They made waves when appearing on primetime TV to showcase behind-the-scenes farming life. Barry Alston speaks to the Beavan family about what has happened since.
TURN the clock back to the spring of 2010 and the BBC’s first “Lambing Live” fly-on-the-wall documentary series based on a traditional Welsh sheep farm.
It captivated the British public with upwards of three million viewers tuning in every night of the programme’s week-long run.
While the newborn lambs were undoubtedly the main attraction, the hands-on skills of the host family were not lost on the public either.
For Jim and Kate Beavan and their 20-year-old son, Sam, who works on the farm and is already an accomplished shearer, as well as daughter, Celyn, currently anxiously awaiting her A-level results, the experience proved a turning point in their farming lives. It gave them the confidence to realise what had been a burning ambition to help educate non-farming people on just what makes the countryside tick.
Nine years on, that has become a thriving reality in the shape of Kate’s Country School, which offers a wide range of rural courses throughout the year all aimed at promoting a positive perception of agriculture by means of a practical on-farm approach.
Whether it be tackling the generalities of sheep farming through to lambing, shearing, dosing, foot trimming, dry stone walling and much more, the Beavans are only too willing to put a training course together.
There is even a course on cider making, which has been an ongoing activity on the family’s Monmouthshire farm since 1689, with some of the original equipment having been preserved for posterity but replaced by more up-to-date machinery.
To support that venture, a field on the 121-hectare (300-acre) Great Tre-Rhew Farm, close to the Skirrid Mountain at Llanvetherine, near Abergavenny, has been set aside as an orchard with the planting of 100 cider apple trees across 22 different varieties.
Apples from other nearby sources, along with pears to make perry, supplement the home-grown crop and, while the aim is not to go overboard on producing what is a traditionally-made farmhouse cider, local outlets are being established.
The 13th century farm is one of two within a family partnership, involving parents Trev and Anne and Jim’s brother, Huw, his wife Jan and their sons Gareth and Dan, who live on a 101-ha (250-acre) beef and sheep farm three miles away.
Lamb and beef produced on both farms, having been slaughtered locally at Raglan, is sold through the family’s Beavans Butchers Shop in Abergavenny.
Some of the 450 Eppynt Hill Speckled Face ewes go to Bluefaced Leicester rams to produce Welsh Mules, with selected ewe lambs being kept as replacements for a self-contained 400-ewe flock put to Texel or Charollais terminal tups.
On the cattle side, suckler cows have been replaced by bought-in batches of month-old British Blue or Angus cross Friesian calves which are reared on the bucket before turnout on to grass and selling as 12 to 14-month-old stores depending on market trade.
“To be honest we did not have a clue as to what we were getting ourselves into by agreeing to take part in Lambing Live,” says Kate.
“Around 80 farms across the UK were considered for the documentary and by sheer chance our traditional buildings were more in keeping with what the producers wanted to highlight. They also liked the three family generations living here.
“For us it was a massive upheaval with a production crew of around 70 people on the farm at any one time.
“Thankfully it was a hit with viewers and the level of response made it all worthwhile, but whether we would do it again is debatable.”
Even after the series ended, the family was inundated with letters of appreciation and though the name and location of the farm was never revealed during the programmes, sacks of mail arrived on the doorstep simply addressed to the Lambing Live Farm, Wales.
“Some time later, while on a beach in Pembrokeshire, I was approached by a totally unknown lady who said: ‘I know you. You are the man with the television lambs’,” says Jim.
“On another occasion while on a visit to Cardiff’s Principality Stadium for a Wales-Italy rugby match, the man sitting next to me remarked he had a bone to pick with me. He said he was a Texel breeder and there I was promoting the Charollais.
“We had thought of ways of diversifying the farming side before Lambing Live was dropped upon us, but it did provide the impetus to go for it and concentrate on highlighting what goes on throughout the year on a working farm. With such diverse skills between us it seemed the logical thing to do.”
For his part, he is the fourth generation of the family to farm at Great Tre-Rhew since it was bought by his grandfather in 1940.
A graduate of Cumbria’s Newton Rigg College with a diploma in hill and marginal farming, he worked for a time as a shepherd on the Raby estate, spread across Teesdale and County Durham, before returning to the family farm.
Since then, he has become renowned as a British Wool Gold Seal shearer and prize-winning dry stone waller as well as for his sheep stockmanship skills and his passion for wildlife and the environment.
Kate hails from the hamlet of Little Eccleston in Lancashire’s Fylde area, having attended school in Garstang before becoming a registered veterinary nurse working for a practice in Blackpool.
“Given our diversity of skills, it is little surprising that passing on our knowledge proved the basis of our diversification activities,” says Kate.
The rest as they say is history, but not as far as Kate is concerned.
As well as being an active fundraiser for the RABI farming charity, two years ago she was “persuaded” to take on the role of vice-chairman of Monmouthshire NFU, with progression this year to the county chairmanship for a further two-year span.
“You could say I am the girl that never likes to say no, but it is a challenge that provides the opportunity to get involved with agri politics and some of the problems the industry faces,” says Kate.
“There is the ongoing bovine TB crisis, the growing concerns surrounding climate change and the worrying mental health situation among farmers – an issue very dear to my heart having attended a number of suicide funerals in recent years.
“Someone we know had mental health issues last year and the impact was immense. I believe everyone, and every establishment, needs to have training as a mental health first aider in order to spot the signs and be able to point the person in the right direction for assistance.
“In fact, over the past 12 months, I have used my mental health first aid training 20 times more than I have used my physical first aid training.
Participants on the courses vary considerably, says Kate, ranging from non-farming professionals, established farmers and their wives looking to learn new skills, students wanting hands-on experience and smallholders with just a few acres of ground.
She says: “We have one lady who lives in a flat in central London and yet is a regular on our lambing courses. She just loves the experience.
“There are a great many people out there keen to live the good life, move from town to the countryside, buy a small piece of land and keep a few sheep or even chickens in the garden.
“It really is pleasing to see the enthusiasm, enjoyment and confidence participants get from their time with us.
“As a farming family we are genuinely passionate about what we do. We live it and we love sharing it.”