Feature: Forward-thinking farming on the edge of Sheffield

Nick Denniff's dad Michael ploughing in Millhouses in the 1940s
Nick Denniff's dad Michael ploughing in Millhouses in the 1940s

Those who meet Nick Denniff while mountain biking or climbing on his Burbage grazing land find a farmer happy to speak his mind with very little encouragement.

“It’s superb now the plantation’s gone,” Nick said, gazing across the valley with his birdwatcher’s binoculars. “We get nightjars here now, and it’ll be purple in a few years. Why on Earth did they plant conifers down there? It was probably planned by committee.”

Farmer Nick Denniff: cattle waiting to be fed at Burbage

Farmer Nick Denniff: cattle waiting to be fed at Burbage

Nick’s family has farmed around Sheffield for generations. “We came over in 1790 from County Wexford. It’s said someone got their f’s and s’s mixed up so we ended up as Denniff rather than Denniss. But my Auntie Beryl says we were descended from German pirates.”

Not all farmers enjoy talking (at length) to townies, but Nick has a lot to say. “This landscape that we’re conserving here has been created by farming,” he observed. “Who do you think put these gates and walls and fields in?”

In 2013 Nick took on the grazing tenancy for 4,500 acres of moorland at Burbage, Houndkirk and Totley from the Eastern Moors Partnership. The partnership of the RSPB and the National Trust manage the moors on Sheffield’s outskirts for wildlife, and for over 250,000 visiting outdoor citizens every year. Nick is an enthusiastic supporter of wildlife and landscape conservation on his moorland, and of the Burbage valley’s recreational status originally set up by Sheffield Council.

“This place is here for everybody,” he said. “But it’s also a factory floor.”

Farmer Nick Denniff: with sheepdog Ben in one of his fields above Totley

Farmer Nick Denniff: with sheepdog Ben in one of his fields above Totley

Dogs illegally off their leads heighten springtime tensions for local sheep farmers. “I had to get a team of climbers in to help a group of sheep driven on to a rock face by dogs recently,” Nick said.

He’s a supporter of the ‘Take the Lead’ campaign in the Peak District, and encourages responsible dog walkers to spread the word about keeping their dogs on a lead or under effective control during lambing and bird nesting season. (It’s the law under the Countryside Rights of Way Act to keep your dog on a lead of no more than two metres on open access land, and at all times around livestock between March 1 and July 31).

He says modern farmers need to be diplomats as well as business people. “Most upland farmers I know are forward-thinking. We’re like a Swiss Army knife - multi-functional.” Nick does fencing work, chats amiably to everyone, and has a relatively small flock of sheep for moorland lamb and carpet wool. (“One Sheffielder saw me shearing once, and asked me: ‘What do you do with all that fur?’”)

He also keeps a herd of picturesque white bred short horn / highland cross cattle, for ‘conservation grazing’ (where meat production is balanced with measurable wildlife benefits, resulting from fewer animals grazing the moor in a more natural way).

Nick and wife Liz use their ‘moorlandmeat’ website to sell the resulting produce. “It’s superb, because they’re eating hay like it used to taste,” Nick enthused. “A farmer I know wrote to say it was the best meat she’d had since she was a kid.”

He said he could just stick a few highland cattle on the moors to satisfy the conservation grazing requirement, and then take them off and still claim the farming subsidy. Instead, he’s chosen a placid breed that can make a profit, but is unlikely to ‘stomp on some climber,’ as he put it.

“I could be a subsidy junkie, but it’s not in my make-up,” he said. Many farmers did well from subsidised milk lakes and butter mountains after the post-war imperative to maximise production, he said, and now conservation-minded owners and tenants are having to do a lot of hard work to redress years of environmental harm caused as a result.

He hopes the subsidies after leaving the EU will strike a happy medium between environmental benefits like the clean air, clean water, and thriving wildlife required by governments and progressive landowners, and the income needed to keep farmers producing food for the nation.

“Some of the earlier generations had money handed to them for negative farming practices, and still think the tail can wag the dog,” he said. “But it can’t.”