Exmoor hill farmers facing the future together
To summer visitors Exmoor is the backdrop for idyllic holidays, but a large part of the area is officially designated a Severely Disadvantaged Area.
Farmers on Exmoor face serious challenges. The good news is that a novel project is inspiring those who work the hills to help themselves with courses, mentoring, and even a Scottish study tour.
The long hours and isolated nature of hill farming mean there is sometimes little time to develop new skills and training, let alone take a long, hard look at how others in the industry work. The elements also take their toll, rain leaches minerals from the soil, winters can be harsh. Farmers have long been custodians of the land, but changing views on conservation can bring conflict.
The Exmoor Hill Farm Project was set up in 2009 with four years' funding totalling £330,000 via the Rural Development Programme for England. Now in its final year it has seen more than 690 farmers and their families taking part in training, ranging from tax planning to first aid. Events have included an on-farm wind energy study day, butchery demonstrations, grassland study trips and a two-day study tour to Cumbria to learn about the area's renowned breeding stock and stockmanship skills.
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Of course, there are huge reserves of expertise on Exmoor too, and that is where the mentoring scheme comes in. A group of seven farming mentors with a wealth of knowledge, skill and entrepreneurial flair have been recruited and they are matched with businesses as they apply.
Professor John Wibberley, chairman of the steering group, says: "They have a good understanding of the highs and lows of running a farm business and they are passionate about supporting the next generation to succeed."
Another popular part of the project is the Exmoor Healthy Livestock Programme. A pilot group of farmers is being given the chance to work with vets to develop a health plan for their cattle and sheep, including funded diagnostic testing and veterinary time. It is helping farmers identify and control issues such as lameness, external parasites, poor fertility and growth performance. And once identified the information will spread like wildfire to improve stock and profitability across the hills.
The new Exmoor Forward Farming Discussion Group is a group for younger farmers – under 40 – who hold monthly discussion meetings, run farm walks and have been involved in the study trips to Scotland, Cumbria and Wales.
Ridian Willford, who farms with his parents at Allercott Farm, near Timberscombe, has been an active member of the group since the project began and also recently signed up to take part in the Exmoor Healthy Livestock Programme. Mr Willford, who also works off the farm as a contractor, principally shearing, has 375 Lleyn ewes, which lamb in April, and a herd of Simmental cows, calving both in spring and autumn. Through spending extra time with the vet and having blood tests of his livestock he has made a crucial discovery. He explains: "I had lost some calves and things were getting worse. Blood tests are so expensive, but working with the vet through this scheme showed that there was a mineral deficiency. I have to give the cows a supplement and improve the pH of the land that they graze. The cows are already looking a little bit better. The whole Hill Farm Project has been great. It has got people thinking and talking."
Mr Willford's ambition is to build up his flock to 500 ewes and he is looking at a variety of rams to produce strong, fast-growing lambs. The lessons he learned on the study trip to Scotland led him to change one of his rams and he is thinking about bringing in help after another wise piece of advice in Scotland: "Stick to what you are good at doing and pay other people to do what you're not."
The Exmoor Women's Farming Group was launched in 2011 helping women to network and develop business ideas. It has more than 70 members.
The project has been co-ordinated by Julia Heard and Kate Harris with support from Carol Embury, who also manages the website. Julia and Kate have worked closely with farmers to establish ways to support their businesses, such as bidding for a capital grant to develop a new enterprise.
Over the three years 200 businesses have been helped to apply for funding.
Kate says: "Despite some early scepticism farmers soon realised the benefits of having a locally-based project aimed specifically at supporting their businesses. We now have requests for courses and events and the enthusiasm has grown enormously among the local farming community. One of our biggest successes and the hardest to quantify is how the project has bought farmers together, encouraged them to share and learn from others and to realise that there is a positive future in farming on Exmoor. The young farmers especially have really impressed us – their passion, keenness to learn and positive outlook have undoubtedly made the Hill Farm Project the success it is today."
The current funding runs out at the end of December but the self-help and discussions are sure to carry on. Visit www.exmoorhillfarmproject. org.uk. For details about forthcoming events, contact the office on 01643 841455, or email enquiries@exmoorhillfarm project.org.uk.