Mixed-livestock farm in Harbridge - Anne and Mike Roberts tell their story
PUBLISHED: 10:39 01 June 2015 | UPDATED: 10:39 01 June 2015
The Electric Eye
With nothing but a book on farming and a great deal of enthusiasm, Anne and Mike Roberts have managed to turn 42 acres near the New Forest in to a budding mixed-livestock farm
“Visitors are welcome!” says Anne and Mike Roberts who own Cobley Wood Farm, a small, mixed-livestock farm specialising in rare breeds, off the beaten track in the hamlet of Harbridge Green at the western edge of the New Forest. However they probably weren’t expecting a visit from Matt Baker and the Countryfile team. The TV crew arrived following a tip-off by Hampshire Fare, the county’s food group, that Anne and Mike were farmers with a difference. They only took on the farm four years ago, a new venture as second-careerists at a time when most would be winding down towards retirement.
Anne recalls: “We were in our late fifties and expats for over 25 years working in International Education. We had always wanted to return to the UK when we retired, and we wanted to do something completely different.”
The idea was to find a property with three to five acres somewhere along the south coast, but when they realised how expensive such property was they widened their criteria; that’s when Cobley Wood Farm cropped up, and kept cropping up.
“It was strange how the information for the farm showed every time we searched.”
Anne continues: “I tried to dissuade Mike as I felt the farm’s 42 acres was too big, but he said ‘It’s no problem, we’ll just put sheep on it to eat the grass’.”
So during the Christmas holiday they drove over to take a look in its secluded location with stunning countryside views, and decided there and then to start a mixed livestock farm.
“Neither of us appreciated how much our lives would change. Mike had bought me a book for Christmas back in 1988 ‘The Complete Book of Raising Livestock and Poultry’ by Katie Thear and Dr Alistair Fraser. I think he must have been at a loss as to what to buy me as we were living and working in Amsterdam with no thought of farming or small-holding at the time!”
However it was a purchase with prescience: this is the manual that guided them through the initial steps.
The farm may have cost less than a three-bedroom cottage with a small paddock, but the land was unfenced, with only a barn and a cabin and no electricity.
“We arrived very excited in April 2011. This excitement faded when we realised the yellow flowers growing all over the land were ragwort. So our first introduction to farming was clearing by hand all 42 acres of ragwort – and the land was like concrete due to the dry weather.
“Arriving in an old Volvo estate with just a few household tools, we were faced with a myriad of questions and challenges. Do we need a tractor? If so, what kind? More importantly, how do you drive a tractor? How do livestock markets work? Where do you get animals slaughtered? Then there was the purchasing of what seemed an endless list of equipment. In that first year, almost every task required going out and buying something.
“Four kilometres of fencing was completed by the autumn. The small herd of Saddleback pigs, which we had purchased on arrival, now had a permanent home. Then came the exciting day when 50 Polled Dorset and 50 Suffolk Mule ewes arrived. Our first lambing (with a head torch and a manual on lambing techniques) was a true baptism of fire, but with the support of our local vet we learned a lot, and have managed much better in the two lambings since.”
This on-going learning is a big part of the satisfaction the couple get from the farm, although the more they learn, the more they realise how much they don’t know.
“The support, advice and encouragement of so many people has been overwhelming – local farmers with a lifetime of experience have been ready to answer all our questions without a trace of incredulity at the naivety of them.
“Mike quickly discovered agricultural auctions and never seemed to come back empty handed. One of these forays resulted in him swopping our Volvo for a quad bike, and although I thought it was a poor purchase at the time, it has proved again and again to be the most invaluable piece of equipment on the farm.”
With the original aim to create a small mixed-livestock farm, the couple soon realised that without additional land this wasn’t possible. Over the last three years they have acquired almost 100 acres in small parcels which they rent. Managing the additional land, which is some distance from the farm, has had some issues – “we had no idea sheep could get through holes in a hedge that you wouldn’t think a rabbit could get through” - and their stock has increased to 160 ewes, 50 South African Boer goats, 50 Saddleback pigs, poultry, guinea fowl and free range bronze turkeys at Christmas.
Given their story, the Countryfile team had probably expected to find enthusiastic hobbyists running a smallholding. However Cobley Wood Farm is so much more, and the schedule grew from doing a short piece to filming at the farm all day.
Mike comments: “It was very pleasing, but very tiring, with filming starting at 8am and finishing at 6pm.”
Mike is hoping that Countryfile will help to raise awareness of the farm, particularly as sales proved to be one of the more difficult aspects of farming, and one they hadn’t really considered.
Mike explains: “Some of our animals take the traditional route to the local livestock market, but as a small farm we can’t exist on that.
“Direct sales have gradually increased through shows and fairs, and there is a small, but growing, customer base who want to know what they are eating and how it was raised. We have also recently been asked to supply two shops and two leading hotels in the New Forest.”
Their latest venture is the construction of a butchery unit and cold storage room so they can now offer their produce direct from the farm.
“From mid-April, by appointment, customers can collect their pre-ordered meat butchered to their requirements or have it delivered to their door. They will also be able to purchase our other meat products including the very popular rare-breed pork sausages, goat and lamb’s ham. It will be more than just a farm shop - it will be a farm experience. We want people to ask questions, to know what they’re eating, to question how their food has been raised, the animal’s quality of life, what it has been fed on.”
Cobley Wood Farm produce isn’t simply a sticker with provenance written on it, but a real farm to fork experience.”
Pay a visit
The county food group is a member organisation supporting local food and farming producers, find out more at www.hampshirefare.co.uk
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