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Fearing for their future, North Devon farmers divided over Brexit

Lawrence and Karen Wright at Middle Campscott Farm in Lee Bay, North Devon, England, on October 11, 2019.
Lawrence and Karen Wright at Middle Campscott Farm in Lee Bay, North Devon, England, on October 11, 2019. Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

More than three years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, feelings about Brexit run high among the farming community in North Devon. Some farmers are pushing for a clean break with the continent while others fear the loss of their subsidies. FRANCE 24 reports.

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On a rugged stretch of coastline in southwest England, the landscape is dotted with fattening sheep. Cows graze on grassland that make the region’s famed clotted cream as a handful of walkers pick their way on a footpath that twists along the clifftops. 

But Brexit has sown discord and division throughout this bucolic landscape. More than three years after the 2016 referendum, feelings about Britain’s relationship with the European Union run high among the farming community in North Devon.

“I voted to leave,” said Wendy Hunt, who runs a small suckler farm with her husband and son in the village of Lee Bay, a former smugglers haunt on the North Devon coast. “And I want to leave even more strongly now. The polls say we’ve changed our minds. I was up in Exmoor recently and all my farming friends there voted to leave. And nobody’s changed their mind,” she said, growing visibly animated.

North Devon, a largely agricultural region in a neglected part of southwest England, voted to leave the EU with 57 percent of votes. With poor transportation and few manufacturing jobs –  there are just two factories in nearby Ilfracombe –  workers in North Devon are among the UK’s lowest earners. In 2018 nearly half of the region’s children were reported to be living in poverty. 

Cows on the South West Coast Path, North Devon, England on Thursday 17 October, 2019.
Cows on the South West Coast Path, North Devon, England on Thursday 17 October, 2019. Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24


On June 23, 2016, Hunt, who has farmed in Lee Bay for more than 20 years, voted to leave the EU. Her main reasons, she revealed, were frustration with the bloc’s bureaucracy and her refusal to be ruled by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. “They don’t ever bother to come here. They don’t understand how we live,” said the silver-haired grandmother, who wanted to leave the EU long before the referendum.

Having voted to leave, she was exasperated by the UK’s failure to do so. “All those Remainers conspiring against Boris,” she said, referring to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “I often wonder… if the shoe was on the other foot, would we be holding all these campaigns and protests?”

But her views were only partially shared by her neighbouring farmers. On the other side of the valley, a few miles back from the sea, sits Borough Farm, where David Kennard has farmed sheep for 27 years. He’s written two bestselling books about his life as a shepherd and the struggle to maintain his farm, and was the subject of a hit documentary ‘The Year of the Working Sheepdog’. In the summer, he puts on falconry and sheepdog displays. 

Kennard said he was mystified by his fellow farmers’ decision to vote leave. “But then again, 70 percent of turkeys would vote for Christmas,” he muttered dryly. He understood the argument about not wanting to be ruled by unelected EU bureaucrats, saying his father had voted leave for that very reason. But he said the EU got blamed for a lot of bureaucracy when the UK’s Department of Rural and Environmental Affairs (DEFRA) had often made the paperwork more cumbersome.

“Someone told me on one occasion that the groundwater regulations came out of the EU as an A4 sheet. By the time we’d [DEFRA] finished with them they were a 20-page document,” he said. And he thought it “naïve” to imagine that problems with EU bureaucracy would disappear once the UK left the EU – unless Britain was prepared to forfeit trade with Europe altogether.

Damage Barton Farm, where Peter Lethbridge's family has farmed for 57 years, Thursday October 17, 2019.
Damage Barton Farm, where Peter Lethbridge's family has farmed for 57 years, Thursday October 17, 2019. Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

Kennard acknowledged there was a “split” in the farming community – between the larger, wealthier dairy farmers, who are believed to have voted leave (because their markets are primarily within the UK), and the smaller livestock farmers, who rely on selling their lamb to the Continent, where they keep fewer sheep. “It’ll be very bumpy for a while,” he said, expressing relief that a ‘no deal’ Brexit appeared to be off the menu – at least for the short-term. “Most sheep farmers would have gone out of business overnight,” he said.  

Back in Lee Bay, Hunt said she also voted to leave because she saw it as an opportunity to redesign the EU's controversial Common Agricultural Programme’s (CAP) subsidy system – which allocates money to farmers per hectare of agricultural farmland. The CAP, designed in the wake of the Second World War to keep the cost of food production low, gives around £3 billion (around €3.47 billion) in subsidies to British farmers a year. But it has been criticised for favouring affluent landowners and environmentally destructive farming. “Those big arable farms are getting huge handouts,” said Hunt, who said she’d be happy to comply with environmentally friendly schemes.

‘Green Brexit’ 

Britain’s Conservative government has promised that subsidies (at the level of the CAP) will continue after Brexit until 2022. In what has been labelled a “Green Brexit”, it has vowed to put the environment at the heart of the new subsidy programme. Farmers will be rewarded for “public goods” and leaving “the countryside in a cleaner, greener and healthier state for future generations”. But some farmers fear this is simply an opportunity to take the subsidy away. 

The CAP subsidy makes up nearly half of the income at Middle Campscott farm, where Karen and Lawrence Wright have worked for 27 years. At their farm, just above the woods from Lee Bay and home to a kitchen alive with sprawling dogs, where their sheep and goats can glimpse the Atlantic Ocean as they graze, the Wrights said they were “absolutely appalled” by the idea of leaving the EU. Those who voted to leave “have been fed a pack of lies” said Lawrence Wright coolly. “It’s like watching a car crash happen,” said his soft-spoken, South African-born wife.

Originally architects from London, the Wrights sell their organic cheese, lamb and wool at the farmers market in nearby Barnstaple. They now fear their organic grass-fed lamb risks being undercut by imports from “the cheap leftovers from the rest of the world” – hormone-fed beef and chlorinated chicken that isn’t held to the EU’s health and safety standards. They worry they’ll be competing with beef from Argentina and chicken from the US – countries where they "don’t even bother with animal welfare".

Fattening sheep graze near the South West Coast Path in North Devon, England.
Fattening sheep graze near the South West Coast Path in North Devon, England. Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24


They also fear that by redefining the nature of “public good,” the government plans to take the subsidy away. “It’s not just a handout for owning the land,” explained Lawrence Wright, as a trio of cockerels rapped at the window. “In actual fact, the subsidy is paid to farmers that keep their land in good agricultural and environmental condition. It’s a park-keepers allowance if you like,” he said, explaining that the landscape admired by visitors to Devon as they criss-cross their land on public footpaths – the well-kept hedges, the patchwork of small fields – was all dependent on the farming sector.

He dismissed the government’s ‘Green Brexit’ promise as a mere “rebranding” opportunity, noting that at Middle Campscott, they already farm sustainably and their sheep are grass-fed. Kennard was similarly irritated by people who lump all farms and farmers together. “It’s like comparing Tesco’s with a corner market,” he scoffed, occasionally getting to his feet to shout at a barking sheepdog, “Whoa. Out. Shut it!”

“My carbon emissions are nil,” he continued, explaining that he had sprayed just one field with fertiliser in 28 years. But he thought encouraging farms to be more environmentally friendly was “an entirely sensible thing to do”.

“Why would you reward someone with a tonne of prairie fields who doesn’t have a single bee, butterfly, sparrow, blade of grass? You can’t make an argument for government support for that,” Kennard noted. He plans to reduce his livestock – since he fears the next few years are going to be “diabolical” – and will soon be planting legumes and clover-rich swards to benefit bees.

‘Beaches, ice creams, donkeys’

Further along the coast at Damage Barton, where Peter Lethbridge’s family have farmed for 57 years, the farmer said he would be feeling “very afraid” if it wasn’t for the campsite that brings in most of his income.

For many farms in the area are no longer working farms at all. Some of them are campsites or Bed and Breakfasts, others have been converted into golf courses, while some just sit on the market in a state of dilapidated splendour – waiting for someone to snap them up.

Peter Lethbridge outside Damage Barton farm, where his family have farmed for 57 years, Thursday 17 October, 2019.
Peter Lethbridge outside Damage Barton farm, where his family have farmed for 57 years, Thursday 17 October, 2019. Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

North Devon relies largely on tourism for its revenue. In the summer, “there are beaches, ice creams, donkeys” as a local described it. But out of season, many cafés and businesses shut up shop, tourism slows to a trickle and the South West Coast Path – along which Lethbridge’s sheep and cows graze – sees just a handful of walkers.

For Lethbridge, who voted remain, tourism and sustainable farming necessarily go hand in hand. “The reason people like coming here is because of the scenery – and the reason the scenery looks like this is because it’s been farmed,” he said.

Lethbridge had just received an invitation to a conference on rewilding – a conservation practice that returns cultivated land to nature with a view to letting it flourish on its own. Wildlife campaigners are calling for a quarter of England to be rewilded, hailing the practice as a natural climate solution for the way it sequesters carbon and boosts biodiversity.

“It’s the new in-word,” said Lethbridge, mild-mannered and good-humoured, of rewilding, “I’m not sure I get it. Managed countryside is the way we do it and it’s got to be managed with stock as well.” 

The South West Coast Path looks out over the Atlantic Ocean, Thursday 17 October, 2019.
The South West Coast Path looks out over the Atlantic Ocean, Thursday 17 October, 2019. Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

But all the farmers were united in their despair at the state of British politics. “I would never vote again,” said Hunt adamantly. The Remainers’ wrath was reserved for Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage and Prime Minister Johnson. Brexit was “the most extraordinary con trick”, said Lawrence Wright, who described Johnson as “a lying trickster who will say anything to get what he wants”.

Remainers like Kennard and Lethbridge were resigned to leaving. “I’d still vote remain,” said Kennard, “but we’ve got to leave”. Lethbridge felt that Britain needed to leave the EU to bring the country together again. “If it succeeds, then it will heal the country. And if it fails, and we have to go back in again, I think that’s the only other way to heal.” 

For despite their fears about the future of farming, all of them remained troubled by the rift throughout the country. As Kennard put it, “When were we last so divided?”

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