Science & Environment

Cumbrian farmer watched sheep flock drown

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Media caption"This field used to extend for another 25 metres", reports Claire Marshall

James Stobart is a third generation hill farmer from the north Pennines.

His sheep graze the slopes of the Eden Valley. Last month, when unprecedented floodwaters engulfed Cumbria, he watched 160 of them drown.

On the 12th December Mr Stobart got a phone call at 08:30 to say that some of his sheep were stranded.

It should have been a short drive to the field, but roads and bridges were impassable.

By the time he got there several hours later, he found a lethal fast-flowing expanse of water between him and his flock.

"It was awful. The sheep had been standing in the water for hours," he said.

"The fire service were trying to do their best, but as we walked out they moved away from us, out in to the current. We rescued a couple but the others were swept away - it was too dangerous to try to reach them."

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Media captionFarmer James Stobart: "The sheep got into the current and washed away"

Sheep are very vulnerable in floods, their wool becomes waterlogged and they get dragged under.

"It was absolutely horrendous," he says, his eyes shining with tears. "You've worked all year to see the best out of them, and then something happens that is out of everyone's control and there's nothing you can do. It's absolutely torture to watch."

Every sheep is tagged - if they are found, then James gets a call. He has some photos of the piles of mangled bodies of his sheep.

"We've found about half of them. We don't know if we'll ever find the rest."

Across Cumbria some 630 farms were affected by the flooding, and around 2,000 sheep drowned. Mr Stobart puts the value of his ones that he lost at £12,000.

This won't put him out of business - the family has 1,300 breeding sheep. He is insured and the government has set up a Farming Recovery Fund allowing farmers to apply for emergency funding of up to £20,000 each.

However, he says that he wouldn't want anyone to see animals suffering in that way.

Responding to those who criticise the decision to farm in areas like this, he says.

"At the end of the day, we have to eat, and that gets forgotten about."

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