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Bill Cowperthwaite - the Yorkshire Dales farmer with an eye for green issues

PUBLISHED: 00:09 12 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:05 20 February 2013

Bill Cowperthwaite and companion Tommy

Bill Cowperthwaite and companion Tommy

Meet a man whose passion for farming not only produces the finest lamb but protects the environment and saves energy. Terry Fletcher reports Photographs by Andy Bulmer

Bill Cowperthwaite does not quite farm the back of beyond but it might well be the last stop before you get there.

The climb to his 800 acres begins among the tourist crowds of Malham in the Yorkshire Dales and takes the twisting road that passes the 300ft high Malham Cove before continuing upwards alongside the now-dry valley that once channelled a pre-historic waterfall over the huge cliff face. From there it weaves through spiky limestone outcrops that were laid down as reefs millions of years ago in a tropical sea.

Eventually, already at more than 1,200ft above sea level, it skirts Malham Tarn before turning onto an even narrower road, a slender ribbon of Tarmac that scales the watershed towards Littondale. But before that a long potholed track forks off to Tennant Gill where Bill has farmed for more than 30 years.

The familys arrival in early 1981 coincided with a string of bitter winters and Bill recalls the fierce snow storms that almost wiped out the farm before they had even settled in. He said: It was grim that winter. We had only been here six weeks when the big storm hit. It nearly cleaned us out of sheep and lambs. And we had a few more hard winters after that. The snow would get so deep we had to dig tunnels to the door and weve a picture of my eldest son standing on the snow and holding onto the gutter of the barn roof.

Fortunately in those days bank managers lived among their customers and knew them well. Bill came from generations of local farming stock and the familys credit was good enough to see them through. They had farmed at Stockdale above Settle and before that at Hell Gill in Mallerstang. Bill himself had worked on farms in the Lake District and at Kirkby Malham before taking over Tennant Gill.

Nor was financial ruin the only - or even most serious risk from bad weather. Bill recalls returning to the farm one late December afternoon after visiting his father near Settle when the weather on the hills turned potentially lethal. The Land Rover got as far as the field centre by the Tarn but could get no further and the family had to stay there but I had to walk up for the stock.

The wind and snow was blowing so hard I could hardly see where I was going and I ended up crawling on my hands and knees. That was scary. Then I found a fence post at the corner of the field and I knew it was not far to go. I was glad to make it to the house that night.

Sitting in the now cosy kitchen of the National Trust owned farmhouse, its walls decorated with picture of his prize-winning Swaledale sheep and the rosettes they have gathered at agricultural shows up and down the country, Bill can afford to smile at memories of hard winters when ice formed on the inside walls and carpets were put over the childrens beds to keep them warm.

I prefer to remember the good days. Its a great life up here, he says. Today Bill, 59, and his son, Robert, 31, have 45 cattle, introduced to bring beef rearing back to the limestone hills of the Dales but his pride and joy are their 500 pedigree Swaledales, almost all descended from a single ewe given to him as a boy by his grandfather.

All my sheep go back to that old ewe more or less, he said. I had 43 of my own when I came up here. Since then weve bred a few more.

'This is one of the highest farms and they are a hardy hill breed that do well up here. We keep them for three years and then sell them to lowland farms. The family has had them since the year dot so it was bred into me too. I enjoy the history and upholding the family tradition. That maybe sounds a bit romantic for a farmer but there a lot like me.

Its a passion that makes even hard-headed farmers do strange things. Such as paying over 100,000 for a single ram in the hope of producing champion stock. Bill tries to suppress a smile at such prices and says he has never paid even a fraction of that for any of his tups (rams). But he concedes prices can be high.

It sounds bad to the general public when news of prices like that get out but you have to realise it is not real money. We are all just buying and selling from each other. In the end we try not to lose money but because the tup money is goes going round and round between us we dont end up making any either. But thats pedigree breeding.

And showing. Over the years Bill has travelled far and wide to shows but these days sticks closer to home such as Gargrave and Malhamdale but still enjoys winning. And if he loses he can afford to be philosophical: Well I know its just the judges opinion and if I dont win then I know he was wrong, he says with a wink.

Others seem to agree. Bill is one of 20 breeders now selling Swaledale lamb to Marks and Spencer as a premium product. Bill believes the meat has a superior flavour thanks mainly to the herb-rich upland pastures on which the animals graze.

The land is scrupulously cared for through various environmental schemes such as Higher Level Stewardship and a hay meadow restoration programme which limit what can be used on it and ensures that grass is not cut for winter fodder before meadow flowers have had time to set seed.

The farm is also part of a wildlife enhancement programme though Bill has noticed that an increase in crows has led to a drop in ground nesting birds, such as lapwings, whose eggs they prey on.

Life at Tennant Gill has also got easier for the human inhabitants and not just because winters tend to be milder these days. Although still far beyond the reach of the national grid the farm enjoys a glut of power and home comforts these days.

The National Trust has installed a pair of water turbines to generate electricity from the stream and photo-voltaic (pv) panels that convert sunlight into yet more electricity. There is still a back-up generator for emergencies but is rarely if ever needed.

The turbines turn out so much power that even in winter we can be opening windows to cool the place down, he says And if the stream runs low and the turbines cant work as well it usually coincides with sunshine so the pv cells take over. The Trust have done a good job up here.

Sheep farming went through a bad patch in recent years with prices for animals dropping to 23 a head and demand for wool slumping so low that fleeces because worthless but in the last few years prices have picked up a little. Bill said: Weve had a couple of reasonable years but no one comes up here to make a million. I came here to live, to work and to die and thatll do me.

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