Suffolk sheep farmer trains next generation

Stephen Cobbald owner of Acton Hall farm near Sudbury with young farm apprentice Amy Byford

Stephen Cobbald owner of Acton Hall farm near Sudbury with young farm apprentice Amy Byford - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

Sixteen-year-old Amy Byford has been busy helping with the lambing season at sheep farmer Stephen Cobbald’s farm near Sudbury.

The young apprentice has been an excellent addition to Stephen’s team. The ex-County Upper pupil gets hands-on experience on the farm under his expert supervision. She is also receiving support through her chosen land college, Askham Bryan in York, as well as other highly specialised training through her employer’s strong connections with working dog trials experts.

Acton Hall is a lively farmyard set in a beautiful rural location on the edge of the Suffolk village of the same name. An assorted collection of bright-eyed dogs follow Stephen through the sheep barns where ewes and their young offspring are sheltering on a rather damp day. As well as his eight-year-old sheep dog George, he has a young 17-week-old sheep puppy-in-training Gailee who follows his every move.

Stephen is keen on conservation so there are owl and kestrel boxes and a green “corridor” through the farm. To him, grazing livestock is an important part of the farming mix.

He doesn’t have a shoot as “I don’t like killing things,” he says.  “My peers would say you are soft. We try and have a balance – you don’t want to be overrun with anything.”

But he adds: “What you need is what I call a living farm. You can commercially farm your farm and farm it very well.”

The family business, Acorn Farms Ltd, encompasses three farms in Suffolk – two in Acton and one in Sudbury – totalling 1500 acres. Stephen’s two sons, Jonny and Richard, are partners in the business. Jonny lives in New Zealand where the family owns another two farms. Richard also manages Bartlow Estate, a large agribusiness between Haverhill and Cambridge.

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Stephen now leaves the day-to-day arable operation to farm contractors and focuses his attention on his sheep operation – as much a labour of love as it is a commercial venture. 

At one time the herd was larger but he says he’s “cut right back” to no more than about 250 to 300 sheep.

He keeps Cheviot Mules and Texels. Amy, who is from Lawshall and whose mother, Jane, is a vet and whose father, Kevin, is a foot trimmer for cattle, is given a number of tasks on the farm. 

“We have got three pedigree flocks and she’s (Amy) is responsible for the pedigrees for all three flocks and she’s also responsible for the medicines book, which is done really, really well,” says Stephen. “I have always been a good delegator. If you give people responsibility they really feel a member of the team. I don’t believe in telling people what to do.”

Amy comes in four days a week and as part of her apprenticeship has to work 35 hours. Stephen pays well above the minimum rate for apprentices because he believes it is “short-sighted” to do otherwise. 

Amy has her own sheepdog-in-training so the dogs go once a week to Ed Hawkins at Hadleigh for their own training.

Amy – a keen keeper of sheep on her family’s own smallholding – has built up her own small pedigree flock of Hampshire Downs at home. It’s a family tradition. Her grandfather, Victor, kept sheep, and her great-grandfather Harry Boast bred prize-winning Suffolk Sheep.

She used a small inheritance from her grandmother to start it in 2016, aged 12. “I kept buying more and more. I have got 80 in all – about 35 ewes,” she explains. “I didn’t really think about what I wanted to do to be honest but I knew I wanted livestock and I knew I wanted either sheep or cows.”

She might try her hand at cattle with a couple of Aberdeen Angus heifers later this year, she says. One day, she thinks she might like to run her own farmshop, selling her produce.

Stephen started similarly as a youngster. He bought his first 10 Suffolk Sheep for £10 each from the Paul family and grew his flock from there.

He’s very keen to see the younger generation thrive in agriculture. “It annoys me when I see the average age of a farmer is 60 years old – it’s nothing to be proud of. We should be more active in getting young people involved,” he says. “As an industry we have been very poor on next generation training. That’s why Amy is here.”

Once every few weeks her lecturer, John Wray, will come down to check in on her. Amy also does one day a week at a pig farm in Troston as the sheep work is more seasonal. Stephen’s agronomist, Prime Agriculture, also takes her out for a few days of work experience.