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Farm profile: Reindeer diversification gives education farm a boost

Providing an educational service, Fiddlers Green, home of Brimham Rocks Adventure Farm, has grown its business by diversifying into reindeer, an unusual sight to see grazing on the moors of North Yorkshire.

 

At the heart of all Becky and Richard Burniston do is a passion for telling farming’s story.

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Looking out of the window at Brimham Rocks, it is easy to see why the area is classed as one of outstanding natural beauty.

 

There isn’t much for miles around, only scenic green views, and nestled in to the serenity of the landscape is an education farm set up by Becky and Richard Burniston, a rural haven for children to learn about all things agriculture.

 

Hailing from farming backgrounds, the husband and wife team took on the 17 hectares (42 acres) at Fiddlers Green in 2016, and run a mixture of 500 Swaledales, commercials and Valais Blacknose sheep, plus 50 British Blue crosses and a small herd of pedigree British Blues and Aberdeen-Angus crosses.

 

 

Extensively managed, all livestock are grass-fed, but alongside, the couple have opened their gates to the public to shed some light on what really happens on a working farm.

 

It began about nine years ago when the Burnistons were asked to go into a local school with their animals and, before moving to Fiddlers Green, were inspired to set up a mobile education farm.

 

Now the site boasts an interactive farm themed play area and cafe, and in November, won Farmer of the Year in the Yorkshire Post’s Rural Awards 2018 for their dedication to reconnecting the public to agriculture.

 

Becky says: “After that first visit, I thought there are a lot of children that don’t have a clue about where their food comes from.

 

“We started going out and spending a lot of time in Bradford and Leeds. We do go further afield, but mostly stay in Yorkshire.

 

“In Bradford for example, a lot of children don’t ever leave a five-mile radius of their home, so quite a lot of them have never seen an animal. It’s just nice for them.”


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Proud

 

With anything from pedigree pigs to ponies, donkeys, goats and llamas, Becky is adamant that children should be allowed to experience farming and, in turn, create a vital connection to food production.

 

She says: “We do all the proper stuff, such as teach them where milk comes from, how you make cheese and where beef comes from.

 

“We think it is important, because there are so many parents, probably from my generation, who are removed from agriculture. I personally think children need to know where it all starts from.

 

“They are then not under this perception that everything is mass-produced and that it was actually alive once and needs to be respected.

 

“I love the innocence of children and I think if you give them a good overview, it sets them up to make their own minds up whether they want to be vegan or vegetarian or eat meat.”

 

By having the farm as a base and running activities throughout the year on-site, the couple can continue to fund their free school visits.

 

They do, however, now have another vital strand to their business.

 

Reindeer

 

They are a somewhat mystical creature and not an animal you come across every day, yet reindeer are a key feature in Becky and Richard’s lives.

 

She says: “The reindeer came about while I was on maternity. I introduced the thought to Richard and he was having none of it.

 

“We looked at some and came away with two and he ended up loving them.”

 

Although bought with fascination for the animal itself, it was also originally a diversification option that Becky and Richard thought would supplement their farm well.

 

But her adoration for her herd lies much deeper than their commercial value.

 

She says: “We let people see them for six weeks of the year, but they are a big part of lives. Yes, the cows and sheep are too, but reindeer are such fascinating animals.

 

“How their whole system works is incredible. In winter, they shut their whole bodies down to survive on minimal input and, when they reach 18 months old, a tendon snaps over the bone and they click when they walk. It means that when they’re in a blizzard, the calves know to follow that clicking sound. They’re just amazing.”

 

At its peak, their herd has reached about 80 reindeer and have either been sold to other breeders across the country or to people who want to own their own private herd, but never for meat.

Keep

 

As for surviving on the North Yorkshire landscape, Becky says they are very adaptable.

 

She says: “You will find through summer they malt. They are almost naked and deal with the heat quite well.

 

“Midges do pester them, however and are attracted to the warmth of their antlers, so we use horsefly spray.

 

“In winter, we often get asked whether they’re cold, but reindeer can cope down to -50degC before they start to feel it.

 

“Their hair is hollow to provide insulation and, of course, they love the snow.”

 

Reindeer graze outdoors through summer and are kept on rough ground, similar to that in their native environment, where there is bilberry and heather to forage on.

 

They are also fed additional pellets specially made up with different minerals and vitamins and, during winter, they are bedded on straw and moss, fed on moss imported from Scandinavia.

 

There are some problems to look out for, and two of those is the maintenance of the reindeer’s feet and antlers.

 

Becky says: “We are fortunate that we have a lot of rocks here, so it helps to naturally keep their feet short.

 

“In summer, their antlers are growing and they are very delicate with a high blood supply, so you have to watch for flies eating them.”

 

Reindeer antlers are sought-after products, and many are used for crafts, says Becky, or taken by local scout groups.

 

Normally the couple would breed their own too, but this year it has taken a back seat due to the lack of females.

 

Becky says: “We are hoping to source some females and start again next year. If we can find some females this year that have run with the bull it would be amazing, but the likelihood is we are not going to.

 

“People are reluctant to let females go because there is a shortage of them and you can’t import any at the moment.”

Christmas

 

This is the first year people have been able to come to the farm to visit the reindeer, through the couple’s new ‘wonderland’ experience.

 

Families can walk themselves around the barn which is decked out in festive decor, participate in various seasonal activities, before heading through to meet Santa and feed the reindeer.

 

Becky is hoping this season will be a successful one and, looking ahead, the farm has more educational plans in place, such as live lambing and bird watching.

 

But the opportunity their diversification with the reindeer has provided is something Becky is grateful for.

 

She says: “Getting the reindeer was the best thing we’ve done. A lot of farm parks are big, but we are not, so we have to have a niche to get people to come back to us.

 

“Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we have with the educational side and the rest of the farm.”

Farm facts

  • 17 hectares (42 acres) of owned land
  • Runs a mixture of 500 Swaledales, commercials and Valais Blacknose sheep
  • Runs 50 British Blue crosses and a small herd of pedigree British Blues and Aberdeen-Angus
  • Has up to an 80-head herd of reindeer
  • Runs educational school visits, as well as opening the farm to the public
  • Won Yorkshire Post’s Farmer of the Year Award 2018
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