SLMan Meets… Jimmy Doherty
SLMan Meets… Jimmy Doherty

SLMan Meets… Jimmy Doherty


Farmer and TV presenter Jimmy Doherty is best known for series like the fly-on-the-wall Jimmy’s Farm and Jimmy & Jamie’s Friday Night Feast with his childhood mate Jamie Oliver. This year sees the 20th anniversary of Jimmy's Farm & Wildlife Park in Suffolk. In a new book, Jimmy celebrates the journey he and his family have been on, from starting with a few pigs to transforming a derelict farm into an A-Z of the animal world. He spoke to SLMan about his business story, the day the King showed up at his farm and how to cook the ultimate roast beef.
Photography CHRIS TERRY

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.

Chris Terry

Chris Terry

The game-changer for us was the farm shop. People started coming to us to buy produce, which eventually meant we could stop doing the six or seven farmers markets a week. That was a godsend, as it meant we weren’t travelling all the time and could spend more time on the farm, feeding the pigs and curing the bacon in the afternoons. But people turned up at the shop wanting to see the animals – and that's how the farm park developed. At first there were piglets, calves and chickens, then we added goats, rabbits and guinea pigs for the kids to enjoy. It developed into a full-blown wildlife park when we got our zoo licence seven years ago. Now I can really indulge my lifelong passion of not only protecting traditional rare breeds of livestock, but also conserving wild species from around the world. 

I wanted to produce food I was happy eating. Farming was going through a revolution at the time. We’d just come through foot-and-mouth disease and mad cow disease. Farmers were having to diversify and farmers markets – which were totally new to Britain at the time – were popping up left, right and centre. This gave me the opportunity to start farming, because I could rear pigs, fatten them up and turn them into sausages, bacon, ham and pork – then sell direct to the public. 

I shouldn’t, but I do have a favourite among our animals. I love our traditional breeds of cattle – especially my riggit galloway bull Lucky, who’s a very handsome, rugged-looking beast – but among the animals at the wildlife park, Bramble the anteater is my favourite. Anteaters are amazing animals because they look like they’ve been made up: the very long nose, huge tongue, tiny ears sticking out and big bushy tail that acts as a duvet at night. Then he has huge claws at the front – he looks like something from the Harry Potter films.

“I used to keep lots of bizarre pets as a kid. You’d often find a snake halfway up the corridor, a terrapin in the garden and my budgies around the village.”

One of my highlights of the last 20 years was when Prince Charles came to visit. I can't think of anyone better, in terms of the succession, to have become king. He’s an incredible individual, amazingly knowledgeable and is one of life’s great instigators in terms of being fantastic at bringing people together. He's a catalyst. He is a patron of the Rare Breed Survival Trust, and he just popped down to see what we were up to and kept it very secret. He was only meant to be here for 30 minutes, but ended up staying for an hour and a half walking all around the farm and through the restaurant – it was amazing watching people's faces as they were eating their lunch! He's a great advocate for doing the right thing, and we need more people like that in power.

When my wife and I first did Jimmy’s Farm on the BBC 20 years ago, viewers used to love getting in touch to say that they also worked with their husband or wife and found it tricky. It can be tricky, but it’s all about having a really good partnership and having your own expertise within the business. My wife is very good at dotting the i’s and crossing the t's – all the detailed stuff, but also the aesthetics. I'm very slap dash – make it happen, let's do this, what about that? – all the broad brushstrokes. She’s very good at tying all that together and stopping me going too mad. I think there’s no better partner in business then your life partner. But it’s not just me and my wife – there's a whole team of people that have shared the journey along the way, and you're only as good as the people around you.

As a farmer, choosing my ultimate roast is easy. I’d go for a forerib of beef – probably a galloway, British white or longhorn – which has been hung for around four weeks. Look for something with plenty of yellow fat on it – you can tell it’s grass fed if it's got yellow fat, because the beta carotene in the grass tends to show itself in the cow’s fat. A plate of that would be a thing of beauty and would have to be served with roast potatoes, carrots through butter and tarragon, yorkshire puddings and a nice gravy. My top tip is to take the ribs off the beef then put them back in the oven. They’ll go really crispy and there's nothing better than watching a brilliant film like A Bridge Too Far or England playing the All Blacks while eating those beef ribs with sea salt sprinkled on and drinking a pint of Guinness later that evening. 

Chris Terry

One of my favourite pubs is a lovely place in Cambridge called The Mitre. It might have changed since I lived there, but it used to play classical music and have candles everywhere – it was a proper pub. I used to enjoy sitting there with my border terrier on a rainy autumn day with a pint of Guinness, a book, some music in the background and the fire crackling away. 

My perfect Sunday would be getting up on a morning when it's bright but cold outside. I’d start off with a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich made with tomato sauce and chunky sliced homemade white bread with Radio 4 on in the background. I would then probably start Sunday lunch with a nip of sherry if I don’t have to drive anywhere. We’d enjoy a full Sunday lunch with the kids then walk down the River Deben in Suffolk to the pub, have a pint and walk back.

I don't have a lot of gadgets in the kitchen. But Kin Knives is a fantastic UK knife company. The key is a really sharp knife, not a serrated knife. And treat it right: sharpen it before you use it, sharpen it after you used it and never put in the dishwasher. When you’re storing it, wrap it in a tea towel and put it away – a sharp knife is a safe knife. I’d also really recommend getting a speed peeler. It can do all sorts of stuff – not just peel your parsnips, carrots and potatoes, but turn those potatoes into slices, cucumbers into long shreds and parmesan into long flecks of cheese. It’s an awesome bit of kit.

If Jamie Oliver's coming round for dinner, I don’t panic. I often do a poker night and get a few friends round and in the past I’ve tried to do partridge and fancy stuff like that, but these days I cook Sri Lankan curries a lot and they always go down well. To be honest, he's alright with anything – even just ham, eggs and chips.

Tales from Jimmy’s Farm is available to buy here; and you can book tickets to visit Jimmy’s Farm & Wildlife Park at

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