Elk and ostrich, hemp and basil: new crops and livestock change the British landscape

Old Macdonald wouldn't recognise modern farming. They're even growing tea in Cornwall
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The Independent Online

On Surrey slopes near the M25, sweet lavender grows. In Cornwall, the pale grey-green leaves of the eucalyptus are harvested. Chilli peppers swell in the Devon sun, blueberries bloom on downland, coriander sprouts in Oxfordshire, elk graze in a Wiltshire meadow, hemp, whose fibres make inside door panels of Mercedes cars, is tended in Yorkshire, and, in Warwickshire, buffalo now roam.

On Surrey slopes near the M25, sweet lavender grows. In Cornwall, the pale grey-green leaves of the eucalyptus are harvested. Chilli peppers swell in the Devon sun, blueberries bloom on downland, coriander sprouts in Oxfordshire, elk graze in a Wiltshire meadow, hemp, whose fibres make inside door panels of Mercedes cars, is tended in Yorkshire, and, in Warwickshire, buffalo now roam.

Our farms are changing as never before, a survey by The Independent on Sunday has revealed, and a greener, healthier landscape could be the result. Exotic animals are being raised, weird and wonderful crops are being grown, and strangeuses found for traditional ones. There is even a Novel Crops Association for growers of former wild flowers such as borage, honesty and evening primrose, and the National Farmers' Union has non-food-crop experts to advise its members. Old Macdonald would now be far behind the agricultural times.

Where once livestock meant cows, pigs and sheep, there are now farms rearing bison, llama, alpaca, ostrich, worms, wild boar, and even snails. The British herd of alpacas - llama-like animals raised for their fleece - now numbers 9,000. Nearly 40 farms raise ostrich, yielding not only feathers, but meat and leather. There are three commercial herds of bison, of which the largest is the 80-strong one of Colin and Pepe Seaford in Wiltshire, who also raise elk. The Seafords are responding to the new, eclectic taste of the British consumer, which is also responsible for the success of wild boar farms.

Barrow Boar of Yeovil in Somerset has nearly 100 animals and supplies Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason, and the Savoy. But no livestock better illustrate the appetite for culinary exotica than the Kobe beef herd of Craig Walsh in Worcester. These cattle, fed beer five times a week and given regular massages, produce Japanese-style, highly marbled meat. Harrods uses it to make hamburgers.

The foodie boom is changing arable fields, too. As well as coriander, caraway, tarragon, dill, basil and bay being cultivated, at least two growers are producing chilli peppers, and one farmer even exports garlic to France.

The fashion for alternative therapies has played its part as well. Plants for essential oils such as camomile are raised, viper's bugloss (echium) also sold to cosmetics firms, and borage, once known merely as the leaves in Pimm's, is grown on several thousand hectares to provide star flower oil. According to new crops consultant Peter Lapinskas, the world's best borage grows in Yorkshire. We are also nearly self-sufficient in opium for the pharmaceutical industry.

These plants add variety but will not change mainstream agriculture. Yet other crops just might. These are non-food crops that supply industry with raw materials, fuels or energy. Hemp, now grown on 5,557 acres, is used mainly for its fibre. This is turned into linings for car doors, loft insulation, hanging basketsand, in Suffolk, two homes are being built using a mix of hemp and lime as the main material. Behind the trend is the National Non-Food Crops Centre, which brings together science, farmers and industry.

Non-food uses are not only bringing in new crops but giving old ones a new outlet. Potato starch is used in packaging, elephant grass and coppiced willow grown as energy crops for power, and oilseed rape and wheat have a big future as a basis for bio-fuels.

What is pushing the trend towards the new farming is falling incomes, which have prompted farmers to diversify into unusual areas. Second, as far as crops go, the radical changes in the Common Agricultural Policy that began in January have produced a level playing field. Increasingly, it will be the cultivation of land, rather than a specific crop, that is subsidised, and so farmers are more plugged in to the market.

What will they be growing next? Tea? Yes, that's right: an estate in Cornwall is growing this relative of the camellia and will have their leaves ready for infusing this year.

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