After entering farming with nothing much more than a determination to succeed, Shaun and Angela Partington have built themselves a successful rare breed enterprise from scratch.
If farming is a labour of love then Shaun and Angela Partington demonstrate it in droves.
Having started farming rare and native breeds at Savin Hill in the Lyth Valley, Cumbria, 20 years ago, their journey highlights a passionate devotion to preserving traditions in synergy with their challenging landscape on which they do it.
The husband and wife team have been dealt their fair share of blows along the way, including raising finance, flooding and a fire which nearly destroyed the farm.
But with typical Cumbrian grit, the couple have remained committed to rearing high quality, high welfare native breeds of beef and pork across their 42-hectare (103-acre) unit, which is predominantly rented, but all within a one-mile radius.
Shaun’s parents moved to the area in the 1980s and while his mother came from a family of farmers, his father was a salesman. By his own admission farming was in his blood, as was the determination to be his own boss.
Undertaking farm work from the age of 11, Shaun worked as a milker for 10 years before being made redundant.
He turned his hand to drystone walling and other general farm work, but his desire to farm in his own right and be his own boss just continued to get stronger.
Starting on the family’s four acres, he bought three maiden British White heifers from a breeder in Temple Newsome, Leeds.
“I’ve always loved cows, particularly the traditional, native breeds,” says Shaun. Plus, at the time I was on my own and the cattle are naturally-polled, docile and easily handled.
“What I hadn’t realised were the breeding challenges which come with farming rare breeds. Shortly after I bought them, I purchased some AI straws to try to get the breeding underway. Fifteen straws later I only managed to get two in calf.
“Then, a local farmer who I’d previously done some work for, let me put his Aberdeen Angus bull with the cows, but even after a full summer, nothing happened.”
To control pedigree bloodlines, Shaun bought his first bull soon after from Stoneleigh in 2000 at a rare breed sale. Soon after, a successful breeding regime was delivered.
With a clear aim from the outset to retain full control from farm to fork, he attended his first farmers’ market to sell meat directly to the public. Such was his success, numbers were then increased to 100-head through a mixture of further breeding and sales.
Today the pedigree cows operate within a closed herd alongside the farm’s two bulls – Faygate Wesley and home-bred Savin Hill Paulus – with a third soon to be purchased.
After being turned out in April, the cows are brought back at the end of October and finished ‘by eye’ at around 280-30kg.
After receiving a phone call from an HMS Wymott Prison farm manager who wanted to come out of pig farming in 2002, Shaun introduced nine Middle White females and one boar to the mix, which formed the nucleus going forward.
But once again, due to the lack of pedigree bloodlines for the Middle Whites, Shaun struggled to achieve a consistent progeny and bought in Saddlebacks to cross them together to achieve a better hybrid vigour.
“Pigs have a faster turnaround then the beef, which can be up to three years from conception to finishing. It’s a versatile meat and allowed us to start making sausages, burgers and bacon.”
With pedigree bloodlines kept pure in the breeding sows, each will produce two litters each year averaging eight piglets, and overall production is around 150 a year.
Piglets are left on the sow from anything between six to 10 weeks and then weaned. Finishing weights are around 65-75kg but Shaun admits they can afford to be more lenient with them thanks to the flexibility they have with the end product.
The butchery has become an intrinsic part of the business following the decision to bring it in house and build a purpose built unit, opposite the cottage in which they live.
The butchery was built by Shaun, who received an EU grant to help him purchase the equipment he needed, to bring the skill in house.
Self-taught, he spends two to three days working in there as he and Angela, who also works part time at C. T. Hayton, Agricultural Engineers, prepare for the various markets they are set to attend in that particular week.
Interestingly, as the farm has developed in size and scale over the years its business model at Savin Hill remains unchanged. Farmers’ markets and food fairs are as crucial today as they ever have been – there are just far more on the list with a wider reach into cities.
“I’ve got the butchery down to a T now and we know our markets and how they work so there is no waste,” says Shaun.
“The joints have a 14-day shelf life before being turned into burgers and sausages, which are our best sellers, although the popularity in flavours are variable as to where we are.
“In Cumbria, we sell a lot of pork and damson because of the connotations of the fruit which is grown in the Lyth Valley. Our Manchester sausage does well in the city, which is simply a blend of mace, nutmeg, ginger, sage, salt and pepper.
“But it’s been an exceptionally strange year for markets this year.
“We attended Holker Spring market earlier this year expecting a great turnout, but as the Royal Wedding was televised, it affected footfall.
“Then there has been the extreme heat, so people don’t really want to carry meat about. But then from August Bank Holiday it was like someone had turned a switch and business is really strong at the moment.”
Shaun has no desire to engage in conversations to supply regional retailers and strongly prefers to
retain control across all aspects of the production process.
“Our over-riding philosophy with our business is about farming pure traditional native breeds in a sustainable way. By us creating a market for a quality market means consumers can help support these breeds and make it viable to farm them in this country.”
Averaging 14 markets a month, including all their weekends, you can’t help wonder whether he could make life easier by considering alternative sales outlets?
“What we do works really works for us,” says Shaun. “We meet people who are interested in what we do and meeting a farmer, particularly in the cities, can be very novel to people.
“I’ve no interest in becoming Red Tractor accredited to say we are good at what we do. Our farm is open to anyone who wants to come and see what we do.
“For us, our weekend markets are our version of going to the auction mart. There probably are easier ways of making money, but we do what we do.”
Located in a vulnerable area, the farm has suffered twice from severe flooding in 2009 and 2015, and ongoing improvements to its infrastructure is key.
“We have definitely had our fair share of ups and downs here,” adds Shaun.
“One day, our bull Marmaduke had jumped a gate to get a cow, so I needed to fix it by doing some welding.
“I hadn’t realised one of the sparks had created an inferno behind me across half a dozen bales. The next thing I know the ambulance and fire brigade were here and saved the farm and the pigs from almost burning down.
“We’ve had floods, we’ve had fire. The only thing we haven’t had here yet is famine. I could write a book about what’s happened here.”
Alongside the purchase of a third bull, their future plans is to renovate and up date the piggery and to build up a larger show circuit to sell their products, which are also served hot at some outdoor events.
They may not be doing anything ’fancy’, as Shaun says, but it is clear they share a mutual love for what they do and the way in which they do it and have – and are – each other’s support.
“Farming is in my blood. Yeah when I milked cows life was easier , but you can’t beat working for yourself,” he says.
“We aren’t doing anything life changing, but everybody has 24 hours in their day and we try and make ours count.”
Savin Hill Farm
7ha (17 acres) owned; 35ha (86 acres) rented
Rare breed British White beef and Middle White and Saddleback pork
Bred for quality rather than quantity
Self trained in butchery
Direct selling to public
Challenging low lying wetland
Retain full control from farm to fork