Country Matters: City folk learn country ways at a stroke

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The Independent Online
YOU WOULD hardly expect intimate obstetrical commentaries, broadcast over a loudspeaker system as sheep give birth, to prove a major tourist attraction. Yet just such action-packed descriptions will be pulling in the crowds this weekend at the Cotswold Farm Park, 900ft up in the wind on Bemborough Farm, near the Gloucestershire village of Guiting Power, where the lambing of rare breeds is in full flow.

Ewes on the point of producing are brought into a large, airy shed that has been deeply littered with fresh straw, and as they go into labour, the resident shepherd keeps up a running report through his throat microphone. Mothers and their offspring are then put into little individual pens until the lambs are strong enough to go outdoors, each with a notice giving details of breed and time of birth: 'Soay, twins, 10am Tuesday.' Visitors seem remarkably unsqueamish about watching the actual births, although the sight of the shepherd rolling tight rubber rings on to the lambs' tails (to dock them) is too much for some of the weaker brethren.

This collection of rare breeds - cattle, goats, pigs and poultry as well as sheep - now attracts 100,000 visitors a year, and is still managed by the man who created it more than 20 years ago. Joe Henson, who runs Bemborough with a partner, began collecting rare breeds as a hobby in the late Sixties; but when he heard that Whipsnade Zoo wanted to get rid of its gene bank of small breeding groups - eight of sheep and five of cattle - he moved into a bigger league.

As he puts it: 'Victor Manton, the curator at Whipsnade, felt that agriculture should be caring for its own, and that the animals should be on a farm, not in a zoo. So he rang up Christopher Dadd, who was then director of the Royal Show, and said, 'You ought to be looking after these creatures. If you don't come and take them away, I'm going to feed them to the lions.' '

Nobody seriously believed that Mr Manton would carry out his threat, but his remark galvanised people into action, and in 1969 most of the Whipsnade animals finished up at Bemborough Farm. To help to cover the considerable expense of their upkeep, the Henson family decided to see if they could lure a few hundred paying visitors. In 1971, the first year they opened the farm, they had more than 20,000, and have never looked back.

In terms of pure conservation, their efforts have been a huge success. At one stage the rare Norfolk horn breed of sheep was reduced to four animals, but now it has recovered to a total of 200, 50 of which are at Bemborough.

Today, the Cotswold Farm Park is established as a leading rural attraction, with all the accoutrements such places are deemed to need: a large adventure playground, a well-stocked shop, a cafeteria serving full- scale meals and a nature trail backed by an informative leaflet. Children revel in the chance to run wild in the open spaces, but the greatest crowd- pullers are still the animals: the chance of cuddling a lamb or stroking a donkey foal remains the most powerful lure.

To this honeypot, on Tuesday, came Earl Howe, Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, his purpose being to launch a new scheme for capturing still more efficiently the attention and money of the motorised horde. In response to an initiative from the county council's tourism department, 15 roughly similar organisations have formed themselves into the Cotswold and Gloucestershire Farm Attractions Group.

As Lord Howe remarked in a short but effective speech, city-dwellers love the countryside, yet hardly ever come to grips with it. Most simply drive about, and those few who do venture out of their cars rarely make contact with rural people. One benefit of the new scheme will be that it will increase the chances of contact being made, and so improve understanding of country life.

A farmer himself, Lord Howe also acknowledged that the aims of the group are solidly commercial - and to step up business all round, the 15 founder-members have devised a simple but cunning treasure trail. On an illustrated leaflet listing the various attractions, each establishment's entry has space for a stamp. Visit three attractions, and collect three stamps, and you receive a modest prize. Visit six, and you win a bigger one; for nine, 12 and 15, there are better prizes still.

If I myself were on the loose, I should need very little persuasion to notch up my first few stamps during the weekend. What could be more agreeable, for instance, than a visit to the Crickley Windward vineyard at Little Witcombe, where the crisp, local white wines may be tasted free? What could be more seductive than a diversion to the Donnington fish farm near Upper Swell, where monstrous trout cruise in spring water as clear as gin?

Yet if I had young children, I might well head for St Augustine's Working Farm at Arlingham, which lies within a big loop of the Severn south of Gloucester. Both topographically and in terms of presentation, this is about as far removed from Bemborough as it is possible to be within the county.

The Cotswold Farm Park is on the summit of a stony hill. St Augustine's is in the low, lush pastures of the Severn Vale; and whereas the whole layout of the park is designed for entertainment, the farm is very much a working establishment, only slightly modified for the reception of visitors.

Rob and Elaine Jewell's first venture into entertainment was a camp site, but soon they found that visitors were fascinated by their small dairy farm, and so they opened it to the public six years ago. Now they have 10,000 visitors a year (adults pounds 2.50, children over two pounds 1.50), and the money from harvesting people has become a vital part of their

income.

I know they will not mind if I say that the farm is a bit of a mess. Nettles are rampant, heaps of old timber lie about, and no attempt has been made to tart the place up. Yet this very scruffiness is part of St Augustine's attraction: it confirms that the place is a genuine, working farm, and conveys a feeling of authenticity which more sophisticated establishments lack. I have never felt more at home than when I went up into the loft full of bygone equipment, and sniffed the ancient, furry, grey smell of wood and leather and dust that used to lurk in the barns of my boyhood.

Here, in attractively small-scale surroundings, you can watch cows being milked, feed ducks and geese, and go into a stable hopping with vast rabbits, which positively ask to be picked up and cuddled.

The greatest beneficiaries of St Augustine's are undoubtedly children. Elaine Jewell, herself a trained teacher, briefs teachers from local schools before they bring their groups, and experience shows that although the pupils hurtle about enjoying themselves, they accidentally pick up a great deal of information on the way. As at the Cotswold park, the magic ingredients are open space and the contact with animals - the two things people who live in towns normally have little chance to enjoy.

Forget rus in urbe. These parks and farms are exactly the opposite: in Gloucestershire at any rate, the urbs in rure movement is alive and well and growing fast.

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