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Backbone of Britain: Yorkshire-based cheesemakers offer lifeline to sheep milk producers during Covid-19 market plummet

Determined to help its sheep milk suppliers when lockdown hit, family-run cheesemakers Shepherds Purse fast tracked the launch of a new product to create some demand for the specialist raw material it was handling. Hannah Park reports.

Left to right: Katie, Judy and Caroline Bell.
Left to right: Katie, Judy and Caroline Bell.
Backbone of Britain: Yorkshire-based cheesemakers offer lifeline to sheep milk producers during Covid-19 market plummet

Among others, the UK sheep milk industry is one that was hit hard as a result of losing its main route to market via foodservice and specialist retailers when lockdown came into force.

When the news hit, Thirsk-based cheesemakers Shepherds Purse knew it had to do something.

Makers of artisan cheeses since the late 1980s, the family-run business has grown and evolved over time but, rooted in a mission to create quality alternatives for cow’s milk allergy sufferers, sheep’s milk has long been an integral part of the business.

Caroline Bell and her sister, Katie, took over the day-to-day running of Shepherds Purse in 2012, together with a 35-strong team of staff and their brother, Justin, who also helps occasionally with cheesemaking.

Their parents, Judy and Nigel, have taken a step back, but remain on-hand to help and advise when needed.

“Mum became interested in the health benefits sheep’s milk had to offer after finding there were few, non-distinctively flavoured alternatives around that time,” says Caroline.

“She decided to start looking into different products she could make using sheep’s milk and brought home five experienced milking sheep to begin experimenting, making cheese and other products to see what would work.” Following mentoring and encouragement from several individuals in the early days, Shepherds Purse officially launched at the Great Yorkshire Show in 1989.

In the same year, the business also took home a gold medal from the Nantwich International Cheese Awards after Judy was encouraged to enter Olde York, the first cheese Shepherds Purse produced for sale, into the competition.

Originally a mixed arable family farm in the 1980s when Judy began exploring the potential of sheep’s milk, the cheesemaking business has continued to grow organically over the past three decades.

“Our first cheeses were all made using sheep’s milk, and we still produce two of them today: the Olde York and Yorkshire Feta [now Fettle], alongside a sheep’s milk Wensleydale,” says Caroline.

“By the mid-1990s the milking sheep flock had grown to 400 and we had invested in several pieces of specialist equipment, including sheep milking parlour and our first cheese room.” With demand for cheese continuing to grow, milk requirements started to exceed that which could be provided by the farm’s own flock.

“We started to develop a process for working with other farmers to buy milk in,” Caroline says.

“As we did, we realised that cow’s milk was an option as well, although we were keen to retain the ethos of being speciality cheesemakers and wanted to put that across in products that we offered.” This thinking led to the development of cow’s and ewe’s milk varieties of blue cheeses, two lines which continue to be bestsellers for Shepherds Purse.

“There seemed to be a gap in the market in the mid-1990s for mild, speciality soft and creamy blue cheeses,” Caroline says.

"There were risks, but I didn’t feel there was an option not to do it"

Caroline Bell

The Shepherd’s Purse Fettle cheese is a Yorkshire twist on the popular Feta cheese.
The Shepherd’s Purse Fettle cheese is a Yorkshire twist on the popular Feta cheese.

“We found that none were being made in Yorkshire at the time, and very few in the UK.

Both varieties took off quickly and really took our business to the next level.” As the cheese side of the business grew, the difficult decision was taken to sell the milking sheep in the late 1990s.

“As the cheese business took off, it was hard to continue with both,” Caroline says.

“We felt it made business sense to focus on cheesemaking and develop the relationships we had with our farmer suppliers.

A lot of what were the main farm buildings have since been converted to cheesemaking infrastructure as expansion has continued.” Challenges though have inevitably struck along the way.

It was not long after selling their original flock to a producer in Whitby that foot-andmouth disease struck, leaving behind a mass of destruction and loss for many independent, family-run businesses.

Caroline says: “It was heartbreaking to see so many farmers we’d built relationships with lose their flocks around this time, including our own original flock.

We started working with Simon Stott and the Sheep Milk UK collective shortly after foot-and-mouth broke out and they helped us hugely in getting going again, building a new supply base.

“When the Covid-19 crisis hit and we heard from our sheep milk farmers how tough it was, we knew we had a responsibility to do something to help preserve the milk and support our farmers when supply chains were shutting down.

As farmers ourselves, we knew how much hard work is involved in producing the milk, the potential welfare issues and apprehension we knew farmers would be facing in not knowing if they had an outlet for it.” This led to the decision to fasttrack the launch of a new format of their Fettle cheese – a Yorkshire twist on the well-known Mediterranean salad cheese.

“There were risks,” Caroline says. “But I didn’t feel there was an option not to do it.

“We knew it would need some investment from us in terms of packaging and design, but we were confident about the quality of the cheese.

It was amazing effort from everyone involved and we managed to get the product launched on May 4.”

New line

 

The new line has, Caroline says, meant the business has been able to take much more milk than would otherwise have been the case over the initial lockdown period.

She credits the retailers Shepherds Purse supplies too for getting the product to shelf so quickly, with Fettle now available throughout most of the major multiple retailer customers it supplies in northern England predominantly as well as more specialist independent food retailers.

“We’re grateful that the retailers we supply have been so helpful in supporting the Fettle launch, but also in continuing to take other product lines through this period.

We have that to thank for some recovery through May and June, and although we haven’t made up for all sales lost through loss of foodservice, we are at a point of being able to run the business and keep supporting the suppliers.” Although foodservice is now cautiously opening up, the hard work is far from over.

“Cheese sales in general were at least 50 per cent down from initial predictions in April, due largely to loss of foodservice and specialist retailers, but also as a result of some deli counters closing down.

“We had to furlough a lot of our team for a period, but I felt strongly that there was demand out there from consumers and that it was a case of rerouting it.

We’ve seen incredible support from the retailers who have continued stocking our product, but our web sales too have been incredible.

“We don’t expect it to get back to the point we were at overnight.

If anything, we’re looking at the [foodservice] sector changing shape and not necessarily coming back to how it was.

It will be different.” In a bid to shed some positive light on the situation, Caroline says, if anything, Covid-19 has accelerated work in some areas the business felt was in the pipeline anyway “A lot of shops that did have deli counters closed these but were offering either a delivery or grab and go service, and therefore needed prepacked cheese.

We did feel as though this is the direction shoppers are generally going in anyway, as more retail shifts to online and people are looking for quick and convenient shopping.” Looking ahead and Caroline says she’s excited for what the future has in store and is proud of the resilience Shepherds Purse has shown during several challenging periods to date.

“Our goal is to keep producing a high quality product in-line with what our customers want, we will continue to grow and adapt the business to meet the changing demands of the marketplace.

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