Farming 4 REAL, in the New Year Alistair, along with other delegates from Yorkshire, is hoping to secure a meeting with William Hague MP and Tim Farron, chair of the Hill Farmers' Parliamentary Committee, where they will spell out the problems, not just for them but for the very fabric of the countryside

"Sheep and cattle on the landscape is part of our psyche, we grow up with nursery rhymes like Mary Had A Little Lamb, we expect to see them there," says Alistair. "However, if you want to see the future, just look at the west coast of Scotland. There, the farmers had no other industry to rely on, so the effects have been felt much quicker and all the animals have gone.

"It has taken 300 years to get the landscape like it is, but if the sheep and the cows are no longer grazing, it wouldn't take long for it to become impenetrable with bracken and bramble.

"For the last few years, the true picture of the problems facing agriculture have been masked, but now those maladies are coming back to haunt us."

The organisation has outlined a list of recommendations which include a return to the previous system of payments, better compensation packages in the wake of disease outbreaks, a review of Capital Gains Tax and its effect on small and medium businesses and greater protection for farmers against the supermarket giants.

"This is the last push," says Alistair. "I'm not doing it for me, I'm doing it for my son and for all those future generations who want to work. We are the last of the great industries to be wrecked, but if we go the way of the coal and steel industries, there will be no way back."

To register on the online petition in support of hill farming, visit www.foodandfarming4real.co.uk