Farm of the Week: Rare breeds, selling meat direct to customers and running a wedding venue in stunning Swaledale

High-quality food has been the hallmark of a now Swaledale-based farm owner for over 40 years who has recently shifted his sights from the well-established enterprise built with his brother, having started with game, to producing native-bred, grass-fed beef, lamb and pork.

Oliver Leatham took on Telfit Farm in Marske six years ago and son Ben has joined him in building a new livestock enterprise that sees local farmer Ian Brown managing the farm and Ben managing the food business aimed at supplying customers direct.

Oliver said that having built a successful food business with his brother Mark his initial motivation of taking on Telfit, which runs to 500 acres of predominantly rough grazing, was its natural beauty.

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“I had been coming here for about 27 years and have always been amazed at the wonder of these hills and dales. When this farm came on the market six years ago I brought my wife Lucy. I’d told her how stunning it looked and she was completely blown away.

Oliver Leatham farms in Swaledale

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“It runs to around 1,300 feet above sea level and when you’re up here it’s like being at the top of the world with breathtaking views, and the farmhouse and buildings are situated in what is a perfect glacial bowl.”

Oliver said he’d had visions of what could be achieved and has set about meeting environmental goals of restoring and renewing woodlands, encouraging greater wildlife and restoring drystone walls, as well as pursuing niche market, well-bred outdoor reared beef, lamb and pork.

“We’ve planted 18,000 trees, including a new orchard next to the two fields where we keep the pigs; we’ve renewed and restored drystone walls and our bird population is increasing.

Ben Leatham with meat that the farm sells directly to customers

“When we first took on Telfit I didn’t know whether I was going to let a farmer tenant the land or whether we were going to take on a farm manager. We were put in touch with our neighbouring farmer Ian Brown who was interested in managing it and it has worked out very well.”

As Ian already had his own farm and accommodation, Oliver said the farmhouse and other buildings have now become a very attractive alternative enterprise having been transformed into a boutique, wedding venue and holiday retreat.

“Our good friend Allanah Bourne-Ayrton of Riverside Wedding Venues suggested we had an ideal spot for those who want an out-of-the-way place and another good friend, Victoria Bilborough of Yorkshire Escapes, now manages the lettings for what has become an in-demand, fantastic family or friends hideaway."

But it is the cattle that have become Oliver’s major passion and Telfit’s hillsides are now dotted with one of the UK’s oldest breeds, the White Park, first thought to have adorned the countryside over 2,000 years ago and is registered with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Oliver, Lucy and Ben with their rare breed White Park cattle

Oliver said he had wanted to have cattle from the moment he had decided on purchasing Telfit.

“My brother has a farm in Dorset and he has White Parks. When I said I wanted cattle for the hills he encouraged me to follow him into the breed and I purchased twelve cows from a friend of his in the Marlborough hills. They look so beautiful in our countryside here at Marske and don’t have to come in at winter as they are that hardy. They purely live off the grass, they’re happy on the rough hillsides and have a docile temperament, which makes them ideal as we have people staying and many public rights of way across our land.

“But it is the flavour of the succulent beef they produce that sets them apart. It is by far the best beef I’ve ever had. They are slow growing animals that take around three to four years to mature and their fat content is amazing.”

Oliver’s initial stock were all in-calf to AI when he bought them, but since then he has been using natural bulling having first bought a bull from nearby Pear Tree Farm. Oliver said he has acquired further cows and heifers from the same farm.

“We have now set ourselves up to breed White Park beef and the response we have received so far from our customers has been incredible.

Oliver said the sheep were part of the purchase of the farm. “We are in Swaledale and so it makes sense that we have Swaledale ewes. We bought a hefted flock and we have 400 breeding ewes every year that provide us with between 550-600 lambs.

“Once again we are about producing meat to go into the meat trade rather than producing breeding stock. Our lamb is either going to Dunbia or to livestock markets in Hawes, Barnard Castle and Kirkby Stephen or we are selling it direct to our customer base which is growing and will grow further through Ben on the website and social media.

“We started lambing on April 9 and have recently taken on a new shepherdess Emily Cowper-Coles from a farming family in Devon to work alongside Ian.

The pigs are Ben’s idea and he said why he saw them as an important addition.

“We wanted all-year round produce and that’s what our pigs provide. They are Middle Whites and, like the White Parks, are also listed with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. They all live outdoors and, like the cattle and sheep, enjoy eating grass, as well as rooting and are actually very selective rooters. They are also very tame, friendly pigs.

“We are endeavouring to make this as sustainable a farm as we can. We are improving our pastures with new equipment designed to tug out old grasses and trying to limit our use of any fertiliser. We want our cattle to graze in a conservational manner regenerating the ground beneath them.”

Oliver said they also tenant a further 150 acres and that he is in the process of completing the purchase of further land nearby. “We are in Mid Tier Stewardship and genuinely care for this environment and who wouldn’t? It is beautiful.”