PETER FROST finds some rather unusual animals on British farms.
The British countryside is changing. Agricultural diversification is the name of the game but what it means is changing crops and unusual animals in our fields.
As farmers look for different and more profitable products they are turning to rare breeds and unusual stock. Today the produce of these changes are more and more likely to be sold from the farm gate, or perhaps a dedicated farm shop. Farmers Markets too usually have a few surprising and delicious things to buy.
Another pleasant effect of these changes is that many farmers are welcoming visitors to come and meet the new and unusual beasts as well as some of the more traditional ones.
Every new season the British countryside always has a few new surprises for us.
Many years ago if you found a bright yellow field in Norfolk you could bet it was Colman’s mustard. Later the whole countryside seemed to turn bright yellow but it wasn’t more mustard. In fact it was rape seed grown for cooking oil.
Today varieties of that same yellow rape are being grown to produce bio-diesel.
Lupins were a short lived fad planted as a fodder for sheep. The purple and pale blue fields were as pretty as any crop can be but they seemed to disappear overnight.
In the last year or so I’ve noticed some pale lilac fields that only show their colour in bright sunshine. When the sun goes in the tiny flowers close turning the field back to green.
Its linseed; grown both for the health food trade and for oil. The oil is used for traditional paints and flooring (the lin in lino) and, my husband tells me, for oiling cricket bats!
But this feature isn’t really about plants it’s about the strange beasts that are poking their heads over the gate as we drive past in our motor caravans.
Today meat shoppers are becoming more interested in flavour, animal welfare and sustainable food with a local character. Farmers are realising that the fast growing profitable hybrids might not actually be the best way to go.
Rare breeds are back and today discerning shoppers want to know what breed of pig produced the bacon and how was it looked after.
Nowadays at farm shops and farmer’s markets you can chose between Gloucester Old Spot chops or a Saddleback leg of pork.
It isn’t just meat. We’ll visit a farm where water Buffalo wallow in the mud beside the OxfordCanal and produce naturally low fat milk, yoghurt and even ice cream.
Another visit takes us into the world of high fashion with some wonderfully elegant garments made from the softest lightest wool you could imagine.
Venison is becoming evermore popular and deer farming is now common and growing in popularity. It still unusual enough that whenever I see a herd of deer in a field I stop for a good look at these handsome beasts.
Another form of game regaining a foothold in our countryside is wild boar. Apparently it’s very difficult to keep true wild boar in captivity but wild herds are being introduced into some native woodland.
Wild boar can be crossed with a Tamworth pig and the resulting animal is known as an Iron Age pig. It is the best pork I’ve ever tasted.
Geese are becoming more popular too and a good goose is one of my favourite dishes. Many geese are raised in small flocks and sold at the farm gate but some large farms are being established to meet the growing demand. A huge field snowed over with white geese feeding on standing maize is an impressive sight that is coming back to our countryside.
Perhaps the most unusual changes in farming are in the Scottish Islands. Salmon farming has changed the most expensive and luxury food of my youth into one of the commonest and least expensive on the market today. Pass the smoked salmon.
English Bison, West Knoyle, Wiltshire.
There were once sixty million bison (often incorrectly known as the American buffalo) roaming the plains and prairies of North America.
The original natives hunted a few of them and used every part of the beast. The meat was taken for food, the hides for clothing and to make their lodges, tepees or wigwams, the bone and horns made tools and even the tendons were used for bow strings.
Buffalo and natives lived in balance for centuries until the white man arrived to open up the West. Within decades, in one of the most scandalous acts of environmental vandalism ever, the huge herds had gone, hunted almost to extinction.
Today intense conservation means that bison are no longer an endangered species and are thriving across North America. More than half a million again roam in the not so wild west.
You don’t have to cross the Atlantic however to see and learn about the Bison. A trip to Salisbury Plain will do just as well.
At the English Bison Centre in West Knoyle you can see a herd of over a hundred of the Bison and learn much about this amazing creature. The on site gallery and exhibition tells the story of the animal and also of the plains Indians who shared its life.
The farm has a mile circular walk that lets you view the bison and also elk and red deer in almost natural surroundings.
Back at the farm there are poultry, owls, rare breed sheep, prairie dogs chipmunks and racoons. At weekend there are often live displays of Native American culture.
The farm shop sells many kinds of meat including bison and elk venison.
Toft Alpacas, Dunchurch, Warwickshire
Every camper, unkind folk say, needs a woolly hat, but there are woolly hats and woolly hats. Headwear doesn’t come any more stylish that from Toft Alpacas in Warwickshire.
The alpaca originates from South America, where it has been bred for its wonderful wool for over 6,000 years. It comes from the same family as the llama and the vicuna.
At the height of the Inca Empire alpacas were being bred in large numbers to provide a very luxurious fibre, which was made into fine garments to be worn exclusively by the Inca nobility.
Today anyone, including you or me, can wear the rich and wonderfully soft and luxurious wool from this cuddly and attractive relation of the camel.
The Bettison Family have a breeding herd of about 160 Alpacas in the tiny hamlet of Toft near Dunchurch in Warwickshire. The farm has amazing views over Draycott water.
Once the herd has been sheared the wool is made into all kinds of high fashion items. The work is carried out in Britain by spinning and knitting specialists mostly working at home around the country.
The on site shop, run by youngest member of the family Kerry, is full of wonderful hats, scarves, bags and bigger garments. It hard to describe how light and soft alpaca fibre is until you try it on. Home knitters can buy the yarn to make their own garments.
There is also a range of fair trade alpaca items made in Peru.
Visitors are invited to see the alpacas in the fields around the shop.
Napton Water Buffalo, Warwickshire
Last summer I was lucky enough to visit India and take a river boat up the Hugli and Ganges rivers. One of the sights I got used to was huge water buffalo wallowing in the mud of the sacred river.
Imagine my surprise then when, back in England and strolling down the towpath of the OxfordCanal I came across a herd of what looked like the very same beasts.
The Napton Water Buffalo herd was born in 1999, when the Alsop family bought their first twenty buffalo cows and a bull from Romania, where these animals are a common sight.
Today the herd numbers over a hundred. Roger and Marie Alsop and son Stuart milk the buffalo at the farm. Much of the milk finds a ready market in the Asian shops of the Midlands and London.
On the farm they make various dairy products from the buffalo milk. One of the first of these was the development and manufacture of ice creams.
They have also developed natural yoghurts but the most famous use for Buffalo milk, making proper Mozzarella cheese, has so far defeated them.
Buffalo milk and products made from it are popular with some people who have an intolerance to normal cow’s milk.
Napton Water Buffalo offer fresh meat for sale directly from the farmhouse door. Burgers and sausages, hand made from buffalo meat are also available alongside the dairy products made on the farm.
What’s in a name?
Water Buffalo are not to be confused with the American “buffalo” which are really bison (Bison Bison).
The true Water Buffalo, (Bubalus Bubalis) are native across most of Asia, and are the only variety which can be milked.
There are actually more water buffalo kept world-wide than cows and both bison and buffalo meat are lower in fat and cholesterol than many other meats.
Old Dairy Farm Centre, Upper Stowe, Northamptonshire
Our last visit involves rather more ordinary animals, sheep. But at the Old Dairy Farm Centre they invite you on to the farm to witness one of the most wonderful experience of all; the miracle of new life.
Every weekend in March and in early April the farm opens its lambing sheds to visitors. It’s always top of the list on my grand daughter Elizabeth’s requests for a weekend away with Nanny.
Elizabeth still talks about her first visit where she saw the female shepherd help to deliver five tiny lambs in as many minutes.
It is an amazing as well as truly educational experience and one that gives children a better understanding of all kinds of aspects of life itself.
A visit here will ensure a long list of those kid’s questions on everything from sex to vegetarianism. The knowable shepherd will have the answers to the more practical enquiries. For the more philosophical ones on the meaning of life you are on your own!
Children are encouraged to pick up, cuddle, and feed the orphans lambs. Don’t worry; we adults can have a go to if we want to join in the cuddling.
The family at the Old Dairy are old hands at agricultural diversification. They have a courtyard of shops around the old farmyard including a traditional sweet shop that is almost as popular with grandchildren as the baby lambs.
There are a variety of other shops, craft studios and galleries as well as a delightful barn restaurant and teashop.
Like all births, lambs don’t always arrive bang on schedule so check with the farm for exact dates of the lambing weekends. Sadly this will be even more important this year with any restrictions caused by the various health and disease issues on farms today.
A serious warning
It is never advisable for anybody who is or thinks they may be pregnant to go near sheep during lambing.