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A visit to a Surrey Hills farm with London on its doorstep

PUBLISHED: 16:01 19 September 2016

Kirsty and Mark Banham with two of their dogs (Photo Christine Howard)

Kirsty and Mark Banham with two of their dogs (Photo Christine Howard)

Christine Howard

Chairman of the Surrey Hills Society, Christine Howard, reports on a wonderful Surrey farm, just 16 miles from the centre of London

Mark rounding up sheep in Chipstead Valley (Photo Christine Howard)Mark rounding up sheep in Chipstead Valley (Photo Christine Howard)

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2016

***

The Surrey Hills never ceases to amaze me. Along with other members of the Surrey Hills Society, I was recently introduced to one of our country’s top sheepdog trainers, Mark Banham, and his wife Kirsty, who are based in the east of the county in Chipstead. Although the area in which they farm looks incredibly rural, London buses can actually be seen on the road at the bottom of the valley – and the farm is only 16 miles as the crow flies from Marble Arch. This means there are incredible pressures on this fragile chalk-downland countryside, because it has such a large urban population right on its doorstep.

Originally bought by Surrey County Council in the 1930s, Shabden Park Farm was purchased as part of a programme to protect the Green Belt. However, before Mark and Kirsty arrived, this 263 acres of Green Belt farmland had deteriorated to a poor state, with dumped cars, thistles and a sea of ragwort covering the site. So Surrey County Council wanted a tenant to reinstate it as a traditional chalk-downland farm by rearing livestock and farming in a sustainable manner to support the local flora and fauna.

Previously, the farm had been arable land since the last war with the majority of the land in a ‘set-aside’ scheme. There were no farm buildings or stock fencing, and only a small cottage in which to live. Mark and Kirsty were selected from more than 200 applicants and took over in 1995, bringing with them a flock of 250 breeding ewes.

Leading the field

First, the couple set about modernising the property and reinstating the fields with fencing, gates and water. They also entered the farm into the Countryside Stewardship Scheme’s 10-year programme, restoring landscapes and habitats that had been damaged by previous intense farming. In addition, Surrey County Council had new livestock buildings installed.

The couple then had the difficult task of replanting 111 acres, and later a further 66, with a seed grass specific for the chalky terrain. They also replanted the land with the appropriate wild flowers to encourage butterflies, birds and other small mammals back to the area. All this was done without any artificial fertilisers or pesticides.

With such a small farm, Mark and Kirsty have had to find creative ways to make it pay. They have specialised in rare breeds, bred for flavour, and sell direct to the public via farmers’ markets and through their own farm shop based at the farm. They even run their own farmers’ market at the farmhouse on the last Saturday of the month.

Be a shepherd

But Mark’s real passion is his sheepdogs. He breeds and trains the dogs and supplies them to farmers and handlers all over the UK and even abroad.

Mark has been competing in sheepdog trials for the past 30 years. He has also judged trials across Europe and America, as well as here in the UK, and has given clinics on judging. In addition to training and selling working dogs, Mark gives lessons to handlers and their dogs too.

How lucky we are to have passionate, environmentally-conscious farmers like Mark and Kirsty bringing back our traditional farming practices that support our local wildlife. Even more surprising is the fact that we have one of Britain’s top sheepdog trial competitors based here in the leafy Home Counties!

• If you would like to join the Surrey Hills Society, or if you are a business join Surrey Hills Enterprises, find out more by visiting their website at surreyhills.org

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