High lamb prices help struggling hill farmers

A lamb
Image caption Lamb prices hit rock bottom back in 2001

The high price of lamb is helping to turn around Britain's declining hill farming industry.

The global rise in the demand for meat has seen a significant increase in the price of lamb and that means many more upland sheep farmers are now able to make a profit.

It's hoped that strong markets around the globe will help guarantee the future of the industry in the UK.

Hill farming has traditionally been one of the most difficult ways to make a living from the land.

Farmers in the industry live in some of the UK's most isolated areas, rearing livestock on harsh terrain that is usually unsuitable for other forms of farming.

In the past few decades the number of animals being kept on upland areas has been steadily declining, as more and more hill farmers decided to leave the industry.

Business reached rock bottom in the wake of the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001.

Changed fortunes

However, lamb prices for many farmers are now four or five times higher than they were a decade ago.

Joe Binns has nearly 150 acres of land on slopes near the Black Mountains in Wales. He's found it difficult to make money in the past, but feels that things are now starting to change.

"I am feeling a bit more confident," he says.

"I am thinking about improving the sheep numbers on the farm. I am looking to invest in a bit more quality with pedigree sheep."

Mr Binns' business is benefiting from the dramatic increase in prices.

Ten years ago he was getting as little as £25 for a lamb. His best price this year was about £120. As well as that, he has found that wool prices have tripled.

Joe's situation is a good example of how fortunes are changing right across the industry.

Eblex represents the interests of sheep farmers in England. Its industry development manager, Chris Lloyd thinks there's room for some optimism.

"We've had good prices for a couple of years," he says.

"No-one is getting carried away, but for sure it definitely helps. Hill farming will always be challenging, but this sustained period of improved prices will help bolster confidence."

New students

A healthier hill farming industry also seems to be attracting more young people.

Image caption Hill farming is still an industry where it is incredibly difficult to make money

Specialist hill farming courses are now being run at a number of centres across the UK.

At Walford and North Shropshire College youngsters are queuing up for a career in the hills.

College director Jon Parry is a past Walford student himself. As far as he's concerned, the figures speak for themselves - more students equal more confidence in the industry.

"There's been a 25% increase in students this year. There was a 25% increase last year.

"There are a lot more farmer's sons and daughters looking to stay in the industry. Parents now seem much more confident to say that there's a future in this business."

The future

However, hill farming is still an industry where it is incredibly difficult to make huge sums of money.

Last year, the average income for an upland livestock business was about £30,000 in the UK, which is just over half that of a lowland arable farm.

Image caption The cost of meat has risen with growing global demand

Even in times of plenty, hill farming has hidden challenges. Farmers may be getting higher prices for their lamb but they also face higher costs.

Fuel prices have increased as have the amounts that need to be spent on feed.

Chris Lloyd, from Eblex, is upbeat but cautious.

"The drivers behind the prices we have at the moment don't look set to change," he says.

"Basically we should feel comfortable that this confidence will remain for another year at least."

The general mood in hill farming is now a long way from the hopelessness felt among farmers a decade ago in the wake of Foot and Mouth disease.

People in the industry are still unlikely to make their fortunes from upland farming. But the high price of lamb does at least indicate a more positive future.

John Craven's report on hill farming will be broadcast on Sunday, 9 October, on Countryfile at 18:25. You will be able to watch the whole programme again in iPlayer.

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