Kate Williams – A Wild Business!
Diversifying a farm into a more profitable and sustainable business is a decision many farming families have made in recent years, particularly in this part of the world. But it is not an easy choice. I visited Andrew and Jayne Collier in East Devon to discover how they created a successful animal park from a family-run dairy farm.
It is difficult to believe that the vast cafe area I was sat in – adjacent to a well-stocked gift shop and looking out on the entrance of a slick animal park – were fields full of cows just a decade ago.
Stemming from a hobby and a pipe dream, Summerleaze Farm, with its small dairy herd, has transformed into a 35,000-visitor attraction – but not in an altogether conventional way.
Both from farming backgrounds, husband-and-wife team Andrew and Jayne have nurtured their business and moulded it into the success it is today. Slow and steady wins the race.
There was never a master plan, according to Andrew, to be what the Axe Valley Wildlife Park is today. It is an accomplishment which has taken hard work and determination but it has developed and matured in its own time.
A BACKGROUND IN FARMING
Around 18 years ago, when their children, Lily and Jake, were small, the couple started breeding and selling pheasants, a hobby of Andrew’s, who had been a game-keeper after he left school.
Living on the farm with Andrew’s parents meant the pair worked, helping milk the small dairy herd but with the future of farming in a precarious state, they began to think of alternatives.
“It was a hobby to start with. Farming families usually need something extra to bring some extra money in, and it was something we could do together and I could stay at home on the farm and do it. My interests are animals and birds and the countryside, as well as farming. We had 80 cows, so to get bigger, we’d have had to sell up and move as there was no more land in the area. And mum and dad didn’t want to do that so it was a way of staying and working on the farm.”
With the pheasants they added poultry, then caged birds, including parrots, and it became like a pet shop business.
“I did the pheasants, then Jayne did the chickens, then we did ducks, and we just kept adding to it. We needed somewhere to keep them so this area [the cafe] was fields of cows so we divided it up and put up poultry netting – and it just grew. Around 2004, customers would bring their grandchildren to feed the birds. People kept saying to us we should open up to the public.”
Andrew was doing some work at Exmoor Zoo and the nearby Cricket St Thomas estate, (which was then a wildlife park) building animal enclosures after they had seen the chicken houses, runs and bird aviaries that he’d built.
“I was really busy doing zoo enclosures for leopards, wolves, tapir – and we still had the farm, milking the herd. When I was working at Exmoor Zoo, I’d get up at about 5am, work on the farm to help Dad, then go to Exmoor Zoo all day building. It’s crazy when I think back – I wouldn’t do that now!”
As the bird business began to grow, Andrew and Jayne were in a position to really think about the future and what they wanted to do.
Andrew’s father, Michael, gave the couple a paddock to start with, giving them a chance to prove they could make their business ideas work. Jayne smiled,
“We had no money, then our labrador, Amber, became pregnant and she gave us puppies. We kept one but the money raised by selling the others then paid for the perimeter fence – so it was a real family effort! Then we went to the business centre in Honiton to ask them whether this would be a viable business and they told us, because we were under 30, we could try for a Prince’s Trust grant.”
“So we did and we won a grant and we got a loan as well, through the Prince’s Trust, and I had to go on a course in Plymouth on how to start a small business – all backed by the Prince’s Trust. It was really very good, although the first mentor who came, told us we would never make a living out of it. He said, ’It’s lovely and I will help you as much as I can, but you will never make a living out of breeding birds.’ We were really disheartened but we carried on anyway.”
The Axe Valley Wildlife Park opened in 2008, after much hard graft by the family. Andrew said,
“That’s how it’s evolved, on its own merits, “We’ve never gone to the bank and borrowed hundreds of thousands, we’ve done it gradually. Every last bit of concrete, every last bit of wood, we’ve done ourselves.We finished milking the last cows on the day of the The Queen’s jubilee in 2012.”
“The cows were sold gradually so it wasn’t as brutal as a farm sale – you know, one day they’re there, the next day they’re not. But it was still a hard decision.”
“Our issue with the farm was that we weren’t able to expand, we just couldn’t do it and the animal park was growing. And this business [the park] is ours, whereas with the farm, we would have had to buy mum and dad out. It was the right decision. Mum and dad have been behind us the whole way.”
THE MAMMALS ARRIVE
To start with, the park was mostly birds, then Andrew came back from Exmoor Zoo one day with a pair of wallabies! And that has been the pattern ever since.
“It was a natural progression to have animals as well as birds. We love our birds but when people come to visit, especially children, they like the mammals, they like the furries. We got the wallabies, then a racoon, then we got some meerkats and it just went from there. We hand-reared two meerkats and local photographer Richard Austin came and took some photos, which went into the Saturday supplement of the Daily Mail!”
“In today’s terms, it went pretty viral!”
“We were getting messages from New Zealand, Australia… then a book company from London came down and said they wanted to write about our story! And we wrote this book – The Meerkats of Summer Farm – and it really got our name out there.”
Andrew puts the success of the park down to hard work.
“Teamwork and hard work makes it a success. We love what we do. We are tied to it, but it’s a passion. We had 17 days off last year – in comparison to others who have two days a week, plus 28 days holiday. But it’s fine, we’re not complaining, we live our life how we want it and we really enjoy it. We want to do this.”
“It’s no different hours than milking! We’ve just started having holidays now – after 10 years! But when you’re building a business, you’ve got to make sacrifices, haven’t you? You can’t do it all.”
HARD GRAFT AND TEAMWORK
Their unconventional approach to running the business is also part of its success, according to the couple.
“We’ve never had a plan! It’s all just evolved! I think that’s part of the success of it, we’ve had no timescale, we do things as and when we can afford it and not before,”
“I think because we are not working to that system, we are not fighting that we’ve got to get ‘X’ amount in every week or it’s all going to go wrong. And we are a farming family. Farming families are very close and communicate well with people and I think you get much further in business with that mannerism.”
“We didn’t have many keepers at the beginning, we just did it all ourselves. We didn’t have a coffee shop or gift shop then, so I was outside working but now I run that part. I miss being out with the animals but I feel that I need to be front-of-house, telling people our story, greeting people – I think that’s part of why we are different. We’re not the biggest but we are a lot more personal.”
Andrew added :
“Half the attraction is what we are going to do next. With the animals, there’s no real wish list, it’s just what turns up. When we started, it was very difficult but now we have good friends and contacts in the zoo world. And you’d be amazed what there is in private collections and in gardens! The phone could go in a minute and we could be offered anything, then we have to decide if we go down that particular route.”
“The most tricky decision with the animals were the zebra! That was completely different and out of the blue. But it was such a draw for customers – zebra in East Devon! So we had to go for it.”
“We still don’t take a wage ourselves even now – we live out of it but we don’t take wages each. Because everything we earn, we plough back in. We’re always improving. But we are in charge of our own destiny. That’s the best part of it.”
“And no two days are ever the same!”
chipped in Jayne.
“We are never going to be huge and we don’t want to be, that’s part of the charm”.
“We stand by our decision – no regrets! To think how we started out to where we are now, it’s very different! It’s quite phenomenal. I wouldn’t want anything different.”
After their book signing at Waterstones, the couple were invited onto an ITV breakfast show but they turned it down. Andrew laughed,
“It’s not about that. There’ll be no film made about us like the Dartmoor Zoo one… although we have literally ‘built a zoo’.”
Written by Kate Williams
Photos by Kate Williams