Leigh Weston and Neil Heseltine farm Hill Top Farm, which is part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.Source: © FARMERS GUARDIAN please contact 01772 799445.
KNOWING their herd and understanding the challenging land surrounding their farm is a combination which means Neil and Leigh have a business they are proud to be taking forward. Marie-Claire Kidd reports.
Hill Top Farm in Malham, North Yorkshire, is where deliberately old fashioned farming meets 21st century technology.
You can follow it on Twitter and if you are fortunate enough to enjoy a walk on the limestone pavements above the village, you may see Neil Heseltine and Leigh Weston’s herd of Belted Galloway cattle - a relatively new addition to the local scenery.
Hardy upland cattle originally created and maintained the landscape in this corner of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, but during the last 50 years their numbers have dwindled. They were replaced by sheep, which graze only the most palatable plant species. The loss of cattle, which are less selective, resulted in rank vegetation remaining ungrazed.
During the last 10 years, the limestone pavements of the Dales have seen a return of traditional upland cattle breeds, thanks in part to the now defunct Limestone Country Project (LCP). Funded by the European Commission LIFE Fund, it aimed to restore limestone habitats, using native cattle and whole farm management plans.
Many local farmers took advantage of LCP grants to establish new herds as some chose Highland cattle, others Blue Greys and others Welsh Blacks.
The couple chose Belted Galloways, beginning in 2003 when they bought 19 Beltie heifers and one bull. Since then the herd has grown to a steady 80. Neil has kept the same number of breeding heifers throughout, buying stock bulls as needed, and has sold up to 10 finished bullocks per year.
He says: “The number I keep might go up slightly, but 90 would be a maximum. They graze outside and in the bad weather, the land couldn’t carry any more.”
Selling the bullocks for between £900 and £1,000 has made this a profitable venture, and for the last two years the couple have enjoyed a successful arrangement with Booths and the
National Trust, from whom they rent some land, through the ‘Traditional Beef from National Trust Farms’ programme.
Booths collect the live animals in October and November, after they have fattened naturally over summer, and kill and butcher them at a local plant in Preston, Lancashire. It sells the meat in its supermarkets in the run up to Christmas, including in nearby Settle.
“We see it when we go to Booths,” says Leigh, the technology-savvy member of the team. “It says Neil Heseltine, Hill Top Farm, Malham, and it’s nice to see. People speak very highly of the meat.
“Customers have trust in the National Trust as an organisation; they’re buying into the National Trust story. It’s working for Booths and for us.”
Neil and Leigh believe the Belties and their land are a perfect fit. The soil overlying the limestone at Malham is thin and of low fertility, and the weather can be testing, even for hardy breeds.
Belties provide marbled beef with a distinct texture and flavour, even under tough conditions. In Neil and Leigh’s case, the LCP paid about half of the capital cost of establishing the herd.
Neil says: “It was a five-year grazing scheme, but we had a commitment to keep the cattle and keep them in that way for a 10-year period.
“As the LCP was coming to an end Higher Level Stewardship [HLS] and the Countryside Stewardship Scheme [CSS] took over where it left off, and it did that quite effectively. They’ve taken what they’ve learned by grazing this area by cattle and that became part of HLS.
“It restricts you in terms of what numbers you can graze, the timings of grazing and what you can feed the animals, among other things, but I don’t see any of it as a hindrance. I do it because I believe in it.
“I believe this is how agriculture should be. The key for me is it should be sustainable, environmentally and financially, and I think the current scheme is meeting that.”
The farm was in the CSS 10 years prior to the introduction of HLS, as it is situated in a national park, with Sites of Special Scientific Interest and limestone on the land. “It’s about fitting the criteria,” says Neil.
He accepts HLS and the Single Payment are crucial for the viability of hill farmers. “The Single Payment and environment schemes are what keeps me going,” he says. “Livestock farming is almost there to add to the agreement. Often they don’t affect my bottom line.
“Sometimes they make money. The cattle are making money now, but it took five years to do that.
“We’re not selling them until they are three years old, so there is quite a long lead in. It took five years until we covered our investment costs, but I knew it was a long-term investment.”
The couple is working with the Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) to achieve another layer of branding, which will compliment its arrangement with Booths and the National Trust.
“All our cattle are finished and fed on grass or occasionally silage or hay, we don’t give them concentrates,” says Leigh. “The PFLA brings everybody together as to how to market grass-fed beef.
“We share common ideas, experience and information. They’re moving forward point-of-sale branding, including stickers and information and a recognised standard. We’ll still sell through Booths, but with a guarantee our animals are pasture fed.
“The reason we’re going down this route is sustainability. Under our agreements with Natural England we could winter them indoors if we wanted, and we could feed them some concentrates, but this seems the right thing to do for the cow.
“We believe their welfare is better living outside through the winter. They grow a very long coat. They’re extremely hardy and extremely strong. They’re used to living outdoors in a harsh climate and they’re naturally able to survive in these conditions.
“When you see where they come from you understand why. Those Galloway Hills won’t be high quality grazing and they make the best of the land.”
The cattle fend for themselves, unless the winter is extreme, in which case they are given silage or hay, which is produced on the farm.
“It’s minimal input and minimal intervention, which is sustainable,” says Neil. “We bring them off in May or June for the cows to calve and to take the previous year’s calf off them.
“I don’t vaccinate them and I don’t worm them. The key is the breed and that they’re farmed in an extensive way.”
The cows roam across more than 445 hectares (1,100 acres) some of which is owned by the family, some of which is rented, including 40ha (100 acres) rented from the National Trust.
The herd shares the pasture with about 360 of the Heseltines’ Swale ewes, which are tupped with Bluefaced Leicester rams, with the Mule lambs sold for breeding.
Up until now the heifers have calved themselves, without any intervention. “When the Belties calve they behave very much like wild animals,” says Leigh. “They calve away from the herd and leave the calf hidden in the grass, going back to feed it. They’re really good mothers.”
Neil does not want to interfere unless he has to: “All I really want is a bullock which is going to achieve a good weight naturally,” he says. “All I can do is buy cattle which are well shaped and hope that carries on into the progeny.”
He is looking for a strong gait, a straight back, a good size and some height from the ground, as well as a clear uninterrupted belt.
“As a society we’ve moved from beef being a luxury product to something people expect to be able to eat every day,” he says. “That’s not good for the animals but it’s also not good from an economic point of view or an environmental point of view.
“We’re not here to be preachy about how we do things. Farming native breeds extensively suits our farm and our ethos. It suits us, our land and our situation. It helps make what we do sustainable.”
Leigh Weston says all farmers should try the social media site Twitter, even those who have not taken to other technology.
“I think Twitter can revolutionise life for farmers,” she says. “People in rural areas don’t have the time to get out and meet other farmers and talk. Twitter’s a great tool for the farming community because it’s so short [online posts are only 140 characters long].
“The younger generation are on Twitter, but their parents should be too. Once you get on there you can have a conversation or comment on discussions. It’s a great way to try new ways of marketing, and it’s free. I ‘Tweet’ about what’s happening on-farm.”
Neil says: “Talking in general terms, farmers aren’t the best marketers in the world. We don’t value our own product as highly as we should. We need to be open minded about marketing and ways we can embrace technology such as Twitter and Facebook.”
10 July 2012