Richard Betton expresses passionate opinions about many aspects of hill farming, as Wendy Short has discovered.

UPLAND farming champion Richard Betton has worn many hats and worked alongside some of the country’s most influential figures, not only in agriculture but also in the food and environmental sector.

His determination to farm in his own right took him from a council estate in Sunderland to the tenanted hill unit in County Durham which he has managed for the past 40 years.

Mr Betton is known for his outspoken views and for his passion (some might call it obsession) for promoting the positive aspects of hill farming and outlining its challenges.

His current roles include farm liaison officer with the farmer charity UTASS (Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services), as well as national regional director of the Farming Community Network (FCN) charity. He is also the longest-serving (18 years) member of the NFU Council and a former independent district councillor.

His father’s work as a Church of England priest took the family from Sunderland to Lincoln, where Mr Betton worked on a local farm before studying modern history at Pembroke College, Oxford.

“My parents were very keen on a university education because they rightly believed that it trains the mind,” said Mr Betton. “The course has proved useful in my political work and taught me how to collate information and use it to answer questions; these are skills that are essential for managing a farm business.”

There followed a full-time job on a dairy farm near Hawes, where the Bettons have family ties and where he gained further practical experience. In 1976, he inherited a small sum of money and took out a loan, buying 70 acres in the Hawes area and stocking it with a small sheep flock and a few suckler cows. To supplement his income, he worked on neighbouring holdings and milked new-calved cows at Hawes Auction Mart.

“I have been fascinated by hill farming for as long as I can remember and have always been drawn to working with livestock; I enjoy it just as much now as I did when I started out,” he explained. “It is said that there are two main routes into farming; one must either be born, or marry into it. I had insufficient capital to allow me to farm full-time in my own right and securing a tenancy was difficult, particularly as I came from a non-farming family and was single.”

Marriage to wife Dodge, a nurse, eliminated one of these obstacles and prompted a fresh round of tenancy applications, following which he was offered Watersmeeting, a 726-acre upland farm near Middleton-in-Teesdale. There he manages a flock of 280 Swaledale sheep and a pedigree Aberdeen Angus herd on 726 acres, with the entire holding classified as an SSSI.

Currently, Mr Betton fits in farm work around four days a week at UTASS and FCN, where he has become recognised as an expert on navigating the complex system of regulations and paperwork that is required in the food production industry.

“A farmer has to be a stockman, tractor driver, businessman, mechanic, plumber, builder, fencer and drystone waller, all rolled into one,” he commented. “This wide range of expertise is not generally expected of managers within any other profession.

“The administrative element of management does not come easily to all farmers. That is entirely understandable, because they are focused mainly on practical tasks. Trying to deal with an overwhelming flood tide of bureaucracy can lead to mental stress and our charitable organisations perform a useful role in alleviating some of the pressure.”

Over the years Mr Betton has been a popular speaker at various events and has written about hill farming for several publications. He has been involved in numerous committees and projects, including the North-East Minister’s Advisory Panel, the local nature partnership and the North Pennines AONB partnership, where he was the farmer representative. Surprisingly, he has to date received little recognition for his contribution to farming, although he has been made an associate of the Royal Agricultural Society.

Mr Betton is now in his mid-60s and, like many farmers, is ‘dreading retirement’. The couple has purchased a property just outside Barnard Castle, but they are not yet ready to give up their way of life. Only one of their four children was interested in a possible succession tenancy, but William tragically died in a farm machinery accident while working in Australia.

“When the time comes to retire, like most tenants we will lose our home and our business at the same time. That is a highly traumatic change all in one go,” he said. “I often recommend that farmers take up an outside hobby, as it can help to ease the transition into retirement. However, farming is my passion and I must admit that I have failed to take my own advice.”