My love of wildlife started at an early age. When I was very young, my mum and dad moved out of London and bought a little house in rural Essex. I was obsessed with the surrounding nature and that took me all the way through school. I used to keep lots of bizarre pets as a kid – all my pocket money or any money I earned with part-time jobs was spent on animals such as snakes and lizards. There were enclosures all over the garden and in my bedroom. You’d often find a snake halfway up the corridor, one of my terrapins in the garden and all my budgies would be flying around the village.
I got a job in a wildlife park when I was 13 and it was a revelation. I remember walking into the tropical butterfly house and being engulfed in this humid tropical environment with exotic butterflies. They had different species of monkeys, marmosets and chimpanzees. I was obsessed with it all and I followed that interest all the way through university, where I studied zoology, before going on to do a PhD in entomology. At the same time, I had a love of traditional rare breeds because one of my best friend’s dads used to keep traditional cattle like dexter and gloucester, and ryeland sheep. I remember watching my first ewe being born – it was called Buttons – and I was hooked in to farming life. I carried on with my studies until 9/11 happened. I realised I didn’t want to live with regret for not giving farming a go. I’ve always thought you’re much better off doing something and failing than never doing it at all – no one wants to be that guy in the pub who always says they could have played for England, but never gave it a shot.
I can’t believe the farm began life 20 years ago. The other night I was looking at the trees we’ve planted over the years. When we arrived, we planted hundreds of trees at the farm. They look like tiny sticks when you plant them, and now I can hardly put my hands around the trunks.
The first year on the farm was full of hope and adventure. It was a derelict farm with lots of natural beauty and potential hidden among the undergrowth. They were real halcyon days, and it was a really long, hot summer in 2002. I started off with a tent and then progressed to a caravan. I remember listening to Norah Jones a lot that summer, and I’d have to have a shower outside by pouring a bucket of water over my head. Of course, all that was laced with naivety because round the corner was quite a harsh winter! I had a very short time to set up very basic things like water, electrics and electric fences to keep the pigs in. I also needed to get the small butchery up and running so I could start selling at farmers markets ASAP. They were the glory days, and I really revel in that when I look back.