Although I like to think I’m La Pasionara of the countryside, my family call me the Duchess of Phoney-Baloney. Right now’s a good example: we are harvesting grapes – and I am sitting at my desk drinking my second cup of coffee while pickers in the vineyard bend over the tangled vines. Example two: strolling around the apple orchard are three Norfolk Black turkeys, chosen for their ancient lineage and succulence to grace our Thanksgiving and Christmas tables. After 24 hours in residence, their death sentence was commuted and they will live here until we all die of feathery old age. They are adorable.
I could go further: our weekly farmers’ market looks as seductive as a Matthew Rice calendar, but I have declined to join the Farmers’ Market Association. Nearly all the produce comes from farms within a 20-mile radius, but we also have a guest stall from France selling the stuff we can’t grow here – olive oil, almonds, olives. The cheese stall sells British farmhouse cheeses, but also hunks of parmesan reggiano. The coffee stall sells fairtrade coffee beans. But delicious foreign foods are interdit by the Association. This farm is already suffocating under the weight of EU regulation. I can’t willingly embrace another layer of rules.
Perhaps my most blatant hypocrisy is in the game larder. Although I feel like a domestic goddess when I serve venison carpacchio (after a cull of deer who eat every sprig of new growth in our ancient woodlands), my heart stops when I see antlers in velvet, the sad brown eyes. I feel like Mother Earth as I make rabbit and hazlenut terrine, but when I look at their furry Peter Rabbity bodies in pre-terrine state I get moody and tearful.
And it is Peter Rabbit who I’ve been chewing over all week, ever since I heard that the National Trust is splitting up the Lake District jewel in their crown – High Yewdale Farm. The 17th-century farm was one of 14 hill farms that Beatrix Potter left to the National Trust a legacy created in order to save hill farming which has now dwindled to four. One of the farmers Potter chose to be her tenant was Robert Birkett. His son, John, took over the tenancy 35 years ago and it’s his retirement that has triggered the Trust’s decision to divide the farm up.
The Trust thinks that there is no place for High Yewdale Farm in the 21st
century. The 700 Herdwick sheep, direct descendants of the flock once owned by Potter herself, graze in the remote hollows and on the 2,000ft fells. The various flocks are ‘heafed’ to their own territories, and it requires three ‘gathers’ to bring them in for lambing and shearing, an anachronistic agricultural inconvenience.
So here is the future: in our lifetime the sheep that shaped the history of the landscape will disappear. National Trust shops may sell nature CDs – Echos of Bleating Sheep on the Fells – and panoramic postcards of sheep grazing, but they will be rural nostalgia.
And what do we lose when the hill farms go? We lose a knowledge of the land, an understanding of ancient flocks. We lose wisdom that took generations to grow – in fact, everything that Beatrix Potter thought she was saving when she put her trust in the Trust. That’s what we’ve all thought, but I reckon we have been had. The National Trust has become a bureaucratic principality of Phoney-Baloney. You can trust me on this: it takes one to know one.