Bereleigh Suckler Herd
By Brian Biggs, from Meon Matters 2010
During late spring, summer and early autumn evenings you often hear a noisy ritual taking place on Park Hill. These evocative honking sounds come from the cows of the suckler herd calling their calves to follow them to whichever special spot they have decided to spend the night. Why they pick a particular spot is not known, but the trails they make as they cross the hill, are clearly visible as they move from one such spot to another.
The cows do not graze on Park Hill all the time, they are sometimes moved to Bordean Down, the hilly pastures to the east of Park Hill. They also graze in Bereleigh Park to the south of Bereleigh House after the hay crops have been taken. There is not enough nutritious grass to feed them outside all year round, so from early November till late April/early May, the timing depending on the weather, they are housed in barns at Park Farm. Here they are fed on silage and crushed barley from the Bereleigh Estate.
You may be wondering what a suckler herd is? It is a way of producing cows and bullocks for beef similar to that occurring naturally in the wild. Each calf is suckled by its own mother, until it is weaned at about seven months old. Cows kept on plain forage, like grass, produce a limited amount of milk, only enough to feed their own calves. This is different to dairy cows, which get supplemented with high energy food and so produce lots more milk. To keep the grass in good condition it is fertilized twice a year, all but the steepest parts, like the sides of Vineyard Hollow are covered. Not a job for the faint hearted!
The herd is looked after primarily by two of the Bereleigh Estate staff, Brian Boisclair,who is the Estate Farm Foreman and Chris Kingham, a Gamekeeper on the Estate. Barry Clavey and Ryan Boisclair also assist with feeding and calving. Their work with the herd is part-time on top of their day jobs. This is not as bad as it seems, as the herd is really semi wild and mostly looks after itself on the hill.
Brian has worked on the Estate farm for 31 years starting at the age of 15. He worked for 4 years, then youthful wanderlust got the better of him and he went off to Tripoli in Libya for 9 months digging holes with a JCB for Colonel Gaddafi. I think it must have been the call of the green hills after all that sand and heat that brought him back to East Meon and he resumed his work at Bereleigh gradually working up to his current role as Estate Farm Foreman.
Chris has worked on the Estate for 29 years. He originally moved into farming working on a pig unit in Sheet, and then moved to a farm near Oxford. Returning to East Meon, he started work at Bereleigh doing relief milking. Bereleigh had four dairies at this time: Park Farm, Lower Bordean Farm, Tigwell Farm and Garston Farm. When the economics of dairy farming got problematic in 1991 the Estate decided to stop this activity. Chris then transferred to game keeping on the Estate.
With the cessation of the dairy side, something still had to be done with the steep hill pastures to keep them from reverting to scrub. The choice was to put sheep on them, which can be quite labour intensive, or a suckler herd of cows. The suckler herd won out! The current herd consists of 63 cows (Hereford crosses) and 2 bulls (Blonde Aquitaines). Fresh cows are bought in as required to supplement the herd as the female calves cannot be retained due to interbreeding imperatives. The bulls eventually become too big to do their work on the very steep hills and are returned to the supplier farm and younger, lither and slimmer versions substituted. Brian and Chris must be doing something right in looking after the herd won ‘Best Beef Enterprise 2009’ at the Petersfield Autumn Show.
The bulls are put with the cows in June, and calving starts in the barns at Park Farm in March and early April, cows having a gestation period of around 9 months. Brian and Chris take turns in keeping an eye on the cows everyday when they are calving and lend a hand if necessary. There were a total of 56 calves born to the herd in 2009. Once born, the calves are given individual ear tag numbers. These numbers are given to Fiona Hearns in the Estate office, who runs the administrative side of the herd. She registers each birth, via the Internet, with the British Cattle Movement. Each animal is then issued with its own passport, which tracks the animal’s movement history every time it is sold to another farm, until it dies.
After 10 to 11 months the calves are sold at a cattle market for further development and conditioning. Getting them to market has become more problematical recently as so many of the local cattle markets such as Guildford and Winchester have shut down. Brian has been taking them to Frome market.
The herd is usually quite healthy and the vet very rarely called out, though there are some problems from time to time. Liquid magnesium is placed in the drinking troughs everyday to prevent them suffering from ‘grass staggers’ (hypomagnesemic tetany) and a mineral supplement in the form of a salt lick is left on the hill for them to help themselves. The herd is brought back to the barns for their ‘blue tongue’ vaccinations twice a year. Sometimes one of the herd needs treatment for an illness, ‘New Forest Eye’ is the most common. This presents a dilemma, as the herd is semi wild. It is difficult to catch an individual animal outside, so the safest thing to do is to bring the whole herd back to the barns and then separate the required individual. This is a lot of hard work and very disruptive to all. To make things easier Brian and Chris have perfected a technique straight out of the Wild West. They have created a lasso device on the end of a long pole to catch the required animal. They use it from a four-wheel buggy, one will drive and the other sitting and working the lasso. So if you see any strange ‘goings on’ on the hill you know what is happening. They say they are very successful with this technique and mostly catch the target, which is then treated on the hillside. Maybe it should be made into a new sport for County Shows?
Many local villagers walk on Park Hill regularly, especially those with dogs. Brian asks that if you have a dog, please keep it on the lead if you are amongst the herd as the calves especially can be very nervy, jumpy and curious all at the same time. In the unlikely event you are approached by threatening looking cattle, they are probably only curious about your dog, please just let go of the lead. Your dog will be able to run faster than the cattle.
Another problem for the herd is rubbish left on the hill, tin cans, sandwich wrappers etc. which the animals may eat out of curiosity and make themselves ill. Please take any rubbish back home with you, and if you see any when you are walking please take this back home or put it in the village rubbish bins. During the recent snow a lot of people tobogganed in the valley to the north west of the Church called Core Bottom and many plastic bottles, cans and broken bits of plastic were left behind, which was very disappointing, and had to be collected by the Estate workers.
The herd shares these hills with many wild creatures including badgers, roe deer, rabbits, hares, foxes, stoats, weasels and many different bird species. We are very lucky to have such a wonderful place to walk and to enjoy the beautiful views over the Meon Valley and beyond. Please respect the cattle and make the jobs of Brian and Chris easier.