Any regular visitor to a country fair, fete or show will be familiar with the mind-boggling range of creatures that are kept and bred for competition.
For the uninitiated, it can be surprising that there’s so much competition between amateur breeders for creating the perfect ferret, rabbit, or dog. Indeed, for most folks, animals such as these are pets, rather than the focus of intense research and painstaking generational breeding. This week, we were able to secure a chat with Robson Berry, one of the leading small animal breeders in the West Midlands. Once a successful livestock breeder, Robson retired from the rearing of large animals after a painful run-in with a young bull and has since devoted his time to breeding animals that are no less feisty, but considerably easier to handle.
Could you explain to us your reasoning behind moving into small animal breeding?
I’d made a good living from breeding cattle for nearly 20 years, my business has been a success, so when I got gored by one of my bull at the age of 62 it was a simple decision to chuck the lot it. The business is still managed by my children, but I felt it was the right time to step away from the day to day management and put my time to a new hobby. I’d always admired the skill of small animal breeders and was curious to see if I could transfer the skills I’d learnt with breeding cattle to rabbits and ferrets.
How does competing in the smaller classes compare to the larger classes of livestock?
Although you’re dealing with smaller animals in typically fewer numbers you expend less physical energy in the tasks needed to keep the animals healthy, however, it can still be a time-consuming job to do through health checks on 40 small animals. Then there’s the gestation period, which is much smaller in these creatures. One the one hand this means you can make improvements in the stock at a much quicker pace, but it also means that you have to be much more proactive in your breeding decisions. Managing stock can also become tricky when you’re dealing with much larger litters.
Keeping so many small creatures must be a logistical nightmare – how do you go about doing it?
I’d argue that it’s easier than keeping cattle, but it can still be a challenge. I had the opportunity to get advice from a number of other breeders before jumping into the task and I ended up investing in a custom-designed series of solid-timber pens from a firm called Barnes & Woodhouse. Although I think their forte is more aligned to packing crates and boxes, the quality of the wood they use makes their pens long-lasting and also easy to maintain. Due to how rapidly these creatures multiply, it’s been an interesting staying on top of sleeping arrangements!
Have you sustained any injuries from any of your current animals?
A couple of nips here or there, but nothing life-threatening! Ferrets and rabbits are very different creatures, temperament wise, but they’re both capable of forming bonds with humans and I’m already getting attached a couple of them – something that certainly didn’t happen with the cattle. My children have had their fun teasing me for becoming a soft old man with his bunnies, and now they’re inquiring whether they can have a couple themselves!
Our resident lawyer-turned-farmer, Terry, has been to his fair share of country shows in his time, so it’s hardly surprising that he’s got more than his fair share of opinions on the matter of which country fairs offer the best bang for their buck.
I’m what you might call something of a country show fanatic. I love the pomp and circumstance of these quintessentially British events, where country folks from far and wide come together to celebrate their heritage, exhibit the livestock and produce that they’ve been working hard on all year round and shake the hand of the competitor that they’ve been tipping their hat to for years.
Country shows are not all created equal however and, although it’s rare that I’m ever disappointed with one, I have noticed that there are a handful over the years that have impressed me time after time, show after show. The following picks are my favourite shows to visit, they have a permanent place in my diary and I recommend that you make time for at least one of them yourself:
Although only in its infancy, when compared to the other events on this list, Yeovil Show has built up an impressive reputation already. Garnering local awards nomination and attracting some top tier talent, this is a show that clearly has a lot more to give in the coming years.
When? 18th-19th July 2020 Where? Yeovil, Somerset
Westmorland County Agricultural Show
Enjoyed by over 30,000 visitors every year, the Westmorland County Agricultural Show is one of the UK’s most attended shows, making it a must-visit for any countryside enthusiast. In addition to a massive livestock show, visitors also have the opportunity to meet fox hounds and taste a wide array of local foods.
When? TBC September 2020 Where? Milnthorpe, Cumbria
Whether you’re interested in trades, craft or competitions, there’s something for everyone at North Yorkshire’s Stokesley Show – a major fixture in the rural calendar for 20,000 visitors every year. Over 2500 animals are shown each year, in addition to dozens of craft stalls and food traders. Music is provided by the North Skelton Band and gun dog demonstrations are amongst a few of the entertainments on offer.
When? TBC September 2020 Where? Newsham, Thirsk
A rather baffling 400 trade stands are on offer at Hampshire’s Romsey Show and dog owners can rejoice knowing that they are positively encouraged to bring their furry friends along with them. In fact, the Romsey Show gets my whole-hearted recommendation purely based off their pro-canine facilities. Dog shows are the forefront of this show supported by dozens of local societies.
When? 12th September 2020 Where? Broadlands Park, Romsey
South of England Show
With the Queen of England as its patron, it’s not hard to see why the South of England Show is one of the biggest rural events on the calendar. Run by the South of England Agricultural Society, the society runs a number of events throughout the year with the summer event being the pinnacle of the calendar. The Autumn show is a little smaller in scale but is still a worthy day out for anyone interested.
When? 11th-13th June 2020 Where? South of England Showground, Ardingly
We talk to exotic plants enthusiast and interior design fanatic Josie Plummer about how she created a veritable garden of Paradise in her conservatory, and what it takes to be a ‘plant-momma’ to over a hundred species of cacti, succulents and palms…
How did this house plant obsession start?
Two years ago I was given a Never Never plant by a friend for a birthday present. I was a little taken back at first. Despite growing up in the countryside, I’d never really been a ‘nature lover’, but now I had this living thing that I was responsible for. The plant came with a little card explaining its likes and dislikes, and soon it had taken pride of place in my conservatory. It was after a month had passed that I’d realised how much I’d enjoyed looking after it and that’s when I started to consider buying more to keep it company
Where do you get your house plants from?
I source them from all over really. It sounds silly, but the majority of the plants that I get in are ‘rescues’. Friends and family know about my little hobby, so whenever they need to get rid of a plant or see one on the side of the road, I have a new member to welcome into the clan! If I’m looking for a specific plant then I’ll head to one of many online shops in my bookmark list. At the moment I’m loving Root for their excellent attention to detail and wide catalogue.
How long does it take to feed and water your entire collection?
All of my plants have their own needs and requirements, part of the satisfaction in owning so many is learning about where they’ve come from and how that affects their dietary requirements. For example, a Swiss Cheese plant (otherwise known as Monstera Deliciosa) will struggle in temperatures of less than 10 degrees Celsius, and it’s important to let its soil properly dry out before watering it anymore.
Is there an end in sight to this collection?
Unfortunately, I am starting to run out of space in my conservatory! One of the side effects of going to such lengths to look after my plants means that I rarely lose any to malnourishment or any other kind of death. I’ve been steadily accumulating these wonderful creatures for years now, but I’m getting to a point now where I literally can’t fit any more here. I may even have to start selling some myself!
How has your notoriety for being this ‘crazy plant lady’ changed your relationship with the countryside community?
I’ve become a bit of a local legend in recent years, especially amongst the Women’s Institute and Gardening circles. Rumours have been flying around for years that I’m growing cannabis, of all things, I’ve even had a few words with the local constable about my plants! Recently I’ve been trying to demystify my status as the ‘crazy plant lady’ by inviting interested parties around to look at my collection and explain what I’m doing here. On occasions, I’m even able to send a couple of plants off to new homes!
Thriving businesses are the beating heart of the rural economy, they keep people employed and money pouring into our communities, but who are the people driving these businesses? Our series of Business Focus posts will be shining a light on the hard-working folks who are keeping the lights on in villages around the country and also providing a helping hand to those people who are struggling to keep their heads above water.
Our first Business Focus is on an independent cider brewer who had to diversify and adapt rapidly in a changing rural environment that almost saw him selling up his land and letting his staff go. Colm Jackson inherited his land from his father, a moderately successful dairy farmer, however, when the Financial Crisis of 2008 hit, Colm soon found that the antiquated systems with which he had been lumbered with were not sufficient to run a modern dairy business. Faced with rising costs and dwindling finances, Colm took the difficult decision to shut down the dairy farm in favour of an alternative business which would see him become one of the most successful traders in his region.
We got the chance to chat with Colm recently over a pint (or two!) of his excellent Pappy’s Scrumpy to discuss his business’ Phoenix-like rise from the ashes:
Thanks for talking to us today, the business must keep you very busy, are there many long days for you in the cider business?
Not as many as you’d think, at least not compared to life as a dairy farmer. Apples don’t need to be let out in the morning, they don’t need feeding and they don’t need medication – so there’s rarely a need to go get up at the crack of dawn, the way that my father did. I’ll admit to still feeling a little lazy whenever I sleep in past 8, but with the entire business located just a stone’s throw from my front door, there’s really no need to for me to getting up any earlier these days!
Transforming your dairy farm into a cider press must’ve been an expensive process, where you ever worried that your gamble might not pay off?
Of course! No business decision comes without a level of risk attached to it, but I did my best to create a realistic business plan and luckily the bank agreed to loan me the necessary funds. One of the benefits of owning a farm such as mine is that you have a very close relationship with your bank, we’ve used the same one for over a hundred years, so even today, there’s a certain level of trust that runs between us. This trust enabled me to get the press running and has led to the success that we see today.
Your brand is very well known locally, but we’re yet to see your product in the supermarkets, is there a long term plan to roll out your cider nationwide?
No! (Laughs) Really, there isn’t. Despite what you might have heard, we have a small scale business that would require a lot more investment in order to expand to the size needed to distribute nationally. We’re currently 3 years into a 10-year plan that requires to us to sell ‘x’ amount of product in order to keep repaying what we borrowed, pay our staff, and make a little profit on the side. As much as it might be tempting to double down with what we have here, my Father always believed in setting a plan and sticking to it, we may run a different business to the one he managed, but that principle is one I plan on sticking to.
Pappy’s Scrumpy is available in local pubs and independent stores in the Newton-on-Tap area.