A Cots farmer spearheads efforts to conserve rare British animals for the future
As a child raised by parents whose profession was the theatre, Joe Henson never wanted to do anything but farm.
Every sixpence he could squirrel up was spent on his collection of lead farm animals – now so collectable he jokes that if he still had them, they would probably be worth more than the real thing.
Today he plays a role neither of his actor parents would ever have dreamed of, as a national livestock judge and a world expert in rare breeds.
His brother Nicky Henson will be better known to New Zealanders – this year he took on the part of Jack Edwards in Eastenders, bringing him in far more fan mail and a much better pay packet than he ever received in his days in the Royal Shakespeare Company and London’s West End.
But although only one brother followed his parents into the theatre, Joe Henson, now 74, has also spent decades in the limelight, fighting for the conservation of rare breeds of farm animals.
As a very young man, his first job was on a traditional farm in Northwood, and at the age of 30, with his school friend John Neave, he took over the tenancy of 162ha Bemborough Farm in Gloucestershire.
That property, still owned by Corpus Christie College, has now mushroomed into a 650ha mixed arable, sheep and cattle farm high on the Cotswold Hills. But from the day Joe first bought his daughter Libby some Cotswold sheep, the so-called “Cotswold Lions”, his enthusiasm for old-fashioned farm stock has never waned.
In the late 1960s, his on-farm collection expanded into Gloucester Old Spot pigs, Gloucester cattle, and Shire horses. In 1971, with John Neave, he opened the Cotswold Farm Park, and never looked back.
By 1973, he was founder chairman of the United Kingdom’s Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), a national charity established to ensure the survival of endangered breeds. With the Prince of Wales as patron, that organisation now has more than 10,000 members, including 14 approved farm parks dotted around the country. Their mission is to demonstrate the importance of rare breeds to the wider public, and to help the conservation effort through co-ordinated breeding programmes.
And as Joe stepped away from centre stage on the farm, his son Adam was waiting in the wings. In partnership with college friend Duncan Andrews, while John Neave and Joe Henson remain as shareholders, he has taken over management of the farm. But the family’s thespian skills also come to the fore, as Adam regularly faces the camera in his own role as a presenter for the BBC’s Countryfile television programme.
But it’s not only the humans who are stars here – the park has supplied animals for a number of period dramas and feature films including Emma, Middlemarch and Braveheart, as well as David Attenborough natural history progammes.
Joe Henson’s face may not be familiar to all 2.5 million visitors who have been through the park – but his voice certainly is, as he is the narrator of the park’s audio tour guide. He accords me the singular pleasure of being his only audience as he escorts me around the park. As he shows me around, a mother stops him to tell him this is her family’s fifth visit. That’s especially pleasing, because the Hensons make a special effort to ensure children are enthralled and entertained time after time.
Extra activities are constantly changing – in August, for example, Morris Dancers were there to evoke even more of the atmosphere of Old England. Repeat business greatly benefits the rare breeds on display, with gate money, and any profits from the campsite, farm park kitchen and gift shop on site, all poured into the conservation effort as well as proceeds from the sale of any surplus breeding stock.
On site there’s a maze, a children’s adventure playground, a farm trail and a woodland adventure trail, and seasonal demonstrations of farm tasks like lambing, shearing and milking. A play barn with a tractor school and roller races is popular in all weather, but the key activity is the Rare Breeds Through History trail – the reason for the park’s existence.
However, though the Corpus Christie farm enterprise gets bigger, Joe Hanson does not envisage significant expansion of the farm park. In fact, from having had 50 flocks and herds of animals on view, the Cotswold Farm Park is now cutting down on stock that are no longer under threat.
Breeds that are no longer rare can always be bought back into the park if need be, Joe says, and it’s better to concentrate on where breeding programmes are most needed.
The RBST priority list is a seven-point scale from one (critical) and two (endangered), to three (vulnerable) and four (at risk), then five (imported groups), six (feral groups and populations) and seven (native breeds).
Joe says his greatest personal achievement has been the salvation of the Castlemilk Moorit sheep, developed in Dumfriesshire as an easy-care sheep that would provide top quality Moorit coloured wool.
In 1973, the flock was dispersed, with only 10 surviving slaughter. Four were bought by a neighbour, and six by Joe Henson, who brought them to the farm park. The breed is now thriving, with Joe Henson the very proud president of its own breed society.
Joe Henson introduces visitors to the park by reminding them that as wild animals became domesticated, they were constantly selected to suit human needs – for better temperament, or greater intelligence, strength, fertility, or productivity.
But in recent times, as farmers have concentrated on highly efficient often single purpose livestock breeds, many old multipurpose breeds have shrunk away to pitifully small populations.
At the Cotswold Farm Park, the ancient lineage of these breeds, and the way they have contributed to the history of agriculture in Britain, is marked by a thematic display of animals through the ages. (Though sometimes, Joe admits, management must take precedence over history.)
Naturally coloured Soay sheep (vulnerable) date back to prehistoric times, and are the ancestors of all modern sheep breeds, though where they were isolated on the island of St Kilda they were able to remain relatively unchanged down through the centuries.
Another Bronze Age breed preserved in a similar way was the North Ronaldsay sheep, (vulnerable) descended from Scottish crofters’ sheep, but isolated for hundreds of years on the most northerly Orkney island of North Ronaldsay, where they lived outside the seawall and adapted to a diet of kelp.
As chairman of the RBST, Joe Henson initiated their protection by moving a significant flock to an island bought specifically for that purpose, then founded several mainland flocks, and it was this project that really launched the trust into the public arena.
Highland cattle, one of the hardiest bovine breeds in the world, probably have the strongest links of any domesticated cattle to the giant Aurochs depicted in Neolithic cave paintings.
They make a great display, but are rivalled by the magnificent White Park cattle (endangered) introduced by the Romans for religious, probably sacrificial purposes.
Later, they were hunted for sport by Plantagenet kings, then handed down through the centuries in five ancestral herds, with the Cotswold cattle deriving from Chartley stock.
Endangered Exmoor ponies, introduced to the country by the Celts, are another link with Roman times, when the breed would have been used by Boadicea, the Iceni queen, to pull her chariots against the invading forces.
Nearly 35 years ago, Joe Henson was asked to breed up an animal as close as he could get to Iron Age pigs, which would have been herded through the forests in those times. He did so by carting a European wild boar from London Zoo in the back of his Landrover, and using it over a Tamworth sow.
The Tamworth itself, taking its name from the Tamworth region of Staffordshire, originated from the European wild boar, but is today at critical numbers. However while he was working for the BBC in Australia, Joe Henson was lucky enough to discover further emigrant populations in Tamworth Australia, which greatly assisted UK breeding programmes.
But taking pride of place in all the Farm Park displays is the “Cotswold Lion”, the sheep descended from Roman stock and bred in the middle ages for its long, lustrous fleeces. Indirectly, through the wealth it brought, this single animal was responsible for a proliferation of splendid manor houses and imposing churches that still bring throngs of people to the Cotswolds.
After the Romans came the marauding Vikings, bringing their own white cattle and coloured sheep. It is generally accepted that the minority breed Hebridean sheep, and the “at risk” multi-horned Manx Loughtan sheep originating from the Isle of Man, date back to these Viking times.
Later, when the Normans invaded in 1066 and farming became more intensive, new ideas began to exert their influence. The Norfolk Horn sheep, endangered today, was famed for its ability to survive on sparse grazing, and the hardy Herdwick sheep was well adapted to live in the wettest areas.
But in Gloucester, where the Cotswold hills rise highest, the mahogany coloured white tailed Old Gloucester cattle breed made its mark as a triple purpose animal suited to draught work as well as the production of meat and milk. Though it cannot compete with specialist dairy herds today, by the 13th century its traditional Double Gloucester cheese, made from two milking sessions, had already become famous.
For sheer nobility of goat good looks, the very rare Bagot goat, designated critical, certainly lives up to its romantic history. Its ancestors were brought back to England from the Crusades by Richard the Lionheart, and given to Sir Richard Bagot by the king in the 1390s. Way down the bloodline, their progeny were given to the Cotswold Farm Park by Lady Nancy Bagot in 1970.
Shire horses descended from the Norman greathorse have largely been supplanted as sources of power, like their relatives the Clydesdale.
The agricultural revolution quickly brought its weight to bear on many other animal breeds as farming pioneer Robert Bakewell, a friend of Charles Darwin, “put two and two together” to breed more productive Leicester sheep and Longhorn cattle.
Another endangered breed, the Gloucester Old Spot pig, has a special place in the hearts and minds of Gloucester folk, who spun the story that its spots were the bruises from falling apples in Gloucester orchards, and that you didn’t need to eat apple sauce with Old Spot pig because it already tasted of cider.
Joe also likes what he says is probably the first written record of selective breeding – the advice from Genesis given by God to Joseph’s father Jacob on how to breed spotted lambs – hence the spotted coat of many colours of the Jacob sheep.
Looking at his own Moorit sheep, developed in the early 1900s for their top quality wool, Joe Henson is pleased to have saved them from extinction. He keeps flock numbers up by running a number of castrates.
"They live many more years than they would otherwise, with no worries and no fights, probably because they have no wives."
By the WWII, breeds like Shorthorn and Jersey cattle and Shetland ponies working in the mines were also pulling their weight for the country, but it was one landgirl, the late Miriam Milbourne, who saved golden Guernsey goats from slaughter by hiding them in the cellar when the Germans occupied the island.
Joe says that some modern breeds, like Belgian Blue cattle, Beltex sheep originating from the Texel, and Angora goats, are also kept so that visitors can compare where farm animals are now with where they have come from.
Eight years ago, he visited New Zealand, but it was specifically for a holiday, so that he and his wife could enjoy some time without the demands of rare animals to be met.
For our sake, let’s hope that his expertise will reach these shores on another occasion, and help to reinforce the work being done by our own New Zealand rare breeds society.
Words and photos by Lyn McKinnon