Peak District Farming

Farming Peak District

Farming in the Peak District is not the easiest of occupations. This is the land of small hill farms, many being less than 100 acres, which struggle to support a growing family, and in recent years have been encouraged to diversify to avoid self-destruction or bankruptcy.

The Derbyshire Peaks have been farmed for more than 4,000 years, dating back to the time when Neolithic man took advantage of the light, well drained soil to graze a few sheep and cattle and to grow limited crops such as pulses, beans and cereals.

Small strips of land were cultivated into terraces, some of which can still be traced, such as those at Roystone Grange near Brassington. With low lying land being wet and boggy, early settlements were established on hill tops or sheltered valleys and clearings in the woods which at that time covered vast areas.

Only a few hundred years ago, the north of the county was known as The Forest of the Peak, a wild expanse where wolves roamed free.

Gradually much of the forest was cut back and cleared. Around the 13th century granges were set up by abbeys and monasteries, often evicting the peasant farmers who had previously farmed there, such as at Coldeaton on the side of the Dove.

Huge flocks of sheep were extensively farmed by monks who exported their valuable fleeces as wool to Europe. In medieval times belts of land were ploughed and furrowed around small villages, with cattle being grazed on rough common ground beyond. But it was not until around C1500 that enclosed fields began to appear, that could contain animals and allow more intensive farming methods to be established.

Some of these fields can still be seen and often contain strip lynchets reverse s-shaped formations caused by ploughing and furrowing of the land. By the 18th century more fields were taken in and enclosed by stone walls and hedges, many of these being square or oblong in shape. It is rather interesting in fact to drive around the Peak District and to observe and date the various field systems.

The Peak District is not known for its arable farming, the land lends itself more to rearing beef cattle, grazing sheep and dairy cattle and growing crops such as hay and silage, although the odd field of maize, root crops or cereal can be seen as well as the occasional pig or poultry farm.

In the north is the Dark Peak, being high ground covered with peaty acid soil and bogs, covering a bed of millstone grit. Here hardy sheep are allowed to roam free over large areas where they feed upon the tough grass and alpine plants which grow among the heather, bilberry and cotton grass.

In the sheltered valleys of the Dark Peak, small farms often shrouded in mist and exposed to the elements, raise a small herd of beef cattle in a handful of tiny fields with a few stone barns for shelter. These are classed as LFA or Less Favoured Areas where allowances are often paid to make it possible for the hill farmers to continue to farm using traditional methods.

The limestone areas of the White Peak are a different story. Here larger fields of rich pasture can support dairy herds as well as beef cattle and sheep. There are meadows and hillsides covered in wild flowers including orchids and cowslips, on land which has not been ploughed or had fertilizers applied. In the last 50 years farming methods in the Peak District have changed considerably, being affected by economy, regulations, milk quotas, grants and subsidies.

The last 10 years have probably been the most dramatic with the threat of BSE, Foot & Mouth and rapidly declining milk prices to contend with. Hobby Farmers are becoming more frequent, buying up farmhouses but only playing with the land, leaving it fallow or renting it out as summer grazing. It was back in 1984 that the system of milk quotas was established to deal with an excess of milk being produced.

This meant that farmers could not increase their herds. However, many of the small dairy farmers sold their quotas and gave up milking, whilst others bought up quotas and established huge herds. The dairy farmers are being hit the hardest, and it is thought that roughly 7% of dairy farms are going out of business each year.

Between 1996 and 2007 the number of dairy farms in Derbyshire dropped from 842 to 460, and it is estimated that in the next 3 years, 1 in 5 of dairy farmers will quit.

Since 1980 there have been many different schemes to help farmers to manage their land better or in an environmentally friendly way. Grants have been made available for a wide range of incentives such as repairing drystone walls, fencing off areas that can be set aside as nature reserves, restoring flower rich meadows by using less fertilizers and pesticides, or aid with the regeneration of eroded moorland.

The National Park Authority, Ministry of Agriculture, National Farmers Union, Natural England (formerly English Nature), English Heritage, the Forestry Commission and The Country Landowners Association all attempt to work together with farmers to help protect the wonderful environment of the Peak District National Park and to preserve it for future generations to enjoy.

Farmers are actively encouraged and financially aided to diversify into other activities or farming practices such as tourism and recreation, conservation and a wider scope of farming methods. Many farms offer accommodation for visitors in the form of converted barns, cottages, camping barns, bed & breakfast or small camp sites. There is an extensive assortment of local produce from farms which can be sold under a Peak District Produce label, either in farm shops, village stores, local shops or the farmers markets which can now be found every Saturday somewhere in the Peak District.

There are workshops and studios for arts and crafts, wild breed farms and outdoor activities and leisure facilities operating as small businesses often alongside working farms. Moral support is also available for farmers to try to help them survive hardships and to cope with the pressure of being a Peak District Farmer. It can be a very isolated and lonely existence working on the land. Years ago many farms would have had a bunch of farm workers to help with the labour intensive chores and day to day operations of running the farm. But with changes in farming methods, the introduction of labour saving machinery and of course the cost and administration of actually employing someone, many farms are run either single-handedly or with the help of spouses, sons and daughters.

Bakewell Cattle Market has for centuries been a meeting place for farmers where they could buy and sell as well as socialize. When the Bakewell Agricultural Centre was built a few years ago, it was hoped to offer even better facilities for farmers, and in January 2007 a drop-in centre was opened there for farmers and land managers to talk and get advice. Nobody wants the structure of farming in the Peak District to change, but the country scene of black and white Friesian cattle grazing in Peak District fields could well be a thing of the past if something is not done to help the dairy farmers to survive.

Global warming looks like it is also a definite contender in the list of threats to our environment. Lets just hope that with plenty of support and the co-operation of all concerned, including the general public, in years to come our children and grandchildren will be able to appreciate and enjoy a Peak District that is not too different to the one we see today.