Country Living (UK)
BRITISH IN PARTICULAR
To highlight some of the delicious ingredients that are farmed, fished, made and grown up and down the country, we meet the remarkable producers who help bring them to our table
We look at the delicious ingredients farmed, fished, made and grown in the UK. This month: Romney Marsh lamb
orning has broken at Becket Barn Farm. Located on the traditional grasslands of Kent’s Romney Marsh – all big skies and sweeping pastures – there’s a sense of tranquillity, which belies the fact that lambing is now in full swing. Dotted among the tall grass, a series of woolly youngsters either lie down or tentatively try out their legs, stopping intermittently to rest, while others, now a few days old, leap about joyfully. Surely, at this time of year, there should be a little drama – some loud bleating at least between mother and offspring? “It’s fairly peaceful due to the natural way the sheep have their young,” farmer Howard Bates explains. No brightly lit sheds with constant surveillance for this flock; it all takes place outside on the marsh. “They make a nest where there’s a little cover, a few reeds or a sea wall, and labour lasts for about half an hour. I believe each sheep chooses to give birth where she was born, though I can’t prove it,” Howard says. “We keep watch, but they don’t usually require any intervention, much to the disappointment of the veterinary students who come to help and want to get stuck in.”
Howard’s earliest memory of farming is a sharp contrast to today’s idyllic spring scene. “It was 1964 when I was four and we had a very snowy April. I remember being with my father and the flock on the marsh when he gave me a weak lamb to take to my mother so she could look after it – it was a long walk back to our farmhouse. I think he probably just wanted me out of the way.” That might have been over 50 years ago, but the Bates’s history of farming in the area stretches back a great deal further. The family has been tending sheep on Romney Marsh since the 1700s, making Howard a seventh-generation farmer. “We could go back further but, at the turn of the 18th century, parish records for poor people weren’t very good,” he says, with a wry smile.
Becket Barn Farm is a modern-day oddity. With just 250 acres, it is dwarfed in size by its arable neighbours and, while they adopt increasingly sophisticated technologies, Howard uses
minimal machinery, possessing just a quad bike and sheephandling equipment. The only way he is able to carry on farming livestock here is due to the fact that, in 1981, the land was made a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) – thanks to the flora and fauna that flourish in its ditches. “If it wasn’t for the wildlife on our land, the farm probably wouldn’t be here now,” Howard says. The Bateses now manage it using an approach outlined by Natural England, the Government’s adviser on the environment, which includes using minimal pesticides and fertilisers, not ploughing the soil and maintaining the water courses. In return for their diligent care, the family receives payments under the Higher Level Stewardship scheme. Among the rarities for which the grassland is an important habitat are medicinal leeches, diving beetles, the water vole and the marsh mallow moth, which feeds on the plant of the same name that grows on the banks. “It’s a larder for birds, too,” Howard adds. “In summer, swallows, swifts and house martins feed continuously on the insect life here, while in winter, if it rains excessively, we allow some of the usually drained fields to flood and that attracts wildfowl such as egrets, shelducks, shovelers, teals and wigeons.”
The rich and varied sward, which includes Kent wild white clover and indigenous ryegrass, is what gives Romney Marsh lamb its distinctively sweet flavour, along with the myriad micronutrients in the soil. The lamb also has a good marbling of fat, resulting from centuries of the animals’ adaptation to the climate in this exposed landscape. These qualities combine to make it a sought-after product, although the sheep don’t command a premium at market to reflect the demand. In the Bates household, it is still a special-occasion meat. Howard’s wife Yvonne roasts a shoulder of their own grass-fed Romney and serves it with homemade mint sauce. “Another favourite is grilled cutlets that have been marinated in a balsamic and honey glaze, served with roasted rosemary new potatoes,” she says, sitting at her vast farmhouse kitchen table.
In many respects, the native Romney Marsh sheep has adapted to its environment, so that it thrives where other breeds might
not: nearly all of the boundaries on Becket Barn Farm are ditches rather than walls or fences but, being ‘hefted’ to the land, the flock don’t even attempt to jump them. The sheep are hardy foragers, spreading out and grazing fields evenly, and have a natural resilience to foot rot, a common ovine health problem.
Howard is almost as inextricably tied to the area as his flock and can hardly imagine earning a living any other way: “Sheep farming is what we do.” That said, there was no pressure from his father to follow him into the business, so a five-year stint in the Royal Navy following school was greatly encouraged for wider experience. Despite the long family history here, Howard hasn’t let the farm stand still – he and Yvonne spent six months in New Zealand learning its famously progressive agricultural practices and he still seeks to improve his approach after 33 years; most recently, experimenting with different grazing methods.
Although lambing is the busiest time of year – starting every year on 1 April, when, for three weeks, Howard is out from dawn until dusk (around 5.30am until 8pm) – summer, autumn and winter have their own demands, including weaning and selling the lambs at market, tupping the breeding ewes and bringing them indoors to feed on haylage to rest the grass. Apart from during lambing and shearing, he has help only from Yvonne, who is part-time and does the accounts, and his two sheepdogs Brack, a Border collie, and Zip, a kelpie – an Australian breed. Achieving so much almost single-handedly is remarkable, particularly when you learn that his father used to employ a team of five. The Bates’s three children, Cecily, Rosie and Arthur, have helped out in the past but are all now in their late 20s, and have chosen to follow alternative paths.
Leaning on a gate, looking out onto the sea of sheep who have ambled towards him, the medieval church of St Thomas à Becket in the background, Howard sums up the beauty of this way of farming: “Our lambs have a great life and convert grass, an entirely natural, sustainable product, into delicious meat, while helping us to maintain an important habitat. I feel just as proud of this little farm as I would a vast, highly profitable arable one. There’s integrity to what we do.”
Find Romney Marsh lamb for sale in the store and on the menu of the restaurant at The Ship at Winchelsea Beach, near Rye, East Sussex (shipwinchelseabeach.com).