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Land issues threaten Sark dairy farming

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Sark's Chief Pleas will next week discuss a report on the future of dairy farming there. Luke Richardson spoke to one of the island's two dairy farmers, who explained why at the age of 71 he fears for the future of what the report calls 'a high quality local product'.

Sark's Chief Pleas will next week discuss a report on the future of dairy farming there. Luke Richardson spoke to one of the island's two dairy farmers, who explained why at the age of 71 he fears for the future of what the report calls 'a high quality local product'.

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TURNING 70 has made Sark's main milk producer realise the future of his 30-year dairy business is doubt.

Next week the island's Agriculture Committee and Chief Pleas will discuss the security of supply of 'a high quality local product', faced with the prospect that, when farmer Christopher Nightingale retires, there may be nobody to take over the running of his herd.

The 71-year-old Yorkshireman said the long-term future of the six parcels of land he farmed would make it nigh on impossible to find a takeover bidder.

'I have one five-year tenancy on one bit of land, one three-year tenancy on a field the island owns, but all the rest are year-by-year word of mouth agreements,' he said. 'Nobody is going to want to come here and pay for the herd and buy the equipment and not have long-term security over the land.'

Mr Nightingale moved to Sark from Yorkshire 33 years ago.

'I did a lot of farm contracting in the UK but I didn't like it because everything was getting bigger – bigger borrowing, bigger machinery, more and more money was being spent on bigger and bigger equipment and I could see it going on and on,' he said. 'I got a phone call asking if I wanted to come and look after a small farm in Sark and that's what I did.

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'For four years, I was doing carting for the supermarket and going and collecting Guernsey milk.

'At the time there were a few dairy farmers but nobody was producing pasteurised milk. I thought, "I could do this".'

Mr Nightingale started out with four cows, but that has grown to 24. He is one of two dairy farmers in the island.

'Over the years, people who were producing milk have either passed away or learned more sense,' he said.

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'Eventually I'll be moving on to the big cow shed in the sky too.

'I've been trying to think of a solution for the past 18 months, but I've not been able to – that's what has instigated the report.'

Mr Nightingale said he would continue farming for as long as he could, but turning 70 had made him think about the future. 'There's no old age pension in Sark. I've recently been into hospital because one of the arteries above my left eye burst. It's made be realise I'm not quite in the first flush of youth,' he said.

'My son does carting and helps me with tractor work and my daughter helps out and makes ice cream out of surplus milk.

'But taking over is not something either of them would really like to do.'

Solutions suggested by the Agriculture Committee include providing incentives for landowners and legislating to secure sufficient of land for grazing.

The ideas also include Chief Pleas taking control of the dairy.

But Mr Nightingale was not convinced that would be the best fit.

'It's a difficult situation. If we had a state dairy, you'd have to have more staff to help out. The way it works for our family is that everyone helps out and if someone goes on holiday, the ones who are left just have to work a little harder,' he said.

'Alderney had a small state dairy, but it had to stop because it was too small and too expensive to carry on. Politicians came over to see what we're doing here.'

He said he was open to any suggested solutions to the problem, but accepted time could be running short for the business.

'A year or two ago, there used to be a bakery in Sark. Rumours started going round that the bakery was going to close and people were saying "we can't do without the bakery",' he said.

'Eventually it did close, but bread still came in from Guernsey and people were happy enough with that.

'I would like to think the dairy could continue, but I don't know how strong that feeling is throughout the island.'

Having moved to avoid the stress of large-scale UK farming, Mr Nightingale said he found his life as a Sark dairy farmer rewarding.

'It can be frustrating – I often fall out with myself when trying to decide what I should do,' he said.

'Then there's the weather – we're supposed to have grass at this time of year, but at the moment we've got bogs.

'But we've got no desire to leave here – this is more like traditional farming, what I fell in love with when I was a boy, and it's what I was looking for.'

Mr Nightingale said Sark had been a fantastic move for him.

'My granddaughter goes to school and back on her bike and you don't have any worries that she'll be all right.

'As kids grow up and go off to the disco, you never have to worry about picking them up at night.

'How many locations in the world can you say that about these days?' he said.

'I just think it's fantastic that nobody locks their door, old ladies can go out and wander home – it's priceless, really.'

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