Pauline Blair , an active grazier on Buttermere, Brackenthwaite and Above Derwent Common, did a profile of Buttermere, Brackenthwaite and Above Derwent Common in 2006. My aim was to demonstrate to the Lake Disitrict National Park Planning Authority how the combined effects of severe, unbalanced reductions in stocking rates imposed by Natural England, plus the reduction in active graziers due to age and lack of suitable housing, was threatening the commoning system, which created and still maintains a large proportion of our most valued uplands.
My profile showed that in 1992, when our ESA Agreement was first discussed, the statistics of the Common were: Area 5565ha; Total grazing rights 23,753; of which 24 active graziers held 16,700 rights. Total stock numbers 13,000 and a stocking rate 2.35 ewes /ha to be reduced to 1.5 ewes/ha.
By 2006, the common was under an HLS agreement. The number of active graziers had reduced to 18, the stocking rate went down to 0.5 ewes/ha and 70% had to be off-wintered. In practice several large fell flocks are completely removed in winter. This has allowed those, who want to retain fell ewes’ legendary hardiness to survive on the fell without supplementary feed, keep a small number on the common in winter. These ewes then regain body condition fast enough when brought into the in-bye pastures, to produce and feed a healthy lamb. The down side is that these sheep stray well off their heaf in winter and one shepherd can be faced with a huge area to gather in the spring. It has also distorted the traditional summer heafing balance, as those who off-winter now turn-out a greater proportion of their original number of sheep on the common in the summer.
By 2006 SPS had also been introduced. On such an over-registered Common as ours, the active graziers have seen a huge reduction in the area payment they receive in comparison to the headage payment it replaced. In 2007 SPS payment was claimed on less than 50% of the LU allocated to the Common and a high percentage of what was claimed went to non-graziers.
In 2011 the active graziers are down to 16. While the overall number of active graziers may not have changed much, the work of shepherding is falling on fewer shoulders and there is likely to be a shortage of active, competent shepherds in the near future. Also most of the active, younger, full-time graziers are concentrated one side of the common, leading to an imbalance in the shepherding burden.
Presently there are 11 owner-occupied farms. Of these, only 3 can currently guarantee a successor, and 2 are likely to come on the market soon. It is this type of farm that is most vulnerable to being sold to non-farmers, split up with the original steading permanently lost to farming. The availability of housing still continues to remain a universal challenge to maintaining hill farming in our area. Prices are prohibitive, planning permission almost impossible to obtain.
Our hardy heafed flocks provide the optimum extensive, naturally organic, sustainable system of food production, which in the hands of skilled shepherds, can be adjusted to serve the needs of food production, nature conservation and to mitigate the effects of climate change. I hoped in 2006 that by 2011 the value of our native sheep and the knowledge, experience and skill of the shepherds who tend them would have been acknowledged in a genuine partnership with Natural England. It worries and infuriates me that sheep are still being forced off the Commons. What’s the future for your Common?