Dales attempt to create the UK’s first ‘farm reserve’

To some of us the appeal of the great outdoors means donning our walking shoes and taking a stroll through the countryside at our leisure. Fiona and Chris Clark however were overcome by a more powerful urge, to run their own farm closely in-tune with the natural environment, despite not being born into farming families.

Fiona Clark at Nethergill farm, Oughtershaw. Pic: Nigel Roddis

Theirs is a journey through agricultural college, where they first met, and into business nurturing pigs on ice cream and yoghurt, to their present destination, a remote upland farm in the heart of the Dales, at Oughtershaw in Langstrothdale.

Now farmers in their own right having settled at Nethergill Farm nine years ago, they keep 50 Dalesbred ewes and six rare Whitebred Shorthorn cattle.

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While it is a modest livestock operation, as they readily admit, the couple’s philosophy is to farm in a way which suits the land and their non-intensive methods serve their purpose, chiefly to create a high-quality supply of meat to cater for guests at their on-the-farm bed and breakfast while conserving the environment around them.

The farm covers just shy of 400 acres and reaches 12,000ft above sea-level meaning the climate is damp and the ground consists of coarse moorland.

It has made adapting to life on the farm a challenge, says Fiona, but they have embraced the difficult terrain and are continually looking to protect its habitats. Since 2005, 18,000 trees of mixed species have been planted and they have been working closely with conservation groups such as the Wharfedale Naturalists Society to create a new area of scrape at Nethergill, and the Yorkshire Dales River Trust to restore the banks of Oughtershaw Beck.

With Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT), they have created wildlife viewing observation hides for guests and educational groups to use.

Wild workshops and conservation courses are also held at the farm with the YWT and their ultimate aim is to become the UK’s first “farm reserve”.

The latest enhancement to the farm was unveiled this week, when Julian Smith, MP for Skipton and Ripon, officially opened a new field centre funded through Natural England’s Higher Level Environmental Stewardship scheme.

A cow byre has been converted for the high tech field centre, which will be used to host educational visits from both groups of schoolchildren and adults. It features a PC monitor to zoom in on several “hide-cams” located in different habitats around the farm. The hides are made of recycled materials and were installed by a team from social enterprise, Green Future Buildings.

Unlike many other corners of the Dales, Nethergill is served by superfast broadband connection provided by LN Communications through a community wireless broadband scheme that has been grant funded by Superfast North Yorkshire. It means school groups can log onto hide cams around the farm to study the environment from their classrooms. A group of children from Kettlewell Primary School tested out the technology this week.

Fiona, who is originally from Shadwell, Leeds, explains: “We have always wanted our own farm conservation project because it enables us to show the important link between food, farming and nature, and we have found ourselves going more and more down the education route.

“I was born in Yorkshire but went to Devon to train at agricultural college and that’s where me and Chris met on the first day. I love the outdoors and the environment. I toyed with being a vet but I wasn’t very academic so I thought I would give farming a go.

“We longed to own a farm and after college we set up an outdoor pig herd on the Loseley Park estate in Guildford. But when we came to selling our first three-week-old weaners the pig market had plummeted so we looked to change direction. We moved onto to fattening pigs outside with waste ice cream and yoghurt from the estate and marketing pork, then we sold the business – Piccards Farm Products – after ten years.

“I retrained in graphic design and Chris in marketing and we set up a business combining both to work with the Q Guild butchers we had been supplying. We have carried on that business and brought it on a small scale here. We were stuck a bit by a lack of broadband to start with but in the last six months we have signed up to a community broadband scheme which has been vital to our business.”

David Shaw, Natural England’s area manager for North Yorkshire, is full of praise for what the Clarks have achieved since relocating to the Dales.

“In a short space of time Chris and Fiona have signed up to an Environmental Stewardship Scheme, created new woodland areas, improved habitats for black grouse and red squirrels, established wildlife viewing areas, provided outstanding educational facilities and helped get the high speed community broadband in place, all alongside the day to rearing of Dalesbred sheep and Whitebred Shorthorn cattle, and running a successful B&B.”