Finding a place for next generation hill farmers atop our prized moors

Nola Atkinson, co-ordinator for the Yorkshire Moors Agricultural Apprenticeship Scheme.
Nola Atkinson, co-ordinator for the Yorkshire Moors Agricultural Apprenticeship Scheme.
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Unless you come from Kildale or one of its nearby villages; or have walked the Cleveland Way, you may be blithely unaware of the existence of Baysdale in the North York Moors.

After a long and winding road from just out of Kildale, the landscape gives way to Baysdale Abbey, the site of a Cistercian nunnery from 1190 to 1534 and now home to Paul and Nola Atkinson and their son Nathaniel. It includes holiday accommodation for parties of up to 17 but it’s Nola’s role as co-ordinator for the Yorkshire Moors Agricultural Apprenticeship Scheme that has brought Baysdale marginally more attention.

“Working in the moors can be lovely on days like this,” said Nola with the sun beating down as I arrived. “And it’s certainly a lot better than when the snow falls and we get cut off for weeks on end, but it will be hot and there will be a lot of walking to do for Alan (Jackson) the estate’s farm manager and his apprentice Sam (Leng) as they gather the sheep up to shear, treat with pour-ons, shower and inject them today.

“Up here hill farming is a way of life and it has to be something you really want to do. You’re never going to be rich being an upland farmer and the hours are long and arduous.”

This may not exactly sound as though Nola is selling the idea of young people coming in to hill farming but she’s just stating the facts that have led to a dearth of fresh talent in the Moors. While the benefits of working in the open air of the countryside can be extolled forever the plain truth is that many young people, who would once have followed in their forbears’ footsteps, are choosing what they deem to be an easier life elsewhere.

“Upland farming is a whole different kettle of fish compared to lowland farming. You can’t get into a tractor in the middle of the moor. Farming here is about you, your sheepdog and your quad bike. It’s about finishing the job when it’s done and not because your hours finish at a certain time. The problem is that for those who do want this kind of life the skills of hill farming are not covered adequately as a mainstream subject in agricultural colleges because it only forms a small part of agriculture in general.”

That’s why Nicola Welford who farms in Westerdale came up with the idea of an apprenticeship scheme specific to the North York Moors three years ago that sees eight farmers currently involved. She teaches agricultural management at Askham Bryan College’s centre in Guisborough.

Nola was brought on board due to her contact with Alan Jackson, who lives next door and is one of the eight farmers. The apprenticeships last for 18 months and are being taken up by some who are farmers’ sons who recognise the opportunity to learn the skills from those with years of experience, and those who might be completely green.

“We have two lads who were born and raised on farms, another lad who was born and raised in Castleton and has always been involved in rural activities through young farmers but who didn’t have a farming background; another from Whitby and then there’s Sam. Sam now works here in Baysdale four days a week and spends the other with David Bentley in Farndale where he’s learning about dry-stone walling.

“We have funding for 8-10 apprentices and we have five on at the moment with another two starting in the next two weeks. Probably our greatest success story so far is Luke Doherty. He completed his apprenticeship with Westerdale & Rosedale Estates and he now works for them full-time. We have a hope that if someone is on a placement for 18 months then there may be a need for he or she to be taken on at the end of it. If that doesn’t happen we then hope that their mentors might know of another farm.”

LEADER, the programme that sources monies from the European Rural Development Fund, gave a grant towards the initial funding of the apprenticeships scheme. The Prince’s Countryside Fund has now taken its place.