He is known for his appearances on Countryfile and for flying the flag for British farming. But Adam Henson has a passion for rare breed animals and is on a mission to preserve them. Emily Ashworth meets him to talk about what is going on at his farm in the Cotswolds.
Every Sunday evening, the British public can tune in to BBC’s Countryfile and get a glimpse of what is happening in the farming community.
Adam Henson, one of the programme’s main presenters, regularly tells of life on his farm in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, showcasing anything from lambing to the introduction of bees to the crops which help to make up the 647 hectares (1,600 acres) of tenanted land at Bemborough Farm.
Adam, like his farm, plays many roles – farmer, TV personality, author, ambassador.
But his heart lies with the array of rare breeds that live on the farm, a passion passed down from his father, Joe, who founded the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) in 1973.
Joe passed away in 2015, but Adam speaks highly of his father’s vision and foresight, predicting that in the future, the industry would look at less intensive farming practices.
“He believed farming would start to look at sustainability and at breeds which could convert poor quality grasses into good quality milk and meat, rather than being fed a high protein diet,” says Adam.
“And he was right, wasn’t he? I don’t know how he knew, but he did.
“He also wanted to preserve the more traditional breeds because they are part of our living heritage and thought they could be a valuable genetic resource for the future.”
Joe initially kept rare breeds as a hobby, but in 1971 he made another pioneering move by opening Cotswold Farm Park, the first of its kind in the world to open life on-farm to the paying public – a means to help keep Joe’s growing passion for his native animals viable.
It is encouraging to see the work Adam and his business partner, Duncan Andrews, have done since to keep Joe’s legacy alive, and the core message of the Farm Park is still about the conservation of those more traditional breeds.
In the 70 years prior to the establishment of the RBST, 26 native breeds were lost. The work of the RBST and breed enthusiasts, together with advancing technology, has ensured no native British breeds of livestock have since become extinct.
It is an achievement to say the least, and alongside the already extensive list of cattle breeds such as Belted Galloway, Gloucester, Irish Moiled and White Park, Adam has recently welcomed a small number of Albion cattle to the farm, producing the first home-bred heifer calf last month.
“They are a dual-purpose breed for milk and meat,” he says, proud that this calf hopefully means a brighter outlook for the breed’s future which was in doubt.
“They’re a fantastic mother and a hardy, beefy, milky cow.”
Since the RBST has introduced Albion Cattle onto their watch list there has been a huge amount of interest and, as they are a breed with great potential, Adam is confident we will see numbers grow significantly over the coming years, due to demand.
All rare breeds are either sold to other breed enthusiasts or as meat to the Cotswold Farm Park shop.
Alongside native sheep, goats and horses, the farm also runs a 500-head commercial flock of Lleyn and Romney sheep.
Just over 200 of the best ewes are put to Romney and Lleyn rams and the lambs sold on. The remaining flock are put to a Polled Dorset, with the lambs sold as Cotswold quality lamb into Marks & Spencer via the Cotswold Sheep Group.
But the farm park is only one part of Adam’s business.
Working in partnership with Duncan, over the years they have moulded the farm into a business which can hopefully withstand the looming uncertainty of Brexit.
Adam says: “The diversity within the business and far-reaching income streams reduces risk, as we don’t have all our eggs in one basket. For those who are producing a single commodity like milk, pork or chicken, it’s potentially high risk.
“We have joined forces with a farming neighbour in a joint venture arable business where we share machines and skilled operators.
“This has enabled us to buy machines with the latest technology and given us scale to farm our own farms as well as take on around 2,000 acres of contract farming.
“It reduces our overhead costs, and due to the quality of the equipment and the work of our arable manager, we now have a high-quality precision farming operation.
“I’m very concerned, however, particularly for sheep and beef farmers on marginal land and the financial return for them without BPS. It will be very dependent on negotiations and trade deals with lamb and beef.
“My suspicion is they could have 12 months of hard times, but hopefully things will brighten up.
“With regard to our arable crops, we try to add value wherever possible.
“We grow Maris Otter winter barley which is ideal for brewing and we work closely with Butcombe Brewery on a licence agreement, producing Adam Henson’s Rare Breed beer.
"Spring barley is sold on contract to the brewing industry and our high-quality wheat is sold
“Our oilseed rape is also cold pressed by our neighbour, Hamish Campbell, who produces R-Oil.”
The farm has been part of environmental schemes for the past 26 years.
“We feel looking after the natural world is part of our responsibility as custodians of the landscape,” Adam says.
“We have large areas of conservation margins, wild bird cover, lapwing plots and Cotswold grassland, and we enjoy seeing the positive results it is having in increasing wildlife numbers.”
A potential part of the future agricultural policy is public money for public goods, which includes environmental conservation.
This suits Adam’s farming system and his work with rare breeds, but for many livestock farmers across the UK, particularly in marginal areas, he believes it could become an essential part of their business strategy.
In 2017 Adam raised awareness for the need of a GCSE in Agriculture. This was picked up by a politician and taken to Parliament.
Although many pledged their support, it was put to one side due to the Brexit workload.
Adam gained a huge amount of support from agricultural colleges, schools and the public, and has been working closely with organisations to move the idea forward.
Having spoken to Caroline Drummond from Leaf among other people, he thinks ‘it would be easier, more practical and perhaps more sensible to include agriculture within all subjects in school’.
He says: “If the children of today, who are the parents of the future, had a better understanding of food provenance, they could make more informed choices.
“There is sadly still a huge void of knowledge when it comes to food production and land use.
“Bridging this gap at school is the most positive way forward.”
But when it comes to championing all things British farming, Adam believes opportunities for British farmers stretch far beyond UK homes.
He says: “If we can convince people to buy British and to understand the quality of our production systems, this will support British agriculture.
“There is also growing demand from countries like China and Japan, who are seeking out high quality British food, which in turn provides a fantastic opportunity for British farmers.”
Duncan and Adam are passionate about providing a fantastic visitor experience for their customers to Cotswold Farm Park, as well as educating them about agriculture.
They both believe that productive farming can work hand-in-hand with conservation and the introduction of their latest breed, the Albion cattle, is a marker to their continued support for rare breeds.
Although Adam sees many threats to British agriculture, he also sees some great opportunities.
Duncan and Adam are passionate about providing a fantastic visitor experience for their customers to Cotswold Farm Park, as well as educating them about agriculture. They both believe that productive farming can work hand in hand with conservation and the introduction of their latest breed, the Albion cattle, is a marker to their continued support for rare breeds.