Allendale and Hexhamshire commons are located south of Hexham, Northumberland in the north Pennines. During the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic the vast majority of the hefted flocks on the Allendale and Hexhamshire commons were culled. This left 4,800 ha of Site of Special Interest (SSSI) common land with virtually no sheep and no future. Starting in early 2002 the graziers began to re-introduce hefted flocks under a 5-year phased restocking programme. This was part of a wildlife enhancement scheme funded by English Nature and agreed by 19 active graziers and the 2 landowners. The agreement allowed for a maximum of 80% of the pre foot and mouth stocking rate on the common, along with other changes in management practices to ensure that the moorland returned to its pristine condition. The graziers agreed to changing feeding practices. They no longer use tractors, ring feeders or silage on the common. Now they use ATV vehicles, feed small bales of hay with some supplementary feeding in bad weather. The moorland management undertaken by the shooting estates has also changed. They agreed a heather burning plan with English Nature, together with grip blocking in certain locations. This was to raise the water level and reduce peat erosion. There was also a tree planting programme with native tree species planted in some of the gullies to encourage black grouse. The trees were double staked and sheep guarded but left unfenced.
Following the success of this 5-year programme English Nature felt that to continue the good progress made, the commons should be entered into a Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreement. After discussion with all parties an agreement was reached and commenced in May 2006.
In 2011 a new HLS agreement was set up to incorporate the new Upland Entry Level Scheme (UELS). A formal commoners association was created at this time to accommodate the UELS process. The association includes all graziers and landowners and employs the services of Charles Raine, Young’s Chartered Surveyors, Hexham to act as agent to liaise with Natural England and all other relevant parties. The current agreement runs until the end of 2020.
While there has been an improvement in the condition of the common with the regeneration of heather on previous feeding sites, these changes in feeding practices have their costs as well. The work load of the graziers has increased over the winter months. In previous years a ring feeder provided a central point for sheep to return to, encouraging them to stay on their own heft. Ring feeders allowed feed to be available at all times and only topped up once or twice a week as necessary whereas now the sheep have to be fed daily to achieve the same objective. As most of the farms are one-man businesses, any increase to the workload during shorter winter days has a significant impact.
On some commons winter feeding is not allowed as part of the agreement apart from in extreme weather conditions, but we feel it is an important management tool for our flocks. The ability to feed sheep as necessary throughout the winter months is crucial as during this time they wander out to the extremities of the heft but return each morning for their feed. This helps develop a homing instinct which can be seen when shepherding during the summer months and is part of the natural hefting process. Also the lack of winter feeding can create significant welfare issues.
.Although many of the current farmers have no successors, it is hoped that schemes like this will encourage young people to continue farming in the uplands. It would be nice to think we have left it in an improved condition for future generations of farmers. Environmental schemes such as ours have a significant benefit to the financial viability of upland farms and help to maintain the rural economy.
Nicholas Howard, of High Studdon, Allendale and Robert Philipson of Broadgates, Sinderhope