Mission to keep rare breeds alive

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Twelve years ago Debbie Wardell and husband Dave decided it was time to go back to their roots when they moved to Rosewood Cottage between Pickering and Newton upon Rawcliffe.

Debbie had grown up on a large predominantly arable farm above Ebberston and Dave’s father was a tenant farmer on the Kingthorpe estate above Thornton le Dale.

Debbie Wardell of Ryedale Rare and Native Breeds near Pickering with a new born Whitefaced Woodland lamb and ewes.

Debbie Wardell of Ryedale Rare and Native Breeds near Pickering with a new born Whitefaced Woodland lamb and ewes.

Life’s paths had taken the couple away from farming, in Debbie’s case with North Yorkshire County Council while Dave had a career as an agricultural mechanic with various local tractor companies before making the change to forestry management where he is mainly involved with planting trees. Their livestock journey over the past decade has seen them earn first in class and championship rosettes at the Great Yorkshire Show and Ryedale Show, sell pedigree stock to other breeders, set up a farm shop enterprise and run stands at Sledmere, Helmsley and Sheriff Hutton in the past weeks as Ryedale Rare & Native Breeds selling pork, bacon, beef and lamb with business partner and fellow stock rearer, Francis Barber.

“When we came here we bought three Whitefaced Woodland ewes with lambs at foot from the rare breeds sale at York livestock market for our two acres of grass,” says Debbie. “We then bought a tup from Meanwood City Farm in Leeds and it’s all grown from there. I had no vision for a farm shop or a stand at artisan farmers’ markets. This wasn’t something happening at all.

“We are doing these because they make sense as selling the meat pays for our pig feed bill through the winter. That’s why some with rare breeds end up selling them because they can’t afford the costs.

“We’re getting great feedback from customers, who come back from having bought from us at Helmsley a month ago, telling us our pork and beef tastes like it used to be from what they remember as children.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction when we hear that as we are passionate about what we are trying to do, which is to keep rare and native breeds going. We’re not aiming to turn this into some big enterprise.

“Dave and I now have a flock of 45 breeding ewes of which 38 are pedigree. We also crossbreed with Texel or Wensleydale tups to provide a commercial lamb into market which helps pay the rent on the fields we have added since we started. Whitefaced Woodlands are attractive and proper sheep that we’ve had a lot of success with including the winning shearling tup at the Great Yorkshire in 2014 and hill breed champion at Ryedale. We’re on with lambing through April.”

Pigs form the major chunk of the business end of Ryedale Rare & Native Breeds’ operation with Debbie and Francis working in tandem. Francis has 38 acres to the west of Pickering having started with three and a half acres in 2007.

The pair run their Berkshire herd which currently stands at four breeding sows, one boar and as of this time of writing 30 weaners. They operate on the basis of two litters per year and this keeps their production in line with demand.

“We’ve been producing pork for the past four years as we initially bought a couple of weaners between us to fatten,” says Debbie. ‘Then I received a phone call out of the blue from a friend who told me someone couldn’t manage their two Berkshire sows any longer. That was the start of our Berkshire herd.”

“We allow all stock to mature fully,” says Francis. ‘We run the pigs to a full eight weeks before weaning and we will let them go to 30 weeks or even longer. They’re a small breed and we don’t believe in pushing them. I went into this because I believe it is important people know where meat comes from and the animals are looked after properly.

“Like Debbie I had no intention of getting to the scale we’ve now reached. It’s not without its challenges, but it’s helping us do what we both want to do. I spent my teenage years with friends on farms in between Blackburn and Bolton. It’s good to be back among stock.”

Cattle are another passion for both Debbie and Francis who have their separate herds. Debbie has Belted Galloways while Francis has Herefords and Shetlands.

“Dave and I now have seven Beltie cows plus followers with heifers running on that will make the grade or go and with four coming up to 30 months this back end, which is when they go for beef. We sell on to other pedigree breeders too. They are great conservation grazing cattle that can live off the land and we have both conservation grazing near the railway line and up on rented land at Gill’s Smith’s farm at Stape.

“I’d always wanted to have Belted Galloways as many years ago I used to help a chap called Bill Rawson who had them as well as breeding Shire horses and Clydesdales. We started with a cow in calf that had a heifer calf at foot. When it produced another heifer calf we had three females so we bought a bull from Glaisdale. They are fabulous to look at and they produce delicious beef.”

Francis is looking forward to having his first beef available this summer.

“I have three Hereford cows and a heifer, plus a bull that I’ve kept since being a calf. My first Hereford beef comes on line in June.

“I’ve also four Shetland breeding cows and calves with the first beef due in November. Everything Debbie and I do is slow maturing off grass and all our beef cattle go to 30 months.”

Debbie and Francis are keen to point out the vital roles played by Horners of Kilburn and Hartleys of Tholthorpe in ensuring their produce on display at farmers’ markets and in Debbie’s farm shop at home is exactly how it should be.

“Nick Hartley is a fantastic butcher who is equally as passionate about rare breeds as we are and with the increasing number of people who now want to know where their food is coming from, about the breeds, how we keep the animals and understand their history, it’s really quite a key time to be involved,” says Debbie.