Farm of the Week: Family who left dairying behind and have trained Highland cattle for trekking and cuddling experiences
Dumble Farm is the new name of Beck End Farm since earlier this year when Fi Wilson, husband Will and brother James decided enough was enough with dairying and said goodbye to their dairy herd and hello to Highland cattle, goats and alpacas, all tied in with moves towards conservation, educating the public and providing something different for themselves.
Fi has milked cows all her life. She came to what is now Dumble with her parents from Sutton on Hull when she was 8 years old and began working with her father, Eric McCune, on leaving school at 15. Fi said she was still milking cows with Will and James in April of this year, but time had come for change.
“We had been talking about what we should do over the last couple of years. My father passed away last year. We were working on tighter margins and needed to update the milking parlour for our 100 milkers. It was going to be a huge investment and we had nobody following on who was interested in dairying.
“One of the other main things was the flooding in our carr land. All of our land is on the flood plain and regularly around 150 acres of the 230 acres would be under water. It is largely peaty soil overlaying alluvial clay and doesn’t really drain.
“It was killing our grassland and we couldn’t afford to keep replacing it. In the end, and with the decision we had to make over a new parlour, we knew that we couldn’t do anything about the water, so the logical thing was to work with what we had. That’s when we started to look at a different way of farming, so we sold the dairy cows.
Fi’s effervescence for the new enterprise that has brought about the renaming of the farm to Dumble Farm is a joy. You feel energised just hearing her speak with all of the enthusiasm for their new project, but she is also keeping her feet firmly planted on the ground.
“We’re hoping we can make it work and we can all make a living from the farm in the new way we are heading. We’re doing things like the Highland trekking to try and raise a bit more money and we have just got our stewardship agreement through which starts on January 1.
“We sold our dairy herd, plus we kept 30 dairy heifers that we are now selling as in-calf heifers, and 50 British Blue-crossed calves that we are also rearing to sell. The income from those will hopefully tide us over while we get into this new project properly.
“Our aim is to concentrate on the Highlands in the next few years. We have a fold of 26 Highlands that we have bought this year and we aim to get to 65. We will put some of the Blues in-calf in the meantime, because they are a lot faster turnover while we wait until we have Highland beef ready to sell as boxed beef.
Fi’s love of where she lives and of animals is clearly evident and so much so that she hasn’t parted with all of her adorable dairy cows.
“We have kept five of them and they are all now part of the experience we offer. We have Highland trekking with our team of trekking cows that are all halter trained, we have alpacas and goats, which visitors can also trek with and we have the dairy cows for visitors to cuddle.
“Highland trekking will also now be a part of our stewardship arrangement in terms of educational access. We thought it would be really nice to have Highlands that are halter trained for children to be able to see them up close. We have two that were already halter trained and we have trained others.
“Having close contact with a dairy cow or a Highland cow allows visitors to understand the calming, relaxing nature of them. It is so nice to have people enjoying this while at the same time talking about the conservation work we are doing here. It’s not just meet a cow, it’s meet a cow and learn a bit more about farming. We also have a classroom available that can also be used for children’s parties.
While visitors learn more about Highland cows and the other animals at Dumble Farm, Fi said they also begin to learn more about conservation.
“Our land type, specifically the wetter area, is called coastal and floodplain grazing marsh. One of our problems with the dairy herd was that we needed high quality ryegrasses for their diet. Highland cattle just want old fashioned grasses that cope with the inundation of water we get from when Barmston Drain overflows and spills over our land.
“We’ve been replacing those high-quality ryegrasses with a mix of grasses that can cope standing in water and these are far more suited to Highlands and wildlife. We are also putting in legume-rich swards and we are not using any artificial fertilisers or slurry.
“When Barmston Drain is full it comes over to us first and we get water standing until March and April, but we’re hoping to hold it back until June as the wetlands are great for wading birds.
“We will be putting in scrapes, and sluices into the ditches so we can hold water here. This will also help with flood alleviation through holding the water on the floodplains and stopping it hopefully flooding further down.
From the outside looking in the message coming from Fi, Will and James is one of making a positive out of what was a negative. Fi said they can’t wait to get fully started on the new higher tier stewardship agreement.
“We have potential for wading breeds such as curlew, lapwing and snipe breeding here in greater numbers. We have already put a couple of sluices in and by next winter we will have scrapes in.
“We will be planting a kilometre of hedges in January. We are taking out some trees and hedges that enable predators to wait for an easy catch of fresh young chicks, and where the sun is kept out, but we are adding even more hedges and trees than we have had.
“There are so many good wildlife schemes down the Hull Valley and we have had fabulous support from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Tophill Low Nature Reserve and many others. When we approached Natural England they were very excited specifically about the possibility of greater lapwings.
Fi said Dumble Farm fits the bill.
“It is the old name for one of the rushes in the marshland but we’ve had comments from visitors thinking it might have a connection with Harry Potter’s Dumbledore! You never know, it may have in the future. If anyone would like to sponsor a Highland cow please let us know!