Adam Henson magisterially strides past a massive, auburn Highland bull that is watching him through thoroughly unkempt hair. “That’s Eric,” he says. Eric is stationed alongside two dozen equally shaggy brown sheep. Henson gives an almighty whistle and the sheep start barrelling over the field towards him. “That’s the colour sheep are meant to be,” he comments. “They have been bred to be white.”
With that, he marches me off to a barn to see some farm babies, telling me en route that chickens were originally jungle birds and explaining how to deliver a lamb.
And here in the barn is a tiny goat, sitting up pertly in a bucket. Henson, with the acumen of someone who first delivered a small hooved animal when he was about five, scoops it out. “A Golden Guernsey. Very rare – and beautiful.”
A redhead himself, Henson, 50, looks approvingly at its tawny hide. “I try to have as many ginger animals on the farm as possible.” There are about 2,000 animals – ginger or otherwise – on his Cotswold Farm Park, which plays a star role alongside Henson himself on BBC1’s Countryfile.
The farm boasts 50 rare pure British breeds. “It is one of the most valuable and comprehensive collections in the country, if not the world,” says Henson proudly, “and a development of the collection that my father built up over 45 years.”
The work Henson and his father,
Joe, did to establish the Farm Park
near Cheltenham, a working farm as
well as public amenity and the first of
its kind, is amusingly recounted in his
lively memoir, Like Farmer, like Son. Although co-writer Ian Gittins might have polished the prose a bit more (pictures “speak a thousand words”, people are “living the dream”), the book can’t help but bounce along, such is Henson’s unconditional love of farming.
“I hope that this book will show the richness and value of people working on the land,” says Henson, “and how mine and my father’s lives were so entwined. It’s as much a tribute to my dad as a memoir. He was a trailblazer – although at the time people thought he was some crazy, sandal-wearing hippy, keeping all these crazy breeds. Now lots of farmers are realising they want more robust local breeds.”
Like Farmer, like Son is a love letter to the glories of hay bales, North Ronaldsay sheep and Tamworth pigs, all thanks to his father, who died last year. Joe Henson also had a bit of a TV profile, including a role as farm expert on Johnny Morris’s legendary TV series Animal Magic.
Unsurprisingly, Adam’s farming insights are great (when milking a cow, rest your head against the pelvis because then you will know if you are about to get kicked), his TV ones less sure. He briefly mentions the almighty row when Countryfile axed Miriam O’Reilly, because he must, and skims around the awkward moment when he won the “search for a presenter”, but was forced to share the prize with the arriviste phenomenon that was Ben Fogle.
“Television is a fickle old world,” he says. “It [the Miriam O’Reilly row] made me realise you aren’t there for ever, you need to watch your back and you need to consider your future. I am lucky I have got the farm.
“The Cotswold Farm Park brand has been around for 45 years, and we were getting a lot of visitors before I went on Countryfile.”
Yet is there more? With his square jaw and easy manner with goats in buckets, Henson could be the next big outdoorsy TV hero. Does the life of a Fogle or a Grylls attract him?
“No. Bear and Ben are London boys,” he says with charming insouciance (which would infuriate Grylls and Fogle), “and they love adventure and all that. But after a tough day on the farm, I don’t feel the need to go and sleep on a hammock, in a wood. I wouldn’t mind doing a sky dive, but I don’t have a desire to do it. What I do have a desire to do, and I am very happy to rough it while doing it, is look at the culture of farming and how they produce food around the world. Because I have a connection with the land and food production and I am genuinely interested in it.”
So what is his view on Europe? “As an arable farmer, I rely a lot on government and EU support. We are in a high-level stewardship scheme, and we develop wildlife conservation areas, targeting specific species such as farmland birds. We have hundreds of skylarks on the farm. If we leave Europe, we might lose this support. I don’t think coming out will make any difference to immigration. And as far as security is concerned, our military is so depleted, I think we need to be aligned with Germany and France. We have some of the best legislation in the world on things like animal welfare run from Europe; and Britain gold-plates it.”
Frankly, he’s on a bit of a gold-plated roll; Countryfile can now claim up to seven million viewers on Sunday nights. Who could have seen that coming? “Well, it’s a perfect slot, and the items are short, so there is something for everybody.”
He admits to one key fanbase: “Women’s Institute types who are over 60.”
Has he had any proposals? “No such luck!” How about underwear?
“Ha ha! No. I get the occasional knitted thing.” What? “A few knitted Highland bulls like Eric. And the odd hat.” Phew.