13 Nethergill from Oughtershaw Moss


13-fiona-clarkFiona Clark – Farmer, Nethergill Farm

This is taken from the Moss, overlooking the farm and Fleet Moss. You can see the three gills – Hazelbank, Chaldron and Mireing. We’re called Nethergill, which means ‘between the gills’.

The elements are doubled up here. It can be a lovely day in Skipton and then it’s gale force up here, torrential rain, and the temperature’s just dropped. And yet when it is sunny up here, in spring particularly, it’s just magical – that’s the only word you can use to describe it.

The majority of our land is this poor, low productivity land, but very rich in species. It’s a really fragile environment. People look at it and think it’s wild and rugged, but actually it wouldn’t take much to destroy it.

You can see our two hay meadows here, the original one behind the house, and a new one at the front; they’re both in the Hay Meadow Restoration Scheme. It’s creating such a huge increase in biodiversity.

We’ve planted a new woodland just behind the one you can see in the picture: 30 acres of undulating, fenced in, mixed woodland – 18,500 trees. It’s called Ellbeck Wood, after our two daughters – Ella and Becky. We put it in primarily to encourage black grouse, which we’ve now just got back.

We’ve just been working on a river restoration project. We’re at the headwater, so it rises and falls really, really quickly. As a result of that the banks wear away like mad, just leaving soil, and of course that goes further down and gets into the trout redds and affects them. And of course the flooding in York. It all sort of starts here. You really do feel responsible, because what happens up here has a huge effect down there. So with the Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust we’ve been putting willow bundling along the side of the river, and planting willows which will help to keep the otter too.

We have native rare breeds because they’re suited to this climate. Whereas this pasture at the front of the picture looks really rough, our native cattle can wander through here and pick out what they need. What we’re trying to do is create a balance. We’re sort of trying to prove that you can have a hill farm – have native breeds and make that work in terms of selling the special meat off them – but also be kind to the environment and encourage the wildlife as well. It’s trying to make the whole thing work together – that’s been the aim all the way along. On this land now we’ve got 11 cows and 100 sheep, which is absolutely nothing really, but that is the stocking rate that creating the right biodiversity demands.

The Higher Level Stewardship scheme is vitally important for us. We run a bed and breakfast. We’ve just built two self-catering apartments and a Field Centre, which will bring in extra income – we hope. The Field Centre’s going to evolve into all sorts of things. We have school groups coming in. It’s also open throughout the season, because we’re on the Dales Way, so people can just walk in and, with an honesty box, have tea, coffee, chocolate and flapjack. It’ll be available for courses. It’ll evolve. It’s a room we felt we had to have.

This is the sort of project we’ve wanted to do all our lives. When we took it over it had been on a tenancy agreement for many, many years. The trouble is that when you’re renting land the temptation is to take out but not put back in, and not think about the future really. So we were coming to this knowing that everything had been taken from it, but knowing that if we started making changes – even small changes, the changes would be very significant in terms of wildlife. That has actually happened, which is really encouraging. The thing that amazes me most about it is that every little thing we do has such a profound influence on what species are here.

We’ve been here seven years. It’s been a very steep learning curve, and still continues to be. There are lots of steps back, but I think we’re going in the right direction.