Ravenstonedale Kirkby Stephen Cumbria

A Nicheworks interview with Malcolm Robinson - Hill Farmer

Interviewed February 2000

Malcolm owns a hill farm of 430 acres plus fell rights extending to a further 400 or so acres, with 1,700 sheep - some of them fell sheep, some draught sheep. With his mother and one farm labourer, Malcolm runs every aspect of this middle-sized hill farm.

A bright, springlike February Sunday, about a month or so off lambing time - a good day to visit this typical Eden Valley hill farm, set in a small village close to Ravenstonedale.

Malcolm Robinson

Many of the sheep are now in sheds rather than out on the fells - being fed and tended by Malcolm. He prefers to keep them indoors at this time of year to minimise the trampling damage they would otherwise cause on the wet fells, and also to care for them more easily and efficiently. However, there are a number out on the fells and in the meadows, which he has to check almost daily at this time of year and bring some in at lambing time. The tougher ones are more than capable of lambing outdoors, usually.

Tupped in November - the 30 tups now take their well-earned holiday in another shed - the ewes have been scanned in January. Lambing generally starts in late March, early April and for about 4 to 6 weeks Malcolm is barely seen by the outside world, so hectic can the lambing be.

The sheep carrying twins and triplets have been distinguished from the single-bearing ewes by the scanning system, marked accordingly and will be fed twice daily from now until lambing. The scanning system, which has been around for the last 15 or so years, enables farmers to plan the feeding programme according to the varying energy requirements from tupping to a couple of weeks after lambing.

Sheep carrying twins or triplets obviously have different nutritional needs and healthier lambs and ewes are one of the benefits of controlled feeding. There are also considerable financial implications when you can calculate more accurately how much feed you need to order, and then bag up. The fell sheep staple feed consists of a mix of sugar beet, pulp and distillers grain, whereas the draught sheep are given cake.

Sheep farming is not exclusively about sheep - the ground that they graze and live on has to be tended with equal care and knowledge. Fertilizers are used, including muck spreading and the appropriate machinery has to be maintained and stored ready for use each year. Grass is cut in the meadows and baled up as sillage which is used as a feed supplement later in the year.

The farming calendar is a multi-layered creation - stretching a farmer's resources, resilience and skills: from tup sales, tupping, scanning, building pens, administering injections, lambing, nurturing, auctions, grass cutting and sillage making, through to maintenance of farm buildings, equipment and boundaries.

Like many of the hill farmers in the area Malcolm usually shepherds his land on a quad bike, which allows him to cover the often muddy terrain more quickly and with less risk of getting stuck than in a 4-wheel drive vehicle. He can carry feed and other equipment that he will use out on the fells with him, along with his dog.

Up on the fells behind his farm you find tranquillity and unequalled beauty - a different beauty on a wet, windswept winter's day, when the harsher aspects of a hill farmer's life surface. But today, walking alongside a gill untouched by the outside world, soaking up the sunshine and watching and listening to buzzards and sheep, the calling is there - 'farming is a way of life, not a job'. A timeless saying perhaps, but true.