The BFI website has a fascinating short film about Dartmoor hill farming from 1970. It shows how farmers were experimenting with new methods and technologies and how they were conscious of the implications National Park status had for their work.
Much could be said about the visuals and the farmers’ demeanour, but if we just focus on what they say, much can be learned about this moment in Dartmoor’s history. Much is captured in their few, largely expressionless words.
One farmer talked of how he wished to fence ‘some of the moors’, in ‘inconspicuous positions’, though he didn’t know whether the National Park Authority would permit this. His reference to ‘newtakes’ suggest he meant fencing the common, though the film-maker does not feel obliged to explain everything. In the 1970s, talk of fencing open land roused the opposition of the preservation societies, but hopes of a more wooded Dartmoor suggests the public mood has now shifted. Small-scale, temporary fencing is perhaps not as antagonising as it once was.
The journalist, Kenneth Macleod, then asks if more fencing might make farming more profitable, with it ceasing to be ‘a social problem’ and becoming ‘completely self-supporting’. That’s a really striking formulation, reminding us that lowland subsidies tended be thought of as delivering affordable food, whereas upland subsidies were perceived to be more about welfare.
The farmer doesn’t flinch. He replies that it depends on how much fencing is allowed, before adding ‘we don’t want to see things where it effects amenity and other people taking pleasure in the hills.’ So, on the one hand, he makes it clear that he sees these restrictions as inhibiting his ability to farm, while, on the another, he is fully cognisant of the political discourse of his time. As I never tire of repeating, the preservation and protection of amenity was one of the key governing concepts of postwar Britain. This farmer knows his realities.
Perhaps a better future was possible. Traditionally, Dartmoor sheep and cattle were sold as ‘store’ for fattening by lowland farmers. Moorland grazing is insufficiently nutritious to produce a ‘finished’ product. As a farmer explains, this meant hill farmers were dependent on a single, annual sale. The purchase of highly nutritious cob – blocks of concentrated feed which can be left out on the moor – had begun to change this. Cob meant Dartmoor farmers could finish their stock, allowing it to be brought to market just as meat supplies were running low, getting them a better price. New technologies, then, were encouraging new grazing regimes, allowing more stock to be kept out on the moor for longer periods of time.
Finally, the clip looks at the introduction of Luing cattle to Dartmoor, a mix of Beef Shorthorn and Highland bred since 1947 on the eponymous island in the Inner Hebrides. ‘Fair, blocky beasts, rugged, boney’, says one farmer. He already crossed Welsh Blacks with Galloways, but hoped adding Luing to the mix might improve output further. In 1970, it was too early to tell. Today, Richard and Lizzie Vines of Hillhead Farm near Chagford have used a Luing bull, and they sell to the hip of Borough and Broadway markets, so something of the Luing ‘hybrid vigour’ clearly works.
A suggestive six minutes. Does anyone know who the farmers are?