Meet Peter Niccolls, a 38-year-old New Forest Marque producer and commoner with a unique herd of pedigree Dexter cows.
Being a generational New Forest commoner, Peter has a wealth of knowledge and experience that has allowed him to be at the forefront of sustainable beef farming in the New Forest.
Peter’s farming business operates under the name of Hatchett Herd and is endorsed by the New Forest Marque.
Based on the outskirts of Beaulieu, the Hatchett herd can often be seen grazing on the open plains at Balmer Lawn and beyond where they play an important part in shaping the landscape we see.
Peter comes from a commoning family that stretches back further than he can remember. The three acres of land that he and his family now calls home was acquired long ago by his grandad Jack Humby when he traded six cows for the land.
It is doubtful many people know the land between Brockenhurst and Beaulieu better than the Niccolls family. The wealth of knowledge on how to farm and manage the land in the New Forest has passed down from generation to generation, something that Peter hopes to pass on to his young children Florence and Evie.
In 1998 the first Dexter cows of the Hatchett Herd were bought, and from there has been managed and expanded to the pedigree herd found today.
Peter said: ‘I got my first Dexters as I wanted something a bit different that was my own. My grandad bought me my first two Dexters in 1998. It’s now got like a hobby that’s out of control. I’ll be out on spring mornings and summer evenings checking on my herd, which to me is the best part of it all.’
Dexters are considered excellent conservation grazers, their small size (smallest breed in UK) and hardiness means they can graze all year while not damaging the ground. In fact they do just the opposite: Their grazing actually creates an environment for rare and interesting species to grow and flourish.
Cattle ‘poach’ the Forest ground with their hooves, creating an imprint which establishes a small space without competition for some of the Forest’s rarest flora to grow. The absence of grass in the trodden areas allows rare and wonderful species to establish themselves. For example, the sundew.
This fascinating species is a carnivorous plant. Existing in the Forest’s wet heathlands it traps unfortunate insects buzzing and crawling around the landscape. It can be seen growing on the side of imprints left by the Forest’s grazing animals such as Peter’s Dexters.
The lack of competition and sun-facing embankment left by the animals’ hooves provide the perfect environment for this unusual plant to exist.
After his cattle have grazed on the New Forest for around a year, Peter will move those cows onto back-up conservation grazing areas – Roydon Woods and North Solent Nature Reserve. Here the Dexters will graze the fields to the perfect conditions and length for ground-nesting birds such as the curlew to nest safely.
By leaving the cows to graze on the Forest, the Dexters grow naturally, slowly building up fine layers of fat that create the much-desired, succulent marbling effect in the meat.
The delicious taste of Dexters’ beef has only recently been realised. Previously thought of years ago as a ‘poor man’s cow’ they were somewhat disregarded, now they can be found across the world. Known for its quality, ease of cooking and smaller joint and cut sizes, the meat is popular among chefs. The marbled texture allows the meat to in effect self-baste while cooking.
Hatchett Herd beef carries the New Forest Marque and can be found in Beaulieu Farm Shop, Pilley Community Shop and is sold to a Hale-based butcher that supplies the local area.
Information on Peter’s produce can also be found in the New Forest Marque produce guide, which contains a wide array of tasty and quality New Forest made produce and goods.
By supporting the New Forest Marque, you support local producers such as Peter Niccolls. Peter said: ‘When you buy local you know the producer, you know the quality and the person behind your food, where the animal has grazed and the butcher’s where it ends up. The New Forest Marque produce guide always boosts sales. This support shortens the supply chain and helps set me up for the future. It means there is a constant stream of income you can rely on.’