Jennifer MacKenzie is an agricultural photo journalist with almost 30 year's experience. Operating from her base in Cumbria, Jennifer undertakes mainly industry-related freelance writing and photography.

Cattle Shed ensures viability of Lake District Farm

Building a new cattle shed has helped ensure the future viability of a beef and sheep farm in the heart of the Lake District.

John Birkett’s family has farmed in the Lake District for generations and now he and his wife Maureen farm two holdings under numerous constraints at Little Langdale in the beautiful Langdale Valley near Ambleside.

They have a herd of 30 registered Limousin cows at the owner-occupied 65-acre Wilson Place as well as running a total of 1,200 sheep, mostly Herdwicks between Wilson Place and Birk Howe, which is tenanted from the National Trust.

John and Maureen Birkett
John and Maureen Birkett

The running of Birk Howe was taken over from John’s father George in 2000 and the Farm Business Tenancy stipulates that the farm’s 240 acres carry no more than 10 cattle alongside the Trust’s flock of 535 Herdwick ewes – and no cattle from the end of October to the end of May.

Until 2005, all the cows and calves were housed in traditional stone buildings at Wilson Place.

“We had invested money in the farmhouse at Wilson place where Maureen ran a bed and breakfast business for 25 years and when we got Birk Howe we knew we could keep more cattle in order to get more money from farming,” said John, who runs the farm with weekend help from son Andrew, who is keen to farm and who works for a neighbour. Daughter Julie is a compliance planner for the national park.

“We had been thinking about a new building but we were always so much short of the money to pay for it.

“I read about Farming Connect Cumbria and I decided to apply for planning permission early in 2004 before I made a grant application.

“Without the new building we would have either had to reduce cow numbers or get rid of them altogether and we would not have been able to increase our sheep numbers to compensate because we are in the ESA. We wouldn’t want to give up farming.”

The Farming Connect Cumbria programme, managed by Harry Martin and run under the umbrella of Cumbria Rural Enterprise Agency, draws to a close this year after injecting almost £7.5 million of capital as well as technical advisory work into the county’s farms since its inception just over three years ago.

The Birketts were successful in getting the maximum grant for the basic building and work started in June 2005 with Alan Mason, of Caton, completing the build in time for winter housing that year.

Cattle Shed blends with the farm’s existing buildings
Cattle Shed blends with the farm’s existing buildings

To comply with planning requirements of the Lake District National Park – as well as the farm being in a European Special Area of Conservation – the 100ft by 40ft building had to have stone-faced walls to blend with the farm’s existing buildings, as well as Yorkshire boarding and a specific roof colour.

The building, which is open sided to the north at the feed barrier, has a 12ft feeding passage with the remaining area able to be divided into up to five pens, giving flexibility for a calf creep area and for segregating and handling cattle.

It is situated away from a beck, which runs through the farm, and prior to the building being erected an environmental assessment of the farm was carried out.

A novel suggestion made by the Farming Connect Cumbria grant panel was a rainwater collection system, which, although it was not grant-aided, the Birketts installed, and its three-year pay-back is almost up.

With rainfall being in plentiful supply – some years it is as much as 120 inches – and water costing more than £1.20 a cubic metre the 7,000 litre water tank has almost paid for itself over the three winters.

The cattle housing is fed water from the mains and the tank and when it is full it supplies four days of drinking water for the cattle.

As well as the two farms at Little Langdale, the Birketts have fell rights on Little Langdale common and two other lots of rented land at Brantwood and Coniston which total 115 acres.

“We’re working in a system that we can’t change. We have been farming in the Lake District ESA since it started in 1993 and at Wilson Place we have 20 acres of herb-rich meadows which are SSSIs that can only be spread with farm yard manure.

“It takes about a third of the time to feed and bed the cattle compared with in the old buildings. We run a simple system, feeding the cows big bale silage which is rolled out along the feed barrier,” said John.

Freeing-up his time has meant he can go back to dry stone walling work which he did before taking on the tenancy of Birk Howe, which helps to supplement the farm income. It also gives more time to look after the sheep.

As well as the building giving excellent ventilation – there have been no cases of pneumonia in the calves and providing better welfare, the versatile pen area makes handling simple.

“We are in a two-year parish for TB and we had a reactor which meant we had to test all the cattle three times in six months. We can set the gates up to get the cattle moving around the building from the crush. Our vet is happy – he says it works.”

“It’s a lot safer and easier and now the cattle know they can’t escape they are a lot quieter being handled this way.”

Another benefit to improved cattle welfare is that they are thriving better in their new environment.

Calves are sold at eight to 12 months old as bulls or any heifers not retained as replacements and recent prices have highlighted the improved conditions selling consistently at prices around £600 to £800 through Penrith market.

Easy access to the building means that it can be mucked out by machine instead of with a fork by hand as in the old buildings.

Manure can be left in the building all winter and used to better advantage when it is required for spreading, particularly after making silage, saving on fertiliser costs.

When it is cleaned out in the summer months it can provide temporary cover for straw which has been delivered to the farm. It even provided stabling for the Clydesdale horses when they came through Cumbria to their new home from Scotland!

Thank you for visiting - Come back again soon.