A LEADING figure in Northumberland farming is overseeing dramatic changes to his family’s enterprise – but warns this may not be the right path for everyone.

An inscription in the milking parlour at Wheelbirks Farm, Stocksfield, reads: “Farm as though you would live forever. Live as though you would die tomorrow.”

It provides a fitting comment on a period of change at this family farm, run by brothers Tom and Hugh Richardson.

In April last year ago the majority of their pedigree Jersey herd left the farm as the Richardsons made a significant switch to managing much of their land with conservation in mind.

The decision was based on factors including a wish to work more in harmony with nature and to avoid being tied to the work pattern typical of larger-scale dairy enterprises.

However, Tom Richardson, who is county chairman for the National Farmers’ Union in Northumberland, believes this may not be the best way forward for everyone, saying it would depend on individual circumstances, and the need to keep producing food.

Mr Richardson is the fifth generation of his family at Wheelbirks Farm. His great great grandfather bought it as a holiday retreat in 1882. Forestry was introduced by Mr Richardson’s great grandfather, then in 1925 his grandfather founded its pedigree Jersey herd.

Though perhaps known as a specialist dairy farm, Wheelbirks has been a mixed enterprise for much of its history, including a beef enterprise, a sheep flock with 167 ewes and arable land.

The sheep were sold after the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak, and ice-cream machines were introduced in 2002 to produce what Mr Richardson says is a very different ice-cream to its 'cheap and cheerful' rivals.

“We make a bespoke product that’s a dense ice cream and you feel that you are getting value for money,” he said. An ice-cream parlour was added to the diversification project in 2010.

The farm was predominantly a specialist dairy operation, with about 120 cows. But by 2019 more change was in the offing. The farm’s herd manager was due to retire, there was concern about new regulations in areas such as slurry handling and there was also the push to become carbon neutral.

In addition, Mr Richardson said moving forward as a dairy unit would probably require new buildings, which might affect the farm’s character. “It’s a nice little family estate in a ring fence with a road and a stream running through the middle of it surrounded by forestry. It’s a bonny place.”

So the Stewardship route was taken, with about two-thirds of the 370-acre total area going into the scheme. About 100 acres is still forestry, there are about 40 acres of permanent pasture for the remaining 25 Jersey cows and young stock and some land is rented to a neighbour.

The former arable land has become a wild bird mix on a two-year rotated seed mixture. Mr Richardson said the number of finches he could hear there in January was 'amazing’, though he was sad to see the combine go.

On April 2, 2020, most of the Jerseys went too. Mr Richardson said he and his brother loved the cows, which are 'small, desperately cute and full of character', but they did not want to be tied to the hours and pressure associated with larger-scale dairy units.

They are still milking every day, but only in the morning, producing enough milk for ice-cream production and unpasteurised milk sales and allowing the brothers a more flexible lifestyle.

They would now produce 25,000 litres of unpasteurised milk to sell off the farm each year and about the same for the ice cream – in a normal year, that is.

The cows’ departure came only shortly after the first lockdown in March 2020, with its inevitable impact on the ice-cream parlour. Mr Richardson said: “It was the right time for Covid because everything changed at the same time.”

He thought mixed farms were better for the environment, but financial pressures forced the industry to be more specialised.

He added: “When farming is doing well people tend to spend more money on the niceties of it. When agriculture is under pressure then everything has got to be done harder and more effectively and that’s not always the right way for an overall balance of farming and nature.”

However, he thought there must be a cut-off point for farms going into Stewardship. He said: “If we are not careful we will end up with importing all our food,” adding that some farms would be better suited to more effective production than Wheelbirks.

Mr Richardson said what he was doing was still managed and was not rewilding. “I also believe in planting trees but in a managed way.

“I’m passionate about planting trees but I don’t want people planting up viable farmland. I would prefer five trees in a corner of a field.”

His priorities as NFU county chairman include tackling bovine TB, which he sees as a national effort, though it is important to keep Northumberland largely disease-free. Another is farm safety.

“As we become more pressured on time and money we will cut corners and that’s where the problem lies. It’s the older generation that tend to bear the brunt of it because they don’t ‘bounce’ any more.”