Hill-Farming, Knowledge and Power

We thought we'd reproduce this blog from Ewan Allison. It's part of his work on Hefted to Hill — a project with seven hill farmers in Co. Durham for the Northern Heartlands Great Place Scheme.

"We had to chuckle.

Steven, a hill-farmer in Upper Teesdale, was telling me about his many ‘interesting’ discussions with Countryside Stewardship field officers over the years. These field officers oversee schemes by which farmers are compensated with public money for doing things a bit differently than they otherwise would. The aim is to improve biodiversity gains on their land. This particular occasion had been in Baldersdale, one of Teesdale’s tributary dales. Steven had alerted this particular officer to the location of a Black Grouse ‘lek’ up on the moor. A lek is a place used by Black Grouse cocks year after year to congregate and put on a show. The field officer simply refused to accept that the lek could exist because it was the “wrong type of ground”. And that was that. End of discussion.

To see the funny side is one thing but there are two costly calamities at play in this scenario. Both foment an antagonism writ large across the British countryside. Firstly, the field officer’s curt dismissal represents an institutional group-think that holds that if something doesn’t fit the theory, then it doesn’t exist. Secondly, there’s a blatant exercise of power in the form of a put-down, implying that Steven was incapable of knowing what he was on about when it comes to knowing nature.

These philosophical blinkers define the UK’s approach to upland policy. There is a refusal to accept the weight of any knowledge other than that secured through scientific method. The upshot is that there are policy-makers and conservationists out there who speak of farming communities as a bulwark of ignorance with which they must do battle.

ow don’t get me wrong, I adore what science has to tell us about our landscapes. I was once a geology undergraduate and remain forever thrilled by how the sciences reveal to us the truth of the world around us. But there are whole swathes of truth about animals, landscape, nature and heritage about which farmers are in fact the experts. Collectively, they represent a national repository of knowledge without which we would be poorer as a country.

So why, when the UK Treasury is duty-bound to maximise the benefits from its expenditure upon upland farming, is the farmer’s knowledge not given proper weight, as the ying to the science’s yang? The two are not in conflict. How can they be if they both depend upon allegiance to the truth? And yet science becomes the stick with which to beat the farmer with. This “we know, you don’t” stance is so commonplace as to have become a rural meme — the young graduate who strides fresh-faced onto a farm and proceeds to tell the grizzled farmer what he or she can or can’t do. The prospect of having their blood temperatures raised in this way is enough to make many farmers refuse the public money that would be available to them if they signed up to stewardship schemes

There’s hope for change from within academia and environment agencies. Scholars are increasingly recognising the value of what they refer to as ‘indigenous’ knowledge. ‘Embedded’ or ‘local’ knowledge would be better ways of expressing it but the point is that however you describe it, it IS knowledge, and deserves the same deference as that afforded the science.

Two tasks at hand are for philosophers to codify and artists to articulate the kind of knowledge that farmers have. This is knowledge hard-won through constant immersion in the landscape, and through generations worth of farming-practices that are finely-tuned to the particulars of landscape, nature, weather and much more besides. And if farmers have gaps in their knowledge, then so too do the scientists.

Government talks of the ‘knowledge economy’ as one of the UK’s strengths. Well there’s a knowledge bank in the hills and dales whose vast untapped reserves are part of the nation’s wealth. Time surely to value that wealth and vanquish the antagonism that prevails."

This blog is part of my work on Hefted to Hill — a project with seven hill farmers in Co. Durham for the Northern Heartlands Great Place Scheme. It is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England using National Lottery money. Northern Heartlands was able to pay me to provide each of the seven farmers with two days of top-notch dry-stone walling in return for having myself and the two photographers spend some time with each. A simple exchange. I get to record their innermost thoughts about their attachment to and covenant with land while the photographers -Louise Taylor and Richard Glynn — get to capture them in action on the land. Click here for more photos: https://www.flickr.com/gp/we_are_wideyed/1igZ73

See https://northernheartlands.org/ for more, also https://twitter.com/hashtag/HeftedToHill?src=hash