Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 12th December 2017

LEADERS of the National Sheep Association (NSA) warn that a hard Brexit could be “devastating” for sheep farming and landscapes.

And yet, if reports are to be believed, almost two-thirds of the farming community voted to leave the European Community. I wonder, given the benefit of what we know now, how many farmers who voted Leave still feel the same way. If there was another referendum tomorrow, would they still be so determined to support the Leave campaign?

The farming community is said to be deeply concerned about the impacts of Brexit, but it’s what it wanted and voted for. So, if rural communities do find themselves troubled, the damage is self-inflicted.

The NSA warns that a collapse in the sheep farming industry would lead to vast tracts of the countryside falling into neglect. In its evidence to MPs, it raised the fears that a “no deal” exit from the EU would put large numbers of farmers out of business, predicting that the value of sheep could collapse by as much as 30 per cent. because of lost subsidies and the imposition of export tariffs.

No doubt this will be met with joyous celebration by environment campaigner George Monbiot. If as much as a million hectares of upland farming was to become unviable, it would present a major opportunity for rewilding.

The NSA’s chairman, Phil Stocker, says that “it’s not just a matter of any old animals being let out to graze, it’s crucial that the breeds and the shepherding are of a traditional and sensitive nature. Left ungrazed land quickly gets overtaken by aggressive and coarse vegetation that damages wildlife habitats and leave pastures that are unpalatable to livestock, taking years to get back to where it was”.

Furthermore, a leading economist spells out the importance of getting a trade deal with the EU on the same terms we have at the moment. Dr Charles Trotman, from the Country Land and Business Association, said that with 95 per cent. of British lamb exports going to the EU, no deal, or a poor deal, could result in large numbers of sheep farmers going out of business.

For many hill farmers, whose earnings really are evidence of former Social Mobility Commission head Alan Milburn’s “poverty” claims, Common Agricultural Policy subsidies are all that’s keeping them afloat. The effect of lost subsidies and tariffs on exports is, says Dr. Trotman, “something to be avoided as all costs”.

We might get a free trade arrangement with Europe, but from what we have seen of negotiations thus far, the EU holds all the aces.

Farming is set to lose £3.5 billion in annual subsidies from the European Union and I’m not sure, long term, how committed the Government is to the industry when it has pressures on all sides for more money. If this Government is lukewarm towards the rural population, and the North especially, then I can’t foresee Labour being any more generous should they get into power.

If it’s correct that a large proportion of the farming industry voted Leave, then I am baffled by their thinking. By leaving the EU what were they wishing for? Did they really fall for the blandishments of the Leave campaign or look ahead to the potential consequences of quitting the EU?

I read a quote the other day from a sheep farmer who said there was “deep concern” raised by the uncertainty over Brexit. A poor deal will threaten profitability and put some farmers out of business altogether. And who in their right minds will invest without knowing the end result of the negotiations with the EU?

For national parks like the Lake District, the impact on the landscape of losing traditional sheep farming would be enormous. Where Herdwicks now roam, there are some who can’t wait for the lynx effect to take over.

BEECHING WENT OFF THE RAILS

TO this day I can recall the exact times of the trains from Keswick to Carlisle. Every other Saturday I rushed out of school — we went to school on Saturday mornings in those days — and sprinted to the railway station to catch the nine minutes past one train to Carlisle, to take me to watch my Carlisle United heroes. The return train left at 5-42.

Stops at Threlkeld, Troutbeck, Penruddock and Blencowe. Coming back, usually in the dark, there was a stalwart stationmaster at Troutbeck. Teddy, I think his name was. He’d be there with his lamp, calling out the name of the stop and ensuring any passengers — admittedly there were never very many for Troutbeck — who wanted to alight there did so safely.

Once you could get on a train at Penrith and travel in comfort all the way through the scenic northern Lakeland and on to Workington, with its red glow of the steelworks. In Victorian times passengers came from London direct to Keswick and were met on the platform by porters who whisked them through into the glass-canopied Keswick Hotel.

Once a year a train packed with Conventioners, visitors to the annual Christian gathering, would steam into Keswick station in a haze of smoke and excited chatter.

My mother spoke at the inquiry along with dozens more locals who fought to retain the railway, but it was all in vain. All decided. The then chairman of British Rail, Dr. Richard Beeching, chopped more than 2,000 stations in his 1963 cost-cutting exercise. Rural areas were left without a transport link and millions of passengers and freight were tipped on to the roads, although 60s’ politicians never looked ahead — just the same as now, in fact. Short-termism. The car was king, trains were doomed and nobody considered that the population would rise so fast.

Well, well. Transport secretary Chris Grayling last week announced that the Government intends to reopen some of the lines which were closed by the infamous Beeching cuts. Trains have never been more popular, the roads never more clogged up by traffic.

Some of the £50 billion plus earmarked for HS2 could be spent on reviving some of those old lines, but I’m not holding my breath for a return of the 1-09 and the 5-42. Not since Storm Desmond wrecked the bridges on the former Keswick to Penrith line. But it would be a great way of getting them rebuilt strongly enough to let the train take the strain and withstand any future Desmond.

Cedric Martindale has fought a visionary campaign for the Keswick-Penrith line over many years and Mr. Grayling’s remarks suggest an admission that Whitehall did get it wrong in the 1960s. However it was a policy statement rather than a pledge of money. There’s a certain satisfaction in proving Dr. Beeching wrong, but when it comes to reopening lines he chopped, I remain to be convinced the Government will put its money where its mouth is.

A WINNING TRANSFER

A PRODUCTION that began its life at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake in June has been earning rave reviews from the London critics following its transfer to an arthouse theatre in the West End.

Good to know that, with the success of Miss Julie, a powerful adaptation of Strindberg’s rule-breaking play set below stairs, London doesn’t get all the best plays — at least until Cumbrian audiences have seen them first.

Just a shame that the broadsheets, with the exception of The Times, in lauding the Jermyn Street Theatre production, didn’t offer a word of acknowledgement to Theatre by the Lake, which premiered Miss Julie as part of Conrad Lynch’s first summer season as artistic director.

TOO MUCH GUSHING GUFF

I’LL be blunt. I’ve had my fill of all this nonsense about the royal engagement. And what I most object to is paying a quid or more for my daily newspaper only to find that a dozen pages have been turned over to earth-shatteringly important topics such as the cost of Meghan’s designer handbag.

Special supplements. Magazine features. Endless tripe about the happy couple. I wish Prince Harry and his intended all the best, but I’m already weary of hearing all the gushing claptrap that’s trotted out by royal correspondents.

Apparently more than 50 per cent. of us are utterly indifferent to the royal wedding preparations. Trump, North Korea, Brexit. There are a few more important topics that should be filling the pages.

But you can bet your life it’s only just begun. Every breath Harry and Meghan take from now on will be analysed to the nth degree. If only hibernation until next spring was an option.