Farm of the Week: A place for geese and ducks to roam

Ruth Mathison with an Aylesbury Cross duck.
Ruth Mathison with an Aylesbury Cross duck.
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Whoever invented the saying ‘fine weather for ducks’ could never have been more wrong seven years ago so far as the Mathisons of Southfield Farm in Leven were concerned.

They run a company called Yorkshire Ducks & Geese rearing thousands of birds every year and lost 1,000 ducks, 1,000 geese and half their farm’s arable crops when their land was flooded in 2007.

Thankfully the carnage is well behind them now and their business is thriving. At any one time they have as many as 3,000 ducks and between July and December 2,000 geese roam free in their fields. Ruth Mathison spends much of her time on the road delivering to restaurants and butchers.

“Ever since chefs started talking about duck, particularly in the past five years, the demand has grown and it is still on the increase. For many restaurants it is now one of their speciality dishes and I sometimes visit the same restaurant four or five times a week just to keep them stocked up.”

It was geese that came before ducks for the Mathisons when they purchased a dozen from a local farmer. It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts as Stuart Mathison, Ruth’s husband recalls.

“We bought them 25 years ago and tried to fatten them but they were just normal geese and wouldn’t fatten. You need to get hold of the right breed and that’s what we did the following year. We now get all our Danish Legarth geese at a day old from a Norfolk based breeder with one batch of 1,000 coming on to the farm in April and another 1,000 in May. We keep them in a nursery with big blower heaters until they are three to four-weeks-old and from then on they are out on grass. They’re almost all for the Christmas market.”

Ruth, Stuart and their son Daniel have built a solid reputation for animal welfare as they collect all of the day old chicks themselves from Norfolk and Lincolnshire and until they are ready for processing their livestock never leaves the farm. Processing is also completed on site and they are expanding their capacity to meet increased demand in the duck market.

“We started with just 50 ducks,” says Stuart. “But there has been such a dramatic rise in the popularity of duck as a meat that we have had to invest massively in new buildings and equipment.”

The ducks that are an Aylesbury X are fed on cereals. The geese are grazing animals that largely live off grass. The Mathisons are one of the largest goose producers in Yorkshire.

Stuart sets the record straight about geese being regarded as unfriendly: “They don’t get aggressive until they’re big enough to be breeding and then it’s the males that go that way. In January, if we have any left, you would see a difference in them. The males would then gang up and not let you near their patch.”

One particular favourite of the family is Mary. She’s the goose that makes them all smile and was in what Ruth calls her hospital pen earlier this year. Once Ruth was happy that Mary was back on course she returned her to the main batch only for Mary to decide that she enjoyed life far better with Whitney the old mare in the field near the farm entrance.

“We kept putting her back with the others but she kept finding her way back to Whitney. So we’ve left the pair of them together now. They’re inseparable. She’s become the farm mascot.”

The Mathisons will have a trade stand at Beverley Food Festival tomorrow and their presence will also be with a variety of food presentations made by the top chefs in the area. That’s probably as good an advertisement for their wares as they can get.

Stuart’s father and granddad were both joiners in Leven. It was his brother Malcolm who started the farm in the early 60s when he bought around 20 acres. Stuart joined him straight from school and today the farming operation runs to 350 acres growing wheat, barley and oil seed rape as well as the ducks, geese and a grain drying and storage business that Malcolm manages.

“Our grain storage capacity is around 12,000 tonnes and we store for other farmers and merchants as well as ourselves. Beans are now coming in from other farms to be dried.”

Daniel is in charge of the arable cropping. This year’s harvested wheat varieties included Santiago, Rialto, Cassia, Relay and Grafton.

“The kind of land we have is half gravel and half organic carr land. It is mainly Grade 3 so we have to be realistic about the yield we’re likely to achieve. This year I’d say our results have been average around the 3.5 tonnes mark. Some varieties and fields have done well, others not so. We’re sowing Dickens as a first wheat and Diego as a second wheat for next year but I’m fighting against the dreaded blackgrass at the moment and waiting my time before sowing both the wheat and barley.”

Between now and Christmas the Mathisons’ world starts really hotting up with December being their busiest month of goose processing.

“We start with the processing of them at the beginning of December. Quite a number are destined for the north of England and up into Scotland and they go up around a fortnight before Christmas,” says Ruth.

“It’s all go down here because the market for ducks is all year round. We have a team of pluckers who come in from the village every week but understandably that increases at Christmas with the geese and the ducks together.”

There is one aspect of selling duck to the public that Stuart cannot get his head around.

“Dependent on when we’re processing there may be some times when we just offer a frozen duck.

“It will still only have been processed within a few days rather than that day but people sometimes say they’ll leave it. But then others take home one that hasn’t been frozen and guess what? They freeze it!”