Life is hard on the rugged fells of Upper Teesdale in Durham, but tenant farmer Kay Hutchinson wouldn’t have it any other way. There are days, says Kay, when it’s quite impossible to stand upright in the wind and rain. “And it looks like there’s no end in sight,” she says. “But then you might wake up the next morning in bright sunshine, and forget all about it.”
Life for Kay and her husband Tom revolves around their flock of Swaledale sheep and the rhythms of the farming year, accompanying their rams and ewes to sales and shows, grap- pling with all the daily challenges of ekeing
out an existence on a remote hill farm while also raising three children.
There is no such thing as a routine day in Upper Teesdale, as becomes clear in the beguil- ing, enlightening film Addicted to Sheep that follows the Hutchinsons and their flock. “Basically, we have a cup of coffee, then go out to see what’s gone wrong,” says Tom. “We try not to have a routine, actually, because up here it would get blown to bits.” Literally.
Kay grew up on a smallholding but had no knowledge of Swaledales, Tom’s passion, until she met him. Why is her husband so addicted? “I suppose some people would tell you that I relate to their stupidity,” he says, with a chuckle. “But really it’s their ability to thrive and rear lambs in the worst possible conditions.”
That, too, is a quality he shares. Theirs is manifestly a close, loving, warm family, but the nearest thing to an annual holiday is three days
in Hawes every autumn for the ram sales, and he cannot envisage ever having the funds to buy his own farm. He and Kay rent from Lord Barnard’s huge Raby estate – good landlords, he says, who have kept a community alive by keeping the farms small. There are 15 on their fell alone.
But it’s a hard way of making not much of a living. “I expect most people wouldn’t get out of bed for the money we earn,” he says. “The wife and I have to work away to make ends meet. She works for the local auctioneers, and does garden maintenance. I do contract shearing.”
He offers all this matter-of-factly, even chirp- ily. As the film also shows, he’s not a whinger, and besides, even though he’s not born to it (he was a policeman’s son, who inherited his love of farming from his grandparents), he wouldn’t countenance any other way of life. “When you’re up on the fell and the weather’s calm and clear, and the sheep are looking well, the scenery, the wildlife, it’s all pretty amazing,” he says.
“Even in the snow, when you have to dig your- self out of the house, and then dig yourself back in, you just get on with it. The really bad moments only occur when you’re dealing with members of the public walking around the field with a dog loose, or when the Ministry is floating around. It’s a simple life, really, but it’s compli- cated by other people. And of course it’s hard when you’re expected to provide food for less than the cost of production. I don’t think people these days understand that the 50p burger on their plate cost 70p to get it there.”
For all that, neither Tom nor Kay would discourage their children – Jack, Esme and Hetty, now aged 14, 13 and 11 – from going into farming. “We’d like them to learn a trade so that they at least have an option,” says Kay. “But they really muck in, and they have their own small flock of about ten Swaledales, which they look after themselves, plus Hetty has her own three Herdwick yows.”
In their world, rams and ewes are “tups” and “yows”. It’s rather nice that it’s a French film-maker, Magali Pettier, who should introduce the rest of us to the idioms of Upper Teesdale.
Pettier spent 18 months shadowing the Hutchinsons. She had made documentaries about migrant workers and drug addiction before waking up one night with the sudden thought that she had to make a film about farm- ing. As eureka moments go, it wasn’t all that odd; she was a dairy farmer’s daughter herself. So she decided to contrast two French farming families with two English counterparts, to examine the differences in outlook. However, it soon became clear that such a project would be far too expensive. Instead she opted to focus on the Hutchinsons. “In France we don’t have tenant farmers like you do in the UK, so I was interested in seeing how that works,” she says. “It’s clearly a very tough way of life.”
The admiration is mutual. The Hutchinsons, for their part, practically consider Pettier part of the family now. “She’s a really nice French lass and she spent that long with us that we ended up ignoring her,” says Tom. It is the greatest possible compliment.
Addicted to Sheep is on Monday at 9pm on BBC4