The sheep aren’t taking any notice of us at all. Ignoring the age-old advice of never working with animals or children, we’re trying to get a shot of a small, shaggy North Ronaldsay ram. Much to the amusement of the public, the flock are swarming around us as we try to gather them into a corner of the pen, our arms outstretched in a vain attempt to convince the uncooperative creatures that we are impenetrable walls. Only one man in our band of hapless sheepherders knows what he’s doing, and within seconds a sheep is nabbed, calmed and is posing happily for the camera. To millions of BBC One viewers, he is Countryfile presenter, Adam Henson, who regularly climbs hills and dells or tries his hand at various outdoor pursuits. This morning, as I’ve seen him catch fleeing lambs, march a one-ton ox across pasture or sweep wriggling piglets into his arms, I wonder how many Countryfile devotees realise that his TV presenting is only a sideline; in his heart and soul, Adam Henson is still a farmer.
The Cotswold Farm Park is part of the 1,600-acre Bemborough Farm, which sits 900 feet above sea level in the Cotswolds. Here, families can see some of the rarest agricultural breeds that have grazed our land from Neolithic and Roman times to the present day. Standing amidst the child-sized battery operated tractor rides or the touch barn full of bottle-fed lambs and new-born chicks, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is just another example of a farm embracing tourism to stay afloat. However, Bemborough Farm was something of a pioneer.
In 1962, Adam’s dad, Joe Henson, had taken the tenancy of the then 400-acre farm owned by Corpus Christi College, Oxford. While it was mainly an arable farm, Joe’s love of animals, and in particular rare breeds, led to the beginning of an unrivalled collection of endangered livestock. Consisting, at first, of modest herds of Gloucester old spot pigs, shire horses and Cotswold sheep, the collection was bolstered when he took on much of Whipsnade Zoo’s unwanted rare breeds in 1970. With the animals safe in their new Cotswold home, the idea of letting the public visit the new arrivals was too good to ignore. The doors of the Cotswold Farm Park opened for the first time in 1971.
“Dad’s mates said he was mad,” explains Adam as we walk around the main ring of enclosures that house the various breeds. “They told him he was here to feed the nation, not get into tourism. There was even a petition from the locals saying that they didn’t want tourists in the Cotswolds, blocking up the roads, but it took off and we’re still here to tell the tale today. You have to remember that back then, diversification of farms hadn’t even been thought of. This place was very forward thinking.”
When Joe and his business partner John Neave retired, Adam took over the running of the farm with college friend Duncan Andrews. Adam and Duncan also manage the estate next door and due to a new contract agreement for a farm in Moreton-in-Marsh they’re now farming around 3,000 acres in total. Commercially they farm wheat, oil-seed rape and spring barley, but for the 70,000 visitors that walk through the Cotswold Farm Park gates every year, the rare breeds are the stars.
Rare breeds are animals that are no longer in sync with modern intensive farming. Their need for largely natural feed, longer rearing time and idiosyncratic characteristics make them an impractical choice for intensive producers looking for prolific quantities of milk or standardised, cheap meat. As we have moved from local fare and high-street butchers to national supply chains and pre-packaged produce, many breeds have fallen by the wayside, no longer needed by society. Thankfully the likes of Adam and other members of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, a society founded by Joe Henson soon after opening the park, are working to ensure they are not completely forgotten.
Adapting to change
A good example of why Adam believes rare breeds are worth saving is found in his own flock of Cotswold sheep. “The Cotswolds were built on the wealth of these animals. In fact, they even gave the area its name, with a cot meaning a sheep enclosure and wold a rolling hill. The trouble is they have rangy carcass that was mainly used for mutton, which people eventually stopped eating. The introduction of oil-based polyesters meant we didn’t need their wool either, so they just weren’t profitable. Farmers chose more productive breeds with shorter legs, more meat and less wool and they very nearly disappeared. If they’d gone forever, all we’d have is pictures in history books.”
However, we not just talking about a living museum of anachronistic curios. As Adam explains, there’s a serious scientific reason for protecting the breeds too. “The Rare Breeds Survival Trust has set up a gene bank, collecting blood and semen samples, so that if a breed was wiped out by, say, foot and mouth disease, they could fall back on the bank to reintroduce the variety.”
The gene bank could also give future farmers more flexibility. If trends change once again, this archive of genetic material may help farmers to move with the times. According to Adam it’s already happening. “We’re already moving back to conservation grazing and there’s a need for sheep that are easy to look after, don’t necessarily need shearing but can survive on remote hills. The trust’s gene bank will have examples of each of those individual qualities from old multi-purpose breeds. While we may not currently like the fatty meat of the Gloucestershire old spot, we may one day find a need for an orchard pig that thrives in the outdoors. Again, the gene bank comes into its own, but I think it’s also important to have the living animals with us so we can selectively breed and change the direction of farming if we want to.”
Whatever the successes of the trust, which hasn’t seen another breed become extinct in its 34-year history, we shouldn’t be holding our breath for a return to multi-purpose farm animals just yet. “We have to feed a growing population and we won’t do it from half a dozen Gloucester old spots,” Adam realistically admits. “There are modern pigs with more teats than these old breeds, able to produce litters of even-sized, bountiful piglets for cheap pork. While it’s all very idyllic picturing little piglets wandering around in mud, it’s no way to feed, say, Birmingham. There will always be a place for mass production, but I think rare breeds are safer than they’ve ever been. There’s so much more awareness thanks to cookery shows and parks like this. We were the only rare breed park in the 1970s, but now there are 24 affiliated to the Rare Breed Survival Trust and about 1,100 around the country.”
Adam’s television profile can only help raise further awareness about rare breeds and the work of the Cotswold Farm Park. Discovered after a nationwide search for a new Countryfile presenter eight years ago, Adam recently branched out to the spin-off Countryfile Summer Diaries and regularly appears on Radio Four’s On Your Farm. But the bright lights of TV land haven’t tempted him too far from his routes and his beloved rare breeds.
“I realised quite early on that TV is a fickle industry and my face may not fit forever, so I never wanted to give up farming. It’s in my blood and my first love. As long as I can balance both presenting and farming, I’d like to carry on the way I am.”