How cheesemaker Shepherds Purse became a phenomenon in the farm produce world

Judy Bell  with some  Buffalo  Blue Cheese at Shepherds Purse near Thirsk
Judy Bell with some Buffalo Blue Cheese at Shepherds Purse near Thirsk
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Shepherds Purse has become a phenomenon in the farm produce world. The business that started producing sheep’s cheese from Nigel Bell’s 400-acre Leachfield Grange farm in the late 1980s now sells its cheeses – these days made from milk out of sheep, cows and buffalo – all around the world.

But it was Judy Bell who instigated and ran the business that is today carried on by their two daughters, Katie and Caroline.

Today, the Shepherds Purse website recalls Judy’s idea of producing cheese from sheep’s milk as absolutely “baaarmy” and “it’ll never catch on” but it did and 30 years later it is one of Yorkshire’s greatest farming food success stories.

Judy is now back at the helm of the Deliciouslyorkshire regional food group which she hopes will continue helping others as she benefitted from it when Shepherds Purse started. Back then it was known as Yorkshire Pantry.

“I started in a very small way and it all came about through working as a receptionist for a friend who had dealt with some of my back problems and had decided to open a practice in Northallerton.

“Through working there I found a number of his clients had intolerances to bovine products, one being Margaret Watkinson now a renowned sheep breeder from Sessay. Margaret was thinking of milking sheep, we got on really well and I started investigating the idea myself. We needed to do something different as a diversification income but not necessarily something that others might see as mad as milking sheep!

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“That’s how Nigel saw it and all the local farmers thought he’d lost his marbles. My father-in-law, Eric Bell, was really supportive, which was the one saving grace, and so we started. At this point I’d never milked a cow let alone a sheep.

“It was a massive learning curve and I was very fortunate to acquire a small flock of parlour trained Frieslands, the best breed for producing sheep’s cheese, from a lady in Hamsterley Forest.

“The formation of the regional food group, Yorkshire Pantry backed by North Yorkshire County Council, was so advantageous for me because I knew nothing about production, marketing, brands, branding or selling. The administrator, John Partridge, had told me how Yorkshire Pantry would help and he put me in touch with cheesemaker, Les Lambert.

“Les gave me brilliant advice. He told me I needed to produce a range of cheeses, resurrecting Wensleydale cheese back to being made from sheep’s milk; that I should then attend the Great Yorkshire Show, which I did for the first time in 1989; and that I should be entering competitions. At that time Nantwich was the big one – and we won first prize in the speciality cheese section. Everything grew from there.”

Scroll forward to today and Judy is determined that Deliciouslyorkshire is there for people like dairy farming couple, Edward and Pagen Greenall of Clayton West, who were overall champions with their whole milk in the Deliciouslyorkshire Taste Awards held at the Pavilions of Harrogate in November.

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“I feel for Edward and Pagen and all of those who are coming up with new brands and new ideas to sustain their farms or rural lifestyles because I was where they are today. It’s what I feel Deliciouslyorkshire is all about, helping people who are producing fantastic produce but don’t know where to start or they need to get to the next level.

“Sometimes it is difficult engaging with farmers and producers who desperately need the kind of help we can offer as an organisation, but we certainly want to engage with them more in any way we can.

“We have over 200 members who benefit from being involved whether that is attending a networking meeting, being involved at agricultural shows or simply getting advice from us.”

Deliciouslyorkshire has had to change in recent times. It no longer has the number of employees it had grown to through since losing funding from external sources. It is now wholly financed by membership subscription and patronage with Allison Kane as its only full-time employee as business development manager.

“There is so much we can do,” says Allison. “We can give people a voice, we can offer advice and we can connect people. Someone may have surplus milk and don’t know what they can do with it.

“We may be able to point them in the direction of supplying a local ice cream maker.”

“Yorkshire is the food county of England,” says Judy. “We have many people who have been and continue to be very successful.

“We’d love to see them involved with Deliciouslyorkshire with a desire and willingness to put something back for others who are just starting.”