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Tom Lorains, Farmer, High Snab Farm

There had been a year working as a shepherd at Chatsworth, the Duke of Devonshire’s famous estate. He used to chat farming with the celebrated Dowager Duchess.

References were good and along with contracting experience in fencing, walling and shearing, it was enough to prove himself worthy of one of the most spectacularly placed farmsteads in the national park.

“Young farmers are so lucky that National Trust keeps farms from being sold off, giving us an opportunity like this,” he said.

“My heart was beating hard in my chest when I arrived, wondering if I could pull the place round. I made habitable living space and set-to on the rundown cottage.

“That had to be my priority, to restore and rent it out as a holiday let to generate income. There were no sheep here, the heft flock had disappeared from the fell. Everything had to be done from scratch.

“It was a hard, lonely and bleak time. I was on my own. No one to share things with. I had to get 200 sheep back on the common and because of the complexities of hefting, I had to do it over six months.”

Hefting is the traditional method of managing flocks on big tracts of common land. Sheep are kept on specific unfenced areas by constant shepherding. Over time, it becomes ‘theirs’ passed from ewe to lamb over succeeding generations.

For 26 weeks, Tom went to the heft and held sheep there for an hour, day after day, until they knew it was their place. Any animal that did not gather had to be quickly sold on. There was no alternative.

“I came home at night after long, taxing days. There was no-one here, no money, only beans to eat, if I was lucky. They were dark times, which I had to get through. It lasted a couple of years. Thoughts of packing up might have crossed my mind, but it would never have happened.”

Of the 30 people on his college course, only one or two have stayed in agriculture, but Tom would not swap his unrelenting life for anything, despite lack of money and work days that can stretch to 16 hours at their hardest.

“This is what I always wanted. I love farming. Sheep are great creatures, putting up with all weathers and producing two lambs a year with so little input.

We are only here for the blink of an eye, yet the landscape and farm could carry on for hundreds of years. Without subsidies, and if heft numbers and stocking rates keep getting reduced, the future is uncertain.

Despite a punishing workload, 50 to 60 percent of Tom’s income comes from subsidies through Natural England’s (NE) Environmental Scheme and BPS, the Basic Payment Scheme. NE also agrees stocking rates. Tom’s have been cut from 450 to 220 ewes.

“It’s a bit like giving out sweeties. You take what you can to survive. There’s no alternative on a fell farm, despite income from the holiday cottage and the fairly constant contracting work.

“I’m pretty sure we’ve found a middle ground now between conservation and farming.”

Driving up a new concrete road, the pristine farm with its immaculate buildings, walls, fences and meadows are the result of eight years’ very hard graft. His web address and phone number are on the approaching gates.

Things have changed beyond all recognition. He has a wife, Caroline, daughters Alex and Harriet, and a driving ambition to diversify further into farm tourism, particularly so he can share hill farming with a wider public.

High Snab currently hosts 150 Swaledales and 60 Herdwicks on 100 acres of in-bye land, fields around the house, and 450 acres on Brackenthwaite common, where he has fell rights.

Tom is chairman of Derwent Commons Association, testimony to how an off-comer and first generation farmer has found his way into the close-knit community.

“The others are Cumbrian born and bred. I’ll always be the outsider, but we work together to make sure the system works. We all have to abide by the rules. If we don’t, the whole thing is put in jeopardy.

“You become a commoner by buying or renting land with rights to graze attached. You’re not given land, but the rights over it, and this is taken into consideration when subsidy payments are assessed.

“Agri-Environmental and more complex conservation schemes, like woodland regeneration, are decided at our commons meetings. Agreement has to be reached on levels of conservation and the payments received.”

There are 630 registered commons in Cumbria, 41 are over 1,000 hectares.

Tom is also fervent about diversification and says it is vital to educate. He and Caroline offer farm walks and talks, working holidays and plan to establish a camping barn.

It’s up to farmers to demonstrate the story from field to fork. People need to see what’s happening on the land so they can understand what they are eating. It opens eyes and hopefully brings respect.

“Farmers don’t always have the best reputations, but they are obviously going to get upset when gates are left open, dogs chase sheep and damage, intentional or not, is done. We all need to work together to get messages across.”

One of Tom’s barns hosts a training room. The Federation of Cumbria Commoners meets here, so does Defra, Natural England, RSPB and other agencies, a deliberate ploy to bring the decision makers together, on a fell farm.

“They can see what goes on here before drawing up rules and regulations in an office in London. Some have never been anywhere like this.”

Tom is never still, in mind or body. There are always plans swirling, things to do, people to talk to, but his flock are top of the agenda.

He is currently getting around £70 a head at sheep sales, without subsidies that figure would have to be around £185. He has also been selling surplus hogs to a catering company in Cockermouth, around six a week, but aims to up that to 10.

Selling through mail order, he has plans to set-up lamb distribution where it can be transported across the country in boxes, hopefully insulated with Herdwick fleece.

The big thing for me is that sheep have a good life on the fells. It’s vital they have a good end too.

“Mine are transported just 20 miles to Carlisle where they are slaughtered immediately in a kind way. I had to see for myself there was no rough treatment. I couldn’t stand that.

“People are talking more about the environment and global warning, but it’s still mad that New Zealand lamb and ours cross somewhere out at sea in transit. We should be cutting food miles and only eating what we produce.”

Tom says back in 2010 sheep prices improved significantly, giving him a decent cash injection, but how the money is spent is always a juggling act. In another couple of years, he aims to have his debt sorted. It will have taken 10 years.

He started with a loan from a friend to renovate the cottage, the bank would not lend a penny. Wife Caroline says he’s a workaholic and even if he didn’t have to, there would be no stopping him.

Even the hay meadow has had special treatment, 2,000 plug plants, boosting the 12 original species of wild flowers to 20. Tom Lorains will never stand still long enough for grass to grow under his feet.

The earliest identifiable owner of High Snab was Henry Fisher, who died in 1606, the latest occupant is similarly set to leave his mark.

Article by Karen Barden