HILL farmer and former rugby union player from Malhamdale Neil Heseltine has been elected chairman of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.

Neil has been a member of the Authority for six years and is one of four parish council-appointees on the board.

He is an upland farmer, producing beef, lamb and wool at Hill Top Farm, alongside ‘public goods’ such as wildflower meadows and pastures rich in biodiversity.

He is married to Leigh and together they have a daughter, Violet, who is six.

He was elected chairman at the annual general meeting of the Authority and succeeded Carl Lis, who stepped down after serving a total of 12 years in the role.

Mr Heseltine highlighted the importance of continual improvement.

“I’m motivated by what’s outside the window ,” he said.

“It’s important that as an organisation we recognise the collective work that has gone on before and strive to improve. That was something that resonated with me from my sporting life, where the principles of continually striving to be better are the same.

“I’m not suggesting that’s going to be easy, we’re in the midst of one of the biggest challenges of our lives, but with that challenge comes opportunity and new ways of working.”

He first got involved in the national park’s work around 10 years ago and was invited to be part of an advisory group on green lanes.

He then joined the Local Access Forum and became a national park member six years ago.

“I never set out with a personal ambition to be chairman. The main ambition for me is to achieve the objectives outlined in our Management Plan, which is, in effect, a five-year programme of work for a whole range of organisations operating across the area.

“My role as chairman is to ensure that we steer the ship so that all those objectives are achieved, so that overall we’re making the National Park into a brilliant place.

What’s really important to me is the landscape, the wildlife, the environment and critically, the people that live and work in the landscape and the people who come to visit it.

“My grandfather took on the tenancy of Hill Top Farm in 1949. He came from Swinacote in Bishopdale. My dad – who is now 88 – bought the farm as a sitting tenant in the 1980s.

“It was at that time that farming incomes in the Dales started to fall, especially from suckler cattle. So they decided to convert one of cattle sheds into a bunk barn and a barn into a holiday cottage. It was one of the earliest diversification schemes in the Dales.”

There was never any pressure put on any of us to farm. It was my good luck that none of my [four older] sisters wanted to farm. It was not until I got into my upper sixth at school that I decided to go to an agricultural college.

For ten years after college my main focus was playing rugby. I played for Kelso in the Scottish Borders and then first team at Wharfedale for eight or nine years.

“After the rugby finished I guess I had to grow up. Foot and mouth happened [in 2001] and that meant I was able to work less on farms. That pushed me to come home and work on the farm at home. Around the same time I met Leigh.

Playing rugby has held him in good stead for living in a rural community

“The most important thing you learn is you have to pull together as a team and you’ve got to be trying to achieve the same thing to be successful. I see parallels between that and where we’re at as a National Park.

“My belief is that we are in a really good place. But there are areas we can improve on.”

The farm moved away from cattle in the ‘80s, but seeing their importance for the biodiversity of the land after becoming involved with the Limestone Country Project, they brought them back in again.

Speaking about the UK’s EU exit and the Common Agricultural Policy he said: “As a National Park Authority, we support the proposed changes in the Agriculture Bill. It’s encouraging the direction the bill has taken. It is looking at the environment and at biodiversity. As a National Park Authority, I believe that it is a huge opportunity both for farmers and for the environment because it allows us to play our part in mitigating climate change, influencing future land management and delivering more plant, animal and bird life.

I believe we can still produce food but at the same time capture carbon and improve nature - and get paid for all three.”