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William Richardson, of Gatesgarth Farm, Borrowdale
 

Interviewed by Astrid Goddard, with Elli Logan.
 

AG: Good afternoon, Willie. Please could you explain how the foot and mouth cull has affected you?

WR: Our farm has lost 1,000 young breeding stock, Herdwicks. The compensation was good but I'd rather have the sheep... far rather have had the sheep.

Herdwicks Poem

There were 50 there -- that's the day they were shot. These were my wintering gimmer hogs. It was very....

EL: Do you have any cattle, or only sheep?

WR: We have 30 suckler cows. At the beginning of the year we would have three and a half thousand sheep. There were 1,000 wintering gimmer hoggs staying on other farms. For the next five years at Lockerbie, Silloth, Bridekirk and Pelutho. Also at Hundith Hill. All culled. Several batches normally over-winter in this way...

I am 44. My father died when I was 28. The farm is privately owned. My family have been here since 1934. My father brought the farm in 1963. He was 68 when he died. I have a daughter of 14 and a son of 12. I bought some land in Lorton eight years ago; had 4,800 acres altogether. Sixty-two acres are in Lorton. Now there are approximately 5,000 acres. We would have carried on to another two and a half thousand. I built it up, and then... bang. Doubled... and then back down.

EL: Did you build up or plan certain breeding lines?

Gable Blue Boy

WR: Yes, I've used breeding lines. The same blood for three generations with my Herdwicks. I have a photo here of my grandfather with a Herdwick of the same bloodline, Gable Blue Boy...

AG: What a fine ram. Every inch a champion. Such fine horns too!

WR: That blood line has been in the family for three or four generations.

AG: When was the first you knew about the foot and mouth disease?

WR: About the 20th March. Those were next to animals that got FMD. It was unlucky somehow. They were killed as direct contacts. 50 of my best (as in photo above).

WR: There's a lot to be answered for. The rams were going to go down, and I stuck out and saved them. I wrote to the Ministry saying "these are valuable breeding sheep and I can't replace them". Just got them back from Welton. Seventy two tups, which would have cost a fortune to replace, but I stuck out and saved them! I wrote to Carlisle, to Hayward [Chief Vet]. They wrote to say if they do a test and find antibodies, would I give them permission to kill them? I said "yes", but they tested clear.

AG: How do they get heft?

WR: Generations and generations, the ewe has the lamb in the in-by fields near the farm, and it goes back up to the fell where it was brought up, and then it takes its lamb and goes off for winter. In the spring it goes back to where its mother had been brought up - year after year, the sheep goes back to the land its mother taught it. It's a bit like a homing pigeon.

I know they're not stupid, they are a good guide to the weather. There were tups [breeding rams] away from January until October, which has cost a fortune, 70p a week each. They should have been back in the middle of April. Now they will go out with the ewes in mid-November. I put in five licences to shift them, and was refused every time. They were blood tested twice. I dealt with different people. They said you couldn't shift them from a D to a D notice area, because it is too far. The paperwork has been unbelievable. A special licence just came out this month, from Welton.

AG: How did hefted sheep come to be on this land?

WR: There was a tale about them being shipwrecked, in Nordic times. Robin Page wrote about us, he first came here to film One Man and his Dog. The 2,000 kept were breeding ewes that were at home; we left them out on the fell to lamb instead of bringing them in-by. Their lambing percentage was not good; they did not do very well. However, this was what the Ministry advised. We got only about 50 per cent lambing, which means less than one lamb per ewe! We had to look up from the bottom of the fell to see what was going on.

AG: Couldn't you take feed up to them?

WR: No, it was really disruptive and devastating. Compared to previous years it was a very poor lambing; 35-50%. With losing last year's lambs as well... well, it wasn't good. As we couldn't feed, they just had to survive. It stopped at the end of May. We lost a lot of sheep on the hill due to the conditions. The foxes have done well this year.

AG: Do they take healthy lambs?

WR: With no foxes caught [due to fox hunting not taking place in the countryside this year] up here there are not many rabbits, so they like to go for the lambs.

So we're just trying now to start the normal cycle. It will take maybe 3-5 years. I can just save the breeding lines, and get bloodlines and quality back into them. That was a big loss, that 50... it was the best batch of gimmer hoggs that I've ever had. I got a phone call from the farmer who was keeping them who said "You'd better get a valuer warned, because Foot and Mouth is next door." But they left them 4 weeks after that - it was heart wrenching, those 4 weeks. I tried to save them. A phone call came at the end of March, and I lost them on the 24th of April.

I rang DEFRA to see if there was any way we could save them, put them onto a field? I got Geoff Brown on... that was before anyone knew what was going on.

EL: Did you get legal advice?

WR: Yes, but if you think about it - we were under pressure - the farmer needed grass for his own cattle. He was getting agitated, so you had to pay to keep them that extra month. Rams... it's cost me a fortune to keep them.

AG: What is the most important thing you feel people need to know about the Herdwicks and the Hefts?

WR: Well, the Herdwick sheep are hefted to the Lake District. It's like taking the lawn mowers out of the Lake District. They keep the fells right. They are trying to do away with our subsidies, and without them we will not survive.

AG: Why?

WR: The subsidies are getting less every year - cutting them, phasing out; they want environmental projects, I think. We feel unwanted.

Light lambs were £20-23 last week. A lot went at £10 on the welfare -- for export to Italy and Spain.

The ESA [Environment Standards Agency] has saved us but it requires cutting sheep down. We keep walls right, manage the land, cut down on sheep. We get visitors on footpaths through the yard... on a Bank Holiday, 1,000 people go through our yard! The Government lack the local knowledge. They don't understand this way of life at all.

AG: Can you describe a day in your lives?

WR: Lambing time, we work from dawn till dusk, barely stop all day, just grab a sandwich now and again, checking on everything, seeing to any in difficulty.

AG: Would you say you care very much about the individual animals?

WR: Oh, yes. It's very hard to lose them. Now they're scrapie testing all our rams....


 
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