Jen Marsh- Farming With A Heart
Content and photography by Joff Alexander-Frye
Working in a city is amazing. The hustle, the bustle, the buzz, the options and the variety. All a real treat and to be enjoyed. However, from time to time, it all becomes a bit draining and you need to get your head out of ‘city mode’.
I recently had the absolute joy of doing just that when I made my way to the rural hills of Mid-Devon, to Shutelake Farm, just outside Butterleigh. I had been invited to spend a morning with Jen Marsh who is the founder and owner of Shutelake Lamb, an ethical family business producing some of the finest lamb in the South West and supplying local high-end restaurants and hotels, such as The Pig at Combe, The Lazy Toad and Gidleigh Park, with their lamb meat.
Sat in her farm-kitchen we enjoyed a chat over coffee and some rather delicious chocolate cake made by her Mum. Originally from near St. Albans in Hertfordshire, Jen’s family moved to the farm twenty years ago when she was a teenager. Her parents moved to the area because of her father’s job and they initially rented the farmland to a local farmer friend. This included a few grass-mowing sheep who Jen’s family tended to, with no real plan to make their new home a working farm at any point. Gradually, the family gathered a menagerie of animals, including a goat called Jane who they had bought to clear some brambles on part of their land. Despite being an old girl, Jane unexpectedly fell pregnant and gave birth to two kids. During late pregnancy, she jumped over some barbed-wire fencing and, unfortunately, cut her udder. Jen and her Mum got up in the middle of the night to care for Jane and her new kids and Jen, who had previously been much more of a ‘townie’, had an epiphanic moment, realising that she loved caring for animals.
From then on, her mind was set upon becoming a vet and, sure enough, throughout her teenage years into adulthood, volunteered on farms and gained experience of caring for a variety of animals, as a result. Her love for the countryside seemed to blossom at an equally progressive rate to her love for animals and, before long, Jen was a country-girl through and through.
Fate craftily struck another bullseye when, upon failing to achieve the required grades at A-Level for her preferred course, she studied Animal Sciences at Sutton Bonington; the agricultural arm of The University of Nottingham. She helped out with lambing on a friend’s farm every year, falling in love with sheep in the process. At the end of her course, she went on to attend Vet School with the clear focus that she wanted, not only to still be a Vet but, in particular, a Farm Vet. When she graduated, she became a Farm Vet back in Devon for a couple of years but, unfortunately, she found that TB testing, long hours and being on call started to wear her down.
It was only when Jen and her husband Adam decided that one day they would like to start a family, that being a Farm Vet became unsustainable (as Adam worked away a lot) so she moved into a role as a technical veterinary nutritionist, advising farmers how best to feed their cows and sheep. This was a much more regular job in terms of hours, which allowed Jen to start keeping a few more sheep on her home farm.
In a completely embryonic form, this was the beginning of Shutelake Lamb but it was never meant to grow into a business. It just, sort of, happened. What had originally been intended as a ‘hobby farm’, with a few fluffy Ryeland Sheep to be shown at competitions, became a small business due to happenstance rather than laser-focused planning. Jen fell pregnant with her son Thomas and decided that, when she did return to work, it would be part-time. As a result, she decided that she might be interested in producing some lamb to sell for meat and, after some detailed research, bought some Lleyn ewes, a Welsh breed. In Jen’s opinion, this particular breed would provide a good balance of maternal characteristics as well as produce a high quality carcass. With Ryelands being an old English meat breed, they have a tendency to produce a somewhat fattier carcass and, with fatty lamb not being hugely popular in modern dining, Jen made the educated decision to cross-breed them with her new Lleyns. It was here that Shutelake Lamb was born.
Three weeks before their first lambing in 2015, Jen’s son Thomas was born which meant that Jen’s Mum had to act as ‘Shepherdess Number 1’. Hardly the best timing, but one of many hurdles that Jen and her family have overcome with aplomb in the Shutelake Lamb journey so far. This year, an unseasonably heavy and late snowfall posed a real challenge for outdoor lambing and this was on top of the standard challenges of modern farming; combating diseases, turning a profit, dealing with evermore stringent agricultural legislation and the looming question mark over Brexit and how it will affect farmers.
Initially, the lamb meat was only meant for family and friends, rather than to be sold as a commercial endeavour. Their meat flew out of the door each time they had some produced and feedback was instantly very positive. They had not predicted just how good their meat would be at first and how much of a demand there would be for it. So, when Jen returned to work after maternity leave, only to be made redundant shortly after, she had a moment of divine inspiration. Rather than feeling slighted, disappointed or angry about her redundancy, she felt a strong sense of destiny playing itself out; her destiny to farm and to do so with a heart. She made the simple decision to make a living from the farm and, also, at the same time, she felt a calling to be a more intentional mother; basing herself at home so that she could see more of her son as he grew up.
Indeed, as their herd of sheep has increased (now totalling fifty ewes), Jen has predominantly been a shepherdess with a baby on her back. She jokingly commented that ‘at least it saved on a gym membership’ but that, now that Thomas is two, he might need his own little quad or tractor sometime soon as carrying him around is becoming more difficult. This has been further compounded by the fact that Jen is expecting baby number two in the New Year so the Shutelake Lamb family is growing!
I was struck throughout our conversation with how centrally important Jen’s ethics, belief-system and family are to her. The level of attention to detail and care that she gives her sheep is second to none and comes from a meaningful and compassionate place inside of her heart. This is then translated into a truly excellent product, enjoyed by discerning palates across the region.
As Jen and I left the comforting warmth of her kitchen to walk around the farm and see the sheep, I was overcome with the rare sense of peace and tranquillity that occurs when a geographical location is invested in, cared for and tended to over multiple generations. There is something special about Shutelake Farm and you can feel it when you drive down the private single-track road towards it. At the risk of sounding a little bit ‘out there’, I would go as far as to say that the animals which live on that land feed from that. It is no surprise to me that Shutelake Lamb is some of the finest in the region and that more and more high-end food establishments are choosing to exclusively use it. If you get the chance, I highly recommend that you try it. In fact, they will be selling their lamb at their own stand at the Powderham Food Festival on the 6th and 7th of October, so why not pop down to meet (or should that be meat?) them?