It was November 2005 and we were in the Yorkshire Dales looking into Langstrothdale from Fleet Moss. At least, we were trying to look down Langstrothdale. Torrential rain was obscuring Nethergill Farm, the 180 hectares of the Dales we had bought and were about to start farming.
We had spent the previous 25 years mustering the funds to buy our own little piece of England.
The farmhouse stood impressively against the wintery elements, but the surrounding meadows and pastures that had been cleaved out of moorland in the mid-1800s looked as though they would take any and every opportunity to revert back to how they had been.
We had come to farm sheep and cattle, and only gradually did we realise the futility of fighting the elevation, the latitude and the prevailing weather of the high Dales – particularly when there was no control over lamb and beef prices. So, we began to work with nature, letting Nethergill take the bearing. But we still had to generate an income. We needed a business model that kept the bank happy and allowed us to eat.
We blocked the grips and planted trees, 28,000 of them, not all correctly sited unfortunately; we had so much to learn.
We halved the number of sheep and introduced Whitebred Shorthorn cattle. It is a rare and native breed, somewhat like the Belted Galloway, that can cope with the vagaries of the Dales’ geology and grazing.
Gradually, we began to see improvements in livestock health and in our bank balance. Reduced sheep numbers had allowed us to cut out almost all bought-in animal feed. The vet’s bill had shrivelled (the worst thing for a sheep is another sheep!). Our business was now driven by margin and not volume. Somewhat counter-intuitively, less stock equalled more profit and a more resilient business.
But it was not so easy to quantify the shifts in the natural processes. We needed a touchstone against which to gauge the changes.
All farming is dictated by geology and the capacity to grow vegetation. In the Dales that vegetation is grass.
So, a survey of the Nethergill vegetation seemed a good place to start and two surveys have now been completed, in 2011 and 2017.
Working with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority’s Sustainable Development Fund and the Wharfedale Naturalists Society we now know the vegetative trends, and they are overwhelmingly positive.
Grazing with fewer, but hardy livestock, has led to a restitution of more natural processes: the restoration of hydrology, the recolonisation of lost species and the mimicking of natural grazing, all without fertilisers, bought-in feedstuffs or uneconomical medication.
Sphagnum is increasing, with a correlating increase in carbon sequestration and decrease in water run-off. Flora is adapting ‘mosaically’: orchids are returning but so is the poisonous bog asphodel and we are learning how to cope with that.
The farm is a place where black grouse, otter and red squirrel are spotted – as well as the occasional travelling hen harrier.
If there is a moral to this story, perhaps it’s something to do with the need to balance food production, nature and business.
Chris Clark is a member of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.