It was 5am and no one seemed to be up at Low Riggs farm in Upper Nidderdale.
Then a headlight flashed in the distance. A ‘moo’ came out of the darkness, followed by the sound of hooves over wet ground.
Andrew Hattan, upland farmer and maker of Stonebeck cheese with wife Sally, was bringing in the cows for milking.
This is the story of how a nearly extinct breed of cattle is being used to produce the first farmhouse Wensleydale cheese since the 1950s (**mention too for Fellstone and Yoredale cheeses which came along at about the same time**). In the process, the farm’s hay meadows – a vanishingly rare habitat – are being restored to their species-rich glory.
What brought me to Low Riggs was this year’s Yorkshire Dales Cheese Festival, Celebrating Local Produce (link takes you to a News Release). Events are taking place at the farm and tickets are still available.
My hope was to take photos at milking time:
In July this year, Andrew gave an hour-long interview to Pete Leeson for the podcast, Tree Amble. Here’s a great quote from it.
Andrew Hattan told Pete: “We’re living the dream. I do pinch myself every morning when I’m milking the cows. The thing about making cheese is that it’s made life much more interesting for us. We enjoy challenges and change. The cheese has brought this massive new family. We’ve made friends with cheese mongers, cheese makers, cheese customers, cheese scientists.”
At milking time the conversation we had was about the cows.
“We’re the only people milking Northern Dairy shorthorns in the world. Some people will say ‘more fool him’. But it helps create a story for the cheese,” he said.
Andrew said that by the 1980s, there were only around thirty Northern Dairy cows and seven bulls remaining in the country. This was a desperate situation for what was once the most popular breed of milk cow in the Yorkshire Dales. Semen was taken from the bulls and stored. Today Northern Dairies are still rare. Stonebeck cheese is helping to keep them in existence.
But why make cheese in this remote place? Firstly, it used to happen: pre-1950s the farmer’s wife made cheese at Low Riggs. Secondly, it made business sense.
“If I was still in beef and sheep, we’d be getting out,” Andrew said.
A second quote from the Tree Amble podcast helps to unpack that statement.
“The reason we went for cheese? We’ve got a good story: extinct cheese [a farmhouse raw milk Wensleydale], nearly extinct cattle, nearly extinct upland hay meadows. Then when you combine that with the geography – we’ve got three miles of stone track in front of us – bringing anything of substance in [to the farm], taking anything of bulk out, is expensive, time-consuming and hard on machinery in terms of wear and tear. So, whatever we sell from the place has got to have the minimum amount of input, volume or bulk, and the maximum amount of value. And that’s why we came to cheese,” said Andrew.
“We’ve never bothered with awards, one of the reasons being that one of the big awards is given out in May – and we haven’t made any cheese by then. We are seasonal. We can’t produce milk in the winter. It’s too cold and the feed quality isn’t good enough; we’d have to spend an awful lot of money bringing in cake and that would ruin the terroir of our cheese. People say our cheese tastes like Alpine cheese because it is reflective of the grass those cows are eating. Our cows have a diet that is 99.5% grass and herbs.”
For those interested in studying upland farming as well as cheese making, the following details of farming practices at Low Riggs might provide inspiration and insight:
- Andrew and Sally Hattan are first generation tenant farmers on the Middlesmoor Estate
- Low Riggs has 490 acres: 40 acres of meadow land, 50-70 acres of pasture, with the remainder rough grazing and heather allotment.
- After arriving in 2007, Andrew and Sally built a business with around 20 commercial beef types and 400 horned sheep. But five years in they realised that the model was – in Andrew’s words – “taking us nowhere”.
- By September 2023, the sheep flock has been reduced to 40 ewes and there were 30 cows milking.
- The cows are milked once a day from mid-April to mid-Oct, before being dried off.
- The calfs are separated from the cows after 24 hours. “I would dearly love for the calf to stay with the cow longer, but the cows don’t give enough [for both calf and cheese maker] and we haven’t the infrastructure for it. We are open minded about it but at this time we have to establish ourselves as cheese makers and make the farm viable,” Andrew said.
- There is enough grass for the cows to graze until December. When the grass runs out the cows are fed hay. The cows’ diet is “99.5% grass”.
- The cows are kept inside only from mid-Feb until mid-April, as the land is so wet
- Meadows are Low Riggs are cut just once a year in August. The meadows are grazed for a fortnight after turnout and are otherwise empty until haytime. This grazing regime is producing an abundance of biodiversity.
- Milking starts at 5.30am and cheese is made every other day.
- Andrew said his best cows were producing 2,500 litres per lactation, over a 150-170 day period, and that was his aim for each member of the herd.