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Hill Farm, the farm with a heart

PUBLISHED: 12:10 04 August 2016 | UPDATED: 12:23 04 August 2016

Two-day-old billy kid twins

Two-day-old billy kid twins

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Simone Stanbrook-Byrne has encounters of a caprine kind in a Somerset dairy with a difference

Goats are inquisitive and engagingGoats are inquisitive and engaging

It’s a blue-sky afternoon dripping in bird song when I arrive at Hill Farm in West Somerset. The countryside is burgeoning with life; the approach to the farm, immaculate. Everything speaks of rural idyll and it is this that I’m here to explore.

I’d first heard mention of Hill Farm over supper a few weeks earlier.

“Butler‘s very well and happy and settled with Primrose!” a friend had suddenly declared. “She’s retired from Hill Farm, have you heard about it?” It sounded unlikely; a commercial farm where all the goats are named and where respected old ladies face graceful retirement rather than slaughter. Could there really be such a place outside storybook imaginings?

On arrival, first impressions suggest there might be. Adult nanny goats bask peacefully in the sun, unfazed by a stranger or the two amiable black labradors belonging to Will and Caroline Atkinson, owners of Hill Farm for the past eight years. Inside the big, airy barn female kids play together in their deeply-strawed ‘nursery’, climbing logs, swinging suspended toys, checking the play-worthiness of my camera and generally mucking about as kids do. They are friendly, investigative, utterly captivating; their voices an ever-present background to conversation.

Will Atkinson with a two day old billy kidWill Atkinson with a two day old billy kid

I ask Will about their names.

“Naming them creates the right amount of empathy,” he explains. “I don’t think this is a sentimental thing; it gets you to the right level with them. They are not just ‘things’, not just commercial numbers. They are all sentient.” This is refreshingly unusual. Although Will does concede that he ‘can see how some farms that are under huge pressures can get driven towards the number-based system’.

He elaborates: “We name them in themed family groups, it helps us to be aware of traits and to work out behaviour patterns. If someone is skipping around like a mad thing and you know her mum skips around like a mad thing, you don’t worry too much. It helps you know them. The more you know them, on a welfare basis, the better the chance of spotting problems.”

When they first started farming they tried leaving the kids with the nannies for several months but this resulted in many logistical problems. They then tried leaving them together for a matter of weeks, but breaking the newly-formed bond was distressing for the goats. Now the kids stay with their mothers for two days, after which they remain for a time in the same barn. Occasionally they call to one another, are reassured and settle down. As adults, they may meet up again in the paddocks.

Alfie, one of Will’s team, draws my attention to “something really cute” a little further off in the barn. Hearing someone in farming use the word ‘cute’ about livestock has rarity appeal.

Two billy kids are snuggled up together. Just 48 hours old, these male kids once had no future. It’s a fact of dairy farming that to produce milk the female animal (be it cow, sheep or goat) needs to produce babies and, by law of average, 50 per cent of these are male. Males cannot be reared to go into a dairy herd so unless their meat is eaten they have no value, other than the few kept for breeding. Billy kids are often killed at birth.

But changes are afoot. The billies that Will and Caroline breed go to another high-welfare farm near Weston-super-Mare. Here they lead a good, if brief, life with access to outside. At around six months of age they are slaughtered for the expanding UK goat meat industry.

“We were so naive to begin with,” Will says. “We didn’t think that making goats cheese would involve killing goats.” To their credit, they are doing their best to make the reality less harsh. It is abundantly clear that they care enormously about the well-being of their charges. “The more time you spend with them the more you realise how engaged they are,” says Will.

This brings me back to Butler, my friend’s retired goat. Is it really possible to find homes for all Hill Farm’s ageing nannies?

“We didn’t have to confront this to start with as we had a new herd,” explains Will. “When the question of retirement first arose we wanted to continue treating them with empathy. They had worked for us for seven or eight years and were perfectly healthy, just not producing so much milk. Asking them to produce milk for you for all those years is quite an imposition. Just because they start producing less, it seems a bit stark to kill them.” So far, they have managed to find homes for all the retirees.

Will and Caroline came to farming from non-agricultural backgrounds. “There are benefits and detriments to coming in from a standing start,” he says. “You don’t have that family support, historic background or instincts. But you also don’t have bad habits!”

Using raw (unpasteurised) milk, the farm’s 90+ goats produce eight tons of cheese annually, which Will describes as ‘tiny, compared to some’.

Would they expand?

“This is a good model, similar to what you see in France. Not so much in the UK.”

He considers: “Economically it’s tough as goats are uneconomical animals to milk. One cow produces the same as 10 goats. That’s 40 feet to keep trimmed for the same amount of milk. Making small cheeses is also less economical, more fiddly than making large Cheddars, for instance. But if we scaled it up we’d start to not know the goats very well. And making bigger quantities of cheese – we wouldn’t know that very well either. We could lose the original basic ideal.”

Standing in the sun, stroking a goat and listening to Will, I have the overwhelming impression that this is a business thoroughly governed by commendable ethics. They work hard throughout all seasons, dealing compassionately with the legion vagaries of farming and cheese-making – and they make it work. It is a ‘good model’.

And in today’s climate of welfare and provenance-awareness it’s a model worth following. Long live the idea and the idyll.

Some lesser known goat facts

They can climb trees – they like to browse on the fibrous leaves.

They are fussy eaters and won’t eat hay if someone else has dribbled on it.

Billies are excellent jumpers and can clear a stable door to find the nannies.

They are intelligent and can do tricks. One nanny, Tarnecia, could operate a lever to unlock the system in the milking parlour, freeing all the other goats. “We had to Tarnecia-proof the parlour.”

They are not escapologists, but they are inquisitive and will ‘investigate’ a loose fence post.

Goats’ coats are not waterproof and they need access to good shelter.

Goat milk DOES contain lactose.

Goats usually have twins and quads are not uncommon.

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