Do you remember what you were doing on this day 20 years ago? I do. The 13th of January 1996 was a Saturday, and it followed a week in which school was an annoying interruption to the more important work of preparing the ‘goatshed’, as it had become known, to house the entire Rosewood pedigree Dexter herd. On that day we returned to the small village of Whenby, in North Yorkshire, to collect a little black heifer. The previous week we had visited Foulrice Farm to view the in-calf ‘Sprite’, a pedigree Dexter, who became the first member of the Rosewood herd.
Paul with Foulrice Sprite, who founded the Rosewood herd in 1996
I was first introduced to the Dexter breed some years previously, when I read The Spacious Days by Michael Twist, in which the author’s first heifer, called Garnet, arrived in the guard’s van of the train and completed her journey in the back of the Austin 12 motorcar. The story inspired me to seek out the Dexters at the Yorkshire smallholding show in 1995 and as well as meeting local Dexter breeders and their animals, I also bought some beef braising steak from the show, which tasted divine.
I made contact with Pat Garrett at Elvington and cycled the 9 miles to visit her herd one sunny weekend. I had seen the herd by the side of the road to York, in the middle of the village, many times before. It always intrigued me how a whole herd of cattle could be kept on just five acres of land, which appealed to me as although the family farm extended to 260 acres, I was restricted to ‘farming’ the two small orchards on the farm which amounted to just half an acre in total, which I had to share with the farm’s poultry.
Pat & husband John were so enthusiastic about their ‘Butterbox’ herd that I couldn’t help but be inspired, and it was they who put me in touch with Sprite’s breeder, Mrs Marwood. Later that year Sprite was joined in our herd by one of the Garrett’s own animal’s, Butterbox Opal, then a maiden black heifer. Soon after the ‘founding four’ were completed by a cow and her heifer calf, Twiglet & Poppy, who were both red and were bought by Paul from another local herd.
The 'goatshed', a converted cartshed at Aughton Ruddings
Aughton Ruddings was home to the family dairy herd but was two miles away from our house, down in the village, so I would arrive in the morning with dad and tend the animals before cycling back before (and sometimes after!) the school bus arrived. The journey was reversed in the evening. 18 months later I started working on another local farm and the ‘Rosewood Smallholding’ expanded to include what was once the old boar pen, later the bull pen. Consisting of a small outdoor yard with the indoor area provided by an old railway goods wagon body, it was a nostalgic reminder of the book that had inspired the herd.
Over the years the herd continued to expand, albeit slowly due to a combination of work and college commitments and a lack of heifer calves born in those early years. Paul & I managed the cattle between us with temporary summer grazing on a number of different local fields that ‘needed eating off’. We were naturally introduced to rotational grazing and electric fencing, as permanent fences were often inadequate for keeping the small Dexters contained. Our herd, having outgrown the bullpen, moved to a neighbouring farm where both summer and winter lodgings were provided and, for the first time, we were able to use Paul’s restored 50-year-old Ferguson tractor to muck out the shed, rather than the hand fork and wheelbarrow!
In 2002 a smallholding came up for sale in the next village, with the land backing on to Aughton Ruddings. It had the advantage of two permanent farm buildings and 37 acres of pasture, so we decided to combine our savings and a mortgage to buy the farm. It came with the unappealing address of Ruddings Farm - Field so we renamed it Rosewood Farm after the Dexter herd.
First grazing, Rosewood Farm in 2002
In 2010, while grazing the banks of the river Derwent at North Duffield we met the team from English Nature who manage the Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve and were invited to move the cows to the other side of the fence to help graze the traditional Ings meadows. Dexters are particularly suited to conservation grazing, and particularly wetlands, as their small size means they can graze for a longer period before causing damage to the grasses and wildflowers as well as thriving on a more natural pasture. Since then our animals have helped graze a variety of rare and threatened wildlife habitats in the Valley from water meadows to regenerated lowland heath grassland.
Today Rosewood Dexters is a sixty cow herd with many lines going back to those original four cows. We have added to the numbers over the years with breeding animals from the Kirise, Humberdale and Zanfara herds forming the herd as it stands. In 2007 we also formed a joint venture with one of our customers, another Paul, to incorporate the entire Mullacott herd.
The Rosewood herd, 2015
Taking animals to the abattoir is never something you enjoy, but working with the Mounfield family butchers means that our cattle travel a minimum distance to slaughter and we know that they are respectfully handled throughout. The Dexter breed has helped us to develop a market for 100% grass fed beef that tastes like it used to. Our customers, throughout the UK, are directly responsible for preserving both the Dexter breed and the wonderful biodiverse wildlife habitats we have here in East Yorkshire.