This week our Land Keepers exhibition launches at The Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. Two years spent gathering support, gathering the funding and gathering material for a project that focuses on the upland farming community here in Cumbria.
Over the course of the project we have met with, interviewed and photographed more than thirty farmers from all corners of the Lakeland fells. We have also met with others who have an active say in how this precious landscape is managed, National Trust, United Utilities, Natural England, NFU, to name but a few.
Initially we were just curious about the culture, wanted to hear the farmers stories about the lives they lead, but within a very short time we realised that this is a crucial period for them and their future. The biggest concern centres around the contentious issue of decreasing the stocking levels on the fells. The enigma of trying to find the right balance between all the asks of the land: food production; biodiversity; carbon storage; water quality; leisure; trees.
Farmers have always been resilient and adaptable to change, but some are worried that their culture is slowly being eroded and shepherding as a way of life is in danger of disappearing from the hillsides.
‘We’re all extremely worried about what’s going to happen in the future. I think we’re fighting for our existence really, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. There’s no way back,’ said one Borrowdale farmer, not in anger, but in a quiet, resolute way.
But I’d like to steer away from the political angle here and just celebrate what a brilliant project it has be to work on and how privileged we both have felt to be welcomed into the farming community. They were keen to talk to us and genuinely curious to hear why we wanted to talk to them.
Four farmers in particular we have spent a lot of time with for scanning, lambing time and various gathers across a number of mountains throughout the seasons. We’ve helped with walling, washing the tups (rams), holding sheep at shows and clouting, which is essentially sewing a piece of cloth over the back end of a young ewe to stop it becoming pregnant, in other words a sheep chastity belt.
Harriet wrote a fantastic piece about her own experience of clouting, holding a swaledale ewe between her thighs and taking several minutes to sew on a wine-red velvet patch to the increasingly twitchy animal.
‘…Anthony shows me how to check that it’s done properly: I have to put my hand right up and under the fleshy tail flap, into a world that’s warm, moist and utterly foreign. Being a novice at this, I don’t put my hand up far enough – Anthony does that bit for me – and then I fasten the end with as tight a knot as I can manage.’
Our two years have been full of such moments.
The best experience for me was on a gather with Gavin Bland last April in deep snows high up in the corries below Helvellyn. A tough six hours of pure magic that deepened my appreciation of what it is like to know this hand-made landscape intimately, work with the elements and the contours, to use all your senses to appreciate how beautiful the hills are.
Shepherds have been using the Cumbrian fells in much the same way for the past 1000 years. They are as hefted to the land as the herdwick sheep they tend on the high, un-walled common land. I truly hope that their culture can adapt to the shifting policies and stay as strong, as proud and as vibrant as it has always been.
The Cumbria fells need the shepherds.
Land Keepers is on at The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere til May 10. www.landkeepers.co.uk