West is Best

Brian Pearce Visits West Yeo Farm

By Brian Pearce

Oxford 'plum pudding pigs'

As the profits from hill farming continue to diminish, I find farmers working harder than ever, if that is possible, to earn a living.  Either they take on more land, diversify, or learn new skills. One of the ways of continuing to farm traditionally is to cut out the middleman and sell direct.  For stock farming this frequently means learning butchery as well as selling techniques.  Not every farm can have a farm shop and it is not a solution for food production in Britain as a whole, but it is a way that is clearly helping some farmers to survive.

Kate Palmer is one such farmer.  She has an organic farm: West Yeo near Witheridge.  Her style of farming is more about a way of life than a way to make money.  She tries to emulate traditional farming methods that are in harmony with the environment and the seasons.  When you buy her meat you are not just buying a quality product but you are also paying for the upkeep of the countryside and conservation of wildlife.  Yes, you do pay more for organic produce, and the organic market is suffering in the present financial climate, but Kate is not aiming her produce at people from the wealthy South East, she is supplying local people with quality food at affordable prices.

Kate moved to Witheridge from the Blackdowns in 2000.  She went for organic status despite the extra work in record keeping and extra costs – £600 a year in inspection fees alone. Organic farming is not simply about using fewer chemicals: Kate feels that it is worth doing as it ensures the highest welfare for the stock and an audit of traceability for customers’ satisfaction.  The farm has old pastures and Culm grassland meadows by the Little Dart river.  The grassland supports orchids and the devil’s bit scabious

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that is the food plant for marsh fritillary butterflies.  All of the hedges have been laid and miles of stone walls repaired under theCountryside Stewardship Scheme and now it is hoped entry into HLS may provide for restoration of the farm buildings.  Three orchards have been restored and replanted with old varieties of apples and other fruit and the layout of the fields has been recreated as it was on a map of 1850.  Kate was once a teacher and she hosts various walks, talks, studies and open days to explain the philosophy behind the farm.

We recently looked at organic poultry farms, for which feed is in short supply and now comes from remote parts of the world, adding to ‘food miles’.  West Yeo, however, is a mixed farm producing its own feed.  It also has pure-bred stock, which is unusual for organic farms.  Pride of place goes to the pedigree Devon cattle.  Kate’s partner, Robert James, was brought up with them and has combined his father’s eye for a ‘good bullock’ with his own knowledge of butchery to produce traditional cattle with good conformation.  Unusually for Devons, the cows are pure bred.  These are put to their prize bull, ‘Champson Defender’.  Well-known in Devon cattle circles, he cost 14,000 guineas!  I went into the shed with him and found him to be very docile and what I can only describe as ‘box-shaped’, with an incredibly straight back and solid legs.  Disposal of bone adds greatly to butchery costs and a good meat to bone ratio such as his is important.  Kate and Robert have a stock of Devon semen going back to 1957, so some of the recent calves have fathers that have been dead for decades!

During the summer the cattle graze on nettles, willows and rushes, giving them the minerals they need to suckle their calves.  In autumn they graze turnips and kale and, when I saw them at Christmas time, they were in the old yards eating peas, barley and the sweetest smelling hay.  All of this, of course, adds to the flavour of the meat.  Being a traditional mixed farm, West Yeo has a variety of livestock.

The pigs are Oxfords, commonly known as ‘plum pudding pigs’ because they are ginger with dark spots.  They live in an orchard, supplementing their home-grown barley meal feed with apples, acorns and hazelnuts.  The hens are Wellsummers for eggs and Sassos for meat.  They are fed triticale (rye crossed with wheat) and cut maize and add to this a range of vegetation and invertebrates they find in the pasture.  Most ‘organic’ hens in Britain do not come from organic chicks, as those at West Yeo do.  The day-old chicks are bought in but weigh twice as much as those from the big non-organic chick producers.

Some of the produce from the farm goes into local shops, some beef is sold in rolls at shows and some produce goes to The Stag Inn at Rackenford, where Kate’s daughter, Sophie Bulley, is landlady.

From Issue 47 Spring 2009Exmoor beef


Exmoor’s Otter Resurgence

by Michelle Werrett

For otters, simply trying to see them is an inappropriate, a too human approach. To trace the movements of otters it is necessary to revert to more primeval methods. They must be tracked by their spoor: by wading thigh deep in a fast-flowing river or creeping, bent double, under a low-arched bridge to reach a mid-stream rock they are known to favour. Signs of their passing may be ‘padding’, or footprints, left in the silt at the water’s edge, and ‘spraint’, or droppings, deposited on a rock. But the most evocative, most affirming evidence of an otter’s presence is its smell: a warm, sweet, wild, musky odour of water weed, fish and the eternal, untameable current.

Otters are normally solitary animals, except for breeding. Constantly travelling along the rivers they employ a system of scent marking to leave messages for each other. Spraints are deposited in prominent positions that would be difficult for another otter to miss: a large rock in the middle of the river or on the inside of a bend perhaps, or a ledge under a bridge. Since otters work by scent, rather than sight, sprainting sites are not always those that look most obvious. Consideration must be given to the prevailing wind and a site will be chosen so that the wind will take the scent right across a bend in the river. If there is no convenient high spot just where an otter wants one he will sometimes build one himself, scraping up gravel or grass or whatever he can find into a little mound and depositing a spraint on top: a process, and structure, known as ‘castling’. Once the otter’s reasons for the positioning of spraints are understood they are quite easy to find. When fresh, spraints are dark and oily with the crunchy texture of fish bones and scales. Older spraints tend to dry out and fade, but the speed with which they do changes with the weather so it can be difficult to estimate age. Finding a fresh spraint with the evocative musk that was definitely not there yesterday, so confirming the presence of an otter overnight, can be strangely exciting.

otter cubsThe Somerset Otter Group conducts a co-ordinated annual two-day event where all the county’s rivers are checked simultaneously over a weekend. Any sign of an otter found on day two and known not to have been there on day one definitely confirms the presence of an otter on that stretch of river overnight. This year, for the first time, the survey was extended to cover the whole of Exmoor National Park and, where river catchments cross the boundary, just beyond.

All the major rivers and many of the smaller streams on Exmoor were covered and the survey was sufficiently thorough for it to be unlikely that any otter could have been missed. Indeed, there would not have been space for many more otter territories on the moor. In total 189 sites were checked on Exmoor, of which 151 or 81% had some evidence of an otter. 44, or 23%, produced a positive result on day two and a further 10 had fresh evidence on day one but did not quite make the day two ‘hit’. There were just seven totally blank stretches of river. Some of these were minor, shallow streams on the high moorland, and others small, short streams running into the sea on the North coast which may be just too small to provide sufficient territory for an otter. Other blank patches are known to be due to bitches with young cubs restricting their travels to a small part of their usual range. However, the really exciting discovery was to find that otters are using territories high up on the moor near the headwaters of the main rivers where it might be expected that the supply of fish would be poor. They must be Exmoor residents since it is known that there are other otters with territories below them which would prevent them going downstream. This is the case on the Bray, the Mole, the Barle and the Exe. When the survey results are mapped a little knowledge and judgement is applied to estimate the number of ranges, and therefore the minimum number of adult otters represented. This was adjudicated to a maximum of 26 and a minimum of 23. In other words, there are at the very least 23 otters living on Exmoor!

dog otter swimmingAn otter’s ability to melt invisibly into a relatively small stream belies its size. A mature dog otter might weigh 11kg and measure 120cm in length. A bitch is a little smaller but they do need to be large, powerful animals to make their living in our strongly-flowing rivers. Since their habitat is linear they must be fit to travel considerable distances and to catch fish in ever changing, sometimes hostile conditions. The length of river an otter uses is influenced by a number of factors. The quality of the river is obviously important, and if there are plentiful fish and ample cover an otter will not have to travel so far to meet his needs as on a river where those resources are scarce. Another consideration is the presence of other otters, either pressuring the boundaries of a territory or sharing the finite resources within it. The number of otters a river can support is therefore limited.

It is encouraging to find such a plentiful number of otters on Exmoor and in the surrounding countryside and is testimony to the quality and condition of the rivers. However, it was not always so. Back in the 1960s and 1970s numbers plummeted alarmingly and otters came perilously close to extinction. The removal of certain toxic chemicals from industrial and agricultural use has been the main driver in cleaning up our river systems and restoring their population. Information about otter numbers from the more distant past is to be found in the records of the old otter hunters. When they visited the Exmoor rivers in the nineteenth century the numbers of otters found were very similar to the numbers here today. It is fantastic to think that otter numbers are now back to full capacity. Yet complacency must never allow another population crash from which, next time, they may not recover and it is vital that the surveys continue so that any such disaster can be noticed and acted upon promptly.

Lithe and sinuous as a moorland stream, moving with the fluidity of the current; brown as the dark pools, quick as the chuckling riffles, otters are as much a part of a river as the trout and the dappled pebbles. Though we may seldom see one it is good to know they are there.

Further details about the Somerset Otter Group and the full survey results can be found through the Somerset Wildlife Trust website at www.somersetwildlife.org

From Issue 49, Winter 2009

Exmoor’s Young Farming Generation

by Sandy Francis

The poetic enchantments of gambolling lambs in daisy-decorated pasture, tractors trundling along lanes, cows crossing the road at milking time and the patchwork of golden corn, green paddocks and churned chocolate-fudge fields are as much a part of Exmoor’s storybook landscape as the heathers, streams and rolling cliffs. While nature generously donated the latter, the former required more than a little help from those whose dedication to countryside matters seems to begin and end in their very bone marrow – the farmers. Farming is synonymous with Exmoor. Generations of farming families have lived and died alongside nature’s gifts and challenges. Their legacy is everywhere and it has long been a tradition for farmers to pass that legacy on. Recently though, anyone who reads, hears or watches news will know that farming is probably not as straightforward as it used to be. Not only has disease caused problems, there are other tricky issues: milk quotas, dwindling livestock prices, supermarket demands and so on – new mountains it seems, every year, for farmers to conquer. Perhaps this is enough to send the new generation of country-born children running for cover – to university, to the cities, to any career that doesn’t involve getting up at 5am and wondering if the early lambs will break even this season.

A recent study by Exeter University revealed that the average age of an Exmoor farmer is 55 with a quarter being over 65. Less than 5% are under 35. This is a concern. Without the swans’ legs busily paddling away beneath all that serene beauty, the serene beauty would not exist. The statistics look worrying. They seem to say that there are few young people in the area interested in farming. Yet what they are really saying is that at the moment there are few young people actually farming – it does not necessarily follow that this predicts the state of the future. Keen to believe that farming on Exmoor is not a dying industry, I went in pursuit of a glimmer of hope. Fortunately, I found more than a few enthusiastic people who are getting stuck into the problem.

students on the land based course at the west somerset community collegeFirst stop – West Somerset Community College, Minehead. There are currently around 200 pupils aged 15-18 studying various subjects under the headingLand-based Skills. The college has supported farming for 30 years and helped write the ‘Get Your Hands Dirty’ teaching resource that is now available to all schools. Born out of a common-sense desire to provide qualified young people to meet the skills shortage on Exmoor and beyond, the college now offers eight BTEC vocational courses, mostly delivered at the new College Farm on the outskirts of town. For pupils whose first interest is farming, there is an introduction to agriculture that includes fencing, hedging, dry stone-walling, tractor use, animal and plant care and livestock production. Young farmers of the future can progress to various early certificates in agriculture that teach enough practical skills for direct progression into the workplace. Alternatively, they open the door to higher education.

Nearby, the Cannington arm of Bridgwater College is the oldest establishment for farming-based education in the country. The extensive facilities enable 16-18-year-olds to study for the National Diploma in Agriculture. Students who take this route into farming alternate their time between the college farm and the classroom. They have access to the latest technology and an introduction to evidence-based practices and new ideas from around the world. Like West Somerset Community College, the major objective is to encourage young people into farming and to give them all the tools they need to succeed. Rebecca Horsington is the senior Rebecca Horsington teaching at Cannington Collegelecturer and is firm about farmers needing a commercial outlook. To survive these days, business acumen is essential. The course teaches all aspects of the intricate economics involved in practical farming.

Students Scott, Adam and James are all 17. Statistically, they should be wearing hoodies and hanging around in shopping malls. They are not. These teenagers are far too busy. Adam and James come from farming families on the outskirts of Taunton and Tiverton while Scott’s mum and dad tend a herd of pedigree Holstein cattle in Dunster. All the boys work on their family farms. Between them, they raise heifers, bullocks and ewes, produce milk, grow grasses and wheat and show breeding stock at various agricultural shows.  The three of them quickly learned new ideas that could help their family businesses and prove invaluable when they run their own farms.

farming students at cannington collegeJames, who is interested in sheep husbandry and already has 200 ewes of his own, hopes to introduce scanning techniques that will tell him how many lambs each ewe is carrying. Not only will this save money on feed, it makes for healthier, happier livestock. Ultimately, he wants to take a degree and become a farm manager. Adam also wants to be skilled in all aspects of running a farm. The tractor maintenance module is teaching him how to save significant amounts of money on repair bills. He spoke eloquently about the importance of keeping abreast of new theory and the latest cost-efficient ideas.

On a beautiful Dunster Marsh farm under the watch of Conygar Tower, Scott Fewings has taken on the responsibility of growing wheat on land that his father previously let to neighbours. Scott’s new-found experience means that his family can now grow more of the food that feeds their pedigree show herd. His ever-increasing tractor and machinery skills also make him highly employable locally. Scott is currently undecided whether to take the dairy route like his parents or the arable route. He, James and Adam are already admirably knowledgeable about progressive practice and how British farming has long influenced the international community. Rebecca confirmed that British farming practice is among the most advanced in Europe particularly in dairy and sheep production. International input these days tends to come from further afield, with New Zealand being a favourite stopover for British youngsters on their way to a farming career. A gap year gaining work experience in another country is something that appeals to many young people and students of agriculture do not miss out. Somerset’s Young Farmers Clubs are adept at arranging overseas work placements.

Living this dream have been 20-year-old Serena Stanbury of Exmoor Young Farmers Club, and her 21-year-oldSerena Stanbury and Michael Colwille in New Zealand boyfriend Michael Colwill, Chairman of Woolsery YFC in Devon. Both come from strong farming backgrounds. Serena grew up on Combe Farm in Exford. Michael, like the boys at Cannington, trained in agriculture and has worked with tractors and dairy cows ever since. He too plans to stick with farming. The couple have been in New Zealand since October last year, Michael working for an agricultural contractor and Serena as an au pair/assistant for the owners of Grain and Food Ltd.

Serena mentioned that one of the most noticeable differences between farming in New Zealand and Britain is its visibility. Her closest town, Morrinsville, a similar size to South Molton, is predominantly agricultural with the majority of shops having farming connections. She also reported that farms and farming products are widely advertised on national radio and television. This suggests that farming has a different status in New Zealand – that it is more connected to the public than it may be here.

Interestingly, when I asked Rebecca what she feels our farming future might need in order to thrive, along with good training and well-qualified experienced young people, she described a need for farming and the public to reconnect. I asked her if there was anything we could do right now and the answer was simple – buy locally. There are farm shops and farmers’ markets popping up everywhere and this seems a good sign. I came away from my enquiries feeling sure that shopping in these places or on-line, direct from farms, contributes to the preservation of our heritage, and subsequently, the familiar beauty that it creates.

Minehead and Bridgwater Colleges, the YFCs and the hospitable New Zealanders are doing a great deal to encourage and support our young Exmoor people into farming. I made a resolution straightaway to try to do my bit and at least source dairy and meat produce locally. So far, unsurprisingly, the pleasure has been mine.

From Issue 51 Summer 2010

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