In sight of Pendle Hill: a glimpse of life at Gazegill Farm

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Posted Jun 14 2017 by Walter Lewis of Feeding Body and Soul
Organic raw milk production at Gazegill Farm

We’re delighted to introduce the first in a series of posts by photographer and researcher Walter Lewis of Feeding Body and Soul. He will be sharing a selection of stories from his journey exploring local sustainable food production in England and Wales, beginning with Gazegill Farm in Lancashire.

Organic lamb for sale at Gazegill Farm

I spent the best part of 18 months across 2015 and 2016 visiting and photographing over 100 small-scale, sustainable farmers and growers across England and Wales. I was looking to make a work which would show real relationships between people and the land, and one that might inspire others to a higher level of appreciation and caring interaction with the ‘non-human’ world around them. I am excited by the invitation to share extracts of the work with Lowimpact.org. Whilst I visited many of the ‘usual suspect’ for sustainable living, I thought I would start with a place which is well outside the stereotypical image of low-impact living: Gazegill Farm near Clitheroe in Lancashire. With a backdrop of Pendle Hill and all its folklore and history, Emma and Ian O’Reilly are building a farming business at Gazegill which they seek to make fair to the land and its history, sustainable and organic in its practices, respectful and caring to the animals they farm, an integral part of the local community, and, just as important as these, something sufficiently financially sound as to have a future.

Gazegill Farm dairy herd

Gazegill Farm lies down a couple of miles of winding single track road just off the A682 between Gisburn and Colne. It’s in the heart of the Lancashire countryside and has been farmed by Emma’ s family for at least six generations – i.e. as far as records go back. During that time it has always been farmed organically. The rewards for such an approach can be seen across the farm. The remains of a Roman road, for example, run across the farm – an ancient droving track where a plethora of Roman and later coins and other artefacts have been found. Seemingly bizarrely the road stops at the boundary hedges adjacent to neighbouring farms where the neighbouring land has been ploughed and work, so destroying this heritage. Along with the road there is clear evidence of a medieval ridge and furrow system and what looks very much like the remains of a pre-historic village with several small stone circles surrounded by a larger seemingly protective circle. Right across the farm the hedges around the fields are also part of an ancient system, looking suitably gnarled and wizened and adding to the atmosphere of Pendle mystique.

Wizened trees at Gazegill Farm

Emma and Ian are building on this inheritance. Their sixty strong herd of dairy short horns forms the centre piece of their operation, in which it is supplemented by rare breed pigs, sheep and hens – plus a horse saved from the knackers yard after years of pulling landau along Blackpool prom! All practices continue to be organic, while sustainable energy sourcing is witnessed by a new 4Kw of solar PV and 20Kw wind turbine on a hill overlooking the farmhouse, which currently supply about 75% of the energy needs for the farm. There are plans afoot to even eliminate this remaining 25% main grid draw down with further renewal options.

A wind turbine and retired working horse at Gazegill Farm

A major change introduced when Emma and Ian took over the running of the farm, and with major social implications, is an ambition of selling all the output direct to the public. To this end they have created a micro-dairy – Emma’s Dairy – which processes and sells the milk unpasteurised and unhomogenised direct from the farm to local households, as well as through whole food outlets across the North West. In addition, all the meat is now butchered and sold on-site in the recently installed shop.

Pigs at Gazegill Farm

The isolation of the business is broken by the steady trail of visitors to the shop, whilst Emma and Ian also encourage school party visits with a classroom specially created on site, and which is also an operating base for a local charity supporting those with learning difficulties. Over 250 schools and groups have come every year to learn about and see sustainable agriculture at first hand. The education centre is heated by an air source heat pump and the water that washes hands is heated by a solar thermal array.

Sheep at Gazegill Farm

The cows at Gazegill Farm are though something special. I soon my found in my wanderings around the farm that if you go amongst the 60 strong herd of short horns, then the biggest danger you face is being wiped over with a warm, wet tongue – actually quite an issue when you have a not inexpensive camera in your hand! The cows are just so laid back and nosy, quite amazing. To my way of thinking the issue of whether to eat dairy should be a bigger one than the issue of whether to eat meat. The life of a typical dairy cow is dire. Pregnant for a large part of your life, lactating for most of it and fed a diet of grain and grot that you were never intended to eat. On top of that calves removed from you at birth, bull calves shot. The ethical price of supplying milk at £1 per 2 litres is enormous.

Milking equipment at Gazegill Farm

Equally as evidenced by Gazegill, the answer is not to tar all dairy farms with the same brush but to seek out those with acceptable practices from which to source my food. Gazegill farm’s Emma’ s Dairy fits very much into this bracket. Calves are left with mothers for at least some sort of respectable time, bull calves are not shot but reared for meat,and the whole ethos in terms of approach to the animals is one of respect and compassion. Not perfect perhaps if you are a committed vegan, but it is this which I believe the cows are responding to in their approach to us humans.

A dairy cow at Gazegill Farm

If you are lucky enough to visit Gazegill with a summer sun shining brightly from a hazy blue sky as fluffy white clouds billowing by, the cows will be largely sitting, munching on the recently collected cud whilst lazily watching you pass by. Just as importantly the air will be heady with the fragrance of the summer hay meadows. Such scenes though are the outcome of hard work and commitment to a high level of practical ethics. The day I joined Emma on her morning milking stint I was there around 6 in the morning. Emma though was well under way – and didn’t stop and lunch til early afternoon. The rest of the afternoon was about rounding up the sheep and bringing them to the farm shed in anticipation of lambing. As dusk began to gather I was able to leave, Emma meanwhile was on her way back to the milking parlour to do the evening shift. The life of the herdsman is demanding – twelve hour days, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year is hard – and it shows in the poor mental health records of many dairymen. It would seem to my mind that if you are going to put in such effort, it makes total sense to do it the right way, caring for your stock and the land on which they depend. As we all know, though, such farms are few and far between.

Ian of Gazegill Farm

I can’t get my head around the fact that more consumers do not seek out such farms. The choice between Cowspiracy-produced milk and Gazegill Farm-type milk is a no brainer in all directions. It beggars belief as to why anyone should not consciously seek it out….if they did, farming practices would soon change to the massive better. I am not a big fan of the supermarket, but sadly when it comes down to it, all they are doing is satisfying a societal demand for cheap food and damn the consequences. The supermarkets reflect the state of society. In Gazegill Farm there has to be hope for a better future.

Gazegill Farm owner Emma

More on Gazegill farm and other visits made by Walter on his travels can be found on the Feeding Body and Soul project website. There is also a book on the project, Unlikely Heroes, again detailed and available through the website. Text and photographs used above are the author’s own.