Samson the giant toroise slides down his runway ready for his leisurely stroll, Bob the Pietrain boar is making his presence felt having being brought in to take over as star pig attraction and Chris is getting ready for his busiest time of the year.
Hesketh House Farm in Bolton Abbey runs to just short of 600 acres and the land is 600-800ft above sea level. It is tenanted from the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Estate. Chris Heseltine is the fourth generation of his family to farm here and with 1,000 ewes due to lamb from next week he and wife Sue already have their work cut out before you add the Easter reopening of their hugely popular Hesketh Farm Park, which attracts 50,000 visitors a year.
Ten years ago Chris and Sue Heseltine opened their farm gates to the public having come to the decision that they could no longer keep cattle in the same way they once had and having researched a new source of income that they hoped would put them on a better financial footing.
“I do like my cattle and we still keep a small herd now, but that’s more for the farm park. We used to have a herd of 200 suckler cows with everything going to our Belgian Blue bulls and we produced for the top end of the market. When the new Single Farm Payment scheme came in I worked out that for us it was a waste of time keeping them.
“We had to do something. We had three young children and although the farm was making money it wasn’t making enough. We had thought about having specific open days for lambing and had geared up for one on Easter Monday in 2001. Foot and mouth put a stop to that, and also nearly crippled us.”
Chris and Sue weren’t to be knocked off course though and pursued their farm attraction ideas during the next couple of years through taking their children around other open farms.
“Our kids got sick of it. We used to go and sit in the corner and watch what other children did and what it is they wanted to do. Hesketh Farm Park is based around our customer being five-years-old. Everything relates to them.
“The one big thing we picked up on was contact with the animals. A lot of farms don’t go down that route and I think it’s a must. Here they can touch the sheep, lambs, calves, chicks, guinea pigs and rabbits, and they can bottle feed the calves and lambs.”
And it’s not just the five-year-olds who enjoy themselves. Chris still finds it hard to believe that what he takes for granted others see as a special occasion. Running the farm park has been a real eye opener for him.
“When we first opened this little old lady was sat on a straw bale. I gave her a lamb to hold and a bottle of milk to feed it. She broke down crying and later told me that she was 86 years of age, had lived in Leeds all her life and had always wanted to feed a lamb.
“People really haven’t got a clue about the countryside or animals. I think our education system must have skipped a generation or two because we get school parties here from Leeds, Bradford, Northallerton, Burnley and Blackburn who have never even stood on grass. We’re talking five to eight-year-olds. That’s frightening. But it’s not just young children. One lady asked me at what age I decided whether a calf was male or female.
“Running the farm park is certainly a different life from what we were used to and you really do appreciate where you live a lot more when you hear other people talk about it. Everyone is gobsmacked by the views.”
Whilst there are already some lambs about the main lambing time at Hesketh is due to start next Friday (28 March). That’s when Chris anticipates 600 of the 1,000 ewes will lamb in a week, just before the gates to the farm park reopen.
“We lamb around 50 early each year ready for opening at half-term in February, but this is our main lambing period. We have one full-time member of staff – Gary – and we also enlist student help and others during the three weeks of lambing. Our eldest son Thomas will be back for a couple of weeks too.
“The flock has changed over the years. At one time we were all Swaledale ewes, but we shifted to the Mules. We’re now predominantly Texel X of which we have 700 and 300 Mules. The Mules are put to the Texel tup and we retain the gimmers for our own use. All the Texels are put to the Beltex tup and sold as store lambs at Skipton Auction Market. We usually do pretty well there.
“We find that the Texel X live better here than the Mules and they don’t take as much looking after. They are hardier and also don’t eat as much but still provide really good top-end butcher’s lambs and that’s what I’m after. I started with Beltex about 20 years ago when I first saw them. I go for shape and they’ve got it.”
Chris has changed his policy on selling lambs since the farm park opened: “We sell most of our stock at Skipton, keeping the best as we breed most of our own replacements, but whereas we used to taken them all through to fat lambs we now mainly sell as stores. It’s down to a time situation and rather than take 50 a week it is easier to take 200-300 every fortnight.”
At first Chris felt it was better that he was around on the farm during lambing time rather than hosting schoolchildren.
“I couldn’t get my head around it at first, and the educational visits don’t make us much at all but they advertise us and get children to keep coming back with their families. I make sure that all schoolchildren collect an egg from the nest boxes, that they get to crack an egg open, see a new born chick, feed a lamb and calf, have a tractor ride and talk about grass, fields, sheep and wool. We also have a paddock walk where I talk about trees and wildlife. We’re educating the latest generation.”
The couple have three children of their own; Thomas, 22, James, 20, and Sarah, 18.