Steps on limestone pavement

A Dales project delivered great meat and protected wild flowers. But did it have lasting value? asks Mark Holdstock

Neil Heseltine recalls that as a child there were always beef cattle at Hill Top Farm, at Malham. But 20 years ago, his father decided sheep and tourists were the way ahead.

"We converted buildings that weren't really paying, and the tourists paid a little bit better," says Neil.

Like so many of the farms in the area, Hill Top sits in a limestone landscape rich in rare flowers but also vulnerable to intensive farming and especially to too many sheep.

In 2002, the Limestone Country Project was set up with the intention of bringing traditional breeds of cattle back into a landscape from which they had largely disappeared.

"Cattle graze in a very different way to sheep," says Tim Thom, who managed the project for the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

"Sheep are quite selective, so they'll look for the best grasses and the sweetest herbs and they'll graze those first. Cattle tend to forage across an area, just eating most of what's there. They don't pick on one particular thing or another."

A total of 15 farms around Ingleborough and Craven were selected for the project and given financial help to buy cattle from traditional breeds such as Highlands, Herefords, Blue-Greys and Dexters. Neil Heseltine opted for Belted Galloways, 'belties'.

"I felt that if we introduced cattle back onto the farm they had to be low cost. That's what the 'belties' are. We don't use any supplementary feed, we keep labour costs to a minimum, we keep vets' costs to a minimum. They very much look after themselves."

Two-and-a-half years after the project ended, Tim Thom says that most of the cattle which were brought in remain there.

"We managed to get the main grant schemes, such as the Higher Level Agri-environment scheme, to pretty much pay farmers to do what we had paid them to do under the Limestone Country Project.

"We've gone from having a select bunch of farmers benefiting from the payments we could give them, to what we have today, where every farmer who has limestone patches, or limestone pavement, is eligible for payments for cattle. That means that we have widened the scope of what we can deliver. The original farmers have still got their cattle and all of them are in the HLS, which means that they have got a 10-year agreement to keep those cattle on those pastures."

One of the main reasons for using traditional beef is that these animals – unlike the continental breeds used by the majority of the beef industry – will thrive in the harsh upland conditions.

Foodies say the meat from these breeds tastes better. But a local butcher, Colin Robinson from Grassington, who has sold beef from farmers in the project, says the recession has cut demand.

"We don't sell as much traditional beef as we used to," he says. "I think that people have bigger things to worry about rather than where their food's coming from. I think what let the limestone country beef down is a lack of proper marketing for it. I don't think it was pushed as hard as it could have been."

Tim Thom disagrees. "The original project was a conservation project and the funding was conservation based. There was no way we could use that funding for the marketing side. Running in parallel to that main project, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority put quite considerable amounts of funding into several different marketing advisors.

"We had a couple of food marketing companies who worked with the farmers to identify markets and to promote the brand. We had the chef James Martin come along and we did promotional events."

Neil Heseltine rents some of his land from The National Trust and he is able to sell his meat under the Trust's label in local branches of Booths supermarket.

So what is the the lasting value from the project? For Tim Thom, the permanent funding which followed it meant similar livestock management has been allowed to continue.

"I think it's demonstrated quite clearly that cattle are still a vitally important part of creating the limestone uplands. That is an important message when, economically, farmers are moving away from cattle – it's much easier to manage sheep. We've shown that you actually need cattle and we've shown also a mechanism for keeping them out there which has been adopted by HLS (Higher Level Scheme)."

Neil Heseltine says the lasting value of the project is that it allowed him to return to beef production, and stay in it.

"What it did was help to overcome the initial cost. Now we're actually getting to a point where the cattle are paying for themselves because we've overcome that first five or six years.

"I actually think they're more profitable than the conventional systems of suckler cattle that are being kept at the moment. The Belted Galloways have such a low cost. "

CW 15/1/11