The Upper Calder Valley Farm Map is a work-in-progress document which aims to establish both the extent and the narrative trajectory of the loss of small farms in the upper reaches of West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley. At present, it is in the form of a snapshot view of the present; for each of the 537 farms I have mapped in the five ancient townships of Erringden, Langfield, Stansfield, Heptonstall and Wadsworth, it represents each as either a working farm (green), a ruin (black) or a former farm which appears to now be inhabited as a dwelling only (blue). Ultimately, for each of the farms that either became a dwelling only or a ruin, I aim to determine the last year in which they were a working farm and to convert the current map into a temporal version that can display – using a timescale slider bar – the loss of farms over time.
There are two purposes for which the Farm Map is intended. The first (which is served by the current version which shows a snapshot view of the present) is to aid us in seeing the Upper Calder Valley as a landscape which has already been through the scale of loss that any upland region must undergo in order to make possible the rewilding that many conservation campaigners are calling for. The second (which will be served by the temporal version of the map, which will be along the lines of the South Pennine History Group’s superb timeline map of the settlement history of the Upper Calder Valley) is to enable us to appreciate the narrative trajectory of this loss and thereby contemplate its various possible continuations, be it rewilding after the loss of the remaining working farms, the intensification of livestock grazing after the consolidation of the remaining farms, a resurgence of smallholding, or some other potential future for the landscape.
The Landscape Story project is underpinned by the idea that our deliberations over the future of a landscape would be enriched by considering the following question: given the current trajectory that the historical narrative of a given landscape is on, which of its possible continuations is most appropriate? A proper consideration of this question requires a deep understanding of the landscape’s history; the way it has shaped its present; and how it also conditions its potential futures.
Since landscapes are composed of many different elements – woods and hedges, tracks and lanes, rivers and streams, and so on – why have I chosen farms? It is because they are an element that is central to almost any British landscape, both in terms of their place within the landscape and their role in being the loci of the agricultural activity that shapes it. In recent years, the role of farms and farming activity in upland regions in particular has been a point over which rival visions of the future of the uplands have clashed. For those in favour of rewilding, the presence of working farms and their livestock is incompatible with their wish to see upland ecosystems governed by natural processes. For those who want to see the character of the uplands and their rural communities still anchored around farming activity, the continuing viability of upland farms must be secured.
Advocates of rewilding typically put forward their argument in the form of claims that ecosystems governed by natural processes can deliver a range of public goods – flood mitigation, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, recreational opportunities – to a higher standard than their current management for farming. It is often advanced as a beguilingly positive vision, but since it will inevitably involve the loss of farms, these losses must be considered if the debate is not to be reduced to restatements of each side’s core commitments.
Properly reflecting on what it would be like for a landscape to lose its farms and, thereby, its character as one principally managed for food production is, in the abstract, an imaginatively difficult task. Engaging in such reflection would be made easier if we could contemplate a landscape which has actually undergone such a change, or was on a trajectory towards it. But, while there are such places in mainland Europe, Britain does not obviously afford us a landscape that could perform this imaginative aid. The most obvious candidates are areas of the Scottish Highlands that were cleared for sheep in the 18th and 19th centuries and are now used also for deer stalking. But the circumstances of the loss of these farms and crofts are, thankfully, radically different from those that may allow for rewilding today. Otherwise, most of upland Britain remains farmed (or managed for sport shooting). However, the fact that the land remains farmed disguises the fact that dramatic losses of farms have occurred. Nearly half of all farms in England have been lost since 1950, according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England. The pace of loss is accelerating, and small farms in particular are under greater threat, with those of under 20 hectares declining by a third between 2005 and 2015, and those of 200 hectares or more increasing by 5%. The Upper Calder Valley Farm Map is an attempt to visually present losses of this scale in a particular landscape so that we can appreciate the kind of losses that would be required for landscape-scale rewilding projects to progress.
At a future date I will write about my particular position in the debate between rewilding and upland farming, but for now it is worth stating that the Farm Map is an expression of my commitment to the quality of the debate in general. For those who care about the future of British landscapes to have a high quality, honest debate about their future, both the gains and losses that will result from any particular vision of the future must be acknowledged by all sides in deliberating the merits of that vision. Further, the losses must be acknowledged as such; too often the economic calculations of trade-offs between gains and losses to reach some ‘optimum’ option which realises the maximal ‘net’ value masks the fact that the losses are genuine losses, no matter how much it is argued that the gains compensate for them. My concern is that advocates of rewilding (and this is not to say that I do not have similar concerns regarding the supporters of upland farming) too often fail to acknowledge the genuine losses – in terms of farms, livelihoods, history and heritage – that their vision entails. The Last Farms Map is intended as a step towards improving the quality of the debate by making it more imaginatively accessible to contemplate the losses that rewilding would require.
I am at the beginning of this project; the map is very much a work in progress. So far I am reasonably satisfied that I have mapped all the buildings that either still are, or have certainly been, farms (I have deliberately spread my net widely, so I would be surprised if I have not mapped any buildings that have in fact never been farms, but the number should be reasonably small). I am also close to the point where I think I have identified all the working livestock farms which probably have a continuous history of being farms. The next steps are identifying the many working smallholdings (which are more difficult to spot than the larger livestock farms, which tend to have more modern barns and tell-tale silage bales in their yards), and identifying, so far as will be possible, the last dates on which former farms ceased to be working farms, using a combination of census data, local history books and other records, such as the 1941 National Farm Survey and a survey of both their residents and working farmers who may remember when fellow farmers went out of business. If you have any information that could help with the creation of this map, please do get in touch using the contact form.