Farming: Bison? In Britain?

That's diversification for you. Hamish Scott on the black sheep of the farming world
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The Independent Online
I don't think that what I'm doing could ever be described as sensible," remarks Colin Ellis, standing in a field surrounded by a herd of bison. "It's just that this is what I've always wanted." At Cirencester College, back in the Seventies, Mr Ellis took bets with fellow students that he would one day become a bison farmer. Now, at Bush Farm in south Wiltshire, his unlikely gamble seems to be paying off. Having established a small breeding herd eight years ago, he now owns more than 60 beasts, with eight new calves born so far this year.

Mr Ellis typifies a new breed of farmer whose activities are colourfully at odds with mainstream farming practice. Enthusiasts for unusual livestock or rare breeds, idealists and often self-taught amateurs, they are challenging the trend - so apparent since the war - for farming to become a subsidised, international industry devoted solely to the production of cheap food.

The sight of bison grazing in the Wiltshire countryside still remains a novelty and the majority of local farmers view the exotic herd with tolerant bemusement. In recent months, however, Mr Ellis has had good cause to be grateful for the fact that he is not committed to the rearing of more conventional beef cattle and as demand for "healthy" meat increases, he is quietly optimistic for the future. One enterprising local pub has recently put bisonburgers on its menu.

Bush Farm is now an off-beat attraction on the local tourist circuit, with a "bison gallery" where visitors can buy paintings, bison rugs and even vast stuffed trophies for hanging on a sturdy wall.

Tourism can often be a profitable side-line for farmers with unusual enterprises. Last year, Catherine Mack welcomed 25,000 visitors to Norwood Farm, outside Norton St Philip in Somerset. The strange variety of flocks and herds that can be seen grazing in the open fields include many breeds, once common in the English countryside, that came close to extinction when farmers were encouraged to rear only standardised, high-yielding livestock. Portland sheep, Tamworth pigs and Shetland cattle might now be no more than historic footnotes but for the determined efforts of enthusiasts like Mrs Mack and other members of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Despite its popularity with visitors, however, Norwood Farm is no theme park. Rare breeds, as Mrs Mack points out, have a future if we eat their meat - and the butcher's shop at Norwood is an important part of the enterprise. With all the livestock reared according to strict organic standards, sales have risen by more than 50 per cent since the crisis over BSE.

Despite her evident success, Mrs Mack has at times encountered suspicion and even hostility from more conventional farmers. "It's as though they see us as a threat," she says. "I've been told I am an incomer and that I don't know what I'm doing. But most innovation now is coming from people who are not of farming stock."

Mrs Mack's first sheep were acquired simply to keep down the grass in her garden: her interest in rare breeds developed as a hobby. Now Norwood Farm is a model for her vision of how farming should be practised. Her almost missionary zeal for organic systems, healthy products and sustainability may antagonise some colleagues, but many visitors to Norwood Farm leave as converts to her cause.

Not every "hobby farmer" has ambitions to develop an enthusiasm into a commercially successful enterprise. At Down Farm, near Sixpenny Handley in Dorset, Martin Green is quite content to spot a flock of lapwings in his fields, or find a piece of Neolithic pottery. At a time when many farmers are receiving subsidies both for intensive cereal production and for putting land in set-aside, Mr Green has taken the unusual step of allowing his own farm to revert to nature. Voluntary set-aside and grants for habitat improvement schemes have allowed him to pursue his interests in archaelogy and wild-life conservation.

Down Farm lies in an area of Cranborne Chase that is particularly rich in prehistoric sites. A section of the Dorset Cursus cuts across the farm and tumuli rise on the skyline. As the owner of this ancient landscape, Mr Green enjoys a privilege most amateur archaeologists can only dream of. A former chicken shed, well protected with security alarms, now houses the collection of arrowheads and axes, pottery and bones that he has gathered from his fields. Half a mile away, the soil has been stripped from an extensive area of ground, revealing the marks of pits and post holes in the chalk. "It appears to be a small henge monument with traces of a settlement beside it," Mr Green explains. "It's quite an exciting and unusual find."

His most extraordinary discovery to date is an enormous shaft that he has been excavating slowly for the past four years. He has now reached nearly 30 metres and the present water table, but with no sign of a bottom yet in sight. Finds suggest it dates back to the Mesolithic age of hunter- gatherers, long before man had a need for wells. Mr Green, like other archaeologists who have seen the shaft, admits to being baffled by its origin and purpose.

In terms of wildlife conservation, Mr Green is equally proud of his achievements. Where some other farmers might see only an uncultivated wilderness, he points to a diverse range of natural habitats, rich in wild flowers, where buzzards and skylarks are breeding in abundance. Woad has sprouted from the spoil-heap of one recent excavation. Dye obtained from the plant's leaves was used as body-paint by Iron-Age warriors and the seeds may have lain dormant in the soil for the past 2,000 years.

With most small farmers in this country facing an uncertain future, unusual and experimental projects have a fresh appeal. Warning tales abound of fortunes lost in ostriches, angora goats and other speculative ventures, but the most conservative of dairy farmers has paid an equally high price for following established practice. In a farming landscape dominated by subsidised cash-crops and standard breeds of livestock, there is a need for some diversity. And the individual enthusiast, whether bison farmer, visionary, or even archaeologist, undoubtedly has an important contribution to make to the future of our countryside.

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