If you’ve travelled by train from Paddington to Penzance, you’ve probably gazed out of the window at Jilly Greed’s herd of golden-brown cattle grazing the water meadows in Devon’s Exe Valley.
“I’m proud the cows we’ve bred are an integral part of the landscape,” says Jilly, 63. “Watching them is relaxing – in a field with them, I’m filled with contentment.”
Jilly’s great-grandfather William Carter was a tenant farmer when, in 1918, he took out a mortgage for £9,000 – a fortune then – to buy his farm. Now Jilly lives in a farmhouse a mile from his original home, and her cattle graze the land William’s herd enjoyed a century earlier.
“I’ve loved the farm since childhood,” says Jilly, who took over the family business – Fortescue Farm – in the late 1990s. “My earliest memory is of a lamb waggling his tail, but we never got too sentimental. From field to table – it was a way of life.
Having spent her school holidays in the fields, come rain or shine, to earn pocket money, Jilly knew that farming would be hard work. Luckily she found a husband who relishes the industry too. “Edwin loves the cows, and when they’re calving he’ll go out at 2am with the torch to check on them,” she says.
Now Jilly has a herd of around 200 that are a cross of three breeds – South Devon, Blonde d’Aquitaine and Aberdeen Angus, which came from three black pedigree bulls. “We have old-timers Konan and Kalypso and young upstart Flycatcher,” she says.
“Animal welfare is our priority,” Jilly says. “It’s a simple equation – rear contented, healthy cows to produce high-quality meat.”
It works. Fortescue’s beef is supplied to supermarkets and assured by the UK’s largest food standards scheme, Red Tractor.
When the Red Tractor logo is present on food and drink in supermarkets, it reassures consumers that their purchases have been produced to the highest standards and are traceable back to the farm.
Fortescue beef is also accredited as West Country Beef – only farms that meet certain standards, such as having cows that are 70 per cent forage fed, can market their produce under this banner. And it’s supplied to the prestigious Casterbridge brand, which is served in premium hotels and restaurants.
Jilly’s son George, 29, is now the fifth generation cattle farmer and, having studied agriculture at university, is introducing modern methods to Fortescue.
“Edwin and I hoped George would want to farm, but we never pushed. Now he’s teaching us,” Jilly says proudly. “He’s brought in a system called mob grazing, all about supporting nature. It involves the cattle grazing in a different paddock, or mob, every day. Before, they’d compact the soil, but now they’re making it crumbly so the grass is really rich. It’s inviting in all
sorts of wildlife – we have hares, hedgehogs and owls.
I hope that what we’re doing will carry on for decades. After all, we’re just custodians for the next generation.”