A Llangollen photographer is aiming to depict the harsh realities of the hill sheep farming community as their livelihoods face the uncertainties of Brexit.
Phil Hatcher-Moore’s work has been chosen for a prestigious new project on British identity called Art 50, a word-play on the European Union article required to begin the process of leaving the EU, whose Common Agricultural Policy’s (CAP) subsidies have provided a much-needed buttress for farmers.
The Farmers Union of Wales (FUW) has revealed the plight of Welsh sheep farmers where average farm incomes are as little as £13,000 per year, of which 80 per cent is generated by subsidies.
Now the efforts to eke out a living farming the barren terrain of the Snowdonian uplands has come under the focus of Phil’s cameras.
His interest in their tough environment was sparked when he was on assignment for the New York Times in the Lake District photographing rural life near Blencathra where residents had been thwarted in their bid to buy the iconic mountain after it was put up for sale by the 7th Earl of Lonsdale.
Fascinated by the challenges facing hard-working communities, he hopes his work can help educate city dwellers for whom rural life is mostly out of view.
Works selected for Art 50 – chosen by a team of judges including The Who’s Roger Daltrey – are to be displayed at The Barbican and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts in Gateshead in February 2019 as Britain prepares to leave the EU.
Phil also hopes to mount his photographs alongside waysides and walking routes in North Wales with footnotes explaining the lifestyles and working practices of farmers.
“I wanted to look into the farming communities in North Wales, in particular how hill sheep farms have shaped the landscape. So many people come here as tourists to enjoy the view, but it would look very different if it wasn’t for farming,” says Phil, 35.
So far his evocative images have chronicled the work of two farms around Dyffryn Ardudwy near Harlech, including watching on as a flock was brought down from the mountainside by a landowner with the help of a gang of tenanted farmers.
Closer to his Llangollen home, he has captured the excitement of an international shearing competition at Corwen and the hustle and bustle of Glyn Ceiriog County Sheep Dog trials.
“It was impressive to see the farmers fan out and bring down the sheep from the mountainside for shearing. I have been following a couple of farmers and I will be looking to do work in and around Llangollen too.
“I try not to come down on one side or the other with my work. My aim is to portray it as it is and I am not doing it as a rallying cry. But it is important to realise what these communities look like given so many decisions are taken in London for London,” explains Phil, who is intrigued by the different strategies hill farmers are using to supplement meagre incomes.
The Welsh Government’s Glastir scheme is one of those which helps with grants for undertaking work to improve biodiversity and combat climate change.
He echoes the views of the Welsh farming unions who have highlighted the intertwined nature of rural economies with service industries from auctioneers and abbatoirs to the tourism trade and corner shops all dependent on keeping the tradition of sheep farming alive.
“Farm diversification is interesting; there are so many different ways that farmers make a living whether it is using the land for forestry or to gain carbon offset credits.
“The future is going to be interesting in the upland areas. While lowland farming in rich grassy areas suited to crops may thrive, the more precarious, marginal upland areas could fall by the wayside, but they are an important part of the landscape.
“Farmers have told me that, in the long term, the Government will have to match the EU subsidies. And across the country, in various different industries, some areas that voted for Brexit are now asking for special protection against what is coming as a result of it.”
In fact, much appears to have shifted since the 2016 referendum. In the wake of the leave vote, Michael Gove, now the UK Environment Secretary, claimed wider global trade would bring cheaper food to Britain.
But when attending this year’s Royal Welsh Show he appeared to do a U-turn when he promised farmers would be protected by a free trade deal with the EU and would get to keep their subsidies until 2022.
Like the eventual withdrawal of CAP support, the thorny issue of rewilding also poses a threat to the farming way of life in what are classified as the EU’s “least favoured areas”.
Rewilding– large-scale conservation aimed at restoring and protecting natural processes and wilderness areas – can be at odds with the extensive grazing of land.
“Environmental writers like George Monbiot, are backing rewilding.
“Without the sheep on these hills there would be a lot more shrubs and foliage – without the grazing it wouldn’t be as accessible. It is a question of how we use the land,” Phil points out.
“The thing I want to explore is you get all these people who come up from the cities in the summer for the landscape and to go hillwalking and yet there is farming that is going on behind the scenes which protects this landscape.
“I would like to get a full set of my pictures put alongside footpaths, so people coming up from Manchester, London or Birmingham can immerse themselves in the stories of how people live around here.
“It’s about educating people how other parts of the population live and fostering greater understanding between communities.”
Phil has told some stark stories with his photographs of dramatic overseas assignments since he quit his web design job and packed his camera bag six years ago.
As well as a refugee crisis following a bitter independence conflict in South Sudan, he has documented the links between Soviet nuclear tests and its effects on an isolated rural community in Kazakhstan where higher cancer rates and birth deformities have been found.
“I like to document a story with my work. Photography has been my passion from my teens, but back then being a professional photographer wasn’t on my radar as it didn’t look like the sort of thing I could make a livelihood from.”
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