By Jacqueline Pettigrew

Since 1977 there have been Charolais cattle on Ian Bell’s Hallbankgate farm, near Brampton in Cumbria, and there is no sign of that changing, despite Ian recently taking on the tenancy of the neighbouring 6500-acre RSPB nature reserve.

With hardy hill cows now needed on the land which rises to a top of 2037 feet on Cold Fell, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Charolais would now need to take a back seat but in-fact, the Charolais bull now has a new and vital part to play in producing calves of size, uniformity and consistent quality off Ian’s Highland and Luing cross cows.

The pedigree Charolais herd was founded by Ian’s late father Tom and his mother Lesley, who is still a partner in the business today. The original four cows came from Sway, Lamberhurst, Kerseknowe and Blelack, and most of today’s females go back to those lines.

In 2001 Edenhurst Pioneer was bought in Perth for 4200gns and the Dingle Hofmeister son went on to make a massive impression on the herd, leaving some outstanding females and bulls from him sold up to 10,000gns.

The 9000gns Moefre Ambassador was another bull to have a big impact, with Hallbankgate Federer, an Ambassador son making 11,000gns at the Society’s autumn sale in Carlisle in 2011.

Today it’s Elgin Lampard who is the main herd sire to the 40-pedigree cow herd. He was bought in Stirling for 8500gns where he had stood reserve junior champion for Matthew Milne.

“We are now getting our second crop of calves from him and are delighted with how he is performing”, says Ian. “He’s been ridiculously easy calving and he is breeding exactly the type of easy fleshing animals that we want, and in his spare time, he is working really well on the hill cows too”.

“I helped Billy Turner at Brampton when I was a teenager and one of his beliefs which I have held on to is that you want a very uniform herd of cows. Then you can look at the entire batch as a whole when working out what you need to bring in bull wise to improve them, rather than looking at 10 different bulls to improve individual animals! I once asked Billy if a particular bull was a good bull – and the great man replied, “it is only a good bull if that is what your cows need!” and that has stuck with me”, says Ian.

“For me they must always have a really good head with a big broad muzzle as that always follow through in the width behind. I’m not a great believer in looking at figures, apart from calving and gestation length, although I’m delighted with how our herd rates figure wise, I will always pick a bull on what he looks like. I don’t want to be looking at an awful looking bull just because he has good figures. Those can be manipulated so much, I’m quite old fashioned in that sense and will stick with what I can see. Many people think easy calving means narrow poor Charolais bulls, where as actually if you use short gestation bulls they can be absolute tanks and still calf easily”, explains Ian.

“We sell most of our bulls nowadays straight off the farm. Often, they are picked out as youngsters by buyers who have had bulls from us previously. They know they are naturally fed and aren’t going to melt when they get them home, indeed they are ready to go on and thrive. All our bulls have great temperaments which comes through from their mothers. They have always needed to be that way and more so nowadays as our safety and that of the bull customers is paramount, we don’t keep any heifers for replacements if they are not of a nice nature – cattle should be a pleasure to work with in my eyes!”

Ian took on the tenancy of the RSPB land in 2015 and that meant he had to make some swift purchases of hill cows to put on the land and to start breeding with as soon as possible.

“We have had a bit of a mix of breeds and it’s taken a few years to work out the best combination for the land here. When we first bought the hill cows, they were a real ‘Heinz 57’ mix of crossbreds and most came in-calf to a Shorthorn, and indeed we bought a Shorthorn bull to use on them again, but we really struggled to sell the calves. Now everything is bulled with the Charolais and that has made a big difference. We are able to sell batches of well-matched and well fleshed calves through the store ring easily and at a good trade. We sell the Spring calves at around 18 months of age through Carlisle and Kirkby Stephen - I find that it’s the second summer that grows and fleshes up the Charolais cross cattle naturally without the need for loads of concentrates, making them sought after by finishers and very profitable”, says Ian.

“We now keep 150 cows and are finding the Highland cross Shorthorn works ideally on our higher ground while we have Sim-Luings and Sim-Shorthorn cross cows on the middle rough ground and black Aberdeen-Angus cross cows on the best of the rented ground, much lower down. We have recently purchased some Galloway and Galloway cross heifers as replacements for the higher fell ground as they were the original cattle on those hills!”

“Things are falling into place now though. The hill cows are looking tremendously well, the hardier types have lived out all winter with their calves and no fodder.

“Until 2015 we were very much a ‘feed and fertiliser’ farm and we now run the hill farm as an organic farm, with very different principals and we have to have a very different grazing regime to that of days past. It has been a massive change, but everything is so much more straight forward, everything is done very naturally in its own time.

“It’s really opened my eyes – it’s the complete opposite to what we were doing before, which was very much feed, feed, feed – both the livestock and the grass.”

And how did Ian’s relationship with the RSPB begin? “I have always had a huge interest in birds and wildlife right since I was a kid. I remember going on holiday to Aviemore and watching a Peregrine falcon for days on end and now I have my own Peregrine here which I can watch every day while I work.”

“We are really lucky, and we work well with a great management team here on this reserve. They listen to what I say from a livestock and land perspective and take my suggestions on board”.

Situated in the north-west corner of the North Pennines, Geltsdale is a remote and ruggedly beautiful nature reserve that encompasses two hill farms - Geltsdale and Tarnhouse. It is home to a vast array of upland birds such as black grouse, breeding waders including Curlew, Lapwing, Redshank and Snipe, and birds of prey like the Hen Harrier and Merlin. The reserve is even home to an Osprey.

The land is a patchwork of blanket bog, heath, grassland, meadows and woodland. “Each field has its own specifications and plan with the countryside stewardship scheme, and we work around that. For example, we have 22 pairs of Curlews which are nesting on one field and that won’t have cattle back on it until after the eggs have hatched”, explains Ian.

The RSPB manage the site for nature, within the context of a commercial hill farm. Its main focus is monitoring the different environments of the birds. “Numbers of birds have all increased significantly, thanks to sensitive farming, particularly managing the cattle grazing and with wetland creation. I have built ‘scrapes’ for the RSPB. The ground is literally scraped back to create shallow undulating areas of ground that fill up with water for part of the year to provide insect food for breeding wading birds. It’s great to be able to work with the RSPB team.”

Grazing cattle on the moorland edge has been a new experience for me. The areas are remote, the weather harsh and the grazing rough but I’m pleasantly surprised how well the animals have fared and I can see the effects they’re having, breaking up stands of bracken, trampling rushes and knocking back the rough grasses.

Sheep wise, Ian, along with partner Rebecca Dickens, who has just recently given up her role as fieldsperson with Harrison and Hetherington to work on the farm full time, run 1000 ewes in total.

Continental crosses graze the lower ground, with the favourite being a cross of the Texel onto the Cheviot Mule.

“We like to buy Cheviot Mule gimmers, put them to the Texel tup and then keep the resultant gimmer lambs for breeding”, says Rebecca. “In an ideal world that’s what they would all be, and we are working towards that”.

Up on the fells run a flock of 350 Blackface ewes along with a flock of 150 Lairg-type Cheviots. “The Blackies are kept pure but we put a Leicester cross Texel tup to the Cheviots to breed our own Mule-type females. The hill sheep are fed no hay or concentrates. It kept very simple and the sheep thrive on the fells” says Rebecca.

All of the produce from the hill sheep are sold as hoggs. “We run them on turnips from February until they go to market. We follow that with barley whole-crop and that’s what the hill calves get fed. The Continentals lamb inside in March. We have recently started using teaser tups and that has made such a difference in tightening up the lambing period” Rebecca explains.

Ian is excited about the future, “Going forward we would like to look at butchering our own animals and selling them from the farm. You don’t get any more natural meat than what we are producing, and we get so many visitors to the area because of the nature reserve, I think it would work really well.”

“People often ask how we work with the RSPB and the restrictions on grazing – but we have such great scope of land it really is never any bother and it’s a pleasure to work with them in this environment.

Ian concludes “After the ground was stocked and the financial worries eased, it has become a joy to work in this environment and seeing the cattle out on the fellside on a fine day is a brilliant and one of my favourite parts of the job!”

* The Border Charolais Club are holding a stockjudging and farm tour at Hallbankgate on Sunday June 9, to which all are welcome. For catering purposes advise numbers attending to Betty Graham on 01697 371622 or email