By CHRIS HILL, Rural affairs correspondent
Monday, February 25, 2013
As the Countryside Restoration Trust celebrates its 20th anniversary, its Norfolk smallholding is continuing the charity’s conservation ethos – by preserving part of East Anglia’s agricultural heritage. Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.
For 20 years, the Countryside Restoration Trust has committed itself to protecting Britain’s landscapes while championing viable wildlife-friendly farming.
But, at the charity’s Norfolk smallholding, the conservation ethos has been widened to include the preservation of East Anglia’s agricultural heritage – and the working animals which are such an important part of its rural traditions.
Mayfields Farm, occupying 40 acres on the edge of Themelthorpe, near Reepham, is home to native breeds like large black gilt pigs and Norfolk horn sheep, while a Suffolk Punch horse toils on the fields.
But the farm’s main business is training sheepdogs, which would have been a familiar sight in bygone years when the region depended on the wool trade for its wealth.
The tenant farmer is experienced sheepdog handler Sarah Jenkins, who feels that shepherding is inextricably bound to conservation.
“I have been around sheep for many years and I know that the conservation of wildlife and traditional grasslands is very important,” she said.
“The sheep is the ultimate conservation tool in terms of land management and where there are sheep, you need sheepdogs.
“Much of East Anglia’s wealth came from the wool trade, so sheep have historically been very important to our area – as is the working dog. Now, the whole agricultural history of East Anglia is in danger of being lost.”
Sarah has competed for England at international sheepdog trials and has also judged competitions in Europe and the USA.
She said demand for instruction in sheepdog handling has grown to such a degree that she is now teaching virtually every day.
The farm keeps about 100 Norfolk horn and southdown sheep, plus some hill sheep for dog training. “A good working dog needs to know about all sorts of sheep, from heavy lowland sheep to flighty hill sheep,” she said.
There are about ten dogs at the farm at various stages of their training, some of which are shared with Sarah’s daughter Megan, who also trains and works with sheepdogs.
“It takes two and a half years to turn out a fully-trained dog, and we also compete in sheep dog trials,” said Sarah. “A lot of these dogs won’t necessarily make the grade in terms of top-class competition, but they make very, very good working dogs. We have a lot of pupils who are farmers and shepherds, and there is a strong demand for a good working dog.
“I am teaching people from all walks of life, from professionals to anybody who has a dog that they would like to work around sheep. We have had everything from shepherds with thousands of sheep to a lady down the road with a pet dog. The teaching pays the bills.”
Despite the timeless qualities brought by its heritage breeds and traditional activities, the farm faces very modern challenges in order to stay afloat.
“Without the CRT, we wouldn’t exist,” said Sarah. “I am not paying the standard agricultural rent. Having said that, and the CRT will confirm this, surviving is very difficult. It is a lifestyle choice rather than anything else.”
“The CRT wants to encourage a living countryside so promoting the wellbeing of those around the farm is another very important part of that ethos. Farmers themselves are a rare breed in a lot ways.”
Another rare breed is the farm’s large black gilt pigs.
“They are a native East Anglian breed but there are very few left now,” said Sarah. “There are less than 200 registered females as far as I am aware.
“That is why we have got them from a heritage point of view and, apart from the survival issue, from an educational point of view it is important to be able to show them to children.”
The heritage theme is also carried on the sturdy frame of Gateridge Duke, a three-year-old Suffolk Punch horse whose breed was once the engine of East Anglia’s agriculture.
“He carried the whole of our food production on his shoulders,” said Sarah. “He is amazing to work with, because just like the working dog he has an absolute instinct to do his job.
“We use him for harrowing and topping. He is here to do work, just like the dogs. It is very important that these animals are here to work as hard as I do.”
But not all animals at Mayfields need to work to earn their preservation.
Native red squirrels are kept as part of a nationwide captive release programme which also includes Pensthorpe Nature Reserve near Fakenham.
This year, the farm’s breeding female produced a litter of five kittens, some of which are already on their way to be released back into their natural environment elsewhere in the country.
The red squirrel enclosure overlooks a recently-planted orchard of 100 fruit trees – all traditional East Anglian varieties – which will add further diversity to an agricultural landscape of hedges, grassland and hay meadows.
Sarah said: “In terms of local East Anglian society, it is important to recognise the part that this type of agriculture played. We are working towards a future with hopefully a new education building which will encourage all sorts of groups from orchard specialists to people who want to work with wool and related crafts.
“It is extraordinary how little the children know about where their food is produced, and that is all part of our remit.”
As part of its educational remit, the farm runs regular sheepdog displays and guided farm walks to look for owls, bats and moths. It also hosts educational groups and courses ranging from primary schools, animal science and veterinary students, Young Farmers and local livestock clubs.
Mayfields’ education officer is Jen Read, who for 20 years was headteacher of the village school in Worlingworth in Suffolk.
She said: “Sarah and I have both lived in the country all our lives and we want to hand it on to the next generation. It is very important for us.
“Unless children come out and visit the countryside, they won’t have any appreciation for it, and we cannot expect them to be interested in conserving things in the countryside if they have no idea what it is all about.
“The future of the countryside is in the hands of the next generation. Children need to value open spaces and farming. They can see that on the TV, but there is no substitute for visiting a farm, and feeling what its like walking through the mud.”
The Countryside Restoration Trust was launched 20 years ago because its founders were concerned that the government and major conservation bodies were not focused on combining wildlife initiatives with farming.
Chairman Robin Page, who founded the charity alongside the late watercolour artist Gordon Beningfield, said he was told in the 1980s that the future of conservation rested entirely in nature reserves.
The launch of the CRT in July 1993 was triggered by the return of otters to Mr Page’s farm at Barton in Cambridgeshire. The trust bought 20 acres next to the otters’ brook – which has now grown into the 450 acres of Lark Rise Farm.
The CRT now has five farms and three smallholdings, totalling more than 1,500 acres – including Mayfields in Norfolk, whose land was gifted to the trust in May 2004.
Mr Page said: “It didn’t quite work out as we expected, as we wanted a smallholding growing crops, but there was so much flint in the soil we decided it was better having a grass farm.
“At that time, Sarah (Jenkins) wanted to farm it, and everything fitted in well. Smallholdings are important to the trust as they provide work and they provide wildlife opportunities which are not always available in a larger farm.
“What is really important to us is that people have the CRT ethos, whether it is a smallholding or a large farm. It is wildlife-friendly farming, and that means it is proper farming to make a living for the person doing it, but not at the expense of all the wildlife that is there.
“This is one of the big problems that we are going to face as Britain’s population increases and as cheap food becomes a thing of the past. There will be pressures put on intensifying farming and the wildlife is set to suffer more in the next few years.”