With a touch of luck and a drive to produce top quality beef, young farmer Tom Hordle is running his cattle under an ancient commoners’ right that dates back hundreds of years. Gaina Morgan reports.
It is hard to imagine the sheer vastness of what 36,000 hectares (90,000 acres) must look like, but for young farmer Tom Hordle, that is his every day.
At 28, he is just one of a small number of young people keeping cattle under commoners’ rights, a law that harks back to the Norman Conquest and requires the gathering of an ancient court, made up of highly regarded figures from the industry, to decide whether you may graze your livestock or not.
His 45 Hereford cross British Friesian suckler cows are free to roam throughout the New Forest, Hampshire, given that it is an area of unimproved, uncultivated land, and more impressively, as big as the Isle of White. Tom is, in fact, the great grandson of commoners but had no direction connection with the tradition and began his own herd with a cow from the herd of his late friend and mentor, Terry Day.
A particular favourite is three-year-old Fat Bee, the last of the calves delivered while Terry was still able to help.
But this way of farming was borne from lack of available and affordable land.
With the New Forest just an hour and half’s train journey from London, what were once just cottages and farmhouses are now highly desirable assets and with prices either side of £1 million, they are beyond the means of the locals.
Alongside the New Forest grazing, Tom eventually managed to buy 1.6ha (4 acres) and has painstakingly found the resources to build cattle and machinery sheds, as well as a silage and food store, in an investment worth around £250,000.
He has slowly pieced it together, saving money from chores as a child and then from his previous job with the National Trust to buy the land.
Every penny earned from his farming goes straight back into the business and Tom has built the sheds in between contracting work and his responsibilities as a commoner.
He says: “I now have common rights and can turn my stock out. I have to make a marking payment, but I’m not limited to numbers or to when I can turn them out.
“I’ve got 17 ponies out as well as cattle, and it’s a close-knit community, where everyone helps each other out. A lot of commoners have been here for generations and know the forest inside out.”
Tom hand rears his bought-in calves so that they acclimatise to disease and are easier to manage once they are out in the forest. The cattle are trained to stay in their ‘haunts’ or home areas of about five or six square miles.
He says: “As long as you have one good cow to start with, then they learn, and they come to a whistle. They don’t go out into the forest until after about a year and in that time, every time I feed them I whistle.
“They know their area, so at this time of year my cattle come in at night and have as much silage as they can eat.
“Then I let them out in the morning. I just open the gate and off they go. I go and do a day’s work and come back and at about 4.30pm, they’ll probably be waiting at the gate.”
The ecology is particularly important to Tom. He explains why the ‘browse line’ created six feet above ground by the cattle grazing the leaves is important as it allows for birds and insects to have a good flight path, as well as affording good views.
The importance of the commoners to the natural life of the forest means DEFRA makes a headage payment of around £80 for each of the animals they graze.
Every animal has its own unique verderer number, so the number of cattle in the New Forest can be traced, and also its own brand number. The verderers have regulated the New Forest since Norman times.
The extensive system is fairly low cost, but each commoner has to have enough owned or rented back-up land to accommodate the stock if necessary. It is a substantial financial commitment, with some land costing between £30,000 and £40,000 an acre.
There is also the need to bring the cattle in during the autumn, when the acorns are green and traditionally, commoners then turn pigs out for around two months, depending on the crop.
Pannage pork, with its distinctive acorn fed taste, is highly prized. Tom has previously turned out weaners, but this year will buy an in-pig Hampshire or Tamworth sow and then turn her out with the piglets in September.
Tom also tries to breed his own replacements. Bought-in cattle do not have a natural resistance to red water, a tick born fatal disease, unless they have been acclimatised from a very young age.
TB testing is also a challenge, and cattle from outside the forest have to be tested and then isolated for 60 days. They are then retested before being released into the open forest.
Spring calving has been replaced by all year round calving to help with continuity of beef supply, but the continental bull has been replaced with a Hereford, and Tom now finishes his cattle instead of selling them as stores at about nine or 10 months old.
But it is the varied diet, says Tom, that produces fantastic flavour.
He says: “My cattle constantly walk and graze. They’re on the gorse and the heather and all the tree saplings.
“That’s doing a massive job for the forest, but it is also giving the cattle this unbelievable natural taste.”
The cattle and ponies take up a huge amount of time, but Tom also does farm contracting and works three or four days a week on local estates.
Lately he has also worked towards building a direct link with the consumer, after the potential of the meat was spotted by Mark Young, head chef at The Bell Inn, Gloucestershire, following a Channel 4 TV programme. The opportunity came just as Tom was becoming disillusioned with selling his prized store cattle to conventional systems for finishing. Now they are taken on to 30 months, hung for 40 days and butchered in the New Forest.
Continuity of supply is an issue, but The Bell Inn and the local butcher have turned that into an extra point of difference, stressing that the seasonality of the product has become a sought-after dish.
It is Mark’s imaginative touch though that keep prices accessible, combining cheaper and more expensive cuts in one dish.
Mark says: “This isn’t about getting the meat for the best price we can, this is about paying what we need to pay for it. For me, everything has gone wrong in the food industry in this country.
“Farmers are getting a really raw deal. Our farmers produce a fantastic product and they’re not getting a justifiable amount of money for it.
“Right from the off, I was adamant that we would pay the right price for a product that I felt was unique. It has to be sustainable.
“Essentially the sirloins cost me about £1 more each than the ones we normally buy.”
Tom, in turn, is appreciative of the relationship he enjoys with the hotel and its customers.
They have a deal which pays him what he needs to continue the business, albeit with slim margins, and he also sells to The Farmers Butcher, run by Mike and Sarah Alexander at Bramshaw in the New Forest.
There is little in the way of a work/life balance, but he and his girlfriend, Adele Colton, delight in riding out to check the cattle and are well rooted in a unique way of life. And they are content in the knowledge that their home and place of work is so sought after by commuters and tourists alike.