Save the farmers, not just the land
BEATRIX POTTER would be livid at last month’s decision by the National Trust to deprive Cumbrian farmers of some of their historic farmland. The creator of Peter Rabbit was an early supporter of this organisation and she wanted to conserve the way of life in the countryside she loved. High up in the Lake District, she saw that real farmers were being dispossessed by rich incomers who had little understanding of nature or the old ways of farming that protected it. Even more important than her concern for architectural heritage was her vision of the duty to protect traditional communities and support farmers who understood the nature and needs of particular places.
She would never have wanted the Trust to go barging into rural Cumbria, destroying a traditional holding of local Herdwick sheep and paving the way for the farmhouse to become a holiday home. There’s hardly anywhere else in the country where such an action would be more damaging. These are sheep hills on which the flocks are able to roam freely because they have been hefted to the land. This traditional process means that, for generation after generation, they know their pastures and don’t wander from them. They need neither walls nor fences to ensure their safety and this preserves the wonderfully open scene that is Cumbria.
However, hefting needs farmers to manage the flock—men for whom this is a way of life and, for many of them, their only way of life. So, when the tenant left Thorneythwaite Farm and it came up for sale, local farmers knew they had to preserve it and were prepared to offer £1.4 million for house and land. The owners wanted £1.8 million, which the locals couldn’t afford. This was precisely the kind of situation in which Beatrix Potter would have intervened to help. However, instead of joining local farmers to produce an answer, the Trust she left 4,000 acres of land and 14 farms to decided to go for the farmland and bid way above the asking price. It later admitted that it did this to stop any competing bids—even from local farmers. The 303 acres were priced at £750,000 and the Trust offered £950,000 and didn’t bid for the house. In this way, it ensured that the land would be sold separately, there would be no question of a tenancy and yet another traditional farm would go. Its actions betrayed the Potter legacy and part of the very reason for its existence.
When criticised by farmers and campaigners, the Trust’s spokesman said this was a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure the land for the nation’. He spoke not about the local farming practices, not about the sheep and not about tenant farmers, but simply asserted that only the National Trust could look after this land and therefore it had to own it. It’s this fixation with ownership that’s the Trust’s problem—it can’t believe that anyone else can be trusted to look after houses or land.
It’s so sad that it has come to this. Agromenes is a firm supporter of the National Trust. No other nation has anything so similarly effective, yet its very success means it can become overbearing and self-righteous. That’s what’s happened in Cumbria. If it’s really too late to undo this deal, the Trust should listen to the local farmers and their supporters who live in these hills and know and love them—men such as Lord Bragg and James Rebanks. It must buy the farmhouse, put in a local tenant and let him manage the land. That alone would keep faith with Beatrix Potter and perhaps make this great organisation humbler and more willing to listen.
‘Beatrix Potter would never have wanted the National Trust to go barging into rural Cumbria
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