Farm of the Week: Award win caps off new era for flexible farmers

TWENTY-ONE years ago the Fothergill family were effectively turfed out of their family home at Roxby House in Pickhill to make way for the widening of the A1.

Tim Forthergill, who has just been named North Yorkshire regional winner of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society's Tye Trophy competition. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

The family, led by farmers Tim Fothergill and his father George, negotiated a settlement for the 16 acres of their land that was required by the Department of Transport, which also included the demolition of the farmhouse, where George’s grandfather first came to in the 1920s, and sold the rest of the farm acreage.

It saw them move northwards - well away from the A1 - to Red House Farm, Easby near Richmond in 1994 and showing how far they have come since, last week the farm picked up the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s Tye Trophy award for North Yorkshire, recognising their efforts in conservation and wildlife.

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“It’s nice to be rewarded for something that you love doing and that’s certainly the case for us,” says Tim. “Since we came here we have planted over 3km of hedges to link the woodlands together providing wildlife corridors for birds and animals to travel up and down. We’ve also taken out one arable field and managed the grassland that borders the River Swale.

“The farm runs to 227 acres and 44 acres of it is woodland including 12 acres of ancient woodland where we have taken out non-native species and replaced them with around 100 oak trees.

“We had some very good advice from Phil Lyth of FWAG (Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group) who suggested we should thin out some of our woodland in order that the oak, beech and ash became better established. One of the benefits we have also seen is the growth of holly and hazel and our woods are now substantially different to when we first came with alders and willows also now grown in the wetter areas.

“We’ve also reinstated the drystone wall that ran around the perimeter of the woods and have put a wildflower mix in that has brought about a much healthier and vibrant wildlife environment. We now have buzzards, kestrels, owls, pheasants, rabbits and deer within the woodlands.”

Since arriving at Red House Farm George and Tim have also changed the way the land is farmed, as well as adding holiday cottages and a caravan site.

“When we first looked at the farm all of the fields were down to grass and there were sheep and cattle everywhere. The previous owner had hoped to turn it into a golf complex with holiday accommodation but his plans hadn’t come off.”

Today the farm is a mixed arable and sheep enterprise with crops of winter wheat, winter barley, potatoes and fodder beet. There is also 40 acres of permanent grass.

“We’re growing the wheat varieties Viscount and Scout to try and hit the biscuit market although generally it is selling as feed wheat. Scout is our choice as an early drilling wheat. Our tonnage per acre is around 3 to 3.5 on what is a combination of gravelly land on the river plain and heavier north facing land. Our barley variety is Cassia.

“We store the grain on the farm and usually sell it all by Christmas. Last year’s crop averaged around £120 per tonne. Grain prices have been tough for the last couple of years especially with chemicals and fertiliser being more expensive.

“We grow Estima and Victoria potato varieties for the early sales and Piper for chipping, selling everything on to the bag trade. Fodder beet has been a good recent crop for us. As there is not so much grown around here it is popular with local farmers who come along and buy two tonne loads.”

Tim and George walked through a field of mustard as we talked and explained how it helps with their crop rotation as well as adding to their ‘greening’ of the farm.

“We’re mixing mustard in to the grass leys as a green manure. It puts a little bit of body back into the land and provides a wildlife break crop. The root structure helps break up the land and gets us ready for a good first wheat.”

They are also renting 40 acres of farmland at Swainby where additional wheat is grown.

The sheep enterprise runs to 230 breeding ewes with a mix of Mules and Suffolk X put to either the three Suffolk tups, one Ryeland and one Texel. Lambs go to Northallerton livestock market and having lambed in January and February their first consignment of this season went last week.

“We hit £88 with some 45kg lambs and averaged £84,” says Tim.

“Sheep has probably been the best farming sector to be in for the last couple of years and we’re hoping prices will remain firm. We’ve had a change of policy this year because we had a lot of winter feed. We bought 40 Mule hoggs and a single lamb apiece from Barnard Castle livestock market to get our Mule crop back up.”

The move into the holiday market started in 1997, when they opted out of cattle.

“We were fattening 90 beasts a year when we first came but then BSE hit and we found it hard to buy calves. Our numbers dwindled and it really wasn’t the same market so we came out of them and looked at converting a barn. The one we converted was a derelict building.

“Two years later we opened a second cottage and two years after that we started the caravan site that runs to ten vans that are on for the season. We prefer it that way with visitors bringing caravans on to the site once and taking them off once and we know who is coming. It means that we get to know who is here and builds up trust.”

Winning their award is recognition of what the Fothergills have done for conservation and wildlife after having had to leave the family’s home of some 70 years. The irony was that the motorway plans were shelved just after they moved and the road widening not completed until just two years ago

“Fortunately we came here to this beautiful countryside, albeit with a bit of help from the bank,” says George.