Five generations of wellies at the door

Date:

Tracie Beardsley catches up with renowned Dorset farmer Wakely Cox, whose family have farmed in Puddletown for almost a century

Wakely has a small flock of 130 sheep – his eldest son Anthony has a flock of 800. All images: Courtenay Hitchcock

Outside the farmhouse door, wellington boots of various sizes stand to attention. Dora, the golden labrador puppy, enthusiastically welcomes me into the kitchen where there’s a delicious smell of homemade scones. At a huge pine kitchen table, Wakely Cox chats with Anthony, his eldest son and a dead ringer for his dad. Anthony is a fifth generation Cox farmer – as are Wakely’s four other sons: Edward, Rupert, Benjamin and James, ranging from 36 to 28 years.
Dorset farming is in the Cox genes. Wakely’s great grandparents, along with his grandparents Jack and Dorothy, moved from Beaminster to Puddletown in 1932 as tenant farmers at Stafford Park. After 20 years of hard graft, Jack and Dorothy managed to buy the farm.

Wakely and Caroline and their five sons farm 1,300 acres of mixed arable, cattle and sheep from their base at Warren Hill Farm

Wakely’s parents John and Mildred continued the legacy, and today, Wakely, his wife Caroline and their five sons farm 1,300 acres of mixed arable, cattle and sheep from their base at Warren Hill Farm.
History tends to repeat itself: Wakely’s parents met at Young Farmers, and so did he and Caroline: ‘Caroline represented Blandford and I was Dorchester. Our eyes met across a heated farming debate!’

Wakely’s sheepdog Pops hitching a ride to check the calves – she broke her leg a few years ago and has limped ever since

Wakely recalls his childhood fondly: ‘I loved going in the Land Rover with Father to help feed the cattle. I was never keen on school, so as soon as I got home, I’d be out on the farm. There was always so much going on – lambs being born, cattle to be moved …
‘More men worked on the farm then. I remember them whizzing home on their bikes for lunch. And the smell of a pipe instantly brings back my grandfather. Happy memories.’
After leaving school, Wakely worked on a farm near Upwey while studying agriculture at Kingston Maurward. Later, he returned to the family farm to work for his parents.
He also found time to teach future farmers and employees at Kingston Maurward. ‘It was another income stream for me, but just as importantly, it got me off the farm and gave me another interest. I love what I do, but I knew I also needed to get off the farm and see other people.’
He still stands by that thinking today. He was chairman of the Dorchester Agricultural Society for many years, and now, as chair of Dorset NFU, he travels all over the country. ‘Once I’m in my truck and heading to a meeting, I leave the farm behind to concentrate on other things. Modern farming can be very isolating. You can get stuck in your own ways and not see the bigger picture.

Wakely Cox in front of Warren Hill Farmhouse, which he and Caroline built almost 25 years ago

I meet up with farmers nationwide. Northern farmers have had a quarter of their corn ruined and lost sheep lambing in the awful weather this spring. It’s made me realise just how lucky I am farming in Dorset. I tell other farmers they must get out and see the bigger picture.’
He’s instilled this mindset in his sons, too. ‘I never pushed the boys to join me on the farm. They’ve all done their own thing. Edward farmed in Canada. Ben and Rupert have done harvests abroad, and they have all worked on other farms. Our youngest lad, James, is show organiser for Dorset County Show – but he still helps out feeding calves or hauling corn. Anthony has 800 sheep of his own and scanning rounds, so he works part-time for us. We all help one another.’
The day I interview him, Wakely is preparing to meet the Secretary of State. ‘There’s an election coming up, and he’s keen for the farming vote!’
Wakely is hugely respected as an advocate for Dorset farming. Not scared to put his head above the parapet, one of his other roles is as chair of the Poole Harbour Agricultural Group, challenging the Environment Agency and the apportioned ‘farmer nitrate pollution’ of Poole Harbour. ‘Farmers need to clean up their practices, but the EA presents us historic data – it’s 20 years out of date! To prevent nitrate leaching we need up-to-date facts in order to encourage a voluntary farmer-led scheme, not heavy-handed regulations.’
Is he positive about farming’s future? ‘Very, very positive. People will always need feeding! Shipping in food from abroad is just not sustainable. Home grown is the way ahead – if people will learn to eat more seasonally and sensibly. Yes, of course farming practices will change. But everything evolves.’
And at 63, does he still love farming? ‘How could I not? This is my life, it’s not just a job. I still get a thrill seeing a lamb born – new life that within a few minutes is up and about.
‘My seven grandchildren bring me a huge amount of joy, too. When they ask me “Papa, will you take me out in the Land Rover on the farm?” it’s like a farm echo, I can feel life coming full circle.’

Wakely has approximately 1,400 cattle, a mix of Hereford and Angus

Quick fire questions:

Book by your bedside?
Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Reading helps me switch off and I love this series so I stay up reading too late. Not ideal when you’re up at 5.30am!

A-list dinner party guests?
My family and friends – some friendships Caroline and I made through Young Farmers go back more than 40 years. My old boss Mike and his wife Anne Lasseter, too: great employers to whom I owe much.

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