Conservation, The Environment & Farming In The Lake District

In February of this year (2021), Herdy co-founder Spencer Hannah had a good chat with some of our Herdysleep wool farmers. They talked about all things Herdwick sheep and wool (of course), working on Glencoyne Farm in Ullswater, the balance between farming and the environment, diversification, and the general future of sustainable farming.

Chatting with Spence were Sam and Candida Hodgson, with their two kids Emilia and Josh plus Emilia’s boyfriend, Kit. Sam and Can are farming tenants of Glencoyne Farm, a National Trust farm spanning 1,258ha, making it one of the Trust’s largest hill farms in the Lake District.

Jump To:

  1. The story of Sam & Can, Glencoyne Farm, & Herdwicks
  2. The balance between farming and the environment
  3. The future of farming and diversification
  4. Herdwick wool and Herdysleep

1. The story of Sam & Can, Glencoyne Farm, and Herdwicks

Sam and Candida Hodgson took on the tenancy of farming Glencoyne Farm in 1996, after farming separately beforehand.

Can: “We were originally farming on a little farm. Sam was with his brothers on several farms, but I was on a little farm, and I’d gone to do teaching training knowing that I’d have to supplement my income on this little farm. And so this [working on Glencoyne] was meaning that I could actually farm full-time, and I didn’t have to go supply teaching.”

Sam: “In 1996 we came to Glencoyne Farm. I happened to go to Kendal Auction Mart just to see the old sale we used to go to prior to coming here, and we were all Swales (Swaledale sheep).

“Troutbeck Park (near Ambleside), which I always had a soft spot for, was selling draft Herdwicks and were making very little, so I bought 50. After that we put them on Gowbarrow (a fell above the northern side of Ullswater) and the rest is history. I’ve over 500 of ’em now.”

Swaledale sheep are another mountain breed commonly found throughout Cumbria, alongside the beloved Herdwick and the Kendal Rough Fell. Swaledales were originally bred in the Swaledale valley, in the Yorkshire Dales.

Sam and Can went expanded on why they continued to buy in more Herdwicks onto the farm throughout the years.

Can: “We chose them because we knew Gowbarrow had a lot of ticks; it’s a brackeny fell (in other words, a fell covered in bracken, a type of coarse fern common on high moorlands and some fells in the UK). Herdwicks are really good at withstanding ticks. Well, they’re good at withstanding bad weather, poor ground… They’ll survive whatever!”

Learn All About Herdwicks

Sam: “That’s what I like about Herdwicks, their constitution is really healthy. They have a really strong constitution, you can bounce anything of ’em.”

Can: “We had those 50, then we just kept the females and the flock’s grown and grown, and they now go over the whole farm. They have very low input, so they generally don’t get any (additional) food. Except this year we’ve got rather a lot of twins and they are getting some cake, which Herdwicks shouldn’t really need.”

When Herdwick farmers and breeders talk about “low input”, they’re referring to the fact that Herdwick sheep are highly self-sufficient and largely look after themselves on the fells. As a result, they generally lead “semi-wild” lives on the fells, grazing on whatever they can find. They only come down to the farms in the valley bottoms for tupping (mating), lambing, and clipping (shearing).

Candida mentioned that their Herdwick flock this year, in 2021, were expecting more “twins” than usual, and are thus receiving “cake”. You might be wondering if that means the Herdwicks were being treated to some Black Forest! But no, “cake” here means a protein feed. Sam goes on to explain why Herdwick ewes pregnant with more than a single lamb, “twins”, might need additional feeding.

Sam: “We give the twins it, because the nutritional needs of a yow (ewe) with twins is phenomenal so you have to feed them that. I’ve been a hill farmer all my life and there’s nothing worse than a sheep that has no milk and it walks away from its lambs because it’s so poor. So you have to keep them fit and healthy. So that’s why we give ’em cake.”

A Herdwick ram with giant horns and a full fleece on a farm in The Lake District

In fact, whilst Sam and Can have been increasing the numbers of Herdwick sheep in their ranks, they’ve actually been reducing total flock numbers on their farm.

Can: “In a period of time over the years we’ve been in environment schemes on this farm. We’ve enhanced the schemes, and gone more extreme in them. So when we first arrived we already took a slight reduction in stock to adhere to a conservation scheme.

“And then we off-wintered off the main fell behind us and we weren’t paid for that. But after two years the conservationists came back and said, ‘That fell is in really good heart. We’ll give you more money to maintain it at that level, because it’s doing so well.’”

Before the Lake District was permanently settled by small farmers, it was a place people brought their flocks—on foot—to graze in the summer months, with the shepherds living in temporary shelters called shielings. This is because the Lake District fells and dales can carry more livestock in the summer—when the grass grows—than in the winter.

Today, this tradition continues in a different form: many of the younger Herdwicks (lambs and shearlings) are “wintered” or “off-wintered” away on low coastal areas or in the Eden Valley—where the grass still grows throughout the winter—before returning in the spring for the first growth of upland grass. Young adult tups and yows (rams and ewes respectively) who are strong and healthy will go back to the fell tops during winter.

Sam and Can work hand-in-hand with environmentalists and conservationists; reducing stock levels and keeping sheep away from certain parts of the farm is one of many ways they’ve enhanced the area’s environment.

These environmental schemes are monitored by a variety of organisations.

Can: “Up on the Helvellyn massif, it’s a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) so Natural England will monitor it. There’s also Glencoyne Wood, which is an SAC (Special Areas of Conservation). So there are people monitoring these schemes. They run for 10-years, and then rewrite and change things according to what they want to achieve.

“When you come onto a farm, you’ve gotta take a while to get to know it. You’ve got to learn where the sheep go to lamb, you’ve got to learn the places where they get stuck and attacked by flies, and you’ve got to try and keep them out of there. You’ve gotta learn where the actual heft on the fell is—where the sheep actually go and spend their summer—and where you’ll find them again.”

The Hodgson’s were also quick to point out the paradoxical nature of reducing flock numbers.

Can: “With the (environment) schemes you have a lower stocking rate. So the sheep tend to be fitter. That’s why, I think historically, you wouldn’t expect a lot of twins off Herdwicks. But because we’ve reduced the stocking rate there’s less competition on the fell, so the sheep are fitter and tend to have more twins.

“It’s a bit of a Catch-22! All the people who have environment schemes, that’s been the problem with the fell sheep: if you take them off the fell they become fitter and have more twins… then they can’t go back on the fell.

“With a Herdwick you actually want them to have just one good lamb, go up the fell, and spend the summer up there.”

2. The balance between farming and the environment

The Hodgson family on their farm in teh Lake District

People are increasingly conscious of Climate Change as well as the effects industrialisation and mass-scale farming has had on the environment. From a layman’s point of view, what are the “eco credentials” of a Lake District-based Herdwick farmer? What can farmers do to protect and enhance the environment they work in, reduce their carbon footprint, and make things more sustainable?

One thing the Hodgson’s have done for many years is plant trees.

Sam: “We outgrow the trees. We can work hand-in-hand with environment, and also have really good sheep. Because I think in the future the hefted flock of Herdwick sheep up there will be completely unique, and they’ll be a massive selling point or a luxury product. Meat might be a luxury (in the future), so it would be a premium product.”

Can: “There’s the peat bogs, which need protecting and are carbon sinks, and there’s the flood mitigation. The denser the pasture, the more tree cover, the slower the run-off. So less likely for Carlisle to flood.”

Tree planting. Photo by Alex Indigo, licensed CC-2.0
Tree planting. Photo by Alex Indigo, licensed CC-2.0

Creating sheep-free areas, where trees are allowed to take root and grow, isn’t without its challenges…

Can: “With the increased tree cover, we’ve got areas where there are no sheep. So, with Glencoyne Park, Herdwicks do know there are barriers, and it’s quite hard to contain them. Because if you make a sheep-free area, the first thing a Herdwick does is to target the sheep-free area because obviously there’s more grass in there.

“Equally, the red deer do that as well. The red deer work in partnership with the Herdwicks, so the red deer knock the top stones off the wall and then the Herdwicks follow in, so we have a bit of a problem there. We are increasing the tree cover on this farm, we’ve got areas of natural regeneration and we’ve got some replanting going on.”

Tree planting and regeneration is something the Hodgson’s have always done under their own initiative, regardless of any schemes they were participating in. It comes with additional benefits, too, such as reducing flystrike in sheep.

Can: “We’ve always done that under our own initiative. Within the environment schemes there’s always been potential to have areas with no sheep in.

“There was a LEAP scheme (Livestock Exclusion Annual Premium) where they’d actually pay you just to keep the sheep out, and it was a Forestry scheme. So we put 67 hectares into that. Stopped our problem of sheep drifting in and getting flystrike in this wooded area, and now we got regeneration coming up.”

“Flystrike” is a particularly nasty condition. It’s caused by flies, particularly Blowflies, depositing eggs on a sheep’s soiled fleece or an open wound. The eggs hatch into maggots, which eat the sheep’s flesh. The entire life cycle from egg to adult can occur in less than 10 days in optimal conditions. Blowflies are especially prevalent in wooded areas during spring and summer, so it’s in a farmer’s interest to keep sheep out of wooded areas, allowing for both new regeneration and reducing flystrike.

Sam, in particular, was keen to point that when it comes to Climate Change, we’ve all got a part to play, not just farmers.

Sam: “We do it (tree planting) as part of farming. It’s really important that everyone does their little bit […] what we’re doing, it doesn’t seem that much to us, but it is when it’s added all up together. So people have to be aware of climate change and be prepared to do things for it.”

Spence: “Absolutely. If you look in urban developments, in cities and towns, for the last few decades everyone’s got rid of their front garden and turned it into a car park and paved over it. So water can no longer sink into the water table anymore and that’s caused huge problems. But nobody ever thought about that at the time, they just thought of the convenience of having some extra parking space.”

A water table is the upper surface of the zone of saturation, or the upper level below which the ground is saturated in water. Urban areas in recent decades have seen the average level of the water table rise, caused by people removing areas of soil and planting (which absorb water more readily and keep the water table level low). It means during events of heavy rainfall—a feature occurring more frequently as the climate warms up—the water has less available area to sink into the water table, therefore ground flooding occurs more often.

It’s all too easy to consider the effects that only farming has had on the environment, especially as global temperatures rise. But perhaps it would be beneficial for those of us living in more urban areas to consider our own impact in the local environment and the global climate.

“We do tree planting as part of farming. It’s really important that everyone does their little bit.

“What we’re doing, it doesn’t seem that much to us, but it is when it’s added all up together.

“So people have to be aware of climate change and be prepared to do things for it.”

The change in climate has definitely been noticeable at Glencoyne.

Can: “Things change, the climate’s changed as well, even in 24 years.”
Spence: “You’ve seen that change?”
Can: “Yeah.”
Spence: “What’s been the most…”
Can: “Heavier rain. Just bursts of heavier rain over days. With Lakeland rain you’d imagine just two weeks of drizzle. Whereas now you get these torrential several days (of rain) and everything’s running, land slides, and yeah…”

The Hodgson’s at Glencoyne have always been conservation and environment-minded in their farming, even before it was considered necessary or even “trendy” to do so. It’s only in recent years that public policy has caught up with this way of thinking about farming and the land, which has been reflected in how farming subsidies in the UK have evolved.

Can: “When we first came here, we’ve always been conservation-minded. We started here with 2,000 sheep, that was what the Trust limited here and was what the Headage Payments were paying. That’s all the subsidies. You got paid per sheep just to keep it, you didn’t even have to have a lamb. That wasn’t obviously going to last forever. And then the subsidies went to “land-based”, so areas. And that’s where it’s at the moment. Now the Basic Payment’s being phased out. In its place is coming ELMS (Environmental Land Management Schemes).”

Sam: “No-one knows quite what they are.”

Can: “There’s been a lot of ‘Oh it’s going to be this, that, and the other’ but of course there’s been no figure crunching, nobody actually knows where or what the money will be directed at. It says that farming, generally, is going to be pushed to more conservation.

“When we started we were already talking about conservation. I mean, even just talking about it, we were considered ‘green lunatics’. The only people more lunatic than us at that point were the people going organic.”

Spence: “And who were judging you as the green lunatics?”
Can: “Most of the farmers? Of the Lake District?”
Spence: “And that was how many years ago?”
Can: “We came here 24 years ago.”
Spence: “Do they think you’re loonies now?”
Can: “Less so. The farm we have has significantly less sheep but we have maybe the shiniest tractor.”

3. The future of farming and diversification

What does the future hold for farming? Are changes in farming subsidies a good or bad thing? Have the Hodgson’s been working on diversifying their income?

What about the dreaded “B” word?

In the EU Referendum of 2016 it’s estimated that farmers, on the whole, voted largely to leave the EU by 53%. Now that the UK has officially left the EU, how has this decision affected farmers?

For a start, subsidies are changing.

Can: “The Basic Payment’s been pulled and phased out, that will take an income hit. The Environment Scheme we’re in currently goes to 2024, so we know that’s guaranteed. We’ve diversified into a small camping pod business, which in the light of COVID does seem like it will be quite a successful venture.

“The talk about ELMS (the new farming subsidies scheme based on environmental health) is as a ‘public good’. How can you quantify a ‘public good’?

“We put in a new footpath with Natural England funding. We secured £80,000 for the National Trust to put a new footpath in. For most farmers that’s insane, why would you encourage more people? But actually you see thousands of people using that path, it’s a really lovely walk, it accesses Glenridding to Aira Force, gets them off the road.”

Sam: “Very unsure, of the future. I think you’ve gotta be positive and have your plan in here.” Sam taps at his head.

Inevitably in a farming family, when there’s talk of the future, conversation leans towards the next generation.

Sam and Candida have two kids, Emilia and Josh, both now young adults. And they have ideas of their own, like incorporating more tech into the farm.

Emilia: “The lambing sheds have cameras in them now. So we can monitor them, like, we’ve got some that are due to lamb now.”

Spence: “So you’ve done that for your benefit?”

Emilia: “Yeah, so I don’t have to get out of bed at 5am!”

As “digital natives”, the younger generation invariably have more familiarity with modern technology, and are able to visualise how to incorporate tech into farming and any diversification ventures.

For example, the Hodgson’s recently set up some self-accommodation camping pods on the farm.

Can: “You know, we sort of fell into the camping pod thing. We looked around and saw an advert for camping pods from the Lyth valley and thought, ‘They look nice.’ The agency crunched the figures and went, ‘You’re looking at about this much per pod per year’, and we were like, ‘Wow! That looks… easy.’ So we got planning permission.

“The planning came through and LEADER (an EU initiative for rural development projects, Liaison entre actions de développement de l’économie rurale, or “Links between actions for the development of the rural economy”) were still offering a 40% grant, and we we’re kinda thinking, ‘Well, might as well.’

“And so we put these three pods in, not because we’re going, ‘Oh, we must diversify’, it’s because it’s sort of like an easy way to (make money). And it’s separating our business, so we’re not totally dependent on subsidies or the conservation.

“We started in 2019, we had August, September, October, and November, and you’re just thinking, ‘That was easy!’ Not too bad to clean. With COVID, the cleaning’s been more onerous obviously, and the season was much shorter, but again you’re thinking… manageable.”

Can: “Emilia’s quite good on the computer, I’m not, but she’s better on the computer.”

Emilia: “I’m alright…”

Can: “We have our booking system through Cool Camping Bedful, they have a dashboard and they basically have a cash counter as the money’s coming in.”

Sometimes, it takes a fresh mind to question things one may have done habitually and unquestionably for years.

Emilia: “You (Sam) used to feed the calves a bite of cake (protein feed) everyday, and we turned round and said, ‘Why are we doing this?’ And you said, ‘I don’t know, I just always have.’ And now we don’t feed them that anymore and they’re fine!”

With the proliferation, and normalisation, of social media into our daily lives—even in deeply rural communities—the younger generation understand how even small acts of kindness can butterfly-effect into a movement.

Emilia: “It’s like taking the time out of your day to show somebody clipping (shearing) and explaining it to them. Then they’ll go away and think, ‘Wasn’t that nice of him?’ And they’ll talk about it.”

Spence: “Exactly.”

Emilia: “And it gets passed on and passed on and they’ll go, ‘There was a really nice farmer in the Lakes, who showed me about clipping, and that meant a lot.’”

Philip Halling / Sheffield Pike viewed from the shores of Ullswater / CC BY-SA 2.0
Philip Halling / Sheffield Pike viewed from the shores of Ullswater / CC BY-SA 2.0

When the topic of conversation delved further into diversification, for Sam and Can that nearly always means further investment into the environment.

Sam: “When everyone talks about farm diversification, in my mind diversification was into the environment. So I looked to try and maximise what I could get from green payments, to work alongside the farm. That progressed. It’s a bit like a snowball, it starts off little but it gets bigger and bigger.”

Can: “Luckily with that tree and hedge planting scheme there’s been a lot of wonderful volunteers recently and you can volunteer under COVID guidelines. In November there was about 40 turned out to plant just because they wanted to get out. And it was a lovely thing to do. I got all those trees planted for nothing, quite a few friends came along and our group was probably the slowest ‘cos we were so busy nattering!

“I’ve got this other hedge to put in, I’ve contacted my friend who knows a lot of the volunteers. She went, ‘I’ll just ring round! There’ll be lots of people who’d love to come and plant small trees.’ Y’know? For me to go and get a contractor to plant those trees would be quite expensive.”

Unfortunately, like a lot of good intentions and public policies, there are short comings and oversights to these new area-based environmental schemes.

For a start, if your farm is small, you’ll miss out.

Sam: “This sounds really bigheaded I know, but I don’t think I’m far from the mark for this type of farm. If they (the government) could support how we farm, and all other farms in similar ways in the hills, the blueprint’s not too far away.”
Spence: “So the way you farm, you’re saying…”
Emilia: “If everybody was enabled to do that with support…”
Spence: “And why are they not enabled to do it?”
Sam: “Well, probably size is the major thing.”
Can: “It’s scale, if you haven’t got the area your support’s just not big enough.”
Spence: “So if you’re a farming family and from one generation to the next you’ve ended up having this farm passed onto you, which just so happens to be the wrong shape and size right now…”
Emilia: “You miss out.”
Can: “I think the trouble is, what we do works really well… but it’s easy for us to say!

“It’s like Great Mell Fell, you know out by the A66? Completely smooth, round hill. That’s part of the farm. We used to have 400 sheep on it, we wintered them up there, and then we walked them back here to lamb, along the road. It’s down in a woodland regeneration scheme, wood pasture regeneration, and we get paid to have no sheep on it.

“Now we’ve got 6 tubby highland ponies up there. They have the life of heaven up there. We get paid more for doing that than if we had those 400 sheep up there.”

Spence: “But the little farm down the lane that could be right round the corner, is missing out?”

Can: “Can’t access (the support). We took on the tenancy of this farm and it happened to be 3,500 acres, it is one of the Trust’s bigger farms. The smaller farms, they can’t do that, because if they did that they’d have no sheep on their farm.”

In the future, will it possible for farms—especially in the Lake District—to farm without subsidies?

Possibly not.

Can: “If you’re small, you haven’t got the sufficient area of tree or hedge, you haven’t got room to manoeuvre. We’ve had the luxury of land, in here we can say, ‘Oh we can shut 60–70 hectares up’, and just shut it up! Because it’s big enough.

“All these conservation payments are area-based. We made the whole of Glencoyne Park sheep-free, that’s 176 hectares. So you got a premium for just cattle grazing, but it’s on quite a big area. I remember when we first suggested it to Natural England before the new scheme came in, we said, ‘We’ll just take all the sheep out of there!’ Because at that point it was a very high payment to do that. And she was like, ‘No chance, you’re not gunna get the money to do that.’ The next scheme came out, the payment had gone down a bit, but there was the opportunity to take the sheep completely out of there. But every time you do that the whole dynamic of the farm changes again.”

Perhaps the future for small farms is in collective co-operation and distribution.

Spence: “It almost sounds, doesn’t it, like the future for small farms is very, like you said Sam, it’s the valley that matters rather than the one individual farm.”

Sam: “The whole ecosystem. It’s like, all of Ullswater is what’s really important. So if every farmer is doing relatively well, it’s good for everyone, isn’t it?”

4. Herdwick wool and Herdysleep

Famers in the Lake District collecting Herdick wool for Herdysleep mattresses

We think it’s important to preserve and protect a sustainable future for the Lake District’s upland fell farming community.

So we’ve set up a co-operative of local Herdwick farmers, including the Hodgson’s, and buy 100% of the wool from their farms at a fairly traded rate, which means reduced overheads for the farmer and a better return for them. The farms keep small flocks in a lower density, which also lessens the impact on the environment.

Does what we do with Herdwick farmers and using Herdwick fleece in the Herdysleep mattress help?

Sam: “It’s helped this valley! The Herdwick breeders!”

Spence: “So that’s an important point, isn’t it?”

“Does what we do at Herdy help a bit? It’s nice to be honest about this.”

“It’s helped this valley! The Herdwick breeders!”

Can: “I think it injects something positive in that, yes as you say wool has been very low value for a very long time, barely covers the cost of shearers, has to do be done for welfare issues.

“But I think, anything that shows that it’s a really good natural product.”

“Now I know it’s expensive to clean, and expensive to process, but it’s like Herdwick carpet or whatever, they’re very hard-wearing. We’re gunna have to get away from making clothes out of petrochemicals, and get away from people changing their clothes all the time, because clothing’s a nightmare for the planet, isn’t it?

“Where we clip, we’re on a footpath through the yard, and people come through. We always block the path because we gotta keep running the sheep into the shed so we have to go and let people come through whilst we’re clipping. Obviously they love watching the clipping anyway, you’ll always have the Herdysleep wool sack especially if we’ve got one with the Herdy face on it, and you can actually say, ‘This is actually going to be in a high quality mattress!’”

Sam: “I know you might not think it’s much but you giving what you do for Herdwick wool, it does bolster. We have a smile on our face, when we think about Herdwick wool.”

Spence: “Well if we bought the wool from the Wool Marketing Board, we’d have to commit to a bale, and in fag-packet accounting we can either give you the margin, or give the Wool Board the margin.

“Now we’re a Lake District brand, we live here, we employ here, our brand is born in the Lake District and we are using a wool from the Lake District. So we think the margin should go to the farmer, not a middle man who’s selling it at auction. Plus, on the scale of wool trading, Herdwick is unfortunately right down at the bottom, because it’s a contaminant wool, you can’t do a fat lot with it.”

Sam: “The only time that Herdwick wool was worth a bit would be when the Japanese were putting it in futons, 30 years ago.”

“Obviously they love watching the clipping anyway, you’ll always have the Herdysleep wool sack especially if we’ve got one with the Herdy face on it, and you can actually say, 'This is actually going to be in a high quality mattress!'”

And no, they don’t burn the wool. Despite the persistent myth it rarely, if ever, happens.

Can: “Oh it only took a couple of farmers to do it, high profile burning of wool. And people are, ‘Do you still burn your wool?’ No, we’ve never burned our wool! It makes a horrible smell.

“The only time we’ve ever burnt wool was when Tesco’s Christmas ad…”

Sam: “Oh god, yeah!”

Can: “They wanted that Pogues song, y’know, ‘Brussels from Birmingham, Carrots from Cumbria’. I think we were ‘Carrots from Cumbria’, and they had a snow scene on front of the house. They brought a bit of artificial snow on front of the house, and they had a couple of kids and a dog for y’know 10 seconds!

“They wanted the chimney to have smoke. The special effects guys had lit the wood burner… of course it got too hot, no smoke. It was burning too hot. Sam goes and gets a handful of damp wool, sticks it in our wood burner… acrid smoke billowing out the chimney! Everyone’s going, ‘Oh god, what’s that smell?!’ And the photographer’s going, ‘Great! I like your smoke!’ Horrible…

“Yeah that was the only time we burnt wool. And it stank the house as well.”

Herdwick ewe and lamb smiling in the Lake District

Happily, there are additional benefits to the arrangement Herdy and Herdysleep has with the Ullswater farmers and the Hodgson’s, like raising the profile and awareness of the Herdwick sheep breed and their cultural importance.

Sam: “When we meet people on the fell, for example there was a woman who came down, and she was commenting how beautiful the sheep were.

“I think people are starting to realise they are kept really well.”

Can: “It’s like the World Heritage bid, it definitely focused on the Herdwick, and I think anything that raises its profile gives it a value. If it’s so associated with this landscape, and people are aware of it as a breed…

“Y’know, with all these schemes coming up and conservation and public good, I think that whatever happens there’s got to be some Herdwicks in the hill.

“And I think, if anything that anchors them to the hills, and the place, and the importance… anything like that is really important to do.”

We hope you've enjoyed this little insight into life on a Herdwick farm and how we work with farmers.

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