Jimmy Doherty on the meerkat, the alpaca and the chic that were spooked by lockdown

Laura Silverman
·9 min read

From Country Living

Jimmy Doherty started out as a smallholder living in a caravan. Now, he runs a 100-acre wildlife park and is rarely off our screens. The eponymous host of Jimmy’s Farm reveals the challenges of the past and his rallying cry for the future.

The animals were not happy with lockdown. Steve McQueen, the meerkat, kept escaping to find his fans. Jerry, the alpaca, constantly ran to Jimmy for company. And West, a chick, pecked the brood in a canny bid for adoption by Jimmy’s daughters and was taken home. Like thousands of businesses, Jimmy’s Farm and Wildlife Park in Suffolk faced challenges. 30% of staff were let go and Jimmy and his family waited for the first semblance of a return to normality.

This spring will be different. There are few more buoyant than Jimmy Doherty, as viewers of Spring… and Autumn at Jimmy’s Farm will attest: “Spring is a real energy booster for me… You get the snowdrops, then the daffs, then the bluebells.” There are lambs, kids and calves, too, from cows, reindeer and the tapir. “Spring is all about birth – it offers everything to come.”

From muddy beginnings

Such optimism has got Jimmy through, taking him from a makeshift pig farm in 2002 to a 100-acre wildlife park and a raft of TV series today (Jimmy’s Farm, Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast, Food Unwrapped). He grew up in rural Essex, keeping polecats and royal pythons in the garage, but there were no farmers in the family. Dad was a builder, Mum a hairdresser. But for Jimmy, it was always animals.

After working at a butterfly farm as a teenager, he studied animal biology at university and even started a PhD in entomology, although he found it fusty compared to the colour of the natural world. John Seymour’s The Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency inspired Jimmy to take a different turn. “I fell in love with all that stuff,” he says. “I didn’t want to do it as a hobby; I wanted to do it as a business.”

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

Jimmy, now 45, started with eight breeding sows on a plot in Suffolk, intending to sell rare-breed meat. “I was completely naïve. I built this pig pen and a little butchery from second hand fridge panels, and Michaela [now his wife] and I lived in a caravan. That first summer was glorious: we drank red wine and listened to Norah Jones. Then winter came and we realised this was not an airy-fairy dream; this was reality.”

Many farms were struggling after foot and mouth, but Jimmy saw potential in farmers’ markets, which were just taking off. He bought a van and got on the road: “We did six or seven markets a week, from Norwich to Alexandra Palace. We put the money into buying more pigs. It was real hand to mouth.”

Every animal has a tale

Jimmy’s meat was popular because it was different. “I wanted my pigs to have stories. You tell people that meat is from the leg of an Essex pig and is smoked over seaweed and they love it… Food wasn’t just food anymore; it had become a journey, a way into something… That’s what it should be.”

Today, Jimmy keeps several rare breeds, including Large Black, Berkshire and Tamworth pigs and Devon Closewool sheep, and is president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), a charity trying to save our native farm animals.

“It preserves our living heritage,” he says. “We talk about the importance of museums and art galleries, but what about farms? These rare breeds represent generations of work. They aren’t just living museum pieces, they are maintaining genetic diversity. The future is all about farming with nature in mind. That’s the driver – not just production – and rare breeds will have a real part to play.”

Photo credit: Albanpix/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Albanpix/Shutterstock

Jimmy has met RBST Patron Prince Charles several times. A couple of years ago, he visited the wildlife park for a cup of tea and a sandwich: “The public didn’t know he was coming. When he walked through the restaurant, you could see people going, ‘That guy looks like Prince Charles!’”

Quality matters

Jimmy is also trying to work with politicians to maintain our food standards in post-Brexit trade deals. He has argued that allowing chlorinated chicken and beef pumped with hormones onto our shelves would make a “mockery” of our farming methods.

“If you’re going to buy a car, you want it made to a safe standard,” he says today. “But we view food differently. We’re okay with putting food that hasn’t been produced to a certain standard into our bodies… I’m not anti-trade; I just want a level playing field.”

Jimmy has spoken to Environment Secretary George Eustice: “He’s promised me that it’s all going to be hunky dory and that farmers will be paid to increase environmental standards... He’s promised that ELMs [a scheme to pay farmers for managing their land, currently at the pilot stage] is going to happen. I’m not sure it will… If we don’t get this right, the damage to the environment and our diet will last for generations. We’re in freefall.”

Is there any hope? “I always hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” he says simply. “Are politicians going to concentrate on farming while they’re coping with the economic effects of Covid? I think deals will be done and they won’t be very favourable for us.”

Photo credit: Alun Callender
Photo credit: Alun Callender

At least Jimmy will still be rearing his animals ethically and sustainably. All the meat eaten in the Doherty household comes from the farm. Seabass is from the estuary at the bottom of the garden and many of the greens come from Michaela’s vegetable patch.

All four daughters, aged two to 10, know where their food comes from. Neve, five, has a particularly clear grasp. “She sees a cow and goes, ‘You’re going to be delicious,’” Jimmy says. “When we have lamb, they all say, ‘What lamb are we eating? Is it one of last year’s?’ They’ll know their names and they’ll go, ‘Oh, but it is nice.’”

The Doherty family also comprises an Irish terrier called Whiskey, fish and stick insects, and, while the park was closed last year, the children visited regularly to entertain the meerkats and alpacas. “They had a ball,” Jimmy says.

Fitting in filming, farming and a family, however, takes organisation. “Routine at home is really important. This morning, it was get up, eat breakfast, out the door by quarter to eight. When they come home, it’s bags off, homework out and we redo their snack box for the next day.” The weekends are similarly regimented. “Every Sunday, they spend time in the garden; then it’s ‘Cora, lay the table’, ‘Molly, clear up the playroom, Yorkshire puds are done.’ Then we all sit around the table for 1.30pm. Otherwise, time escapes you.”

Jimmy's timeline

1975: Born in Ilford, east London. The Doherty family move to Essex when Jimmy is three, allowing him to keep polecats and royal pythons in the garage

1980s: Works at a butterfly house at a local wildlife park

2002: Leaves his PhD in entomology to set up a pig farm with his girlfriend Michaela (above), a TV runner. Sells rare-breed meat at markets as The Essex Pig Company

2004: Jimmy’s Farm, following trials and tribulations with the pigs, airs on the BBC, followed by a book, On The Farm

2009: Marries Michaela. They will have four daughters, between 2010 and 20182011 Publishes another book, A Farmer’s Life for Me: How to Live Sustainably, Jimmy’s Way

2012: Jimmy becomes a presenter on Channel 4’s Food Unwrapped, investigating food production

2014: Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast, a cook-a-long with his childhood friend Jamie Oliver (left), airs on Channel 4

2020: The wildlife park closes over lockdown. His children entertain the animals

2021: Look out for new series of Spring at Jimmy’s Farm and Food Unwrapped, plus a tapir calf at the wildlife park

Going green

Despite their love of animals, none of the children has opted to go vegetarian. Jimmy says he could understand this, however, more than veganism, which he describes as “really strange”.

“I don’t see how we could live in this utopia where nothing gets hurt but we sustain ourselves,” he says. “Almost every vegetable we grow is only perfect because we destroy its predators… Nature depends on a cycle… The more we detach ourselves from the natural cycle, the more we become extremists in our ideas.”

Say anything either way and you risk becoming a target on social media. To assess someone’s eco-credentials, Jimmy says, you should ask them how many trees they have planted: “I’ve planted hundreds of trees, helping to suck up so much carbon dioxide… and my cows grazing on the grass have sucked up lots of carbon dioxide… And I’ve created lots of wild-flower meadows and lots of ponds… You could go mad [in response to comments], but there’s no point. Sometimes I laugh or I reply, saying, ‘Silly sausage.’”

To keep things in perspective, he retreats for 10 minutes every day, even when it’s busy: “I like times when I feel totally on my own, like when I’m on the digger or gazing at the fish in the pond.”

Anything he might change if he could do it all again? “I would have started the farm with just beekeeping and free-range chickens,” he says. “I would have kept other animals eventually, but they involve a lot of infrastructure and stress. There’s something lovely about watching chickens and something beautiful about being around bees.” They might also get less frustrated in lockdown…

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