Norfolk tenant farmer’s Suffolk Punch success

Arable farmer James Murrell has been officially recognised by the Suffolk Horse Society as a breeder of the one of the world's rarest heavyweight breeds.

As a tenant on Norfolk County Council's eastern estate, Mr Murrell and his wife Clare wanted to start a small livestock enterprise on the 100-acre Willow Farm, South Burlingham, near Acle.

A month ago, their first Suffolk Punch foal was born, which has been entered in the society's records as South Burlingham Toby.

It was five years ago when they bought their first Suffolk Punch, also a colt. As Mr Murrell explained, until they had demonstrated their ability to look after this highly-attractive breed of heavy horse, they were not likely to be given an opportunity to buy any fillies.

But their chance came in 2007 when a breeder near Saffron Walden agreed to sell them Mynchen's Manor Pollyanna and her half-sister, Mynchen's Manor Lady Lucinda.

The four-old Pollyanna produced the colt foal on March 22 at 2.30am. Sired by Euston Malachite, the healthy foal was turned out to grass on his second day. Lucinda, who was also served by the same sire from the Duke of Grafton's Euston estate, near Thetford, lost her foal but will return again this year.

Mr and Mrs Murrell have always been fascinated by the breed since watching the Suffolk heavy horse judging at the Royal Norfolk Show several years ago. They had built up two cattle enterprises including a 75-head herd of suckler cattle and a small pedigree herd of polled Herefords. When they were sold, they remained keen to try a new challenge.

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'We were farmers and capable of looking after horses,' said Mr Murrell, who acknowledged the generous and unstinting support of fellow Broadland farmer and a former chairman of Suffolk Horse Society, Ivan Cooke, late of Oby.

'He was a great help and he often came here to help us if we were pre-paring for a show,' said Mrs Murrell.

Later they acquired another colt and then both were bought by the Gressenhall Rural Life Museum, near Dereham. 'They had lost their two horses, one after the other. We decided to start breeding from the fillies, but Pollyanna was rather small. We wanted her to get to full growth and then they were put into foal as four-year-olds,' she added.

But the arable contracting business remains key for the farm's future, said Mr Murrell, who has just been granted a 15-year tenancy. 'We had received a letter telling us that we would lose our 100 acres. It was all a bit stressful, but now we've got a chance to develop the business,' he added.

In recent years, they had tried diversification by opening a farm shop, which produced some fascinating insights into consumer behaviour and attitudes. And again, with 11 stables on the farm, a livery enterprise was an obvious option but without major investment in off-road riding and all weather surfaces for customers, it was never going to be a rip-roaring success.

The �15 weekly income for liveries hardly covered the cost of hay and straw, he said. He decided to build up the contracting side of the business, which caused a few sleepless nights when some expensive kit was acquired.

He specialises in spraying and also combining. 'We came here to farm. I didn't come here to watch a contractor going up and down the field. Farming is in my blood – that's what I want to do with a passion.'

'When we had the beef herds, we didn't have our own able equipment. Often we were the last to be drilled or the last for combining, or spraying just before the rain. It was a nightmare.

'We spent all the money from the beef herd and the cattle equipment. We bought a combine, tractors, ploughs and a self-propelled sprayer, drills, trailers and cultivators. I'm keen to get into spraying and have a Sands 3000 24-metre machine,' said Mr Murrell, aged 36.

Farming and machinery is central to his life because he started as a fitter for agricultural engineers Ben Burgess & Co and was a sales repre-sentative for Framlingham Tractors and also a full-time welder fabricator for Rowlands Metalcraft at Aylsham.

In the past 10 years as a county council tenant, he has concentrated on improving the land, which has been mucked heavily. 'We get strong yields of sugar beet and cereals,' he said.