Farming Talk: Taking Stock of the Future
In the spring issue Michelle Werrett wrote about Exmoor’s livestock heritage. Following on from this, I was keen to talk to some of the farmers who still keep Exmoor Horn and Devon Closewool sheep, and also Red Ruby Devon cattle. I wanted to find out why they have remained faithful to the traditional breeds and how they are competing in an increasingly challenging marketplace.
Leonard Richards has kept Closewools all his life. His father kept them before him and his sons are now carrying on the tradition. At 85 his enthusiasm is undiminished. “I really like Closewools,” he told me, “and the breeders are the friendliest lot you could ever have. There’s tremendous friendship between the Exmoor Horn people and us Closewool people too. After Dunster Show we all go for a meal. Everyone gets on really well.”
One of his rams was bought by Maurice Scott, who’s had great success showing him, much to Leonard’s delight. Maurice and Diana Scott’s Closewool and Exmoor Horn sheep are regular prize-winners and they also have a herd of 20 horned Devon cows.
For many farmers the camaraderie of belonging to a breed society and the fun of taking part in shows are important reasons for keeping the local breeds. Richmond Harding discovered this early on. A couple of his ewes did very well at the Exmoor Young Farmers’ sheep show in 1957. “I was 15 at the time,” he said, “and from that moment on I decided that Exmoor Horns were for me!” Richmond has since won many prizes with his Exmoor Horn and Closewool sheep. He is a popular livestock judge and an inspector for the Devon Cattle Breeders’ Society.
David Ridd and his son Peter also enjoy showing and judging. David used to keep Cheviots, but there wasn’t the friendship and support which you get from farming a local breed and it was difficult to buy Cheviots in the West Country. They now have a flock of Exmoor Horn ewes and Peter is an official horn brander for the Exmoor Horn Sheep Breeders’ Society.
It’s not essential to own livestock if you want to become involved with showing. Angela and Ian Pode help with the Wellshead herd. “I love Devons. I was born and bred with them, and showing gets into your blood,” Angela told me. Last year her dedication paid off when a two-year-old heifer called Wellshead Lace III did incredibly well, winning six breed championships as well as a number of other prizes.
Angela’s father, Andrew Slee, owned the famous Halsbury herd and, with others like Dick Huxtable from Barton Farm, introduced the French Salers breed into their herds in the 1980s. The aim was to produce a larger, leaner carcase and the plan was backed by the Devon Cattle Breeders’ Society. At the time registered Devons were in serious decline and it was felt something had to be done to make the breed more commercial. However, nowadays opinion is split as to whether the introduction of Salers blood was a good idea. There is no doubt that many prize-winning Devons are descended from this ‘improved’ stock, but farmers like Shiamala Comer and the Scotts believe that Devons should be kept pure, with improvement only through selective breeding.
Shiamala started farming Devons organically in 2000, with a bull from Margaret Elliot and a dozen cows. She now has 38 cows, and she says the hardiness of Devons and their ability to fatten off grass makes them an ideal choice for an organic hill farm.
Exmoor’s sheep, too, have benefited from careful breeding over the years. Both breeds have become larger, leaner, more milky and more prolific.
Exmoor Horns have also become ‘cleaner’, or less woolly around their heads, bellies and legs. When May and Alan Collins started farming, their Exmoor Horn ewes had such woolly faces that they had to clip them before the winter so that their heads didn’t accumulate massive snowballs if it snowed!
In the good old days when wool was valuable, the high-quality fleeces which Exmoor Horns and Closewools produced was another reason for keeping them. Richmond Harding, who has won many fleece competitions, is a strong believer that fleece quality is still of vital importance; a good fleece is essential for a sheep’s wellbeing, especially on Exmoor.
Ian South, a contract shearer and Exmoor Horn breeder, likes shearing Exmoor Horns because they comb well (the wool cuts easily), but some shearers charge more because shearing one takes about half as long again as shearing a Mule.
The breeding of Exmoor Horn and Closewool Mules (which have a native breed mother and a Bluefaced Leicester father) has transformed many farm businesses. Mule ewes seem to inherit the best attributes from both sides, resulting in a hardy, prolific, docile sheep with good conformation and weight, and breeding stock are in hot demand at livestock sales. Jim Bingham has been buying Exmoor Mules from Worth Farm since the 1980s. In his opinion the success of the Exmoor Mule sheep has saved the Exmoor Horn breed. Most Exmoor Horn and Closewool farmers now keep a core flock of pedigree animals and produce Mules from the rest.
Devons, too, have been crossed with other breeds to produce a larger, leaner carcase. Charolais used to be popular bulls for this purpose but now Limousins seem to be more common.
Bovine tuberculosis is becoming a terrible problem on Exmoor and cattle farming systems are changing because of it. For fear of movement restrictions due to a TB outbreak, many farmers are keeping fewer cows but are finishing their youngstock rather than selling them on as stores. Also, there is a great financial incentive to keep pedigree animals because they get twice as much compensation. Sad, but true.
Another recent incentive for keeping pedigree animals is the money available under Higher Level Stewardship agreements for grazing pedigree Devons, Closewools and Exmoor Horns. These payments seem to have been devised for all the right reasons, but they could have all the wrong consequences. Some Devon breeders are already worried that too many animals are being kept purely for the subsidies and that the breed will suffer as a result.
Selling meat direct to the public involves a minefield of regulations, but a few farmers are adding value to what they produce in this way. Simon and Tracey David produce Devon beef, Exmoor Horn lamb and pork. “The supermarkets are much better than us farmers at selling meat. The only thing we can beat them on is quality, and that’s my aim,” Simon told me as we ate delicious beef sandwiches. Under the logo The Big Red Cow, the Davids sell their meat at shows, cater for parties and make ready meals for local shops.
Locally-produced Exmoor Horn meat can also be bought from Farthings Farm Shop in Dulverton. Several farmers sell their meat direct to local people and restaurants as whole or part carcases. Angela Spry runs a beef box scheme from her farm, and Philip Huxtable and William Dart sell boxes of Devon beef to friends and neighbours.
Perhaps the strongest reason why farmers keep the local breeds is loyalty, especially for those who have inherited family farms. Great Champson (where Devons, Exmoor Horns and Closewools are bred by the Dart family) is a prime example, but there are many others. Philip Huxtable, for instance, can remember his grandparents running the farm with the ancestors of the animals he farms now, and he has a deep attachment and sense of
stewardship towards his farm and livestock.
As Tony Richards from Porlock said of his Devon cattle, “They’ve been here forever, and they’re lovely animals to be with.”
Devon Cattle Breeders’ Society
Exmoor Horn Sheep Breeders’ Society
Devon Closewool Sheep Breeders’ Society
Many thanks to the farmers who gave up their time to talk to me:
Leonard Richards, North Heasley, North Molton
Maurice and Diana Scott, Brendon Hill Farm, Wheddon Cross
Richmond Harding, Torre Farm, Winsford
David and Peter Ridd, West Mead, Challacombe
Mike Lanz and Angela and Ian Pode, Wellshead Farm, Exford
Philip and Carol Huxtable, Barton Farm, Challacombe
Shiamala Comer, Ashott Barton Farm, Exford
William Dart, Great Champson, Molland
Alan and May Collins, Worth Farm, Withypool
Ray Kingdon, West Whitefield, Challacombe
Ian South, Farley Water Farm, Brendon
Jim Bingham, Outovercott, Lynton
Simon and Tracey David, Woodcocks Ley Farm
(and the Big Red Cow), Porlock
Pauline Takle, Farthings Farm Shop, Dulverton
Angela Spry, Ruby Red Devon Beef, Trentishoe
Tony Richards, Yarner Farm and Ash Farm, Porlock