ELLI Foxton made the brave decision earlier this year to move to rural Cumbria on her own so she could pursue her dream of working in agriculture and land management.

And at just 20 Elli became the first Nature-Friendly Farming Apprentice on the innovative Cumbria Connect scheme after overcoming months of job searching and applying for over 150 jobs.

Originally from urban Teeside, Elli's journey into farming started three years ago when she enrolled in a Level 3 Animal Management course at Askham Bryan College.

A pivotal two-year placement on an alpaca farm, a chance introduction to the farm’s neighbours, David and Faith Garvey, and a couple of weeks of lambing experience on their farm set her on a career path into agriculture and ignited a profound passion.

Elli spent every holiday from her job at a large supermarket, doing work experience on David and Faith’s farm and gaining valuable farming experience. The retail job served to pay for the driving lessons and car she knew she needed to get a foothold in the job market.

Despite a scarcity of farming opportunities in Teesside, Elli’s dedication didn’t wane. She stayed connected with new-found mentors, David and Faith, when they moved to work as farmers for the RSPB at Haweswater in 2021.

The farms in Cumbria together comprise 750 hectares of enclosed land and include grazing rights over around 2,000 hectares of common land, so opened new doors for Elli. She spent 10 days helping with lambing, volunteering her time and staying in a caravan on-site.

Despite encountering a formidable job market – applying for over 150 roles that garnered little to no response – Elli persisted. Her resilience led her back to David and Faith and the RSPB farms, where she was encouraged to take a six-month contract.

“It was a fantastic time to learn about the workings of the farm,” Elli explained. “I was around for hay making and learnt how to use a Hay Tedder and got my Tractor and Quad Bike driving licence funded through the RSPB. I also learnt about regenerative grazing to improve soil and plant health which involves moving the sheep or cattle every two days on rotation across Swindale’s 30 fields. I really appreciated seeing its impact - after 2 or 3 whole rotations I could clearly see the benefits where the bracken was less thick, encouraging more variety in the grasses.”

When the opportunity to apply for the new Nature-Friendly Farming Apprenticeship Scheme with Cumbria Connect came up, Elli jumped at the chance. After a competitive interview process she was delighted to secure the job.

Now, six weeks into the role, Elli has found that the apprenticeship offers not just financial stability, but invaluable training and learning opportunities too.

“There are three farms within the apprenticeship, so I’m gaining valuable work experience and learning three completely different approaches to doing things,” she said.

“I’ve loved spending time on the Lowther Estate with their livestock of Longhorn cattle, water buffalo and pigs. The pigs are my favourite – they play such an important role in restoring woodland and grassland. Their foraging disturbs the soils and clears space for shrubs, flowers and seeds to germinate.

“I’ve also loved getting involved in Lowther’s conservation work including at their new tree and wildflower nursery and getting involved in leading a group of volunteers with tree planting. I also helped the RSPB to release Water Voles at Haweswater earlier this year.

“Coming up in the next couple of weeks I have the opportunity to learn hedgelaying and dry-stone walling at Low Beckside Farm with The Ernest Cook Trust.”

Now the next cohort of aspiring individuals are being chosen for the first-of-a-kind Nature Friendly Farming Apprenticeship Scheme.

The Apprenticeship Scheme is creature future experts in farming for nature restoration and land management.

Successful participants will gain valuable on-farm employment experience at three established sites: the RSPB at Haweswater, Lowther Estate and Low Beckside Farm with The Ernest Cook Trust where they will acquire practical knowledge and skills in sustainable land management practices including nature-friendly farming, the creation of new habitats and the restoration of existing ones.

Formal learning will also be delivered through Myerscough College’s Level 3 Livestock Unit Technician Apprentice scheme.

At the end of the 18 months, Apprentices will become qualified and proficient in working with livestock, using farm machinery such as all-terrain vehicles, tractors and brush cutting and a wide variety of practical and people skills.

Bill Kenmir, Conservation Manager at Cumbria Connect, said: “A key part of the Cumbria Connect programme is to encourage farming and conservation communities to work together, to pool our collective knowledge, skills and resources to work through this time of change in farming and land management. This apprenticeship scheme is specifically designed to do this and it will also provide the participants with a broad range of skills and understanding to launch successful careers in sustainable farming and nature restoration.”

And, to the next prospective Nature-Friendly Farming Apprentices, Elli gives this advice:

“This Apprenticeship is an amazing opportunity – a once in a lifetime thing. It pays a good wage and all the training is fully funded. I also believe it gives you a headstart with future job prospects from the experience it gives you working in three different workplaces. You really don’t want to miss out on it.”

Vicki McDermott, Learning Operations Lead at The Ernest Cook Trust, said: “We are thrilled to be part of the Cumbria Connect Project; equipping young people with the skills and qualifications needed for a future in Nature-Friendly Farming.

During her short time in the role Elli has already demonstrated passion and commitment and will no doubt inspire the new apprentices with her enthusiasm. We're looking forward to supporting them all through their Nature Friendly Farming journey.”