Little beef

Words by Oliver Sclavo
Photography by Leo Williams
Illustration by Ryan Todd

Bodior Farm:
On a local scale, we learn what cows eat and how land is managed sustainably

   The sound of rain on the windscreen, accompanied by a howling wind could have felt unwelcoming as we drove along the long Holyhead lanes. The rolling fields drenched with sparkling pasture and unflappable cows grazed without paying us any attention. Suddenly, unrolling before our eyes were the entrance to Bodior. A pathway fit for any stately manor or king of the north, just not easy to find.  

   An iron sky mixed its cold tones with brown and dark greens reflecting from the land spotted with bright white sheep. The weather was wild — exactly how the British countryside should be in late spring.

   Frank Roberts and his wife Karen have lived and worked on Bodior, a Bulmer’s owned estate, for thirty years and their award-winning beef and land conservation skills have brought us to Holyhead. The couple’s son, Sion, recently came back to work full time on the farm.  

   “We’ve been here since 1986,” Frank tells us, hanging his coat and flat cap, still dripping from the rain that will hit Bodior before most of Wales knows what’s coming. “When I first came here, I was a young man, twenty-four years old. I didn’t know it all and still don’t. I was in continental beef cattle, but I didn’t like the temperament. I’ve always believed taste is the most important thing of all. You have got to get the taste for ‘Mr Jones’ for him to come back and buy your meat again.”  

Frank Roberts, Bodior Farm

   In Wales, the ratio of stock per acre is the highest in the world. The Roberts had a choice — to go for intensive farming or try to take the best of what their farm can produce. Frank is confident that in twenty years, the government will “throw money” at farms like theirs. The youngster gave way to a more mature farmer when he started with his Shorthorn cattle, a rare and old pure breed from a farmer in Market Drayton, the first of these animals landing on the farm’s marshes in 2003 originating from North Yorkshire. Since then, Frank has won awards for conservation and manages his land for biodiversity, still using his much-loved Shorthorns.

   Since interviewing Frank, The Scotsman reported Michael Gove told ‘“the National Farmer’s Union (NFU) conference that there was “no absolute guarantee” that British farmers could export any of their produce to the EU in a no-deal scenario, and would face punishing tariffs even if they could.’  

   Today there are eighty-nine breeding cows gently grazing at Bodior Farm. The Roberts are only now starting to perfect the bloodline. Frank says the Shorthorns are, “An adorable animal to handle, and they are straightforward to mature on beef with a minimal cost. Looking after old breeds looks after the environment. Do it properly, it’s healthy, and it keeps the countryside looking lovely.”  

   Writing in The Telegraph, Patrick Holden says “Grass is the great healer and, when grown with plants like clover, is the key to regenerative farming. Mindlessly jumping on the “all beef is bad” bandwagon, as campaigners at Goldsmiths have done, is hugely counterproductive.”

   The Anglesey Grazing Animal Partnership (AGAP) opened the couple’s eyes to a more natural way of farming, towards better products and environmental-friendly production, using field trips and courses to help develop it.  

Shorthorn cows on the edge of the Irish Sea

   In the beginning, the Roberts also made the most of the local community. Partnering with local colleges which had food technology centres, they were able to hang, cut and sell one animal a month there, and they discovered how to get the best return from their meat. Starting from scratch, they got to grasp with hygiene as well as the labelling process.  

   “That’s what I enjoy about the job,” smiles Frank proudly. “I’m doing the full circle: I rear the animal, I finish the animal, and then I get to see the customer enjoying it and coming back for more.”  

   The Roberts believes “what you put in, you get out” and went as far as to put garlic into the seaweed feed given to the cattle because “it certainly makes the meat taste better” and it keeps flies away. The beef is finished on homegrown feed, using the mineral as the only add-on following the advice of the late Diana Flack (well-known in the native beef world) who helped the family to decide which breed to start with.

‘our lands are full of history’


A new generation, for a new market

   When Frank started, the average age of a farmer was fifty years old compared to the ripe old age of sixty now. They are happy to see the next generation coming in with new skills, “thinking outside the box” and reaching new markets via online tools the older generation still struggle to master. Sion focused on a land management course rather than a farming one because he knew working on Bodior’s fields would give him enough insight into a too rare, old-fashioned way of farming.

    Looking at the next five years, they intend to keep farming the same way and are determined not to lose their direction. “We can’t go too big, or we’ll lose what we were trying to do in the first place,” says Karen. “We can’t go factory. We want to sell our products, and we can only keep around 70 pedigree Beef Shorthorn cows and followers on the farm with the land we have. We want to improve what we have. People often get greedy, and they lose it. I don’t want to be a butcher’s shop. We’re producers, and we have a story to tell. We can tell where the lambs and cows are. We’re after people who are interested in what they are eating and where it comes from.” 

Natural fat marbling

    Their farm shop offers a perfect window for their art. “People like to come in for a chat, and the drive is lovely in the summer.” The shop is another way to showcase their savoir-faire, far from mass-scale production which has collapsed on the island. Anglesey had two abattoirs, but they weren’t on the right scale for producers like the Roberts, and they mainly supplied supermarkets. When supermarket demand stopped, that meant the end of them. Customers come in with one main question, Is the produce from here?

    The Roberts’ top priorities are animal welfare, the heritage of their food and sustainability. They admire the work of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his River Cottage institution. “He’s big now, but the basics about what he is trying to do are still there. And he’s good at putting it across. He’s in a position to put it out to the public. People don’t know where their food comes from. We need to get back to basics,” Karen continues.

Always farming with nature at heart

   “What I say about farming is there are walls here that go back to medieval days, our lands are full of history,” says Frank. “So I think as farmers, we should respect that and look after it. It’s nice for the public who have got nothing to do with farming to see and appreciate it.” 

    Protecting the walls and the hedges is all part of that global way of thinking, a rebirth of honest, true, good and healthy food from a sustainable and natural environment. They are rebuilding original stone walls, double-fencing the countryside and creating a variation of new plantations. This way of production, dictated by nature requires them to listen to it carefully and be aware of its language and boundaries. 

    “The difference between growing and not growing is one degree between ten and eleven,” Frank tells us. “And if you’re not on the eleven, you’re not growing. A good hedgerow can give you that degree. The surface we have on the farm gives an enormous amount of grass for animals. The spring grass is the richest one; a lick is better than a mouthful in June. A hedge that hasn’t been planted by man takes a hundred years per species, so if you have crab-apple, hawthorn, blackthorn and ash growing in the hedge, it’s a four-hundred-year-old hedge. And it could be demolished within seconds by man.”

Hanging carcass of Shorthorns beef

    Looking after those treasures also benefits his animals. The local breeds don’t mind a bit of everything the farmland has to offer: heather, gorse, marshlands and rough grazing. “The Shorthorns have a nibble at anything, the continental beef will only eat green grass,” says Frank. “I’ve been watching them in the fields. I saw one who was concentrating hard on trying to get a nibble on a gorse root that looked like a boomerang. It was just a long weed, and her tongue was stretching out to get it.” 

   In the Ecologist, I read that renowned ecologist Hugh Possingham way back in 2010 stated: “Just stop feeding grain to animals - don’t eat something that ate something that you could have eaten.”

    And the sheep like it too. The Roberts keep 380 of them on the land where they enjoy the salt marshes — the farm having one and a half miles of estuary going around the property — and the customer can enjoy the excellent finished product in the farm shop. Game is also shot from time to time and sold in the shop. Their next experiment is pheasant sausages. “It’s food, we respect it, and we will market it,” says Frank.

   Patrick Holden goes on to say “Many of the pasture-fed cattle farmers I talk to are already struggling as a direct consequence of eco-vegetarianism – their businesses threatened by the very people who should be supporting them most.”

    The Roberts aren’t without their problems, the British government isn’t high on the Christmas Card list, and now there’s Brexit too (cough cough), but being a farmer earns the family and their cattle, a great deal of happiness. As Frank said, “Whatever your farm can do, farm it to do that. Stick to it and do it well.”