Influence from high places to bang the rural drum

There’s a theory that large-scale dairy farming is the only long-term answer for milking herds but sometimes even those figures don’t add up.

Nick Downshire, the CLA chairman for Yorkshire.

That’s what Nick Downshire found on his farm near Masham where he had nearly 300 cows. He made the decision to come out of milk and enter into a contract farming arrangement. He sees both contract and share farming as valuable tools for the future and along with his CLA colleagues was extolling their virtues at the Great Yorkshire Show last month.

Nick became chairman of the CLA in Yorkshire in March and also sits on the CLA’s policy committee. He studied farm management and advanced farm management in Cirencester before qualifying as an accountant and spent 20 years in corporate finance and venture capital in London before returning to Masham in 2001 to take over the substantial estates of Clifton and Jervaulx from his father Robin who passed away in 2003.

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Nick wanted the dairy farm to work and made a concerted effort to make it viable.

“Our farming operation here at Clifton Castle runs to around 700 acres. We grow 250 acres of arable crops including wheat, barley and oats and until recently we were milking the best part of 300 cows. We had merged four dairy farming operations into one and we thought we were running it very efficiently but we struggled to make it work.

“One of the major factors that influenced my final decision was that our milking parlour was 30-years-old and needed replacing. I was faced with the prospect of major investment or to get out of milking. Last year also saw the retirement of our farm manager Robin Flinton after 47 years. He was so well respected throughout the area. Losing his experience forced me to re-evaluate the whole farming operation.

“We now act as a heifer rearing centre for Metcalfe Farms of Washfold Farm near Leyburn and on the arable side we have entered into a contract farming arrangement.”

Nick believes that it’s the price consumers have got away with paying for milk over the years that’s partly responsible for the mass exodus of dairy farmers from the industry. “The number of dairy farmers has halved in the past 15 years. When I was at college in the late 70s a pint of milk was the same price as a pint of beer. That’s quite a bit different now. People have to pay a proper price for commodities such as milk and food.”

Nick also has 10 tenanted farms across his two estates and they’re bucking the trend of the traditionally high average age amongst farmers as sons have taken over the businesses.

“We have quite a number of farmers’ sons who have taken over the reins from their fathers in recent years and that’s been extremely encouraging. We’re very fortunate that up here young people want to get into the industry and where someone older has given up farming without a natural succession we haven’t taken the land back in hand. We have instead shared the land out amongst our existing tenants to make their farming operations larger and more viable. That way the number of tenants we have has reduced but our average age has reduced too as the younger men seize their opportunity.

“Estate owning is a long-term business and any decision I make is trying to look 50 years forward rather than a few months. It’s an old cliché but I’m taking care of it while I’m here and preparing it to hand on to the next generation.

“I’m enjoying trying to diversify. We have biomass boilers and a hydro scheme on the estate. We also run the Blue Lion at East Witton that I’m proud to say was named the best dining inn in the Good Pub Guide 2014. We also have quarrying and forestry interests. There are plusses and minuses to forestry with all the tree diseases around and it’s another core CLA policy where we’re trying to get politicians to listen seriously.

“We’re going to see a whole lot of political posturing for the next 12 months and what I would like is for the countryside to be foremost in the agenda and not being kicked around as a political football. We have to ensure that the countryside has a stronger voice and that issues such as better broadband accessibility are pursued. CLA numbers are rising in the county for the first time in a long while and rather like they say about the England cricket team when Yorkshire is strong so is our national team.

“I’m quite involved in the uplands here and although I’m not claiming any credit for it I’m quite pleased we have managed to bang on about getting more money ‘up the hill’ through the CLA and that we have succeeded. We have seven million people visit the Yorkshire Dales every year and I’m passionate on ensuring hill farmers get their cut. The perception is that our French and Italian equivalents do better than our hill farmers and that our politicians are pretty hard on the farming lobbyists. I certainly think there is a greater awareness of hill farming both in government and publicly but we need to carry on getting the message across.”

Nick is the 9th Marquess of Downshire. The family surname is Hill but he uses Downshire; and where he lives isn’t an actual castle but is an imposing residence built by Timothy Hutton in 1802 on the site of a former castle.

The Downshires or Hills are still relatively new to Yorkshire bearing in mind their lineage. Moyses Hill from Somerset went over to Ireland with the Earl of Essex, one of Elizabeth I’s warriors, to suppress a rebellion in 1574. He became Provost Marshall of Ulster. The family home became Hillsborough where today’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is now based. The title of Marquess of Downshire was bequeathed on Wills Hill in 1789 who served as a politician under George III and acquired Florida from Spain on behalf of the crown in 1762.