Hill Top Farm in Malham, North Yorkshire, is where deliberately old-fashioned farming meets 21st century technology.
You can follow it on Twitter – @hilltopfarmgirl – and if you are fortunate enough to enjoy a walk on the limestone pavements above the village, you may see the Heseltine family’s herd of Belted Galloway cattle; a relatively new addition to the local scene, but an old and trusty native breed.
Hardy upland cattle originally created and maintained the landscape of this corner of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, but over the last 50 years their numbers have dwindled. They were replaced by sheep, which graze only the most palatable plant species. The loss of cattle, which are less selective, resulted in rank vegetation remaining ungrazed.
During the last 10 years, the limestone pavements of the Dales have seen a return of traditional upland cattle breeds, thanks in part to the now defunct Limestone Country Project. Funded by the European Commission LIFE Fund, it aimed to restore limestone habitats, using native cattle and whole farm management plans.
Many local farmers took advantage of LCP grants to establish new herds. Some chose Highland Cattle, others Blue Greys, others Welsh Blacks.
The Heseltines chose Belted Galloways, one of Britain’s most visually distinctive breeds. Naturally hornless, they can be black, dun or red, but always with a complete and unblemished white belt around their middle.
In 2003 the Heseltines bought 19 Beltie heifers and one bull. Since then the herd has grown to a steady 80. Neil has kept the same number of breeding heifers throughout, buying stock bulls as needed, and has sold up to 10 finished bullocks a year.
“The number I keep might go up slightly but 90 would be a maximum,” he says, “just because they graze outside and in the bad weather the land couldn’t carry any more.”
Selling the bullocks for between £900 and £1,000 has made this a profitable venture, and for the last two years the Heseltines have enjoyed a successful arrangement with Booths and the National Trust through the ‘Traditional Beef from National Trust Farms’ programme.
Booths collect the live animals in October and November, after they have fattened naturally over summer, and slaughter and butcher them at their plant in Preston. They sell the meat in their supermarkets in the run-up to Christmas, including in nearby Settle.
“We see it when we go to Booths,” says Leigh Weston, the technology-savvy member of the partnership. “It says Neil Heseltine, Hill Top Farm, Malham. It’s nice to see. People speak very highly of the meat.
“Customers have trust in the National Trust as an organisation, they’re buying into the National Trust story. It’s working for Booths and for us.”
Neil and Leigh say the Belties and their land are a perfect fit. The soil overlying the limestone at Malham is thin and of low fertility, and the weather can be testing, even for hardy breeds.
The Beltie is well suited to the terrain and the climate. Its winter coat is exceptional, comprising a long overcoat which sheds the rain and snow and a soft, mossy undercoat which traps the warmth and helps it maintain its body weight with less food in cold weather.
Belties provide marbled beef with a distinct texture and flavour, even under tough conditions. The meat is low in superfluous fat, which ensures the carcass cuts out at an economical rate, and it is a good-natured animal, slow to mature and long lived, often thriving and even calving into its twenties.
In the Heseltines’ case the Limestone Country Project paid about half of the capital cost of establishing the herd. Neil explains: “It was a five-year grazing scheme but we had a commitment to keep the cattle and keep them in that way for a ten-year period.
“As the LCP was coming to an end Higher Level Stewardship and the Countryside Stewardship Scheme took over where it left off, and it did that quite effectively. They’ve taken what they’ve learned by grazing this area by cattle and that became part of HLS.
“It restricts you in terms of what numbers you can graze, the timings of grazing and what you can feed the animals, amongst other things, but I don’t see any of it as a hindrance. I do it because I believe in it.
“I believe this is how agriculture should be. The key for me is it should be sustainable, environmentally and financially, and I think the current scheme is meeting that.”
The farm was in the CSS 10 years prior to in introduction of HLS, as it is situated in a national park, with SSSIs and limestone on the land. “It’s about fitting the criteria,” says Neil.
He accepts HLS and the single farm payment are crucial for the viability of hill farmers. “The single farm payment and environment schemes are what keeps me going,” he says. “Livestock farming is almost there to add to the agreement. Often they don’t affect my bottom line.
“Sometimes they make money. The cattle are making money now, but it took five years to do that.
“We’re not selling them until they’re three years old, so there’s quite a long lead in. It took five years until we covered our investment costs, but I knew it was a long-term investment.”
The cattle literally fend for themselves, unless the winter is extreme, in which case they are given silage or hay, which is produced on the farm. “It’s minimal input and minimal intervention, which is sustainable” says Neil. “We bring them off in May or June, for the cows to calf and to take previous year’s off them, speigning as it’s known around here.”
They roam over 1,100 acres, some of which is owned by the family, some of which is rented, including 100 acres rented from the National Trust.
The herd shares the pasture with about 360 of the Heseltines’ Swale ewes, which are tupped with Blue faced Leicester rams, with the mule lambs sold for breeding.
Up until now the heifers have calved themselves, without any intervention. “When the Belties calf they behave very much like wild animals,” says Leigh. “They calve away from the herd and leave the calf hidden in the grass, going back to feed it. They’re really good mothers.
“As a society we’ve moved from beef being a luxury product to something people expect to be able to eat every day,” he says. “That’s not good for the animals but it’s also not good from an economic point of view or an environmental point.
“We’re not here to be preachy about how we do things. Farming native breeds extensively suits our farm and our ethos.”