Jay and Katja Wilde know that folk in their Derbyshire village think they are ‘rather eccentric’. For their many years as beef farmers, cattle were their bread and butter — until they gave their entire herd to an animal sanctuary.
Considering the animals would have fetched up to £50,000 on the open market, it was an unusual decision.
But, put simply, 61-year-old Jay couldn’t take the guilt any more.
A committed vegetarian for three decades, he had struggled for years to reconcile his views with his occupation — not least because he knew that every individual cow had a unique personality.
Jay and Katja Wilde, farmers from Hulland Ward nr Ashbourne, Derbyshire gave their herd of cows to the Hillside Animal Sanctuary and took up vegan organic farming instead
Jay still visits the cows which he gave to the sanctuary after he stopped being a beef farmer
‘I’ve long felt there was a very strong conflict of interest between not eating meat and producing cattle for meat,’ he says. ‘The problem is that when you inherit a farm, it feels like a duty to keep its life continuing into the future.
‘That also means looking after animals, really getting to know them. But then I felt that sending them off was betraying them. I needed to do something differently.’
So Jay and Katja converted their beef farm into an organic vegan one, becoming the first farmers in the UK who are believed to have taken such drastic action.
Their endeavour was recorded by film-maker Alex Lockwood — and last week his documentary, 73 Cows, was awarded a Bafta for best short film.
‘It was unexpected, but rather wonderful,’ says Jay. ‘We are hoping the publicity will help people look at their own lifestyle and decisions and make positive changes.’
Yet few could effect a transformation as radical as Jay, whose life had been underpinned by livestock farming. He and his younger sister Mary were born and raised at Bradley Nook, a rambling, ramshackle farm near Ashbourne in the rolling Derbyshire Dales.
From an early age, like all farm children, they were set to work. ‘We had to get stuck in, driving cows to and from the fields,’ Jay recalls.
The guilt of sending the cows to slaughter had become too much for them to handle
It was a dairy herd and tending it required 16-hour days, 365 days a year.
Jay was aware of the grim realities of animal husbandry: surplus calves were taken to market, as were older dairy cows no longer able to produce milk.
‘They’d be sold as secondary-quality meat for things like cat food,’ he says. ‘I suppose I saw it as just part of farm life — but I was always sad to see a cow go.’
Over time, however, that sadness developed into an unease that the animals he had cared for were being eaten.
And so, in his 30s, Jay took the unusual step for a farmer of going vegetarian.
Not too long afterwards, in 1997, Jay’s father Norman decided to convert the dairy herd to a beef herd in response to increasing financial pressures. ‘Dairy had become less profitable so we decided to try organic beef production,’ recalls Jay.
But organic or otherwise, this meant that instead of taking cows to market, Jay had to take them directly to the abattoir.
His says this made him much more ‘acutely aware of taking them to their place of death’ — a death, moreover, that Jay felt sure the cows were fully aware of.
‘It’s hard to know exactly what they know, but logic suggests everything about that final journey must be terrifying,’ he says.
‘They have only ever known solid land beneath their feet and suddenly they are in a moving trailer. Then they are abandoned at an abattoir where there must be awful sounds and smells. I cannot see how it’s not a horribly frightening experience for them.’
As for their individual personalities, he says: ‘Whether they are stubborn, shy, friendly, they’re all different. These traits can pass down generations, too. You can match sons and daughters to their mothers.’
Such empathy meant that taking his animals in his trailer to the abattoir became an ever-more soul-destroying task.
‘I just had to reconcile myself with it in order to do my job,’ he says.
For this was a job deeply rooted in his family and he felt honour-bound to keep the farm going, particularly after his father died in 2011, aged 90, and since his sister Mary had married (a farmer, of course) and was living elsewhere.
Nevertheless, Jay describes a ‘deepening’ of his moral crisis.
Although Jay hopes to make a success of his new venture, far more important to him is to highlight the environmental consequences of people’s over-reliance on meat
‘While Dad was alive, there was a sense of telling myself that I was helping him with his legacy. But then I was in sole charge of that legacy.
As the years went by, I got completely bogged down in this bizarre situation of not wanting to do it any more, but not being able to see a way out of it.’
He tried various ways to assuage his guilt and offset what he saw as the environmental impact of rearing beef cattle.
For example, he and Katja installed solar panels and applied for permission to erect a wind turbine, which was refused.
Then, around 2015, a chance encounter set Jay on the path that would lead, two years later, to him waving goodbye to his herd for ever.
For some time, he had opened his farm to summer camps for environmental groups. He recalls: ‘One had a vegan catering company and I got chatting to one of the chefs. He told me that you can produce vegetables and crops without animal inputs so you don’t feel you’re implicating animals in your food production. It sounded excitingly different and it felt like the future.’
He was duly encouraged to contact the Vegan Society.
‘I thought about it a lot — but I suppose it went against everything I’d been doing all my life,’ says Jay.
The idea of ditching his cattle and taking up another form of farming was ‘a pretty scary prospect which didn’t seem entirely possible, considering we were 650ft above sea level, quite far north and I had no experience of growing crops’.
After 18 months of soul-searching, he made a move. The Vegan Society put him in touch with a man who ran a successful market gardening business that sold vegetables produced with no animal input.
Jay says: ‘There was no reason his system couldn’t work here. I realised that’s what I wanted to do.’
That said, what was he to do with his herd?
‘Someone from the Vegan Organic Network asked if I was going to have them all slaughtered. I pointed out that it wouldn’t be a very good way to start a vegan farm!’ says Jay.
Nonetheless, it’s not easy to find a home for an entire herd. Sanctuaries tend only to take a couple of cows at a time.
Happily, though, Jay managed to find one called Hillside, in Norfolk, that had room for as many cows as he had to spare.
As he’d decided to keep 14 cows to graze parts of the farm, that meant there were 59 to wave off — which he did on an emotional morning in June 2017. He hoped that when the cows arrived in Norfolk, ‘they would run down the ramp of the lorry into the field and think, “Wow, we’ve come on holiday,” ’ he recalls.
Winner of British short film 73 Cows Jason Isaacs, Alex Lockwood and Oliver Watson in the press room during the EE British Academy Film Awards at Royal Albert Hall
It’s not the sort of sentiment you would hear from most farmers, who would surely have baulked at the thought of losing cattle worth an estimated £40,000-£50,000.
So it’s little wonder that when news leaked out of Jay’s intentions, local reaction ranged from bafflement to downright hostility.
Jay’s brother-in-law thought the whole thing was ‘anathema’ and another farmer told Jay it was a good job he hadn’t heard all the criticism of him in the area.
‘It didn’t surprise me: we knew there would be a lot of cynicism,’ he says. ‘For many people round here, their whole identity is based on raising livestock and it would be inconceivable for them to give that up.’
Looking back, Jay concedes he suffered many moments of crippling self-doubt.
‘The run-up to the cows going was incredibly stressful on multiple levels,’ he recalls.
‘I was giving up the only thing I had experience of and I wondered if I was doing the right thing. It was so against convention. A part of me wondered whether we were going to be left with no farm at all.’
Almost two years on, those fears are allayed. Jay and Katja are applying for planning permission to build three polytunnels to grow vegetables and hope in time to open their own vegan restaurant.
They don’t yet know whether growing crops will prove as profitable as beef farming, but they are able to survive financially in the meantime thanks to a farming subsidy for their hay meadows and grazing land, and from the sale of surplus hay — some of which they donate to the sanctuary where their cows now live.
By happy accident, of course, the couple’s momentous decision has coincided with a surge in popularity for veganism.
Although Jay hopes to make a success of his new venture, far more important to him is to highlight the environmental consequences of people’s over-reliance on meat.
‘You can’t tell people what to eat, but you can tell them the consequences of their decisions,’ he says. ‘Going vegan is one of the single biggest environmental decisions a person can make.’
What of his cows, meanwhile?
‘We have visited them and it was lovely to see them,’ says Jay.
Do they have any idea how lucky they are?
‘I like to think so,’ he replies with a smile.