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Rare Breed: The trials and tribulations of three Northern Ireland farming families

The UTV documentary following a number of farmers returns on Thursday night. Linda Stewart meets three of the families featured in the new series

Farming life: Jack Smyth with his cows
Farming life: Jack Smyth with his cows
With girlfriend Emma
New career: Valentine now has over 100 hives

Jack Smyth (24) farms cattle near Newtownstewart with his parents Stephen and Susan and his girlfriend Emma (23), who works in a bridal shop. He's renowned in the farming world for producing great commercial cattle and spent time in Scotland training with some of the best producers.

"I've farmed since I was knee-high - I'm still farming and working part-time as a freelance stockman," Jack says.

"I would do a day or two a week working with other men, working with cattle and sheep, and the rest of the time working on our home farm."

The family owns a beef and sheep farm, producing both commercial and pedigree beef.

"My grandfather was a dealer and he would always have brought on commercial cattle, but it was my father who first started to breed the odd one and I've taken that to the next stage," Jack says.

"I have a few purebred Charolais and Aberdeen Angus and some are kept for breeding bulls to sell to farmers.

"We finish around 200 commercial cattle a year and we have 30 or 40 pedigree cattle. Our farm is around 100 acres between owned and rented ground."

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Jack met his girlfriend Emma at school and she helps out on the farm on her days off.

"Her grandparents were farmers," Jack says. "When she is off, we meet up and get a bit more done. She would do mainly sheep work.

"The two of us have started a pedigree Suffolk flock together - it was Emma who wanted the Suffolks.

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With girlfriend Emma

"I had them when I was 10 or 11 but it didn't work out - maybe I was too young at the time. But it was her sheep of choice and I said 'I will give them a go' and it's gone quite well. She helps out too whenever we go to agricultural shows.

"The biggest challenge on the pedigree side is trying to produce prize-winners the whole time and trying to get the most for the stock as possible. It's almost trying to breed cattle without a fault.

"On the beef side, things are getting trickier and the margins are getting smaller, so it's trying to make that work, especially at the current time when beef prices are slipping. Getting everything to add up to leave something at the end is getting difficult.

"But I can't see myself doing anything else. When you know nothing else, it's maybe hard enough."

Valentine Hodges (60) is a former human resources and recruitment executive who took up beekeeping after reading an article in a magazine at an airport. She and her husband Chris now keep more than 100 hives across the Ards Peninsula and train Northern Ireland’s Young Beekeeping Team which competes internationally.

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New career: Valentine now has over 100 hives

“I’ve lived on the Ards Peninsula all my life,” Valentine says. “I love it here — it’s God’s own country.

“I’ve done many jobs in my time but I never ever thought I would become a beekeeper.”

Valentine says she loved her job as a director in a recruitment agency, working with branches across the UK and Ireland, but after 15 years was finding the amount of travel wearying.

“I was getting up on Monday morning and travelling on the red eye and not returning until Friday — it really got to me. One week I took six flights and two of them were delayed,” she says.

“I was sitting in Gatwick airport on a Friday night and I thought there must be something better than this, and I picked up a magazine and read an article about the demise of the honeybee. It was a big thing at the time about colony collapse disorder.”

She and Chris embarked on a beginner’s course together, acquired a couple of hives and really enjoyed it. But she became increasingly aware of the threats from imported bees and the spread of the varroa mite, and then began reading up on the native black bee, which had almost gone extinct in Ireland 10 years ago.

The pair decided to set up Loughshore Apiary in 2004 with the aim of helping to develop a haven for the black bee, which is better able to withstand the harsh winters here.

“We got in touch with the National Trust and Mount Stewart helped us — they were very supportive of what we are trying to do,” Valentine says.

“We have hives at Mouth Stewart and a breeding programme there as well.

“We have hives at Rosemount in Greyabbey and also at Ballywalter Estate — Lord Dunleath is very supportive.

“Our dream is to have a conservation area on the Ards Peninsula because we’re surrounded by water. Bees don’t like to fly over large bodies of water, so it would be ideal for a conservation area.”

From starting with a couple of hives, the couple now care for more than 100.

“We teach beginner beekeeping and intermediate beekeeping and we also have bees in Hydebank, in the prison. We’re also helping with the international young beekeepers,” Valentine says.

“We have a stall in St George’s Market and we sell online and there’s a lovely shop in Newtownards, Cafolla’s, who have been very supportive in putting our products out — they’re natural skin products made from beeswax and honey.”

Ironically, Valentine is allergic to bee stings and has to carry two Epipens at all times.

“I have to go to the Royal once a month for bee venom therapy,” she says.

Rare Breeds takes the viewer through the beekeeping year, from treating the hives in January to extracting honey, making the products and selling them at the Christmas market.

“We tend to take our holidays in the wintertime when the bees aren’t as active,” Valentine says.

“I just think they are fantastic little creatures — so humble, yet they always have a back-up, they always have a plan B. I reckon every farmer should have one or two hives on their land. There is a lot we can learn from bees.”

The business, Vees Bees, is also offering experience days to supplement the income.

“They’re for people who want to experience what it’s like in the world of beekeeping for a day,” Valentine says.

“We offer half days for people who want to find out if it is something they could do. We take them out and show them the biology — and they get to meet the queen!”

Black bees remain under threat due to the lack of forage and the spread of varroa mites, Valentine says. “We used to have hayfields with flowers in them, but there are no wildflowers in today’s silage crops. We need to really think about this for the future — we need our insects whether we like it or not.”

Robbie Neill (38) is a firefighter and smallholder who raises pedigree pigs outside Crossgar. He is married to Louise and they have three children, Angus (4), Connie (20 months) and James (8 months).

“I’ve grown up on the family farm along with my two brothers and my parents. My father passed away about four years ago and my younger brother and myself took up the mantle,” Robbie says.

“My brother and myself are now farming in partnership — he’s on the cattle side of things and I have a smallholding which is rare breed pigs and a small flock of pedigree sheep and chickens as well.”

Robbie estimates that he now keeps around 60 Oxford Sandy and Black pigs.

“I started off when I got one sow as a novelty for a bit of crack, and it’s kind of really snowballed from that,” he says. “I feed them on brewer’s grain from a brewery called Farmageddon Brewery, whey from Mike’s Fancy Cheese and raw vegetables from the local vegetable farmers, as well as some mineral meal. All of a sudden it kind of transformed into an artisan way of farming — it was rare breed pork and it was slow grown and the pigs live outdoors — and a few people started to take notice.”

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Pig farmer Robbie Neil

The farm now supplies Ispini Charcuterie, Indie Fude in Comber and No 14 At The Georgian House Restaurant in Comber.

“We also own a wee mini farm shop at home where we sell our own lamb and all the different pork cuts as well,” he says.

“We’ll be selling our own beef in the New Year,” he adds.

In his day job, Robbie is a Belfast-based firefighter who is part of the Specialist Rescue Team, dealing with everything from water rescues, to collapsing buildings and farm-related incidents.

“It’s usually things that are that wee bit different — usually something that is out of the box and backing up local crews,” he explains. “We just have different equipment on a different machine and rather than staying in the city, we are province-wide.

“I love my job. I do an eight-day shift pattern — two days and two nights before having four days off. It gives me a bit of extra time with my family and it means I’m not on the farm 24/7 — I can get away from it and get a bit of adult conversation.”

Robbie says the pedigree pig herd is a bit different from what his farming friends are doing.

“The guys I run about with are all traditional beef and sheep guys and this is a bit different as well,” he explains.

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Rare breed pig farmer Robbie Neil pictured at his farm in Crossgar with son Angus. Credit - Stephen Hamilton

“Between my brother and me, we didn’t have the ground to be running a serious beef herd so it was something I could do to get into a niche market and keep the numbers small,” he says.

“A lot of my mates thought I was a buck eejit in the early days but they’re starting to take note now!”

The documentary follows day-to-day life with the pigs, their feeding regime and putting them out to pasture.

“It’s the day-to-day routine of my feeding and keeping the pigs and following them right through their year and going off to the butchers,” Robbie says.

“Because of their ages, the only one of the children who would be really involved is Angus. He’s down at the farm right and often — he’d  always be pushing his way through the younger piglets.

“I’m not sure whether he gets the whole thing of pigs being reared and going right through to slaughter.

“But he does see them from day one and sees them vacuum packed and going out for delivery. It’s educating him — it’s about how the whole thing works as well.”

The eighth season of Rare Breed — A Farming Year begins on Thursday night on UTV at 8.30pm, following 10 Northern Ireland families who are steeped in farming and industry

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