Farmers Guardian - A Lakeland farm with its own tales of heritage

Farmers Guardian - A Lakeland farm with its own tales of heritage

When Jon and Caroline Watson took over the tenancy of a historic National Trust farm in the heart of the Lake District they knew they would have to draw on a number of income streams to make a living. Their latest venture is the sale of traditionally reared beef and lamb in insulated boxes.

Like the farm’s former owner, the children’s author Beatrix Potter, Lakeland farmers Jon and Caroline Watson realised that they needed more than simple farming to support a family at Yew Tree Farm, Coniston – a National Trust owned property.

As they developed various forms of diversification, they realised that with falling farm support payments that any additional profit from these diversified businesses was being increasingly ‘sucked up’ to support the farming side of the business.

Their answer, with the backing of the Trust, has been to add value to their livestock through sales of Heritage Meat Hampers using home-produced lamb and beef based on Herdwick lamb and Belted Galloway beef.

The couple took over the tenancy of the 500-acre hill farm in May 2002. While the farm is not particularly high rising to around 1,000ft, much of it is steep and rocky fell. Coniston is also a high rainfall area. The top land is only accessible in one or two places and single tracks go up or down in those areas.

Before then Jon was a farm manager working near Malham, North Yorkshire while Caroline was a ranger with the Yorkshire Dales National Park. They both wanted their own farm and after trying for a number of tenancies, initially in North Yorkshire and subsequently in the Lake District they were offered and took the tenancy of Yew Tree Farm.

The traditional Lakeland farmhouse dates back to about 1690 and was bought by Beatrix Potter in 1930 to protect it, and the surrounding estate, from commercial forestry. She then sold the farm to the National Trust.

The Watson’s came to the farm at a difficult time. On taking up their 15-year farm business tenancy, they faced high prices sourcing stock locally because of farmers re-stocking after losing their original stock to foot-and-mouth disease. They started farming with Aberdeen-Angus and Limousin cross suckler cows and Blackface sheep brought down from Aviemore in Scotland. On top of this, they also took over a farm that had major problems with ticks. Their new cattle and sheep proved susceptible to tick-borne infections. An additional problem was that although the farm is near former copper mines, the cattle were suffering from copper deficiency, leading to problems getting cows into calf and abortions in about four cows.

More recently they have turned increasingly to native breeds concentrating on Belted Galloway cattle and the local Herdwick sheep.

The farm now carries about 16 suckler cows and some 300 ewes, the latter made up of Herdwicks, half-breds, and a few Lleyns. Apart from Herdwick used for pure breeding, Suffolk, Texel and Charollais tups are used as terminal meat sires on the half-breds and Lleyns.

The Belted Galloway came from a range of sources including some from Dartmoor. Like the Herdwicks, the Belties were chosen for their hardiness and ability to thrive outdoors under hard conditions.

Jon said: “The cattle on Dartmoor are brought down from the moor for the winter, so autumn calving suits that system. That is why we have both autumn and spring calving here, but are moving towards all spring calving which suits our situation better.”

Caroline added: “We started with a mix of sheep, but are changing to Herdwick because of the value of the meat. It is also one of the few breeds that will cope with our weather conditions. There is also the fact that almost all Herdwick flocks are in the Lake District so our Herdwick lamb meets little competition from outside the area.

“When we took the tenancy we knew that we would have to generate some income from outside farming. The farm came with a self-catering holiday cottage which was very useful and we have three bedrooms we can use for bed and breakfast. The cottage is almost fully booked all year round, and the bed and breakfast does well, though is mostly weekends during the winter.

“Before Beatrix Potter sold the farm she realised whoever farmed here would need to make some money away from farming and created a small tearoom at the front of the house, When we took the farm over the room was used as a dining room for bed and breakfast guests, but we have re-opened it as a walkers’ tearoom. The room is very much as Beatrix Potter left it with much of her original furniture still in place.

“It was opened as a walkers’ tearoom without vehicular access partly for planning reasons, including traffic considerations. We also did not want the farm to become part of a Beatrix Potter trail attracting large numbers of people including coach parties.”

Jon said: “With the changes in farm support it rapidly became apparent that while the various farm diversifications were working reasonably well, the money we were making was literally being sucked back to support the farming side of the business, especially the suckler beef. In addition we were away wintering some of the sheep, which was costing us a fortune.

“The situation was not helped in that we did not have a historic base for farm support. The only way forward was to make more money from our livestock by selling our own meat. With backing from Leader+, Defra, and Distinctly Cumbria we set up a small cutting and packing plant on the farm underneath the historic spinning gallery. I do not like the idea of stock going long distances for slaughter and were able to make use of a small, family-run slaughter house only about 20 minutes drive from the farm. Generally we plan to kill our cattle as close to 30 months as possible. Being small, the slaughterhouse we use is unlikely to become licensed to deal with over-30-month-old cattle under present arrangements.”

After researching possible brand names, Caroline and Jon opted for Heritage Meat Hampers and drew on professional help in the design of packaging and promotional material. They say that the new enterprise fits in well with their tourism businesses, guests and tearoom customers often ordering hampers during their visits. The specialist hamper boxes are insulated with locally produced wool.

“There is the very real risk in an area such as this that there are becoming too many farms offering the same or similar things. We have a unique and highly attractive location which no-one else can have, but we must be careful to offer high quality products and service if we are to compete. Farms looking for new diversifications must be prepared to look for new or different business away from the traditional such as bed and breakfast where there is a real danger of saturation in some areas,” said Caroline.

At present they promote heavily on the naturalness and traceability of their product, but are unsure about the practicalities or financial benefits of conversion to organic status.

“In theory this is the way we should go. We are looking into organic conversion, but are sceptical that it is possible with the problems of this type of farm, especially in dealing with tick problems. At the moment we feel that the problems involved in organic conversion for this farm may well outweigh any benefits for us,” said Jon.

While Jon and Caroline were keen to take on a small farm in an attractive rural area, they fear it will be increasingly hard for landlords, including the National Trust, to find tenants for such farms. They say that increasingly young people are reluctant to take on farms offering relatively low incomes, seven-day-a-week working with no, or little, chance of holidays, and no sick pay.

On top of this there is the very real problem of finding affordable housing in areas such as the Lake District when the tenancies come to an end. With family houses in the Lake District costing £200,000 to £300,000 and often more, they say that there is little prospect of tenants on small farms such as there own being able to buy their own house. Both Jon and Caroline believe that this is a ‘time bomb’ that will create major problems for the future of such areas.

Overall they are happy with their move to a historic farm in the Lake District. Mr and Mrs Watson also say that the developments at Yew Tree Farm would not have been possible without the full support of the farm’s owners, the National Trust.

Caroline adds that it helped having worked for the Trust in the past and her experience as a ranger has given her a sound understanding of working with public and environmental pressures in national parks. Her love of the hills is also reflected in her off-farm interests as a keen fell runner and as part of the local mountain rescue team.

Based in the heart of the Lake District

YEW TREE FARM, Coniston, Cumbria, LA21 8DP|Telephone: 015394 41433 | 07753 957150|Email: info@heritagemeats.co.uk