Jo Denbury, Features Writer
Long summer days are meant for being outdoors. In languid meadowland, where the cow parsley gives way to golden hay and dandelion seed heads drift gently in the breeze, is Bere Marsh Organic Farm. Tucked away in a golden corner of Shillingstone, this precious gem in Dorset’s cabinet of idyllic farms is owned by Fiona Gerardin. She was once a dairy farmer but in 2010 she turned her hand to goat farming – "I like my animals to be smaller than me and easier to handle," she jokes.
“It started with three in-kid goats that I bought in January 2010,” Fiona says. “By keeping the females that were born each year and selling the male kids for meat, I have ended up with 30 breeding does.” The goats are a mix of boer – Rooney the buck is 100% boer – and cashmere. Boers are ‘meat’ goats, bred for their weight; lean kid meat, known as ‘capretto,’ is very low in cholesterol. Cashmere goats, of course, are known for their silky hair. “The birds truly live in luxury around here,” laughs Fiona. “All their nests are cashmere-lined.”>
These beautiful goats are all lovingly reared and tended by Fiona. We have arrived early – they are still in the barn, where they sleep every night and spend the winter. “They’re not as hardy as sheep,” she explains. As we open the doors to the barn, the kids all leap and flip in excitement. Each one looks freshly laundered in splendid white-and-tan coats and there is a delicious smell of dry straw.
Big Mamma is the leader of the herd. She has even been known to break up a fight between the kids when things have got out of hand. The goats all carefully give her some space. The barn doors are soon opened and the herd dutifully files in behind Big Mama, as she takes the lead towards the meadow grass and beckoning dandelions.
There are over 800 metres of riverbank on the farm and, at this time of year, the Stour meanders its way only slowly towards the coast. Fiona is keen to show us round. Before we know it we are standing in an ancient barn, examining a barn owl’s pellets for what might be the tiny skull of a shrew, the remains of last night’s dinner. The owls regularly nest in the barn. Curiously, they seemed not to mind the hornets that built a nest next door to their box last year. The hornets have since vacated their home and, happily, the barn owls remain.
Onwards through the hay meadows towards the river and we clamber down to what Fiona calls her ‘beach,’ a place where she and her family swim in the summer. A host of trees along the bank create a secret sanctuary where wild mussels grow in the riverbed. Fiona’s farmland runs roughly between the river and the old railway line. Of the 80 acres making up this organic farm, about 5 of them are woodland. As we wander through the trees, we catch glimpses of the Iron Age fort, Hambledon Hill. “It’s incredible to think that it was once kept as white chalk,” says Fiona, stopping to admire a view she has grown up with.
Fiona was brought up on this farm, which was dairy at the time. Her mother was the pioneer naturalist Angela Hughes OBE, who died in 2009. Angela set up the Dorset Wildlife Trust, championed wildlife-friendly farming and was also responsible for introducing a number of species to the area, including otters to the River Stour. There is such an array of wildlife here at >
Bere Marsh – including rare butterflies, birds and wildflowers – that the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT) is in talks to ‘buy’ the farm as part of the Gordon Beningfield legacy. Beningfield, who died in 1998, was an illustrator and conservationist, who championed the protection of the English countryside and its wildlife. If the trust does take over the farm, it would maintain a permanent exhibition of his work, plus an educational centre.
Dame Judi Dench, patron of the CRT, recently visited Bere Marsh and remarked that it was “the most perfect farm.” One of its most perfectly peaceful areas is the woodland burial ground, started by Fiona’s mother. This sits high among the ancient oak trees, with long views of Hambledon Hill beyond. In fact, it is believed that these ancient trees saw the Roundheads in battle against the Dorset ‘Clubmen,’ a group of local men armed with clubs and scythes, who sought to defend their land from the Parlimentarian advance in 1645. The Clubmen were easily overcome by Cromwell’s dragoons and dubbed “poor silly creatures” by Oliver himself. The plot is tranquil today, however, with no echoes of historic conflict emanating from the distant hill. Fiona continues to maintain it as a soothingly beautiful alternative resting place.
With so much history, it will surely be a wrench for her if the CRT buys the farm. However, Fiona is very happy to see its future potentially in such caring hands, where the integrity of the land will remain. Her plan is to buy another organic farm and build up a larger herd. “Goats are such intelligent, lively animals,” she says. “They always keep me busy, as they are very naughty and are always trying to escape.” Fiona tries not to get too close to the kids, because ultimately she must sell them for meat. However, she knows they have the best possible life, leaping about in the organic meadowland and not weaned until at least five months’ old.
Looking down from the woodland burial ground at the top of the hill, I hear Fiona’s distant sing-song call – her kid goats tugging at lush grass and chasing each other through the same organic meadowland Fiona played in as a child. Sunlight rolls towards us across the neighbouring Hambledon Hill and, for a moment, it all makes perfect sense.
Orders for goat meat are taken in advance of the autumn. Fiona is always over-subscribed, so it is advisable to order as soon as possible. Pre-booked wild camping is also available.