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House Call: Here's looking at ewe!

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From running betting shops to field-to-fork sheep farming, it’s been a winding career path for Percy’s Tina Bricknell-Webb, but one that’s landed her with an award-winning restaurant, hotel and country estate that we just had to nose around…

Words: Charlie Lyon

Photography: Becky Joiner

Sheep: they’re little woolly powerhouses that keep Britain’s farming industry rolling; even if it’s only as four-legged, self-propelling lawnmowers. But to Tina Bricknell Webb, co-proprietor of Percy’s Country Hotel and Restaurant, they’re a passion that she’s hoping to turn into a profitable business. They give her wool to spin into Percy’s Organic Yarn; they give her skins to turn into luxury rugs; and they give her meat that she uses in the restaurant that forms part of this inspiring organic enterprise in Virginstow, just north of the Cornish border.

It all began not long after she bought, with husband Tony, what is now Percy’s, then a dilapidated 17th century Devon longhouse and dairy. That was back in 1990, and they soon decided to let out some of their 37 acres (they now have 50) to a local farmer for sheep grazing. However, either this was a mischievous flock or the farmer wasn’t watchful enough, because the sheep managed to escape, eating the hedgerows, damaging the new orchard and generally running riot. Tina decided, right then, that if they were going to have sheep they’d have to be their own, so she went out and bought six Jacob ewes and one Jacob lamb. A few years later she had a count of about 400.

“It was a steep but very rewarding and enjoyable learning curve,” she says of those initial years. “I’ve a lady down the road who told me a lot, but the rest is self-taught.” 

This year, she says she is proud to have only lost two lambs, but she still seems moved by not being able to save them. “One of the lambs ran off from the mother for a few hours, and she rejected it,” she says. “I put them back together, but it was the wrong call and overnight she killed it.” 

At the same time as growing the sheep flock, Tina also started a pig enterprise, having bought two Large Blacks from Cornwall with the winnings from a race horse they own (we’ll come to that later). Between the two pigs they soon had 26 piglets, and Tina and Tony started suppling Whole Foods with pork and lamb, but soon became disenchanted with the company.

 “We were Whole Foods’ highest welfare customer,” she explains, “but then that came to an end and we scaled back. Whole Foods had taken us on when they’d first opened, along with lots of other little suppliers, but after a while they wanted a larger amount from a bigger supplier. It was very unfair. I learnt a lot and I vowed never to supply a chain again.” 

The hospitality game

Tina and Tony had moved from north-west London, where they’d been running a wine bar and restaurant. Despite the multitude of four-legged friends at their new Devon home, they felt the solitude – and anyway, didn’t want to give up hospitality completely. So they set about extending and renovating their home, turning it into a county house hotel with seven rooms, a restaurant and a cookery school. In 2003 they went 100% organic for the higher animal welfare standards it brings, Tina says.

With the move to organic came lots of publicity, and ensuing accolades for their organic and sustainable business, including last year’s Observer Food Monthly Awards runner-up gong in the ‘Best Restaurant’ category. Running the estate pretty much single-handedly, the couple serve dinner and breakfast for overnight guests only (there’s no time for lunch when they’re out in the fields). In the evening, Tina serves up dishes like ham hock terrine caper berry vinaigrette and beetroot pickle; oven-roast lamb with rosemary jus; and lemon tart with lavender ice cream and raspberries. A good deal of the veg, berries and herbs used come from their kitchen garden.

Woolly business

Currently the business revenue is split 80/20 – 80% from the hospitality side and 20% from the animals, Tina reckons, but she has a goal of upping this to 60/40, as it’s the animal side that she finds most fascinating. Tina takes us on a tour across the fields to a space she wants to turn into a tannery. Currently about eight skins are piled in the middle of the stable.

“I select the sheep that are due to go to slaughter,” she explains, “I take a photograph of them before we load them up, then we go down to the abattoir to get there at 6.30am. Then I then go down the line and tell the person responsible for taking the skins off that I’m having the skins back, and paying for them, and they will bring the skins to me after, knuckled off. We wash out the trailer and the skins go straight in there, then I have some of the carcasses back or I sell them on. When I come back, I let the skins cool down by hanging them over the doors in the stables, then I go out with a Stanley knife and trim them and salt them and stack them. Then, over the next few days, I’ll salt them a second and a third time.” 

Finally it’s off to Devonia, a tannery in Buckfastleigh, while the wool gets spun at The Natural Fibre Company in Launceton.

Tina really isn’t one for waste, and is trying to come up with ideas for the ‘fifth quarter’ of the animal – all the parts that humans don’t usually directly consume. (“The skins, the tongues, the offal and everything else,” she says.) To be honest, she’s doing a stirling job already of minimising waste. Opening a big chest in the huge larder back at the house, there are bags of offal that she’s using up in the restaurant. And, next door, are seven hanging hogget carcasses. They’ve been hanging since slaughter, three and a half weeks ago, and she’ll leave them hanging for another week and a half before butchering them down herself. 

“I need to find a way to make the animals a bit more profitable,” Tina says. “If I’m lucky, I break even. Lamb prices fluctuate, and a lot of people try to get their lambs early – they’ll put the ram in now, for example, to get an October crop to beat the market, and then they command high prices because there aren’t many about. But, in order to do that, you need to feed them over winter, so the input costs are more.

“Farmers need to make more money. There’s a huge move towards pasture-fed animals and mob grazing. We’re trying to create species-rich grassland with wild flowers so that we can go back to nature as much as possible, and don’t need to provide organic hard feed. Last year we spent £4,000 on it: the price went up 20% in a year!”

Overcoming hurdles

One thing the Bricknell-Webbs are making money on, though, is their prized racehorse, Go Amber Go (one of a few horses they own, but the only one racing). In previous years they were more immersed in the horse racing world, running a London betting shop, but when Tina’s sister had a riding accident, with life-changing consequences, they sold up and that’s when they moved into the hospitality business.

Tina only took up a role in the kitchen, though – she’d previously worked front of house – after waitressing one day, and overhearing a diner complaining that not only was her red mullet not scaled properly, it was not gutted either. She issued the chef his P45 and started cooking herself.

Tina credits Go Amber Go’s recent success partly to the female jockey who rides her, and the way she can empathise with the animals better than male jockeys they’ve used in the past. Watching Tina on the estate, bottle-feeding lambs and coaxing a wayward Large Black back onto the muck pile, we wonder if the same goes for the success of Percy’s.    

 

Thanks to Devon-based food and lifestyle photographer Becky Joiner for these beautiful images; see more of Becky’s work at beckyjoinerphotography.co.uk

"With the move to organic came lots of publicity, and ensuing accolades for their organic and sustainable business."

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