Save the farm­ers, not just the land

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor -

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

Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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