Truly diverse Essex farm is home to cows, sheep and willow cricket bats

Essex farmers and entrepreneurs Kit and Trudy Speakman bring a new meaning to the term ‘mixed farm,’ for as well as arable, beef, lamb and willow enterprises, they run an array of diversification projects. CLEMMIE GLEESON reports.

When Kit and Trudy Speakman were looking for a farm to buy in 1995 they wanted somewhere with opportunities to develop both farming and non-farming enterprises.

In Little Braxted Hall in Essex they found them in abundance and since moving from the West Country they have established an impressive range of businesses including fishing lakes, renting office space and an indoor tennis court and retailing livestock rubber matting products alongside their mainsteam farming businesses.

Much of the 600-acre farm fronts the River Blackwater and it includes around 60 acres of willows. Two Countryside Stewardship Scheme agreements have since been signed one of which requires the willow plantations to be grazed.

“Defra was very keen to have the willow plantations grazed, but they are too wet in the winter so we needed more grazing for the winter months,” said Kit.

Around 100 acres was therefore entered into an arable reversion programme. The land provides enough grazing for the sheep in the winter and summer grazing for 85 Herefords, which are housed over the winter.

Kit wanted a low maintenance breed of sheep and was recommended Easy Care. He started with 100 ewes, now has 200 and plans to build up to 300 and has become a strong supporter of the breed, hosting the Easy Care Sheep Society's annual open day.

“They are incredibly good mothers, are very easy to manage and low cost,” he said. As they shed their wool naturally there is no need for shearing and the associated problems such as flystrike are eliminated.

Veterinary costs are low as he does not worm them and rarely has any health problems and they thrive on the relatively poor pasture offered in the plantations.

“They lamb outside in the first week of April, we don't house them at all,” he explained. “We only feed minerals for six weeks before and after lambing.”

Lambing problems are rare with only two per cent assisted lambings among this year's shearling ewes which produced a lambing ratio of 1:6 this year. “We should be able to get up to 1.8,” he said. “They are extremely low maintenance – we move them from field to field but that is all we do. We don't dock or castrate the lambs, they are born in the field and stay there until it is time to take them away from their mothers.”

Easy Care females are highly sought after and Kit has already sold all his 2007 crop with orders for 2008. Meanwhile the ram lambs are finished (reaching an average of around 20kg carcase weight) and marketed through a box scheme. “They produce delicious clean meat. They aren't prone to get fat – they tend to grow bigger rather than fatter.”

The Hereford cattle meanwhile are provided by Warwickshire-based livestock marketing company Meadow Quality and are sold via the Waitrose Native Breeds scheme.

Benefits to wildlife on the farm through the Countryside Stewardship Schemes agreements, which have also included six metre margins and extensive hedge improvement, has been ‘staggering' says Kit. Since the start numbers of skylarks, grey partridges and kingfishers have significantly improved and local residents have reported otters on the river for the first time in many years.

“When we first moved here we would see only see Kingfishers about once a year, now we see them once a fortnight.”

He puts this success down to the big barrier between arable production and the river, created by the arable reversion project. “We are well paid for it and the environment is really improving. I would rather be paid to benefit the environment than to overproduce stuff that nobody wants.”

The Blackwater valley is believed by some to be ‘the finest place in the world' to grow cricket bat willows, said Kit. The 3,000 trees are sold when ready to Essex willow specialists and merchants J.S. Wright and Sons who supply English cricket bat willow to customers worldwide.

Previously, young willow ‘sets' were bought in but Kit has recently planted his own nursery so that he can produce his own and have a surplus to sell to other growers.

“Willows need managing – if you don't remove side shoots it creates a knot in the bat and devalues it significantly,” Kit added.

“The trees grow like porcupines if the shoots are not taken out. Also, to be a class one willow the trunks have to be as straight as possible.'

Meanwhile the farm's 400 arable acres are contract farmed by Kit's brother Richard. “Our rotation is wheat, barley, potatoes, then wheat, barley and another break crop, either stubble turnips or grass,” said Kit.

However he plans to add forage crops to the rotation and this year is experimenting with sweet clover that should also bring fertility boosting benefits to his light land. Parts of the farm are also devoted to game cover as shooting is rented out, while land is also rented to a potato grower who is able to use water from the farm's three reservoirs for irrigation.

The reservoirs total 14 acres of water and are used by local angling clubs who have reported catches of 30lb carp. Other diversification enterprises include 17 offices in converted farm buildings. Being equidistant between Braintree, Chelmsford, Colchester and Maldon and two miles off the A12 the farm is well-placed to offer out-of-town office space and they have proved popular.

One of the offices is in a mediaeval kitchen, which was later used as a dovecote. The project required extensive renovations all within the remits of its two star listing.

The couple have also converted a potato store into an indoor tennis court and run a business selling rubber matting and mattresses for cow cubicles, horse stables and livestock trailers.

EASY CARE SHEEP

Developed by Welsh sheep farmer Richard ‘Iolo' Owens from the Wiltshire Horn and Welsh Mountain
Can produce 1.8 lambs per ewe
Lambs reach 17kg carcass weight at 12 weeks
No shearing required as wool is shed
Thrives on lowland grazing
Low assisted lambings
Low shepherding, veterinary and feeding costs

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