Geese were once king of the Christmas dinner table. Ben Barnett meets a couple who are trying to lead a revival.
Tradition is important to Simon and Sally-Anne Waudby. Having moved to a new 50-acre plot in Flawith village nine years ago, they have designed their own newly-built farmhouse that has the character of a home that’s stood for decades.
With a grey slate roof, sash windows and a stone construction that is bound by a lime based mortar, it sits proudly amid a mixed farming operation which includes pasture and indoor space for 600 geese.
The Waudbys started keeping geese at Headlands in 1998 and are members of the British Goose Producers, a sector group of the British Poultry Council. The group was founded 30 years ago when availability of traditional geese for Christmas was threatened by dwindling supplies.
Turkey, of course, has become the standard bird on the dinner table at Christmas but the horsegate scandal and the subsequent consumer trend for seeking local produce with more transparent provenance hints at a possible comeback for a bird which has been largely abandoned for Yuletide feasts.
The Waudbys are keen to see the British classic make a comeback, having started farming the white-feathered bird by accident.
“There was a family that had a four-acre field and they had a fall out,” says Simon.
“They had a bit of everything in the field, a pig, a cow and some geese. I was doing a little job nearby and they asked me if I wanted the geese. We started with 20 and enjoyed having them.”
December is one of Simon’s favourite months of the year, so getting involved in preparing something for Christmas was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“My favourite months of the year are December and May. In May, everything is nicely growing and in December we’re nicely caught up with work and you have all that build up to Christmas. Everyone who visits the farm comes in a happy, festive mood. I think it’s a wonderful time.
“Goose is the traditional British Christmas meal and we like tradition. I think a goose is good value and I thoroughly enjoy what we do. It’s a wonderful way of life that’s not all about the money.
“In the run up to Christmas last year we had 33 of us, catching, plucking and packing the geese. We get it all done in a couple of days and they go straight out to customers in a refrigeration trailer.”
The geese are originally supplied to Headlands from Norfolk and arrive at a day old in the first week of June.
Some of the birds are supplied to their nine-year-old daughter Lucy’s primary school, so that the children can nurture the animals before they are returned to the farm in the run-up to Christmas.
“They’re housed inside and come on to heat to start with,” Simon explains.
“After a fortnight we let them outside where they graze everyday. We bring them in each night for their own safety because we have a problem with foxes around here and have had to put up extra fencing. Sally-Anne walks round the farm each day with the dogs to check the fences. We’ve had one incident where a fox got in and killed 20 geese.
“They are a lot of work when they are young but they become pretty self-sufficient. It’s a case of making sure they have water and fresh food.
“They love the water and when it’s raining heavily they don’t want to come in – which can be frustrating for us.”
The Waudbys supply geese to Ainsty Farm Shop in Green Hammerton, The Farmer’s Cart and the Castle Howard farm shop in York, Mainsgill Farm Shop near Richmond, Home Farm Shop in Beningbrough, Hartleys Butchers in Helperby, the Tollerton Stores shop and Spring House Farm Shop near Bedale, among others, and receive 100 orders or so from locals at the farm gate.
“We put a sign out in the first week of November and start getting orders coming in,” says Simon.
“More customers come back each year. One guy hitchhiked from Leeds to get here.”
Simon, 44, was born in Everthorpe in the East Riding and moved between farms as a youngster with his parents, taking in Wigginton and Shipton near York, and Castle Howard and Farlington near Easingwold.
He earned the capital to start his business after six months in Australia. Returning as a 22-year-old, he worked for the late Arthur Crisp at a farm on the Castle Howard estate.
After five years, he started an agricultural contracting business thanks to the generous loan of machinery by Mr Crisp, and as it grew, he bought machinery for himself and rented parcels of land for sowing with cereal crops.
Two years later, in 1993, Simon met Sally-Anne, 45, a farmer’s daughter who grew up in Wetherby, at a local bachelors and spinsters ball.
They bought Ivy House Farm, which lies just down the road from their current home, after they got married in 1997 and they began running their own livestock.
They have a son, as well as a daughter, 12-year-old Charles.
With space limited at Ivy House, the couple bought the grass field that has become Headlands in 2001. They lived in a caravan for ten months while the farmhouse was built.
The house has a ground source heat pump that is powered by solar panels and ridges and furrows created in a plot in front of the house will be planted with trees, then an orchard added nearby.
They have planted some trees already, as well as hedgerows and have installed a pond.
The likes of partridges, ducks and kestrels are often spotted.
“We’ve tried to keep the traditional farming programme,” says Simon, who still does contracting work, grows cereal crops and keeps cattle and sheep.
“A lot of farms now are very intensive livestock or arable. It’s getting the economies of scale right.
“We want to carry on British traditions and support nature so people can enjoy these landscapes for years to come. We see ourselves as guardians of the countryside.”