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THE RHYTHM OF THE HILLS

by Julia Horning (edited and abridged - original article can be read here)

We have already seen enough good herds and flocks wiped from our hillsides. We have seen too many perfectly good lambs wasted through bungling bureaucracy. This is my attempt to stop this obscene waste and get the fine produce of the Dales onto people's plates and into the pockets of our publicans and hoteliers.

Here in The Dales, Autumn sees the crop of lambs being brought down from their high, limestone pastures to the lower land, and the valley bottoms are now filling with lamb. This is part of the comfortable order of the farmer working together with the seasons and the land the that has gone on for generations. But shortly, the gravity of this thing that has been with us for the past eight months is about to turn the kilter of this age-old rhythm of the hills.

Normally at this time of year The Dales would be busy with land rovers and trailers rattling along the little roads, shuttling the farmers' harvest of lambs to market. And the farmer might be looking forward to the short time at least, when his bank balance might be in the black!

But just now everything is held tight on the land, and the only animals going anywhere at the moment are animals gong directly to kill-to the slaughterhouse or into a disposal scheme

We have seen the scourge of FMD running down our valleys and DEFRA's brutal response, wiping out our flocks and herds.

Now we are set to see an even more malignant and tragic effect on the ones that are left. The potential misery of this, one hardly dare contemplate. The lambs that went into the culling pens at the sides of their mothers on a summer's day, I should say were the lucky ones.

The job of these upland farms is largely to provide breeding stock for lowland farms, and also to produce stock that goes on to be fattened in the lusher lowlands. At the onset of foot and mouth in February, all the sheep were in lamb and the cows if not already calved were calving. Early summer saw most farmers managing to get their shearings and hogs back home that had been away for winter. These are the lambs from the previous summer and the first year lambers. The young stock always goes away to the lowland for their first two, winters as it is considered too harsh for them to stay up in the hills.

The situation at the moment is that everything has returned home and the adult stock has all had young, which should now be moving on - but with this full house, it is a situation of pin down.

As the temperature falls and winter draws nearer, and grass stops growing, there are already too many mouths to feed on these little upland farms. At all costs, if these family farms are to survive, they must preserve the well being of the core of their native breeding stock. The farmer is facing a dilemma. He has good breeding sheep that would normally go to lowland farmers. There will be culled out farmers who would love to have them to restock. Even though they cannot go yet, they could be tupped by arrangement and arrive hopefully ready to lamb and what a lovely way for a culled out farmer to get going again.

If we could move them, I think I would much rather give those sheep to that farmer rather than send the ones the way we've had to send some of the smaller lambs this last week. Before my husband had washed out and disinfected his trailer before leaving the collection point, the perfectly healthy lambs had been dispatched and were being lifted high in a bucket to be tipped all jumbled together into the back of a cull wagon to go off for landfill.

He came back sickened.

Appalled by the massive waste of good stock to land fill and incineration this is my response:-

Our salvation, I think could partly be in the fact that the visitors who like to come to the Dales are the kind of people who are very sensitive to issues such as welfare of animals, food miles and environmental concerns.

Many understand that grazing animals are part of the balance of this beautiful landscape, and the purity of the food produced in the Dales.

We have it all here. How lucky we are. And to me, part of the experience of the Dales is to tie all this up together. You walk on the hills, you breath the air, and you eat the food.

People are only too keen to take on board this concept if it is presented to them.

I know that people, who are passionate about cooking, as I am myself, know exactly what they want. It is important to them to be able to get it in the form that they want it. That is why I know that they will want their lamb hung for at least six days. Our lambs, raised on the pure, high limestone pastures of Wharfedale, grazing freely in family groups on a very natural diet of sedges, heathers and wild herbs develop a lean, well-flavoured sweet meat. This is meat that bears no resemblance at all that of the intensively reared lambs born in sheds and often finished in fields of muddy turnips. Yet there is nothing to differentiate between the two when they are displayed in their plastic trays on the supermarket shelves. Our lambs spend the night before they go away in in the field at the side of the farm so are in a very relaxed state. They are spared all the whooping and shouting and shallying of the interminable round of the auction mart. They are booked in for an exact time at Agars in Ilkley, with whom we are extremely pleased with the calm efficient way the stock is handled.

They trot down the ramp, into a very clean pen to be checked by a vet, then trot round the corner with no fuss what so ever, and as we leave them, I'm confident that they will be handled humanely.

The abattoir does an excellent job that a large slaughterhouse could never do. An example is returning the caul which is important to John Toppham at the Angel for making his Confiture de foie. Jonn and Denis Watkins of The Angel at Hetton and The General Tarleton at Ferrandsby are quite particular about their cutting specification and I'm confident that Weatherheads of Pately Bridge are the best butchers to cut it . The Weatherheads are a lovely family of very highly skilled traditional butchers and it delights me to be the link between this very high quality meat and the best production, preparation and presentation.

Anne Binns, the chef at The Racehorces in Kettlewell requires an entirely different specification. Anne is passionate about sourcing food locally and keeping the jobs and vitality of a living working community in the Dales. People travel for miles to do a walk in the Dales, deservedly rounded off with a one of Anne's famous suet crust lamb pies and gravy. The sweet essential flavour of the cubed shoulder meat of our little Dalesbred lambs is unsurpassed in flavour of the filling, She also does a stuffed breast of lamb which sells at £10.00, which I would say was an excellent solution to a boned out breast. The rate at which they go down shows that it's obviously what Anne's customers want and this is the secret; determining exactly what people want, and getting it onto the plate.

And that is getting our wonderfully pure Dales lamb to people in exactly the form that they want it. I must say that this can only really be done for wholesale customers, but for individual customers, we do do whole and half lambs in a considered selection of whole and boned out joints and carvery cuts with mince and cubes too. All, vacuum packed, labelled and boxed and available to order from Redmire Farm The small joints of the Dalesbreds make ideal small half lamb boxes for elderly people and couples.

I'm not saying this is the way ahead for everybody. For some, marketing co-operatives will be a much more satisfactory solution; ideally with their own abattoir.

But for me with a keen interest in food, I am delighted to have formed the contacts I have with like minded people who are driven by the love of and reverence for good food. We are determined that the life, culture and tradition of good food of The Dales will survive despite the whims and directives of transient politicians of the day.

I think given the distinction of its origin, appropriately and accurately labelled, the discerning customer will be willing to pay the extra money to buy food from a sustainable farming system.

But sadly, this brings me to the ever-widening divide in society. Through no fault of their own, some people will have to opt to buy the cheap intensively reared imports of dubious origin, ethical and welfare standards. One wonders if this clearing of our supermarket shelves is a precursor to the receipt of food from other countries. But I suspect it might not be ploughshares our Government would have in mind to sell to them in return.

It seems a shame to me that with a little more thought determination and strength to stand up to the E.E.C. and the eradication of self interest, our Government could define a truly sustainable broad standard of decent food. Decent food for all British people while keeping the life, vitality and jobs in our countryside.

Can we really not feed our own people in our green and pleasant land with a willing workforce, with the understanding and the sophistication of sustainable technology?

Lambing time will be particularly poignant for a lot of people in the hills this next year. Dales men have evolved with adversity, but not since the winter of '47 does the prospect promise to be as tough; they will need all the grittiness and resolve they can muster to get through the winter ahead.

The preservation of the well being of the hardy indigenous breeding sheep that are so vital to the ecology of the hills, and these small family farms is paramount.

We have already seen enough good herds and flocks wiped from our hillsides. We have seen too many perfectly good lambs wasted through bungling bureaucracy. This is my attempt to stop this obscene waste and get the fine produce of the Dales onto people's plates and into the pockets of our publicans and hoteliers. I hope it will help maintain the kilter of this age-old rhythm of the Dales. Not just next Spring , but we hope for generations to come , our hill sides will be still be dotted with grazing animals and our valleys ring to the sound of the new born.

( email inquiries to Redmire Farm)

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