Park Life

The Forest of Bowland in rural Lancashire is a beautiful place, great for tourists and the farming of livestock alike. But you can guess where the money is to be made these days. Chris Bailey's business, encompassing both industries, is a clear example of the need for diversification.

Chris runs Bowland Wild Boar Park, a tourist spot attracting around 40,000 visitors a year and able, after a decade or so in existence, to employ five staff, with five part-timers added in the season. The extra staff work in the on-site café, where some of the meat from his animals ends up in the form of sausages and burgers, in particular, and in the shop that stocks these along with joints and steaks.

"We had been pig farmers all our lives. My dad has been a pig farmer for 40-45 years and I took over the family pig farm, just about half-a-mile away," he says. "Dad wanted to retire in the late 1990s; I took over the family farm, and my dad got a few wild boar as a hobby and put them in the barn down here. He'd been on about wild boar ever since I was young." However, like many pig farmers at the time, Chris faced challenges: "Farming had gone downhill in the late '90s, and I had to come out of pig farming or I would have gone bust. So we had to diversify."

So he built a drive down the steep slope from the road above the riverside property, and began turning his father's wild boar hobby into a business. "As time went on, we had more people coming down here wanting more animals and for it to be more hands-on, so we kept adding and adding." Now, the firm's livestock includes sheep and lambs, cows, deer, swans, rhea (like ostriches but smaller) and even meerkats.

"We do farm the wild boar, and some of the others, but our main enterprise is tourism. It's a park, and most of our money comes from visitors, rather than from farming."

The wild boar meat business remains a nice sideline, however. Boar meat is increasingly in demand, with people attracted by its leanness and flavour, and is a product lauded by those in the slow food movement. The meat is somewhat denser than pork, with a richer, gamier flavour, and is noticeably red rather than white. "We don't sell on to local butchers we don't need to, as we can sell everything we've got on the park. We have them slaughtered at Taylor's of Bamber Bridge. Restaurants and hotels do get in touch with us, but we cannot supply them, as we sell everything here."

The firm's meat range is simple, comprising steaks, joints, sausages and burgers, with the latter two items processed by Westgates of Galgate near Lancaster. The company tried selling black pudding made with wild boar, but it was not a big hit.

Some of the other animals they rear are destined for the table in the end too: "We have a fellow up in Todmorden who deals in deer, so all the young deer go back to him eventually, and some will doubtless end up as venison."

Like many in the food business, Chris cannot understand how the country can go on relying so much on imported food and is saddened by the sight of farms closing. He wonders how British meat production can be allowed to decline while demand is constantly rising and when, in the near future, there will be tougher competition for the world's food resources?

Yet there is a reason why larger-scale farming of wild boar does not attract him: "A commercial pig will be ready for slaughter in six to seven months. With a wild boar it's nearly 18 months. So you can imagine how many more boar you'd need to keep to make the same amount. They are just much slower-growing. If you feed a wild boar like a commercial pig, they'll end up with inches of fat on them."

Chris' animals get a diet of vegetable peelings, with a small amount of pig food when necessary, plus all the grubs, worms and roots they can snuffle up out of the earth.

Occasionally, animal rights extremists cut fences at the park, but the business is yet to lose any of the animals, who look thoroughly contented. "We feed them all and look after them that well, they don't want to run off. They are semi-domestic now, I suppose, though they can still be very aggressive. But unless you corner them and upset the nest where the young are, they are more frightened of you than you are of them.

"We go around every day and feed them; they hear the quad bike and will come running back to us for food. When some did get released, they didn't stray far. We came down at 10am and had them all back within the hour."

You get the strong feeling Chris would love to be doing more in producing and selling meat himself, but the economics are not attractive, so in the meantime, he continues to expand the tourist part of his business.