Seeing as I’m spending so much time in the meadow, I wanted to meet the farmers who help to look after the land. The farmhouse in High Borrowdale fell out of use in the 1970s and the valley is now managed by Brian and Helen Wilson from Ashsteads Farm, around an hour’s walk to the south.
I drove in last week in full sunshine, scattering several cats and triggering a startled uproar from chickens and dogs as I pulled up in front of the whitewashed farmhouse. Helen was clearing out the fireplace when I arrived, having decided, after an unseasonally cold June, that it must surely be safe to leave it unused until Autumn. Turns out this was well timed. With the arrival of July, summer really has set in.
Helen filled me in on the farm’s and the family’s history. When they first came to Ashsteads farm, both she and Brian worked elsewhere to bring in the money they needed while they were establishing their flock. Now the farm is more than a full-time job. Brian works in the fields, fells and barns for around 18 hours a day at this time of year, and Helen is also at it non-stop as mother, accountant, planner, cook, cleaner and farmhand all rolled into one. With four children, over 400 breeding ewes, a small herd of cows (Limousin and Angus crosses), Arab horses, thirteen cats, several dogs, a clutch of chickens and a holiday house to manage, there’s never nothing to do.
The Wilson’s flock of just over 400 Swaledale ewes graze around their farmhouse and in the High Borrowdale valley, beyond the meadow walls. They are crossed with Blue Faced Leicesters to produce what’s known as a mule. The female or ‘gimmer’ mules are sold as ‘fat lambs’ and are bought by farmers from the south of the country – they are vital for the production of strong lowland sheep.
The quality of the sheep is always important and the Wilsons’ display of rosettes marks their standards. The most prized award is the ‘Champion’, or best in show, won by an exceptional tup (ram) at Selside Show in 2002. After winning the award the tup didn’t sire any male lambs, and the blood line seemed to have been lost. But this year some of his female descendants have produced sons, so there’s hope that these may go on to be as strong as he was, and bring in more prizes. Attention to blood lines and consistent quest for a strong flock are at the heart of hill farming. It’s a matter of pride and an economic benefit, because prize winners, and their progeny, tend to fetch higher prices at sales.
Caring for the livestock is the main priority for the Wilsons, but tending the meadow comes into their annual workload. When the meadow flowers and grasses have set seed, which will happen at the end of July, it will take four days to cut, turn, turn again, and then bale the hay. If the rain stays away and the hay dries well, it will be given to the horses; it might last them half the winter. If the weather is wet around cutting time, the baled crop will be used for bedding for the cows. When the meadow is empty of flowers and grasses, some heifers will be brought in to churn up the land, which helps the seeds to settle. They will also add valuable fertiliser.
The High Borrowdale meadow is quite a trek from the farmstead. Closer by, the Wilsons have two other meadows that they manage differently, with some additional fertiliser and an earlier cut so that the hay retains the nutrition needed to provide food for their livestock. It’s a management technique that allows for a meadow that is dominated by buttercups and clover, with a range of grasses. It is not a ‘wildflower’ meadow as the High Borrowdale meadow is, and has less diversity, but is more useful to the livestock.
While I was with Helen she took me into the holiday house, which she has kept in a traditional style. She showed me a picture taken from the house of a stag and a startled hind, and another of a red squirrel, also a regular visitor. These, along with the meadows, woodlands and rivers, are all part of this hill farm. And all the elements are interconnected – from the high windswept fell tops to the rushes in the fields that provide shelter for lambs in the winter and the river that sustains crayfish.
Out in High Borrowdale valley this week, Brian and his eldest son arrived with three dogs and gathered in the ewes and lambs, and took them back through the meadows and over the fell to the farm. It’s clipping time. I watched them walk down the track that cuts across the meadows, and the scene took on an Alpine quality for a brief moment, conjured up thoughts of times gone past.
When I walked that way later a new message had appeared on the bunting hanging on one of the gates. I think it may have had something to do with them.
If you’d like more details on Ashsteads Farm their website is www.ashsteadfarmhouse.co.uk.