Farmer's fury at 'betrayal' of Beatrix Potter legacyBy Nigel Bunyan
When Jonny Birkett was small he grew accustomed to visits from Beatrix Potter. The author had picked his father, Robert, to be the tenant of one of her Lakeland farms and once a month she would come along, in clogs and shawl, to chat.
When Potter died in 1943 she left the 17th century High Yewdale Farm, Coniston, to the National Trust, believing it would preserve the style of hill farming she so loved.
Yesterday Mr Birkett, 71, who took over the tenancy 35 years ago, accused the Trust of betraying its benefactor's legacy by deciding to break up the farm's 188 hectares among four other farms.
"Beatrix Potter will be turning in her grave,'' he said. "I've always given the National Trust top marks for trying to save farms, but now they're just going against what they're meant to be about.
"It's a disgrace. This is one of the best farms in the Lake District and we've looked after it as if it was our own.
"Now they've just come along and said, 'That's it'."
Mr Birkett is acknowledged, even by the National Trust, as a "fantastic stockman''. The majority of his 700 Herdwicks are descended from the sheep once owned by the creator of the Peter Rabbit books.
He and his wife, Ruth, 67, recall the day in 1985 when the trust chose to show off their farm to the Queen.
"When the Queen came into the sitting room she signed a photograph of herself at the table. I remember the area manager telling her, 'This farm will be carried on in the usual way'. They obviously thought something of it then. Yet now they're going to destroy it.''
Mr Birkett, whose farm will be broken up when he retires in October, claims the decision has been made by "college boys who've never gathered any sheep off a fell". He added: "There was no discussion. Three fellows came in two weeks ago and just told us. They seem to have decided that the farm isn't viable because we haven't changed our Land Rover and don't buy big tractors. But what do we want with a new Land Rover if the old one works well enough? We've had such a happy life here. When I was young there was not a day too long. Now we feel we've worked for nothing.''
Mr Birkett, whose son, Peter, 39, would have taken over the farm but for health reasons, said the majority of shepherding on the 2,000ft fells had to be done on foot. There are so many remote hollows that sheep can be missed, and the fact that the various flocks are "heafed" to their own territories means that it takes more than three gathers to bring them in for lambing and shearing. "If they split it up the land will go back to rough moorland," he said. "It's heartbreaking''.
John Darlington, the trust's area manager, said: "Undoubtedly it's been a difficult decision, but we've looked at the figures and we have no alternative.'' He said only five of the 14 farms bequeathed by Beatrix Potter had survived. "I believe that she would have seen this as necessary if we are to retain her heritage. She wasn't the type to want things preserved in aspic.''