A taste of life on the moorland

Philip Trevelyan wants to let you into a secret connected with two years of slow growth and free living. It's called a Shearling and the meat from this animal is what moorland farmers have always kept back for themselves.

He believes it now has a future as a speciality product that can give a shot in the arm to the local economy. It is sorely needed.

Recent times have not been kind for the men and women who make a living on the uplands in some of the most beautiful surroundings in the country.

The drama of the scenery is what attracts outsiders but this can be deceptive. Large areas of uplands are classed as severely disadvantaged and it's not unusual for a small farmer to be earning 12,000 a year from his seven days a week business.

Compared with lowland farmers their weather is worse and their soils poorer. Yields are lower – the growing season on the North York Moors is 190-200 days, against 275 days on the Humber estuary, and the remoteness makes it costlier to get products to market.

Subsidies, which once guaranteed the price animals they reared would be worth were outlawed by the EU in the 1980s. Something had to be done and last year Prince Charles came up to look at the situation for himself.

It was part of his Business in the Community initiative and he wanted to ignite the spark of enterprise.

The Prince paid a visit to Philip Trevelyan's organic Hill Top Farm at Spaunton, north west of Pickering where they discussed Philip's belief in the potential of the Shearling.

At the moment it's not a word on the lips of shoppers pushing their trolleys round the supermarket, even among those who recognise a leg of lamb or a piece of mutton.

A Shearling comes between the two. It's an animal which has been shorn once and is then killed at 17-24 months when it's sufficiently mature for the flesh to be lightly marbled by fine lines of fat.

This meat has never been widely sampled outside the uplands and Philip reckons if he could extend its customer reach, the texture and the flavour which has been imparted by the Shearling's moorland roaming and its unique diet should be a winner.

Philip, with 10 like-minded neighbours, set up a Shearling project and they now have plans for an annual Shearling festival at Farndale village hall. Their argument is not solely economic. The moorland sheep play a key role in maintaining the look of the upland landscape. It's an ancient arrangement which is now in jeopardy. Many farmers are taking their flocks off the moor because they can make better returns rearing their animals on more congenial, grassier slopes.

Yorkshire's Poet Laureate Ted Hughes described moors as "a stage for the performance of heaven". But without the regular presence of wandering sheep nibbling away at it, this is a stage that would eventually be overrun with bracken and other invasive plants.

Philip Trevelyan owns 100 acres at Hill Top farm and also has 800 acres of moorland grazing through common rights that came with the farm. "Shearling is the meat I save in the freezer for me," he says.

"Keeping them on the heather moors is a very old established tradition."

Indeed, it is so venerable that it is regulated by a relic of the medieval manorial system called a Court Leet. One of the courts' main tasks used to be to rule on how many days' service each villein or serf owed to the local baron and in most parts of the country they were consigned to the dustbin of history long ago.

But they are still robust and effective in those areas where there are thousands of acres of common land, as on the North York Moors. Drawing on local customs and experience, the remaining courts are the means by which common land is managed to prevent neglect and decay.

Philip Trevelyan has been summoned by his lord of the manor to appear as a juryman at the next Court Leet in Spaunton on October 1.

"Unused grazing rights are pooled and you have to apply to the Court Leet if you want to have a greater number of sheep on the moor," he says. "There's so much food for them there now because their numbers are so much reduced.

"They are completely free to eat what they like the whole winter – heather, gorse, bog grass. That's what gives them taste and quality. I haven't fed them anything."

So the Shearling strategy is this: bring it to the plates of a new type of customer with a story attached – unique meat, unique part of the world. This will prompt greater demand and help keep the moors in the sort of trim we all know and love and halt the slow break-up of upland farming traditions and communities.

It sounds neat, but making it happen is going to be tricky. If Shearlings are going to catch on, the moorland farmers need to be persuaded to keep their wether lambs – the castrated males – for an extra year of growth, denying themselves cash in the pocket.

That's hard to resist if you're living on a financial precipice. On the other hand, deferring the sale results in a more valuable animal. It's unlikely the lamb will weigh more than 15 kilos deadweight. When it grows to be a Shearling it may weigh up 28 kilos.

Philip concedes the farmers are not likely to hang on for another season unless they have guaranteed Shearling orders months in advance. He's already working with someone in York to establish a supply chain and there's some support from some Yorkshire restaurants and delicatessens.

"This has to grow from enthusiasm, from the ground up," says Philip. "Shearling needs to be discovered as a locally-labelled speciality that comes from a sheep that has spent at least half its life on the heather with no less than six months of moor grazing during the year of slaughter. Then it's led as directly as possible from heather to slaughter.

"The sheep on the moor keep the heather from growing too long and they are an important part of the picture for tourists. Sheep dung attracts the insects which are essential to the diet of young grouse. If the sheep go, the grouse go, the shooters go – and the profitability of the moors is in question.

"It's going to take a lot of understanding among the public before this takes off. There has to be long-term ordering for

it to work. People just tend to see things in terms of sheep meat which you can get cheaper by half from New Zealand."

The Shearlings now have another showcase as the result of a collaboration between Philip and Michael Hjort, the chairman of the judges of the Yorkshire Post Taste Yorkshire Awards.

Shearlings, which are killed from now to Christmas, are the theme for the menu at the awards dinner at the Guildhall in York next Friday. The main course is a Duo of Shearling Lamb with Pumpkin Tagine. The pumpkins and almost everything else are either from the Trevelyans' farm or from nearby, emphasising what the French would call the "terroir". Broadly translated it means "a sense of place".

The rabbits for the Potted Wild Rabbit, set with Ampleforth Abbey Cider have been netted up here. A dish of Smoked Yoadwith Trout with Pickering Watercress is sourced just down the road.

When Prince Charles called to talk about enterprise, he could hardly complain about what he found at Hill Top Farm.

The flour for the bread at the awards dinner will come from the Trevelyans' mill. Philip originally grew a crop of milling wheat to supply a small watermill in Cumbria. He then designed his own mill and started up in May 2006. At the top of the farmyard, inside a former barn, three hand-built granite millstones rumble round. They were made in Brittany by a co-operative of young engineers who share a similar passion with the Trevelyans for turning out organic flour the traditional way. The grain supply is all from Yorkshire and the flour goes mostly to Yorkshire customers, including Bettys and Bothams of Whitby.

Green energy is dear to the Prince of Wales's heart and here he discovered the Trevelyans' enterprise has put them well ahead of the field. They have owned a Danish-built electric car for 10 years. It's parked in a barn being charged-up by energy that comes from an array of wind turbines on the barn roof.

Philip's wife Nelly leaps in the car and whizzes down a track to the edge of the rough moor where she picks aromatic bog myrtle. This is to make a traditional Gale beer, using a method similar to ginger beer, which will be one of the aperitifs at the awards dinner. She has also gathered bilberries for the dessert of Lastingham Apple and Bilberry Slice with Heather Honey Ice-cream from local honey.

When Philip bought the farm for not much over 25,000 in 1974, he had already made a career as a documentary film-maker with the BBC and ITV. His business now comprises farm, flour mill and a handmade hand tool company called Lazy Dog which sells the implements he's designed and employs locals to make.

He comes from a distinguished line of Liberal politicians, writers and artists. What brought him to Yorkshire and to farming? "I'm from Sussex and I'd always liked working on farms when I was young. I couldn't afford a tenancy there. I did a course in agriculture while I was still a film-maker."

One of his films, The Moon and the Sledgehammer, has enjoyed something of a revival recently and it's soon to have a showing at Helmsley arts centre.

He's also writing a book about his father, Julian Trevelyan, who studied with Picasso in Paris and became a well-known Surrealist.

Telephone 01904 466687 for tickets for the Taste Awards dinner on Friday, September 25 and for information about the York Food Festival. The Shearling, wild rabbit, and organic flour can all be found in the festival's market next Monday, and Tuesday and on Friday, September 25.