For the love of sheep: an interview with a Dales hill farmer

By Guy Carpenter

“Arndale: nobody will know that.” says Sue Ridley in her kitchen at Kexwith farm. Kexwith is in Arndale, which is a dale that even people who know the Yorkshire Dales well probably don’t know exists. Kexwith is only a dozen miles from Richmond as the crow flies, but is probably the most isolated farm in the dales, six miles along a small road from Marske, and then another mile along a rough and rocky track. When you arrive at the farm, greeted enthusiastically by the dogs, you get the feeling of being in a little oasis in the middle of bleak moorland.

Kexwith is classified as “Severely Disadvantaged Land”. It has poor quality soil, thinly spread over limestone rock and steep gradients all around. There is a short growing season in the summer for the hay meadows, but otherwise it is just the pure bred Swaledale sheep that Sue and her husband Ray tend to: “Ray grew up on Kexwith. His mother was born here – his mother’s family owned the farm, and his father came from Teesdale as a shepherd”, says Sue. Kexwith farm has grazing rights on Kexwith and Hope moors.

Sue and Ray Ridley have been married for 37 years and they have two children, Rachael and Richard. Rachael is a large animal vet at Bishopton Practice in Ripon and Richard has farms on two tenancies on land adjoining Kexwith. Richard and Ray are also both Scott Trial veterans, with Ray being infamous for sliding half way down Fremington Edge during one race. As well as the Scott Trial, the Reeth Three Day Trial and lots of walkers and cyclists pass by Kexwith.

Sue was a teacher for over 40 years, travelling each day from Kexwith to Richmond High School, and Polam Hall School in Darlington. But she is also a sheep farmer to her core, and understands where the vocation of raising sheep has come from, and what its current challenges are: “The challenges are not the weather, the challenges are changes in government bodies. I’m waiting for a phone call today from Natural England, and I have to wait at home instead of being out helping with the sheep.”

Kexwith gets internet on the Reeth Rural Network, which bounces Wi-Fi around the area via antenna on isolated houses’ roofs. When Sue came to Kexwith there was no phone at all: Ray had to get on his trials bike and head over to Hurst phonebox.

Continuing on the bureaucratic challenges faced by hill farmers: “Natural England have gone through an enormous upheaval and I feel very sorry for the staff there. Natural England field officers would come and visit and were very helpful in keeping us compliant with the environment schemes they run. Now they have no local office: the nearest office is now in Leeds.”

“We understand we need to keep farm records and that the stock we produce needs to be traceable,  but the government bodies we have to deal with are in a continuous state of reorganisation and so it’s quite challenging for farmers to keep up with changes that spiral down to us. A lot of paperwork has gone online. Farmers need to learn computer skills in order to do that paperwork, which takes up time. Those people who can’t do that or don’t have family to help with it have had to put all their business in the hands of agents, which increases their costs.”

Sue says that the Yorkshire Dales National Park officers are very helpful, but unfortunately Kexwith is just outside the National Park boundaries so cannot go to them for advice and support.

Kexwith is part of several environment schemes to try and preserve the natural environment of the area. One scheme in the pipeline is designed to reduce the speed of flow of water running eventually into the river Ouse, using traditional methods of slowing the flow of water in the water catchment areas, including the land around Kexwith. Sue and Ray say that when ditches (“grips”) were dug on the moors in the 1970s to try and drain the moors, heavy rainfall would flood the stream outside their house in an hour, rather than the gentle release over several days that the moor naturally gave. The grips have since been filled in.

Sue says that the future of Kexwith farm depends on how well the farm can work with the government bodies, as well as being efficient and cutting costs. But she also says that a farm like Kexwith, in such a remote location, in some ways depends on it being a hereditary business, passed on from one generation to the next: “An incomer wouldn’t come to Kexwith and suddenly decide to buy 350 sheep – managing sheep up on the moor is something you’ve got to learn alongside somebody who knows what they are doing, and it’s got to be something you love doing.”

In the kitchen at Kexwith the Aga gurgles, the clock ticks, and outside are distant noises of sheep and a cuckoo. Sue says that for the time being she is very glad to be living in such a beautiful place, and that she can share the Kexwith way of life with her young grandchildren.

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