The Great Estate – Interview with Buckinghamshire beef farm manager

  • Tracy
  • 06/06/2013 6:54 pm

The Portman Estate may be associated with Marylebone, but it also owns 2,000 acres of land in the Buckinghamshire countryside.  The basis for this article was first published by The Portman Magazine in 2011, but has been updated by YOU FOOD in June 2013 as the estate has just started supplying boxed beef, direct to consumers.

Andrew Allan Portman Burtley Estate

Andrew Allan, Portman Burtley Estate Manager

Andrew, tell us about your role on the estate.

I am estate manager of the Portman Burtley Estate, which is based in Buckinghamshire near the village of Hedgerley. This is my twelfth year in the job. I live on the estate with my wife and two children. We only have two full-time staff on the estate, myself and a stockman.

My daily routine includes looking after the cattle, feeding them silage and hay and checking them or calving. I like the outdoor lifestyle and working with animals, and producing something I’m proud of.

How many cattle do you have on the estate?

We have up to 600 cattle at any one time. We’ve got 200 pedigree south Devon cows, which produce a calf each year. The breed suits being reared outdoors. They do very well on grazed grass and hay. They’re very docile and easy to manage, even though they’re the largest native breed. They produce a very good carcass from their offspring that is marbled – meaning the fat is marbled through the meat, which gives it a very nice flavour.

Where can we buy beef from the Burtley Estate?

We have got an organic contract with Waitrose, so we keep the calves until they are two years old and then they are sold to Waitrose.  It’s organic beef and it goes into steaks, joints, stewing steak and mince. We have also occasionally been selling boxed beef to local people and residents of the estate, and this has been so popular that we have just taken the decision to sell boxed beef more widely and are currently working to establish the best route to sell this directly to consumers.

In the meantime, requests for boxed beef for collection from the farm can be made by emailing: andrew.allan@portmanestate.co.uk and making arrangements to collect from Hillmotts Farmhouse, Hedgerley Lane, Beaconsfield, Bucks, HP9 2SB.

 

Portman-Burtley-cows

Portman Burtley cows

Do you find that people are more interested in the provenance of food nowadays?

They are really interested in how food is produced and the story of how it’s been born,bred, fed, where it is from, how far it travelled and all that sort of thing. We are a self-sufficient system and people can really identify with it.

People can come and see the beef they are eating, and see that the cows really are grazing in the fields. We’ve got to make an effort to market ourselves better, because we are doing a good job, we’re producing a good product, and it’s something that’s going to become a scarcity in the future. There are fewer and fewer farmers and they’re not making any more land and the population’s getting bigger.

Tell us about the history of the estate.

The estate was bought in 1946 by the current viscount’s great uncle. He lived here until the 1960s, but when he died no other viscount came to live here. The estate became a bit of a forgotten block of land really. It was leased out to lots of tenanted farms but came back in hand in the 1990s, and since then it’s been run as a farm in its own right. So it was lots of different smaller units and it’s come back to being one big estate again.

How have you improve the estate in recent years?

When Hugh Seaborn joined the Portman Estate in 2000, he realised that the Burtley Estate was in need of some tender loving care – to bring it up to modern-day farming standards, whilst continuing to provide natural grazing. I was hired in 2001 and since then a lot of time and effort has been spent smartening up the land.

We’ve done something called pride of ownership, which means putting lots of post and rail fencing in, and we’ve also planted lots of hedges to make the appearance of the estate much smarter. We’ve also rejuvenated old hedges in the traditional Buckinghamshire style, which is known as the southern style of hedge-laying.  Another key milestone was converting to organic farming methods in 2005.

Is there a lot of wildlife on the estate?

Yes – we get lots of roe deer. We also recently did an RSPB bird survey on the estate. They would normally expect to find between 30 and 50 different species of birds but they found over 60. We’re totally organic and we’re not spraying chemicals, which probably accounts for the large number of insects and wildlife here. We’ve got pastureland and grazing and we’ve got some crops and woodland, so it’s a nice environment for the birds and a natural wildlife haven really.

What else do you produce on the estate?

Cattle are our main enterprise, but we’ve also got the woodland, which produces timber. We sell a lot of top-quality oak and beech, which goes into the manufacturing and furniture trade, and a lot of firewood. There’s increased demand for firewood at the moment because of the price hike in oil.

Did I hear you are also used as a film location?

Yes, Midsomer Murders has used us before. I’ve bumped into Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby once on the estate and I’ve seen cottages that I’ve recognised when watching the programme. Programmes like Midsomer Murders like us because of our cottages, the isolated valleys and the woodland. We’re located very close to Pinewood Studios as well, so they also use us for quite a bit of filming.

I also understand that there are some cottages within the estate, can you tell me more about these?

The cottages used to house employees of the farm, but as farms become more mechanised, they use bigger machines and fewer people end up doing more work basically – like most industries.  Also because we are located close to London there’s a lot of demand for properties in this area, so as fewer people are employed in agriculture and more are employed in other industries, the workers’ cottages become available for new tenants.

What is the Egypt Wood?

That is part of the Burnham Beeches, which was bought by the City of London in 1880 in response to a threatened purchase by residential developers. It was for sale as “land suitable for the erection of superior residences”. There has probably been woodland on the site since the retreat of the last Ice Age. It is characterised by a diverse mixture of ancient woodland, wood pasture, coppice, ponds and streams, grassland, mire and heathland.

What’s next for the Burtley Estate?

We’ve recently been through a process of streamlining the business – and having previously got the right balance of cattle numbers, we’re not going to expand anymore, but are continuing to focus on efficient processes that don’t effect the quality of our product.

We are also focusing on developing an efficient model for selling direct to consumers and are continuing to increase the extent of our environmental work. That’s something that is more and more important.  It’s what our customers like to see and expect to see.





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