The scheme designed to develop the next generation of North York Moors farmers
- Credit: Joan Russell
Apprenticeship schemes are crucial to the future of moorland farming as Terry Fletcher discovers
Every year millions of visitors head for the North York Moors, drawn by miles of endless heather riven by deep cut green valleys but the industry that underpins this much-loved landscape is in trouble. Farmers are getting older and there’s a desperate shortage of youngsters wanting to take their place. The average age of the farmers whose sheep graze the uplands and who maintain the miles of drystone walls and the fields they enclose is creeping towards 60. It is reckoned that one in five is already over retirement age but younger generations seem to have turned their backs on a life that promises long hours working in all weathers for uncertain rewards.
Now a new scheme backed by the Prince’s Countryside Fund, is bringing fresh blood to the uplands with short-term apprenticeships designed to pass on the old skills and to teach new techniques to youngsters eager to farm the moors and dales. Each week they also go to college where they learn how to use quad bikes safely, control pests and diseases, the use of veterinary medicines, trailer handling, drystone walling and fencing and, if they wish, other skills like dog training.
Since the trust was formed by Prince Charles in 2010 it has given out £3.3m across the country to help farms, rural communities and businesses but Nola Atkinson believes that few, if any, of its projects can be more crucial than the North York Moors apprenticeships. As the scheme’s organiser it is her job to match the trainees with experienced farmers ready to teach them the myriad skills needed to run a hill farm.
She said: ‘The farmers are keen to pass on what they know but working on the moors is not a job to suit everybody. It is a complete lifestyle. It is not glamorous and the hours are long. You can’t just clock on and off from 9 to 5. You have to be motivated to stick at it.
‘Elsewhere farming has become more mechanised but you can’t take big machinery onto the moors. Up here it still relies on quad bikes and dogs.’
Nola should know. She has already made the transition herself, coming from Helmsley to an isolated farm at the end of a three-mile single track road in Baysdale, near Stokesley. She says it was quite a change but now there is nowhere she and her husband, Paul, would rather raise their four-year-old son, Nathaniel.
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It is a culture shock that one of the apprentices, Sam Leng, 22, can easily relate to. He was brought up in Pickering and his father is a builder not a farmer. Until the chance of an apprenticeship came along he was working in kitchens. ‘I was never happy there,’ he says. ‘I’ve always liked the idea of being a farmer and working outdoors but did not know how I would do it. I love the way that every day is different. I hated being in the kitchens but if it was not for the apprenticeships I would probably still be stuck there. Now I’m working on two farms, one in Farndale and one in Baysdale as well as going to college and I’m learning the skills I need. It’s been a huge change and hard work but I love it.’
There was no such culture shock for one of his fellow apprentices, 16-year-old Jamie Hallam, who is now apprenticed on the family farm near Egton Bridge after leaving school in the summer. He’s been helping on the farm since he was eight years old but the apprenticeships unlocked the door for him to leave school early and work there full time. He said: ‘I want to take over the farm one day but at my age you have to be in training or education and without the apprenticeship I would probably have become a mechanic even though I’ve been working on the farm for quite a long time and don’t really want to do anything else. It’s also a big help going to college, doing the courses and getting qualifications.’
His father, Steve, who runs 1,700 ewes on more than 400 acres of farmland plus another 4,500 acres of open moor, believes the apprenticeships are a brilliant idea. ‘We need more young people in the industry if it’s going to have a future. When you go the market or a sale you look round and there are hardly any young people there at all. It’s all old fellas and that’s crazy.’
Although this year there are only half a dozen apprentices in the scheme Nola says that it is six more than might otherwise be coming into the industry. ‘Even if only five of them stick with it that’s five more young people coming into farming, five more who will stay here and not have to leave to find a job and five more keeping the rest of the businesses in the area going.’
And it’s five more like Luke Doughty, one of the last crop of apprentices who completed their training last spring. He is now working as a shepherd with flocks on the moors above Westerdale and Rosedale. He said: ‘The scheme was very good to me and got me off to a good start, meeting the farmer I’m working with now as well as giving me a good grounding in what I need to know. I was determined that this is what I wanted to do and I’m sure I’d have found my way into it somehow but the apprenticeship made things so much easier.’
Nola believes that what is at stake is nothing less than the future of the moors themselves. ‘The heather moorland we have here is one of the rarest landscapes on earth. Every year the visitors come to see it but without the farmers and the gamekeepers looking after it you won’t have the moors for long and without them you wouldn’t have all the tourism businesses.’