The herd

With access to the salt marshes and much land reclaimed from the sea, Ian and Peter Pitcher know what it is like to farm on the coast.

They also know what it is like to farm next to an RAF bombing range.

The Pitcher family pride themselves on the excellent temperament of their Cockleshell herd of pedigree Limousins. In fact, ‘bomb-proof’ is a term that could quite literally be applied to them as the cattle graze unperturbed on the salt marshes of the Wash, right next to RAF Wainfleet’s bombing range.

“They take no notice at all when the bombs are dropped,” said Peter Pitcher. “Chinook helicopters also land close by. They did not like these at first, but they have got used to them now and do not mind at all.”

Peter’s family have farmed in the area for several generations and he and his wife Jean came to Ivy House Farm, Friskney, on Lincolnshire’s east coast, in 1962. With his son Ian, they now farm around 750 acres.

The farm is mostly all grade one land and is mainly used for the arable enterprise. Sugar beet is grown on 50 acres, wheat on 200 acres and potatoes – both early and late – on another 90 acres. Nearly all the rest is down to vegetables – cauliflower, broccoli and sprouts grown by Staples and Clements for all the main super markets.
Around 35 acres is also used to make grass silage for the Limousin herd, which grazes on a couple of grass paddocks, the sea banks and salt marshes going out to the Wash.

Some of the land farmed is reclaimed from the sea. In 1948, Peter’s father, Frank, and some neighbouring farmers, built a sea wall to hold back the sea and give them more land. Another five-mile wall was built in 1977, half a mile further out from the first. This reclaimed a further 850 acres, with 60 acres being added to Ivy House Farm.

Throughout the summer the cattle are rotated between the salt marshes, the sea banks and the paddocks next to the banks. They spend about two-thirds of their time on the marshes, only being moved off when the tides are high.

This land is under Stewardship Scheme and is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest, so there are no fertilisers and pesticides used, but the cattle seems to thrive on the natural herbage of the marshes, which gives the meat a unique taste.

“The seawater seems to be very good for them,” said Peter.

“They do not suffer from worm problems, so we never need to worm them and they are very good on their legs, so apart from routine foot trimming their feet do not need any attention.”

Peter holds a special place is the history of Limousin cattle in the UK as he is the owner of the very first pedigree Limousin to arrive in England.

In 1968, he attended a meeting where a Ministry of Agriculture adviser said that, following the importation of Charolais cattle in 1962, they were thinking of allowing the importation of a second continental breed – the Limousin – and asked if anyone was interested. Peter decided he definitely was interested and, following further meetings and the formation of the British Limousin Cattle Society, was present when the first consignment arrived from France at Leith Docks, near Edinburgh, in 1971.

The individual importers had to decide the fairest way of choosing between the 178 animals – 154 yearling heifers and 24 bulls – so the night before they were released from quarantine, a ballot was taken with two packs of cards to ensure everyone had an equal chance of getting the best cattle.

Peter got second and 69th choice and his two heifers – Futee and Fortune – averaged £1,000 each.

He and Jean had taken their own livestock trailer to collect the cattle so quickly loaded and were the first to leave the quarantine centre and head over the border – the first Limousins to arrive in England.

Peter said that at that time he could not possibly have imagined just how influential the breed was going to become in such a short time.

The initial plan had been to cross the Limousins with Lincoln Reds, which were already on the farm, to produce a leaner beef carcase. However, the decision was soon taken to keep them pedigree and so the Lincoln Red herd was dispersed.

The herd took the Cockleshell prefix from the shells that are so plentiful on the farm and now, 35 years on, is very successful.

From the early days Peter and Jean, and now Ian and Wendy, were keen to promote the breed and their own herd at shows and have enjoyed great success in the showring.

Their greatest achievement was to win two Royal Show female championships, in 1987 and 1995, with Cockleshell Selina and Cockleshell Elizabeth, who were mother and daughter.

The quality of this line was proved when Cockleshell Leo, a son of Elizabeth, won the Royal Junior male championship in 1995.

The showing operation has been reduced in recent years, due to the commitments of running the farm, but they still attend the local county shows and this year their stock bull, Winnington Trumps, bought from Carlisle in 2004, was breed champion at the Lincolnshire Show and male champion at the East of England.

Peter was president of the British Limousin Cattle Society from 2000 to 2003, a period that encompassed foot-and-mouth. “It was a terrible time,” he said.

“Instead of attending shows and sales and meeting people, I spent my time on the phone, commiserating with them about the loss of their herds.“Almost 3,900 pedigree Limousins from 81 herds were slaughtered.”

“We pride ourselves on the temperament of our cattle. Every one of them is halter broken – even those which end up going for beef.”

– Ian Pitcher

The Cockleshell herd now stands at 30 cows plus followers. A small number of bulls are sold at Carlisle or Newark each year, with others being sold privately.

Those not sold for breeding go live through Newark Market or deadweight to Skegness Meat Traders. Most heifers are being kept as replacements at the moment, to build up numbers followed a reduction in the herd a few years ago.

Calving takes place inside and starts in mid-December, usually finishing by mid-February with cows rarely needing assistance.

Calves are weaned in the late summer and autumn, depending on their age and size. All the cattle winter inside with the cows being fed home-grown big bale silage and the youngstock getting a bought-in coarse mix, which while not fed ad lib, is fed ‘to appetite.’

Stockman Johnny Twigg has been with the Pitcher family since he left school 45 years ago. His father, George, was Peter’s original farm foreman so there is a long history between the two families.When not at shows, he spends the summer tractor driving on the farm and the winter dedicating his time to the cattle.

Ian said: “We pride ourselves on the temperament of our cattle. Every one of them is halter broken, even those which end up going for beef.

“Any which show any signs of a bad temperament at this stage are definitely not kept for breeding.

“Soon after weaning, Johnny starts handling them and they at tied-up regularly through the winter. This really pays off and makes the handling of the herd so much easier.”

Ian and his wife, Wendy, have four children, Lucinda, 25, Joe, 24, Harry, 21 and Lycia, 17. He has now taken over most of the responsibility for the farm from his father and works with Johnny, one other full-time member of staff, occasional seasonal help and odd days from his sons in the summer holidays.

In an area of the country where livestock are now rarely seen, three generations of the Pitcher family are now thoroughly committed to their Limousin cattle and hope to remain so for many years to come.

As Peter said: “I would much rather look at my cattle through the winter than a ploughed field.”