Country Living (UK)


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

- words by ruth chan­dler food and drink editor ali­son walker lo­ca­tion pho­tographs by an­drew mont­gomery recipes by hearst food net­work

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 (ship­winchelsea­

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 ??  ?? From graz­ing to lamb­ing, the Rom­ney Marsh sheep live sus­tain­ably out­side in the fresh air. Sev­enth-gen­er­a­tion farmer Howard Bates (op­po­site) uses min­i­mal ma­chin­ery, re­ly­ing on help from his two dogs, Zip (right), a kelpie, and Bor­der col­lie Brack (pre­vi­ous page)
From graz­ing to lamb­ing, the Rom­ney Marsh sheep live sus­tain­ably out­side in the fresh air. Sev­enth-gen­er­a­tion farmer Howard Bates (op­po­site) uses min­i­mal ma­chin­ery, re­ly­ing on help from his two dogs, Zip (right), a kelpie, and Bor­der col­lie Brack (pre­vi­ous page)
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