Meat from the Moors: Is there a Future for Upland Sheep Farming?

October 11, 2016

Sheep on the uplands of Britain have been at the centre of a media debate over the last few years. Does hill farming have a place in the management of moorland or as George Monbiot argues, is it the scourge of the countryside? Are sheep to blame for the UK’s high greenhouse gas emissions? Are they causing downriver flooding? Or, alternatively, are they a vital source of sustainable local meat, crucial to the management of upland landscapes and essential to the survival of upland communities and culture?

What is it really like to farm sheep in a far-flung corner of the English moors? This film is about Matthew Trevelyan, a young upland farmer on the North York Moors. Matthew Trevelyan took over the running of Hill Top Farm, near Spaunton, from his father several years ago and now shepherds the flock of 150 hefted Swaledale sheep. The farm has been certified organic since 1985 and the Trevelyan family set up the Shearling Scheme to market their hogget (young mutton) to the local community. Keeping sheep on this part of the moors has been a tradition for many hundreds of years, and the sheep know their particular area of moorland well, passing on this knowledge to their lambs through the generations. Sheep on the moors have no fences or boundaries and can eat freely from the diverse range of moorland vegetation. Their healthy lifestyle means they avoid many of the health problems that other livestock suffer from, such as maggots and feet problems. This type of sheep farming is a sustainable form of meat production that results in a high quality product derived from land that is unsuitable for arable or other crops.

In this film, Matthew gives a fresh perspective on the challenges of upland farming and discusses it with honesty and openness. He comments on the devaluation of wool, once a key income stream of sheep farming, and the attitude towards Swaledale ‘shearling’ (hogget) consumption, as well as the fluctuations in the sheep market. Upland farming is a profession in decline, and as a newcomer, Matthew understands the reasons why young people are not taking up this kind of farming. The small profits, cold climate, hard physical work and social isolation are not easy things to negotiate as a farmer. Far from being a traditionalist, Matthew shares his ideas of what the moors could look like if traditions were to change and expresses his hopes for creating a thriving rural community.

This story of Hill Top Farm gives a snapshot of one farmer’s experience, but his concerns, challenges and hopes are reflected in the wider upland farming community.

Farmer: Matthew Trevelyan
Location: Spaunton, North Yorkshire, UK
Farm type: Hill farm
Heft area of moorland: 150h
Stocking density: 75 – 150 sheep
Arable area: 36.42ha

Hannah Steenbergen

Hannah grew up on a biodynamic farm in the North Yorkshire Moors and has ever since lived with a keen interest and many questions about our food and farming systems.

During her studies at the University of St Andrews, Hannah co-founded Transition University of St Andrews, before graduating with an MA in Sustainable Development. Hannah spent a year studying at the international Youth Initiative Programme in Järna, Sweden and later returned there to work for Summer of Soil.

She is currently working for the Sustainable Food Trust as Projects Officer, as well as contributing to Common Soil.

Tags: building resilient food systems, upland sheep farming