Sheep farming is in the blood of the Cowperthwaite family in the Dales. Ben Barnett took a trip to their remote farm.
Deep inside the Yorkshire Dales, narrow winding roads lead downhill and back up again to the vast 810 acres of Tennant Gill Farm where it perches among tranquil uplands as naturally as the limestone scenery found across the Malham Tarn estate.
It is an otherworldly location for visitors unaccustomed to a landscape which reaches 2,200 ft above sea level, is enveloped in silence broken only by the intermittent bleating of grazing sheep and is free of light pollution at night.
On the approach to the Cowperthwaite’s farm on an overcast but clear Monday morning, some of the family’s majestic, hardy Swaledale sheep with their dramatic twisted horns, black faces, white snouts and thick white wool, munch on heather and grass on either side of the road. The scenery is postcard worthy.
For Bill Cowperthwaite, Tennant Gill was an opportunity to farm in his own right. His family has farmed in the area since the early 1950s and he’s assisted on the land by his partner Margaret and son Robert, 32, one of three brothers. Margaret works three days a week in Settle as a health visitor and school nurse.
Bill says: “Thirty-two years ago we moved here because we wanted a farm of our own. It’s a National Trust farm and they put it up for rent and we were lucky enough to get it even though there was quite a bit of competition. I was a young farmer in those days but we were lucky enough to get first prize, as it were, in 1981.
“I worked on a farm at Kirkby Malham for four years and a farm at Kendal for four or five years, before that I was at school. At Kirkby Malham, it was a dairy farm with Swaledales.”
Rugged upland areas like these on Malham Moor are where Swaledales thrive. Bill is modest about his flock despite a successful history of competing at agricultural shows.
Father and son enter local shows in Gargrave, Malham and Kilnsey annually. Last year they were champions in the Swaledale class at Gargrave and reserve champions at Malham. They used to average an event a week during show season at the peak of their involvement, but Bill says he’s semi-retired now.
Rosettes from triumphs over the decades are pinned to a wall inside the farmhouse living room where Bill, Margaret and Robert talk about the farm around the fireplace.
The fire is kept on at a low heat at all times as even on a sunny day, the altitude means it can be chilly indoors – not that it’s a bother to the sheep.
“It’s bleak here; it’s what Swaledales are bred for. They are hill sheep and do reasonably well here,” says Bill.
His Swaledale lamb is supplied to Marks & Spencer and is sold at selected stores between February and April.
Bill continues: “We do 300 lambs a year. They graze outdoors. Last month I gave them some concentrates (nutritious grain) to finish them off and got them booked in and picked up by a wagon. They go to Dawn Meats at Carnaby to be processed. Nearly all the farmers round here do similar and I think that’s what M&S latched on to. We get a premium price going to M&S which was a big help this winter.”
M&S is the only major retailer to sell Swaledale lamb. Around 20 farmers like Bill’s are among its suppliers but it was Bill who scooped the retailer’s Farming for the Future Award last year for his farm’s environmental credentials which are in keeping with the M&S’s Plan A strategy to become the world’s most sustainable major retailer.
All energy from the farm comes from a small hydroelectric plant, some solar panels and water is drawn from a borehole.
No artificial fertilisers are used on the farmland and lambs graze on natural heathers and grasses. The Cowperthwaites maintain their own walls, take part in meadow replanting and host farm walks and school visits.
The hydroelectric turbine and solar panels are essential. Without them the farm would have no electricity supply due to its remote location. They were installed, Bill says, as part of tests by academics from Nottingham Polytechnic over a decade ago to see what technology would work in comparable terrain in Third World countries.
The farm’s remoteness is acute in winter when snow and prevailing winds cause drifts, but Bill says he’s rarely caught out and shrugs off the bad weather.
“We’re used to it. It’s something we take into account every November by stocking up supplies. Three years ago the snow was thick.
“We were stuck in here for three weeks and couldn’t get the car out.”
Despite grazing 500 Swaledales and 160 followers, good planning limited losses during severe conditions early this year.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been caught out,” says Bill.
“We only lost two in the snow this time but there’s been horror stories elsewhere. The sheep were brought down round the house and in the barn. We live off the weather forecasts.”
The Cowperthwaites also have 30 Limousins and 15 Blue Greys cows which are finished on the farm.
A typical day during the summer sees father and son rise at around 7am. Any cattle kept inside is mucked out and fed. The sheep are also fed in the morning and Robert, who breeds sheepdogs for sale and offers training, takes charge of shepherding the flock before attention is turned to any running repairs.
The routine changes with the seasons. Lambing time lasts for about a month, usually from early April and into May, and in winter the cattle retreat inside the sheds.
Whatever the season and whatever the weather, the Cowperthwaites certainly give the impression that they take it all in their stride, and family’s farming future looks bright with Robert on board.
Robert wouldn’t swap farm life for nearly anything else.
“Being a professional footballer was always going to be a long shot. I’ve always enjoyed being involved on the farm, especially the sheep side of it.”