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Delivering upland conservation alongside small scale farming

Geoff Watkins of the Castle House herd describes his farm and the projects undertaken to maintain wildlife in the Rossendale Valley

The feature from which the herd derives its name, Old House Farm is an 18th century stone-built smallholding with permanent pasture. Of particular note is the castellated gable end wall to the house (pictured below) and barn, a prominent architectural landmark which was given Grade 2 listing in 1969.

Geoff says: “We moved here in 1984. It was just what we were looking for, affordable and not too distant from the M62 corridor. For a good number of years, the meadows were rented to a local farmer for summer cattle grazing and to keep the grass in shape for our Jacob sheep. This was our first introduction to beef and we liked having the cattle around, so eventually this fired our ambition to diversify into cattle and start our own herd.”

The point of ‘now or never’ was reached about ten years ago with the construction of a cow barn and attached yard area, and concurrent with this, the search for the right breed was on in earnest, but which one to go for? For Geoff it primarily had to be a native selection: “A number of breeds were looked at but for some reason we kept coming back to British Whites; they filled the eye in a way that no other breed did. We were impressed by the majestic frame, well-proportioned muscling, temperament and innate curiosity. Of pivotal importance was their ability to thrive on poorer quality upland pasture. They also seemed to be the perfect fit to run with our longstanding flock of Jacob sheep, now sold off to a local young farmer keen on the sheep breed.” Finally, having discovered that the origins of the breed lay in Lancashire, the choice was sealed.

The first two cows were bought from the Balderstone herd in 2013 and things have developed steadily from there. Apart from two further cow purchases from the Nidderdale herd to diversify bloodlines since the beginning, the plan has been to keep the herd closed and retain home bred heifers as replacements when needed. Currently the herd is 10 strong comprising a stock bull, three cows and six youngsters with another couple on the way. Geoff feels that this is probably a sensible number, given the available acreage, land quality and environment: “As a small upland holding, Old House Farm would traditionally have been a loom weaving and subsidence livestock setup. Cattle in the old days would have been kept for small scale dairy/beef production possibly together with a few sheep and hens. A hard life indeed but ‘making a do’, as the local parlance goes, was practicable.

“The land parcel itself extends to 13 acres, is on a hillside facing southwest with an elevation varying from 1050 to 1200ft (320m to 366m), the land type being principally clay on underlying shale beds. Whilst the land direction and slope does aid grass growth given good sunshine hours, the altitude and weather severity restrict the length of our grass season. The clay ground offers good drought resistance but poaches readily in prolonged periods of rain, so there are pros and cons.”

Conservation is a strong thread that forms an important element of the system at Old House Farm. “There were no trees on the farm when we first arrived and the meadows felt eerily quiet”, Geoff says. “The local view was that ‘trees won’t grow up here – it’s too cold’. We disagreed. Today there are five pocket woodland/copse plantings of diverse species around the place at various stages of growth. They are positioned to act as windbreaks and are designed to also turn bare hollows into landscape features. The birds and wildlife have moved in, even the elusive Rossendale deer call in from time to time. It is always a great pleasure to go out into the yard to be greeted by a morning chorus of bird song. This, however, is tempered by the frustration of the squirrels pinching all the hazelnuts.” Despite the reduction of meadow area taken up by the plantings, Geoff observes that this does not seem to have diminished the quantity of grass that is produced for grazing and has its own benefits for the cattle: “The herd makes full use of the windbreaks to shelter, particularly on squally summer and autumn days. Any overhanging or broken branches also provide handy leafage snacks if within the reach of a bovine tongue!”

With the success of local wildlife species in mind, Old House Farm seemed an ideal location to undergo further conservation ventures. “In 2012 we were approached by the RSPB to enter the Twite Recovery Project, run jointly by the RSPB & Natural England. The twite is a small Pennine bird, once common but has been in serious decline for some time. It is a seed eating specialist and relies on the seeds produced by the flora in traditional (July/August cut) hay meadows for its principal food supplies. As hill farming has changed over the years with the advent of the big bale, early cutting for either silage or haylage prevents the wildflowers from seeding. As a result, taken together with the use of modern seed mixes, the twite food source has all but disappeared. Our meadows fitted the habitat requirements that they were looking for, so we joined the Project.”

Upon whether Geoff had any advice for those looking at a similar setup, he said: “Starting a small herd on just a few acres at altitude has worked out to be viable and the pursuit of a range of farm activities practicable. Fitting it all together and getting it to work as a smooth-running operation is always the challenge, but isn’t that something that all farms have in common? Our farm is too small in scale to justify having its own plant machinery, so tractor powered work is placed by arrangement in the hands of trusted neighbours, who have the right kit and possess the skills to use it. This approach has worked well & proven to be very adaptable.

“Getting connected to and becoming a part of the local and wider farming scene is essential. If anything has been learned over the years, it is that a farm enterprise does not run well by sitting behind the farm gate and expecting the world to come to you. To quote a local sage, ‘that is the road to doom & disaster’. Everything is out there if you have the heart to reach for it!”


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