David Metcalfe’s family has farmed in the Yorkshire Dales since at least the 18th century with successive generations having found a way to eke a living from the land amid changing times.
As farmers brace for another period of political upheaval, Mr Metcalfe, 55, hopes he can forge a more profitable future to sustain a way of life he, like his ancestors were, is deeply tethered to.
His farm at Burtersett near Hawes survived Foot and Mouth in 2001 even though he lost his dairy herd to a precautionary cull. Now, Mr Metcalfe runs 300 sheep over 400 acres of mainly rough fell that climbs to 2,000ft above sea level and with market returns too low to sustain the farm, the going is tough.
His farm is signed up to a Countryside Stewardship deal which is designed to EU rules and pays him for carrying out prescribed measures that are intended to improve the farm’s environment. Regardless of the outcome, he gets paid, though like many others in the scheme, his payments have been beset by long and frustrating delays.
The Government’s proposed new approach to farm payments after Brexit revolves around awarding “public money for public goods” and Mr Metcalfe is one of 19 farmers in Wensleydale and Coverdale who is testing that concept by taking part in a “payments by result” scheme with Natural England and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA).
Some 32 acres of his farm is in the pilot scheme - one of three such EU-funded pilots. To boost wildlife he has planted wildflowers, taken sheep off the plot earlier to allow it to recover from grazing and has switched to manure as a natural fertiliser.
“We have had all sorts of different flowers growing, such as pignuts in a lot of the fields this year and I’ve even seen a chimney sweeper moth - I hadn’t seen one for 30 years,” Mr Metcalfe said. “This is a good system that works. I don’t like those schemes where you get money and don’t do anything for it. It’s better for the environment. It’s public money and I think people will accept it if we are doing something for that money.”
His environmental income is crucial, he said. “I live with being a few months off bankruptcy all the time. This scheme has been one of the things that’s kept me going. We need another scheme to follow on from this one.”
EU funds for the pilot run to September and the Government is considering whether to extend funding for the project.