What started as a hobby with a few rare breed sheep for Helen Wray and her husband Chris has taken over their lives. Chris Bond paid a visit to their farm.
When Helen Wray and her husband Chris bought Gam Farm in 2003, they had nothing more in mind than owning a little plot of land where they could keep some hobby sheep.
At the time Helen was a music teacher (as well as having her own band) and Chris worked as a hand surgeon.
They bought the crumbling 10-acre smallholding nestled on a hillside less than a mile away from Grassington, in North Yorkshire, at an auction for just over £100,000. “The farm consisted of a cluster of ramshackle buildings when we bought it and it was a total mess,” says Helen. “The previous owner was a recluse and it was obvious that during her time nothing had been thrown away or repaired.”
The couple spent every spare weekend for the next two years clearing and cleaning the farm. It was at this point that they started to think about the possibility of it being more than just a hobby.
“We discovered various farming implements that had been left behind and because we had so much space we decided to get another breed of sheep and very quickly we got another and then we started thinking wouldn’t it be nice if other people could enjoy it as well.”
The story actually goes back 20 years and a chance conversation with one of Chris’s patients who had some sheep. “We thought we’d keep a few sheep just for fun so we got three Whitefaced Woodlands who we called Compo, Clegg and Foggy.”
They later lost the trio of sheep, victims of the Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in 2001. Not to be put off, they replaced them a year later and became supporters of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
Today, they have around 300 animals. They have five rare breeds of sheep – Whitefaced Woodland, Wensleydale, Boreray, Shetland and Hebridean – as well as rare breed cattle, goats and pigs (Helen hopes to get rare breed poultry next). “We’ve picked up pockets of land as the years have gone by and we’ve now got about 130 acres but it’s spread all over the place in Linton, Cracoe and Thorpe, which makes it hard to check on all the animals.”
The farm, framed by Grassington Moor and Hebden Moor, borders some old lead mines, the remnants of which pockmark this wild and impressive landscape. It’s a reminder, too, of the versatility of our countryside which we so often take for granted.
Here Helen keeps some of her Northern Dairy Shorthorns cattle, one of the rarest breeds in the country. “Once they see me they’ll come to us,” she says. And sure enough within a minute or so they’re ambling across the hillside towards the promise of food.
“Our neighbour is a farmer and he looks after this particular bit of land and kindly lets us put out a few cattle,” she says. “Until we built our cowshed two years ago they were outdoors all year round. But they’re a very hardy breed.”
The dry summer has meant the herd has been dispersed because of the lack of grass, but six months ago the problem was snow drifts (Helen lost several sheep in early Spring). Who’d be a farmer, you might ask?
What makes it even more of a challenge is that neither comes from a farming background. “We both really like rural life and Will, our son, went to Craven College in Skipton to study agriculture so he knows what he’s doing. But Chris and I have had to learn as we’ve gone along. It costs so much money to set up a farm from scratch, it’s far more expensive than we imagined.”
Helen has given up her teaching job (but still has her band), while Chris still works two days a week at the Yorkshire Clinic in Bingley. The couple live in Gargrave but every day sees them travelling to Grassington where the range of breeds means everyone (Will works there too) is at full stretch.
It’s hard graft but on a clement day like this with warm sunshine brushing your back and the sight and sound of swifts and swallows flitting in and out of the barns, it’s not difficult to see the allure.
Helen oversees the marketing side of things and the cattle, along with the sheep, pigs and goats are sold for their meat. They supply Alisdair Brooke-Taylor, the acclaimed chef at The Moorcock Inn at Sowerby Bridge, which has a burgeoning reputation as a culinary hotspot. “He uses our Tamworth pork, he’s had Whitefaced Woodland lamb and the Borerays. I think he’s had the lot.”
Helen believes there’s a growing demand for rare breed meat. “Because it’s slower growing it’s got much more flavour with all this marbling running through it .” She’s tapped into the desire of a growing number of people to understand more about what they eat, where their food comes from and how it’s produced.
“I think people nowadays are interested in the ethics and the welfare of animals. They’re trying to buy British and more local produce and I think that’s better all round.”
She is about to start selling milk produced by her cows and also runs a successful online shop selling wool from her sheep, including her Borerays which aren’t known for their fleeces.
“You wouldn’t want to wear the wool as it’s very rough. But I’ve got a market for the fleece from battle re-enactment groups. They like to buy it because these were the original sheep the Vikings kept and I’ve got people in France and Belgium who come over and buy the fleeces from me and they spin them, because that’s what the women would have done, and then they knit them into vests for the re-enactment soldiers to wear.”
She also visits numerous wool fairs around the region. “Next month I’m going to Yarndale in Skipton. When I go to these events I often take some of my sheep with me. I’ve got one in particular that everyone knows called ‘Viola’. She’s very friendly and everywhere I go people say ‘have you brought Viola with you?’”
As well as this, she and Chris have amassed an impressive collection of vintage tractors and farming equipment. “We go to auctions and pick things up. It’s Chris’s hobby really and then I get the job of restoring them.”
Helen paints the tractors which are dotted around the farm like ornaments. They also have ploughs and carts, as well as everything from straw cutters to potato diggers, and some objects that wouldn’t look out of place in a medieval torture museum.
Helen estimates the collection totals more than 500 pieces and her hope is to open up the farm next year for weekend visitors, so that people can come and have a look around.
Transforming the farm has been a painstaking labour of love for her and Chris. “We’re learning all the time. One thing in particular we’ve realised is just how hard farmers work. I don’t mean us, if you asked a farmer up in the Dales they’d probably say we’re playing at it. But we’re coming at it from a different angle. We never try to pretend that we’re proper farmers I think that would be insulting to those people who’ve been farming in their families for generations.
“What we’re trying to do is get the general public interested.
“We want to show people how far farming has come over the decades and also to show them just how important it still is today.”
For more information go to www.gamfarmrarebreeds.co.uk