The Dartmoor Hill Farm Project have arranged a series of four farmer-led farm walks on Dartmoor farms this year. The first one, enticingly entitled New Life, was on Wednesday 24th April at Huccaby Farm.
The farm sits in the West Dart Valley, across the river from the hamlet of Hexworthy, bordering the Dartmeet to Two Bridges road and is one of the 12 ancient tenements of Dartmoor. This means it has been continuously occupied and farmed for around 1,000 years. The latest in this long line of farmers are Dave and Shirley Mudge. Dave is a third generation Dartmoor farmer, and the second generation to farm Huccaby, his father having moved from nearby Brimpts Farm.
The morning was chilly and misty - hence the quality of some of the photographs - but there were still 19 people for the walk, including a good turn out of DPA members. Dave and Shirley farm 385 acres at Huccaby at a height of 950 metres. This has an impact on the way they can farm the land, for example in the way they organise their Cheviot sheep flock for lambing at the farm and then fattening on grass keep off the moor at Ashburton.
There is an old, traditional shippon at Huccaby that is still in use today for cattle, though the bulk of their more modern farm buildings are now on the other side of the Hexworthy road away from the farmhouse. We learned about the challenges Dave Mudge faces balancing his need to make the farm pay and the needs of his stock with the requirements of Natural England about how he manages the land. Leaving his 100 head of cattle in the field all winter means the land gets poached up; he can't move them off the moor to over-winter on lower ground because it might cost him for TB testing before he could move them, but his current buildings are inadequate to house them indoors. Dave is now applying for planning permission to build a new cattle shed where he can keep his stock on deep litter over the winter. If he does this he will also need space to house the additional feed he will need, so, as he said, " Yet more concrete and building."
The field layout at Huccaby has remained virtually unchanged for centuries, with a large number of small, 1 acre fields surrounded by dry-stone walls. Only a few fields were enlarged in the 1970's. Whilst wonderful from the viewpoint of farming heritage it does mean there are 130 gates on the farm that Dave has to open and close as he makes his way around tending his stock and managing his fields. When Dave's father arrived on the farm all those gates were 6'6" wide, and his current small tractor is 7'8" wide, so he has had to widen all the gateways to cope with modern machinery. Before too long he will need to widen them further to cope with the next generation of farm machinery.
For Dave this means creating new gateposts from stone found on the farm and making new wooden gates. We were lucky enough to see one of Dave's new gateposts in production.
The walk took an hour and a half and was a great opportunity to see a Dartmoor farm in action today and understand more about the challenges modern farmers face - not least the bureaucracy that governs so much of what they can and can't do.
If anyone is interested in how the vital upland farms of Dartmoor are mananged and farmed today then booking on any of the other walks in this series is higly recommended.