Church Farm at Alsop-en-le-Dale - from engineering to rare breed farming

Chris with Alsop Jennifer, Molly looks on

Chris with Alsop Jennifer, Molly looks on - Credit: Archant

Civil engineer Chris Duffell and his wife Christine moved from Hampshire to pursue the good life at a farm in Alsop-en-le-Dale

Christine and Chris with Molly the kelpie

Christine and Chris with Molly the kelpie - Credit: Archant

Cuddled into the rolling hills of mid Derbyshire is Alsop-en-le-Dale. A historic little village with a caring community, it comprises an impressive Hall, a few farmsteads and a small church of Norman origin. Evidence of mediaeval ridge and furrow ploughing patterns the landscape hereabouts, denoting long established farming practises amid rolling fields of rich pasture grazed for centuries by sheep and cattle.

Travelling along the nearby A515, motorists are accustomed to seeing fields containing ginger South Devon, black and white Friesian or Holstein and a multitude of multi-coloured cross-breed beef cattle. Few will know that the dales around Parwich are also home to a small herd of Gloucester cattle, an extremely rare breed that only a few years ago was facing extinction.

In 1984 Chris Duffell was a civil engineer from Hampshire working on the Chapel-en-le-Frith bypass. He fell in love with the Peak District and persuaded wife Christine to up sticks and move here. They bought Church Farm in Alsop-en-le-Dale, a life changing decision that allowed them to follow their dream and raise four children in this countryside idyll.

Over the years Chris and Christine have restored the farmhouse and outbuildings which include two holiday cottages so that visitors can share their ‘down on the farm’ experience. Passionate about the environment and good husbandry, Church Farm has for many years been awarded the annual EQM accreditation (Environmental Quality Mark) by the Peak District National Park Authority.

The newly relaid yard with Pinster and Winnets Cottages on the left

The newly relaid yard with Pinster and Winnets Cottages on the left - Credit: Archant

Not long after moving in, the couple visited a Rare Breeds Survival Trust Show and Sale at Stoneleigh. They decided that they needed some stock for their 23 acres of land off Dam Lane, thought to be the long lost location of an old flax mill. One of their fields is known as the hockey pitch - being flat it was used in the 1940s and 50s by Parwich School as a sports field.

‘Initially we thought about Dexters,’ said Chris. ‘They are small and versatile but known to be feisty. Then we discovered Gloucesters and fell in love!’

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These gentle placid cattle are an ancient breed that has been around since the 13th century. They were originally valued for their milk and beef as well as being used as draught oxen. However, the introduction of other breeds in the last couple of centuries made them less popular and by 1972 their numbers had dwindled to only one herd and about 70 animals in total. The establishment of the Gloucester Cattle Society has seen their numbers increase to around 650 registered females but they are still considered ‘At Risk’. Chris has been involved with the Society for many years now, and was their President for three years until July 2015. He explained, ‘The Society’s pledge is to maintain and further the breed and to try to encourage new farmers to take them on.’

The Gloucester cow is strikingly beautiful with its black brown body, distinctive white stripe down its back, white tail and underbelly and upturned horns. They are easy calvers and good sucklers. The bulls are generally docile. Their beef is considered to be tasty and marbled in appearance, whilst milk is naturally homogenised and high in fat content. Originally Single Gloucester cheese was made from milk taken in the morning and Double Gloucester from milk in the afternoon, but this has now changed in definition to Single Gloucester being made in that specific county from a herd containing Gloucester cows, whereas Double Gloucester can be made with any milk and anywhere.

Noent Soul with the herd in the Hockey Pitch

Noent Soul with the herd in the Hockey Pitch - Credit: Archant

Interesting the English physician and scientist Edward Jenner, who pioneered the first smallpox vaccine in 1798 after discovering that milkmaids occasionally caught cowpox (a mild viral infection) but never smallpox, developed his first vaccine from ‘Blossom’, a Gloucester cow whose hide can be found in Gloucester Museum. Unfortunately the 2010 Royal Mail’s commemorative stamp of Edward Jenner showed the wrong breed of cow!

Chris took me to meet his prized herd which was founded with the initial purchase of a cow and three heifers. Over the years he has bought, borrowed and bred to successfully increase their numbers. ‘At one time we had 30 head of cattle but have reduced the herd to 18, which is a far more manageable and fits better in our sheds when the cattle come indoors for winter.’

I found myself surrounded by a family unit dominated by Noent Soul, a magnificent bull who is aged four and in his prime. I discovered he is a pushover for cattle nuts and it was a strange but enjoyable experience for me to be up close and friendly with this gentle giant whose main interest was begging for treats.

Francesca is the herd matriarch and a bossy cow. She was a freemartin – born with a twin brother. For some reason, thought to be due to a dominance of male hormones in the uterus, 90 percent of these females are infertile, but Francesca turned out to be one of the lucky 10 percent.

Abberley Sissie - the raffle prize

Abberley Sissie - the raffle prize - Credit: Archant

‘Sissie was a raffle prize’, said Chris pointing to a cow with a cute chocolate brown and white-striped calf alongside. ‘When the Gloucester Cattle Society celebrated its 40th anniversary we donated a week’s stay in one of our holiday cottages. Another prize donated was a heifer calf. Our daughter Clare won the holiday and a couple living in a 3-bedroomed semi in Chipping Norton won the heifer, so we agreed to swap!’

All around me were the inquisitive faces of cows, heifers, steers and calves. One youngster had just finished its lunch and had a white muzzle with milky dribble dripping off its chin. Meanwhile Soul was still searching for cattle nuts.

Keeping the gene pool healthy in rare breeds is vitally important, so Noent Soul will soon be heading off to an artificial insemination centre in Cumbria. Before he goes he must be isolated from the herd for a month. By law all the cattle are tested for TB.

Every calf is either birth noted or registered and given a name. ‘I started out by taking names from books on Arthurian legends,’ said Chris, ‘but this has changed to using the same first letter as her mother for each heifer, hence Frederika over there and Francesca.’

‘Calves get six months with their mums and when weaned we put them into adjacent pens so the cows can see them, which is far less distressing. The steers have two to three years in the family group before they are sold for meat, although we keep one ourselves for the freezer. Heifers are kept as our next breeding stock.’

Church Farm is a family business with daughter Clare and grandchildren Jack (15) and Megan (13) all helping out. Jack evidently loves mowing the lawns and moving tractors whilst Megan is in charge of the chickens. They both rear cade lambs each year and have learnt not to become emotionally attached, as demonstrated when part of Larry the lamb was recently served up for lunch.

Apart from some help with the holiday lets, there are now no employees at Church Farm. ‘Jack Alsop used to be our farm hand. Initially he came for cups of tea, then helped out with our cows and ended up almost becoming one of the family. He retired a few years ago aged 83 and lives with his brother in Parwich.’

Back at the immaculate farmyard with its newly laid expanse of stone setts – set out in an Italian-inspired geometric pattern – I was introduced to Mango and Chutney, efficient mousers and mole catchers extraordinaire. There are three dogs including Molly the enthusiastic Kelpie and a Jack Russell that was fostered for a week and is now staying a lifetime!

Then I turned to look at George, the Norfolk Bronze turkey stag who was gobbling loudly from on top of a gate. ‘He was bought as a mate for Tessa,’ said Christine, ‘but when he was introduced to her for the first time she grabbed him by the snood and spun him round. He was so scared he won’t go near her now. He spends his days bossing the chickens. Tessa did once manage to hatch a game fowl egg, but the chick was so small she lost it!’

I was welcomed into the warm and cosy kitchen where I sat at a large farmhouse table in front of the Aga. This room is obviously the hub of the home and regularly enjoyed by friends and family.

‘Do you ever get a holiday?’ I asked. ‘Earlier this year we took Jasper the bull to his new home on a farm in Devon and stayed on for a week in Cornwall.’ The term ‘busman’s holiday’ went through my mind!

As Christine handed me a mug of tea she added, ‘Visitors see us collecting eggs, digging the garden, dashing about the farmyard, ferrying grandchildren about or tending our animals. I was once asked what is it like to live the dream. Jolly hard work I replied!’ A contented smile spread across her face. This is no ordinary farm I decided, but a haven of love and happiness for all, whether two footed, four pawed or cloven hooves!