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Farming in crisis Thursday, 16 September, 1999, 09:12 GMT 10:12 UK
NE England: A hillfarmer's story
Richard Betton's farm
Richard Betton bought his farm rather than an E-type Jag
By Adrian Pitches, BBC North Environment Correspondent.

Farming in crisis
More than half of Richard Betton's farm in northern England is above 2,000 feet (600m).

He is a hillfarmer and there is only one crop he can grow in the bleak uplands of the North Pennines - grass. Grass which can sustain sheep and hardy beef cattle.

But his land will support neither dairy cattle nor cereals - the two farming sectors where farmers can still make a comfortable living.

It is the market for British beef and lamb which has collapsed in recent years and it is the hillfarmers that produce those commodities who are suffering.

Lynchpin of the community

Richard Betton
Winter was a time of optimism, which did not last
"You're either born into farming or you marry into it," says Richard. But neither scenario applies to him. He chose to enter farming.

"I inherited 5,000 on my 21st birthday and was sorely tempted to buy an E-type Jaguar. But instead I bought a small farm in Wensleydale."

Today, Richard farms in Upper Teesdale, County Durham, with his wife Dodge and four children.

An incomer where many families have lived in the valley for generations, he is a lynchpin of the farming community. He sits on the district council, is chairman of governors at the local village school (which has just 18 pupils) and this year he's chairman of the County Durham branch of the National Farmers' Union.

No-one is better placed to view the ongoing crisis in hillfarming.

Optimism to despair

I have followed Richard's farming year with a TV camera throughout 1999, from frosty January - when all but the hardiest stock were housed in barns - to baking July when more than 300 sheep were sheared in one day.

At the beginning of the year, Richard was in optimistic mood. The previous November a new Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, whose inner-city Tyneside constituency is barely 50 miles (80 km) from Richard's upland farm, had finally negotiated an end to the European ban on British beef.

Hillfarmers could dare to hope that 1999 marked a new start for them.

But this week when I returned for my monthly visit to Richard's farm, his mood was far more bleak.

It was the first day of the new term and all four children were back at school. Dodge had just started work as a nurse in a doctor's surgery to help stretch the family budget further.

Income disappearing

The farmyard was silent and Richard was tying identifying tags to the sacks of wool clipped from his sheep back on that sunny July day, wool which was due for collection later that day.

The fleeces of his entire flock would yield just 30 - that's 7p per kilo. A few years back the clip would have fetched 600 - 20 times the 1999 price.

"Everything we sell has lost its value," said Richard.

"Prices for lamb are pitiful - and the autumn sales for hill sheep haven't started yet. We're facing the worst case scenario that we won't sell this season's lambs and we'll have to take them all home.

Tackling the government

Dodge Betton
Dodge needs to work to supplement the family's income
"The feeling amongst hillfarmers is that the buck stops here at the top of the hill. There is a general depression in farming and we feel totally betrayed by the government.

"We've reached the end of the line but this industry is an asset that the country cannot afford to lose."

And the hillfarmer who rarely strays beyond Barnard Castle is now planning a trip to Bournemouth - and the Labour Party Conference.

County Durham MP Tony Blair and his Cabinet of northern MPs can expect a visit from the hillfarmers of northern England, Scotland and Wales later this month.

The BBC's Adrian Pitches: The sheep are sheared, but prices are rock-bottom
The BBC's Adrian Pitches: Winter, a time of optimism
The BBC's Adrian Pitches: April and the first lambs are being born
See also:

29 Aug 99 | Scotland
27 Aug 99 | Wales
05 Sep 99 | Wales
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