In 2021, RBST’s conservation team was commissioned to provide consultancy services to Courteenhall, a 2,000-acre diversified estate in Northamptonshire which is seeking to fulfil a vision for native breeds of livestock and equines to be part of its conservation and enhancement efforts. One of RBST’s key recommendations has seen the return of Traditional Hereford cattle, a breed with a historic association with the estate.

Courteenhall is a long-established business owned and managed by the Wake family who have been in South Northamptonshire since the thirteenth century and at Courteenhall since 1672, farming constantly throughout that time. The estate encompasses arable and poultry farming, a large stewardship scheme, residential and commercial property,  weddings and events and renewable energy.

RBST was engaged by Courteenhall to provide advice and recommendations on appropriate native livestock and equine breeds to use in its conservation and enhancement vision for the estate. As part of the brief, the conservation team was advised that Courteenhall would remain committed to agricultural improvement, focusing on the protection and enhancement of nature whilst exploring commercial farming opportunities using rare native breeds that matched the ethos and, ideally, the history of the estate. A holistic, minimal intervention, minimal input approach was needed to ensure plans for new tree planting, increased provision for wildlife, arable reversion and increased educational access could work together with any livestock creating a synergy of benefits to the estate and wider local community.

Dr Johnny Wake is the current Managing Partner of the estate. He says: “We decided to commission and work with RBST because of its obvious pre-eminence in the area of rare breeds across the board. The RBST team visited Courteenhall to assess the options and discuss our vision. They produced a comprehensive and bespoke report for us and did a fantastic job.”

The comprehensive list of recommendations made by RBST was headed by the introduction of Traditional Hereford cattle, or, rather, re-introduction since the breed had once been farmed at Courteenhall by Johnny’s great-great grandparents through to his grandparents.

Despite this historic connection, however, the decision to re-establish a herd was driven firmly by a careful assessment of current and future benefits rather than nostalgia.

As well as meeting Courteenhall’s key brief of being suited to a very low cost/low input system, Traditional Herefords can also deliver environmental benefits. Johnny says: “There is increasingly widespread recognition from the agricultural industry of the importance of returning livestock to the land, for soil and also for biodiversity. As the land was fairly sheep sick, we think we can do a lot more both for biodiversity and for the soil with the native breed ‘Golden Hoof’. I also believe that having cattle out feeding on grass all year is far more environmentally friendly on the basis that they are not consuming any soy or other external feeds.

“We have recently entered into a large higher tier stewardship scheme with Natural England; part of that will be putting some land into  WD6, which is woody pasture. It has a lot of scrub, so the cattle will be grazing in that for 10 years which will really give that land the chance to regenerate, both for the soil and for biodiversity.”

Having welcomed 11 cattle in the first draft in May 2022 - two cows in calf, three cows with calves at foot and two yearling heifers and with several smaller drafts including a bull following, Courteenhall now has a herd of 30, including three calves born on the Estate. The intention is to build this up to a herd of around 50.

With their first winter behind them, are the cattle performing as hoped? Johnny confirms: “Many people warned us that we would need to give supplementary feed over the winter and that we’d have real poaching problems. We were slightly nervous as to whether we would end up eating humble pie, but the system has exceeded our expectations. The cattle kept their condition beautifully through the winter and we haven’t even had poaching around the water troughs. They naturally move around a great deal each day, almost as though someone had whispered in their ear about mob grazing.

“Aside from performance, the cows have been a real joy to have about. They are beautiful and very natural-looking additions to the parkland landscape, and their characters shine through. Moreover, they have already started to make their contribution to biodiversity as we discovered when we found dung beetle larvae in their cow pats over the winter.”

Commercially, the estate takes a realistic view on the financial return it can expect from the herd, as Johnny explains: “Everything we do here is for the long-term. We’re not going to make a fortune from bringing the cattle here, but we think we can make a profit and we think they will bring wider benefits beyond the financial: improving the soil, improving biodiversity and on the community side too in our work with schools. The three pillars of sustainability for Courteenhall are financial, environmental and community sustainability.”

However, as the RBST report highlighted, the breed is known as being excellent for converting grass into top quality meat and will even do well on poor quality pasture. Grades O+/R 3/4L at 24 to 30 months can be achieved on an entirely forage-based system. Premiums are available through dedicated markets and the breed produces a quality carcase, being one of the easiest breeds of cattle to fatten. Courteenhall will be selling its beef via The Ethical Butcher (see The Ark, Winter 2023), with delivery of the first Courteenhall cattle due imminently. The estate also has long-held aspirations for a farm shop and café and work on this is in progress. Johnny says: “The Traditional Herefords will give us a nice story to tell about our home-grown beef from a native breed with a history on the estate.”

Looking to the future, it is likely that more British native livestock will be joining the Traditional Herefords at Courteenhall. Johnny says: “We’ve got Repton-designed parkland here which is very beautiful and working with RBST we knew cattle was the first species we wanted to reintroduce, but there is an aspiration for rare breed sheep, pigs, goats and ponies. We’re going one step at a time and RBST’s assessment and planning is helping ensure the return of Traditional Hereford cattle fully supports Courteenhall’s financial, environmental and community sustainability aspirations. We are already finding that rare breeds do work for us and that, like so many things in farming, we’re rediscovering the logic behind the way things were done in the past.”

RBST Consultancy Services

The RBST consultancy service is designed to support farmers and land managers wanting to keep native livestock and equines on larger holdings. RBST offers expert advice in the selection, use and management of native livestock, scoping a project based on the landowner’s vision for both their land and business considering existing features and advising on appropriate breeds and species to achieve the landowner’s goals. The Trust can also provide advice on managing welfare needs, registrations, infrastructure requirements and the sourcing of animals. The consultancy service is offered at competitive rate with all proceeds going towards RBST’s charitable work to secure a future for the UK’s rare native breeds.

For more information, contact [email protected]