Shepherd’s dream is revived with the help of Norfolk County Farms tenancy
- Credit: Nick Butcher
A Norfolk shepherd's farming dream has been reignited with the help of Norfolk County Council's farm estate.
For as long as he can remember Robin Shreeve wanted to be a farmer, and as a young boy he had big plans for one day taking on the tenanted farm his father ran near Wroxham.
As the eldest of four boys he had visions of rearing cattle and pigs on the holding, with younger brother Alistair.
It had a three generation tenancy, started by their grandfather, and the brothers would see it to the end.
But when Robin was 15 and Alistair 14 their father Peter took the devastating decision to give up the tenancy.
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'It felt like my world was over,' he said. 'I spent my childhood thinking I would work there the rest of my life, and my brother the same. My future was all mapped out and suddenly there was nothing.'
There were a number of reasons why his father had to give up the farm, but the BSE crisis was a major factor. It hit them hard and the finances no longer added up.
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'It was a hard decision for my father,' said Robin. 'It had been his greatest achievement and he thought he would hand it over to me.'
Reluctantly Robin went to Easton College 'because I didn't know what else to do', and then found work milking cows. He and Alistair were livestock boys through and through and had no interest in the arable side.
'I bought a few ewes just as a way into working for myself. First I could only get some pretty rubbish land to put them on with electric fence but gradually I got hold of some better parcels. It was a fairly hand to mouth existence and I didn't have a clue about sheep. I thought a mule was a cross between a horse and a donkey!'
But Robin quickly found he enjoyed shepherding and also realised he wanted to be self-employed.
His first sheep were north country mules which he put to Texel tups, keeping the girls and increasing his flock. He was supported both with advice and equipment in the early days by respected sheep farmer Chris Lewis.
'For the first few years I lambed in my father's garden,' he said. 'Then I rented some buildings in North Walsham where I lived in a caravan. It was pretty basic.'
Robin also started shearing and in his first year clipped around 1,000 sheep. He gave up his round last year having amassed over 14,000 customers.
But it was in 2012, in the height of the shearing season, that he heard 12 council farms were coming up for new tenancies.
He had about two weeks to put together a business plan and submit a tender and to his amazement the council offered him a holding at Mautby, near Caister.
It was less than 100 acres but he jumped at the chance and immediately set about grassing over the whole farm.
'I had no money, no equipment and six upland fields. One field was sub-let out for potatoes and the others went to grass. I had no knowledge of arable farming so I thought that was the best option.'
The following year his brother also successfully bid for a council farm at South Walsham to rear pigs but after a few years they decided that to spread the risk they would cultivate one extra field a year for crops.
They bought some old second-hand machinery, between them sharing a drill and a plough and a couple of ancient combines.
'I was so focused on sheep it took me a long time to realise I could do it. All I had thought about was getting more and more ewes but I had other options.'
The council were also keen on a more mixed operation as it was good for the land.
'People told me that these little farms were too small to be profitable as arable enterprises but the sheep generate the additional income and I do cattle dealing as well.
'I feel these farms should stay small so young people have a chance of getting started. The key to success is not always having more acres. If you can't make a living out of a small acreage you shouldn't be doing it. I don't have to pay any wages because I can manage it all myself.'
Robin, 33, has cut back his sheep flock to 200 ewes which are currently grazing on 70 acres of rented solar panel land nearby. He is bulling two dozen sucklers on the holding's 18 acres of marshland.
The farm has a few outbuildings for lambing.
'After we lost the tenancy I never dreamed I would be farming again but here we are and I am farming again in my own right. I am never going to be rich but riches come in different forms. There is a great deal of satisfaction seeing the fruits of your labours.
'The way I work with my brother has given me the confidence to do more.
'I don't ever want to feel the way I felt when I was 15 again, when it all seemed impossible.'
Robin is now in the fourth year of a 10 year tenancy and at the moment he hopes it will be renewed when the time comes.
He will get married next year to fiancee Erin, with their reception on the farm, and hopes in time that their children will be able to enjoy a career in farming.
'I don't want them to struggle in the same way I have,' he said. 'But I do think I appreciate what I have got more because I had to struggle to get it.'
Sadly Robin's father passed away last year but no doubt he would be hugely proud of his sons' achievements.
'Father always said if you want something hard enough you will make it happen, and he was right.'
County farms estate
Norfolk's County Farms Estate extends to over 6,500 hectares of prime agricultural land and has 145 tenants.
The estate provides significant income for the county council, which helps to pay for services and to meet its ongoing sustainable development commitments.
County Farms are an important entry point for new farmers and the estate supports many rural jobs throughout the county.
As well as the financial benefits and opportunities for rural businesses, the estate is used to improve public access to the countryside and to protect biodiversity and archaeology.