Farm of the Week: From answering an advert in The Lady to running a farmhouse B&B in the North York Moors

Lambing has been the primary concern in recent weeks for Alan Wood at the 250-acre farm he runs with his wife Sarah.

The tenanted Easterside farm, in Hawnby, has been the Woods' home since 1990 and for Alan this part of North Yorkshire has always been his home.

The farm has been busy with 160 Texel-cross and Mule ewes to lamb. Alan said he shifted the farm’s emphasis from hill breeds Swaledale and North Country Cheviots to his current crossbreds due to market demands and circumstance.

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“It is partly down to producing larger, faster growing lambs, partly because our flock was culled as ‘dangerous contact’ during the foot and mouth epidemic of 20 years ago and also due to countryside stewardship restrictions over numbers of sheep allowed on the moorland.”

Former hotel chef Sarah is famous for the quality of her farmyard breakfastsFormer hotel chef Sarah is famous for the quality of her farmyard breakfasts
Former hotel chef Sarah is famous for the quality of her farmyard breakfasts

“Our flock didn’t have foot and mouth but when we restocked I changed our sheep policy, going more towards what sold well at market.”

The farm is part of the Mexborough Estates and under a stewardship scheme. Alan said Easterside Hill includes moorland and the scheme limits how many sheep can be put on the moorland and when.

“We’ve also just taken on an extension to our Countryside Stewardship Scheme and we are in an SSI area. Stewardship works well for us in terms of tree planting and managing the land.”

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Alan said while he generally keeps all his ewes outside during the day while they are lambing, he brings them in overnight so that he can keep a closer eye on them and watch out for any problems.

Sarah Wood with one of her horsesSarah Wood with one of her horses
Sarah Wood with one of her horses

Living within the Mexborough Estate, which is managed from the Hawnby estate office, Alan also adds estate work to the farm’s income stream.

“I used to be a gamekeeper at one time. I’m always doing some job or other to make sure the estate land looks right. Last week I was lawn mowing, next week I could be building walls. I like the variety.”

And he knows the area well, having been born just under a mile away from Easterside at High Banniscue Farm, where he worked with his parents, Raymond and Ann.

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Raymond and Ann reared cattle from their suckler herd to sell as stores and had a flock of Swaledale and Mule ewes. A family-run business, Alan’s sister Linda bred Bluefaced Leicesters, putting the tups to put to the Swaledale ewes.

Sarah's husband Alan still farms sheep on the estateSarah's husband Alan still farms sheep on the estate
Sarah's husband Alan still farms sheep on the estate

Sarah’s home was originally Cottingham, in the East Riding, and the couple met through her career in catering. Answering an advertisement in The Lady magazine, Sarah moved up to the estate as cook for the Earl and Countess of Mexborough at Arden Hall, in Hawnby, in 1982. Alongside that role, she also worked at what was then the local pub, the Hawnby Hotel, which is where she met Alan.

“I was also a barmaid, we got talking and here I am more than 30 years later.”

Sarah’s career in hospitality led to the couple diversifying into bed and breakfast 30 years ago, with Easter and lambing time proving a real draw for visitors.

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“People regularly spend Easter here because it is lambing time,” Alan said.

“And it’s not just the children who want to have a go at feeding some of the lambs, often it’s the parents who are just as keen and some adults come on their own because they enjoy it so much.”

The couple started this second income stream by using three bedrooms in the farmhouse, expanding it to five by converting an old granary and cart house.

The new rooms were en suite and Sarah said it was to meet the more demanding expectations of guests.

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“We started in 1992 and during the 90s people became much more demanding over accommodation. There were a lot of farmhouses offering bed and breakfast back then and those who didn’t have en suite rooms, even in the hills and dales, began to fall away.”

Both Alan and Sarah said it had been a “strange” experience lambing for a second year with no guests taking part.

“It has been a bit strange not having people here as lambs are being born. We’ve become very used to seeing their smiling faces.”

Alan said the farm offers guests a “taste of real country life on the moors”.

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He added: “Our visitors collect the eggs from our hens and have a sit on a quad bike, we’re not set up as some kind of farming adventure experience but people who come here seem to like it.”

Early on the Woods joined what is now Farmstay UK, originally Stay On The Farm, a not-for-profit farmer owned consortium which promotes holidays on working farms.

Sarah said one of its founding principles is providing a hearty farm breakfast and is one of the cornerstones for her business.

“Our guests love coming across the yard for their breakfasts. I keep them fairly simple, using our own or locally sourced produce.”

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The farm has 15 hens which provide the eggs with a mix of breeds from Buff Orpingtons to rescue hens.

“We have found some of our guests really like the idea that they’ve picked their own eggs fresh that day,” said Sarah.

“It’s that involvement and our guests feeling they are part of what we farm here that makes it a special experience.”

In recent years, Sarah said they have also noticed a changing demographic in the visitors staying at Easterside Farm.

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“We are seeing younger couples and small parties who are walking, running and cycling.

“We have several rights of way across or near our land and those take you over the top of Easterside Hill and alongside the River Rye which forms part of our boundary.

“We’re now seeing a change that includes all ages and it’s as though everyone has woken up to how wonderful the countryside is over the past few years.”

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