FREE-RANGE TURKEYS, CATTLE & SHEEP, WILTSHIRE: Trained in aquatics and ornamental fish, Chris admits he didn’t intend to become a farmer. But a book on British butterflies that he read around a decade ago changed that, making him believe that helping run his 200-acre (81-hectare) family farm could be a unique opportunity to help wildlife and the environment.
Chris manages the farm near Swindon with help from his father. It used to be a dairy farm, but around two decades ago Chris' father converted it to beef. He farmed it in a 'conventional' manner but now Chris is trying to farm it more holistically, to benefit the whole farm ecosystem. Recently Chris has diversified into turkeys, sold direct to the public, which have proved crucial in keeping the farm afloat.
The farm’s 100 beef breeding cows (known as sucklers) are fed just on grass and are certified by the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association. Some go off to the livestock market, but around a third are slaughtered at a local abbatoir then butchered on-farm and sold direct to the public. The cattle are moved daily to avoid disturbing the soils and to help biodiversity. As well as grazing permanent pasture, the cattle graze former arable land that Chris has planted with herbal leys to enrich its soils.
Chris believes his regenerative practices are yielding benefits in terms of wildlife. He’s spotted king-fishers and spotted fly-catchers, and every year looks forward to the arrival of swallows, swifts and house martins. The birds thrive on the insects that are disturbed in the fields as the cattle move. “I am keen to monitor the wildlife as much as I can,” says Chris. “My love of nature was re-invigorated by reading a book called The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham, which my brother gave me for Christmas. We set each other the challenge of spotting all the butterflies described in the book. It was then that I realised I had to steer our farm in a more regenerative direction. The farm is my way of managing a 200-acre (81-hectare) nature reserve, and it’s great to feel that I can hopefully influence people about food and farming.”
The farm has sheep too - a flock of around 35 breeding Oxford Down ewes. Ewe lambs are kept or sold as breeding stock, while the males go through the farm’s butchery and like the beef, are sold direct to the public.
Recently, turkeys have become an important part of the business. In fact they're what got Chris back onto the family farm after studying aquatics at Sparsholt College and for 15 years running his own business maintaining ponds and aquariums (he now does that work around two days a month). “The turkeys were the catalyst as they provided income and an all-important opportunity to sell direct to customers through the farm’s online shop,” says Chris. “Turkeys are a great way of getting customers onto the farm and we can use the mailing list to market our beef and lamb too”. Chris feels uncomfortable about feeding his birds feed containing soya so is experimenting with producing alternative feeds. Watch this space.
Chris is also running a monthly pop-up farmshop, which has proved very successful. “We engage with the public. We also get to pick great sustainable foods from other local producers to sell alongside ours,” he says.
Chris is concerned by vegan activism. "To sell turkeys at Christmas you have to be prepared to raise your head above the parapet and try and attract attention, which is the opposite to what most meat producers do. I hope to combat possible negative comments by offering plenty of my own positive messages, especially about the environmental work that we do. I enjoy working with environmental groups to show the positive benefits of farming."
Member of the National Farmers Union (NFU) turkey group and participated in the NFU poultry industry programme. Member of Pasture-Fed Livestock Association
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