This Green and Pleasant Land: Working landscapes and stewardship in Exmoor

In the West of England on the north coast lies the romantic and historical pastures of Exmoor and Dartmoor. These ‘working landscapes’ have been the powerhouse for British lamb and beef since the Tudor era. Noted by Elizabeth I’s Crown victuallers as the producer of beef and mutton for the larder”, nowadays the West Country still produces a quarter of British Beef.

Green rolling pastures, wildflowers, woodland and dramatic coastlines characterise Exmoor National Park. The stewardship of agricultural land has shaped and sustained this corner of England for centuries; it nestles in the middle of the largest agricultural region in England. Rearing livestock for red meat is imperative to maintaining and protecting the area’s unique landscape and heritage. As of 2018, the industry was estimated to provide 28,000 jobs and contribute £3billion per year to the British economy.

The mild climate of The West Country provides farmers with around 300 days of grass growth a year, which allows for almost year-round pasture and grazing of cattle. So proud of their beef is the West Country that they have decided to protect it, like a fine Bordeaux or Cheddar cheese. Beef can now be accredited as either ‘West Country Beef’ or ‘Exmoor National Park Beef’ ; a fine seal of quality. We spoke to Tim Herman, Development Manager at Philip Dennis Foodservice, one of the butchers we work with, who told us about the popularity of these accredited products. “For most customers nowadays it’s all about provenance, so if I can say exactly where the product has originated, they will be eager to put it on the menus. People like to ask, ‘where did your beef come from today?’ We can then give customers a West Country PGI certificate to verify that they are using our accredited beef.”

The wealth of labels and accreditations that exist across the UK and beyond can be overwhelming, yet they exist to provide shortcuts for consumers to be able to recognise good products derived from suppliers using practices that put animal welfare and land stewardship at the forefront of their businesses. The UK is known for having some of the best standards for farm animals in the world and our natural landscape means that they are also some of the most ecologically sound too.

Stephen Hellewell, Head of Category for Meat and Poultry here at IDC explained the considerations that go into awarding certain accreditations: “There’s the husbandry of the livestock, making sure the animals are good, healthy, and happy. Then after, the farmer passes it on to the abattoir, the animal then gets graded for carcase classification; those grades are used to determine which part of the foodservice it will end up at.” National bodies, such as Red Tractor are recognisable to most consumers, concentrate on husbandry, trace-ability, and welfare of the animals to make sure the meat is traceable, safe and farmed with care. The AHDB have standards similar to Red Tractor but with more focus on the eating quality of the finished product, using strict specifications for the Quality Standard Mark for beef and lamb, whereas BRC is geared more towards larger retailers and is used for food safety and trace-ability, this is widely recognised throughout the catering industry. By the time the meat reaches its final chopping board, it could have been assessed and accredited by a multitude of different bodies.

Stringent rules are in place to ensure only the highest quality meat enters the ever-so-exclusive West Country club. To be labelled West Country Beef, the rules state that all cattle must be born and raised in the region and fed on a diet that is 70% forage , with the remaining 30% of feed being sourced locally. Animals must either be sent to local abattoirs or if outside of the area, abattoirs that comply with Meat South West (MSW) standards.

One such farm that Philip Dennis and – by extension – IDC work with, is Holdstone Farm near Coombe Martin. Fourth Generation farmer Chris Lerwill hand rears Angus beef on rolling meadows across Devonshire. When asked how his family got into farming, his scoffing answer came: he would need to go back “800 years”. His regenerative farming methods are such a part of Exmoor’s DNA as well as of his own, that they are linked intrinsically to his family’s identity. For Chris and the generations of his family that have reared cattle on this land, “a marker of good quality is a local product, provenance, history.”

The cows that ultimately become West Country Beef and are raised in the National Parks or Areas of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB) such as Exmoor, feed on pastures that are home to 57% of the UK’s flower-rich meadows. What this bio-diverse pasture diet means for the flavour and nutritional value of the beef, as regular West Country Beef consumers will know, is markable. If we look at the science, the West Country’s pasture is high in α-linolenic acid, vitamins and n-3 fatty acids. The higher the quality of pasture, the longer the chains of omega-3 the cattle can convert it into. That omega-3 is fundamental not only to good brain health, but also outstanding flavour. Research from the University of Bristol showed a “strong and objective scientific case that beef produced and processed in the West Country of England has qualities that are inherently linked to that geographical area, because of the greater availability of and reliance on grass in the diet.”

Producers, suppliers and stockists publicising these health, flavour and environmental benefits seem to be making their mark in the fight to influence consumers to buy better meat. Retailer, Whole Foods named regenerative farming, including grass-fed meats as the leading global food-trend for 2020. This is also in step with ADHB , who have been tracking purchasing trends; consumers are turning to independent, local butchers, citing environmental concerns linked to animal welfare, farming practices, food miles and packaging. All of which, drive up quality, taste and nutritional value.

Reducing food miles is not only an environmental concern, it is also very much a community and societal concern that increases job opportunities and cultural vibrancy. It is estimated that for every £1 spent in a rural area on its own local produce, 60p is returned back into that area. Chris Lerwill gave this advice to farmers looking to follow in his ever-so-local footsteps: “Keep it local, network within your local facilitation of abattoirs and markets and look for business that’s outside of conventional processes. Look for the people who are prepared to pay for the product.”

Looking to the future, in order to strengthen working landscapes and supply chains to combat environmental concerns and ensure local communities can thrive, it is imperative for investment to be made into local infrastructure for the meat processing, dairy and veg industries. Thus, creating a strong food system in the UK; one that’s better for farmers, livestock, consumers and the environment. And incidentally, one that echoes our past agricultural glory. Supporting farmers like Chris at Holdstone that put tightknit, local networks at the heart of their businesses, while being mindful of the accreditations that promote quality and locality, ensures that the British farming industry can do the best by the landscape and communities it supports. Indeed, the work shines through on the plate; as Chris puts it, “what is most rewarding about my job is the product.”