Suffolk Punch horse couple are counting the cost of lockdown
PUBLISHED: 00:39 15 August 2020
Like many farm diversification businesses, Rede Hall Farm Park is emerging from a difficult period.
Nigel and Christine Oakley estimate they are a down at least £25k as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
They developed a business around their love of Suffolk Punch horses – but lockdown meant the cancellation of a number of events they were due to take part in and also hit their holiday lets business.
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Suffolk’s heavy horses were once kings of the field, and pulled considerably more than their weight around the farmyard - particularly at ploughing time and harvest.
These days, having been replaced by mechanisation, they are becoming increasingly rare – even in their home county of Suffolk.
So the couple who are based at Chedburgh, near Bury St Edmunds – decided to help their numbers by breeding them – and set up a complementary holiday lets business on their 68 rolling acres.
They gradually developed the commercial side – working and promoting the heavy horse – and tourists from all around the world began flocking to stay in their holiday lets.
Lockdown brought the business to a juddering halt – but since conditions were eased, it has started to recover, said Christine.
“Things started slowly in July but from July 20 we have been fully booked to the end of August and taking bookings for September – we even had to turn people away in August,” she said.
But recovery will be a slow process – and consumers have less money in their pockets, she added.
“The difference this year has been short breaks in 80% of bookings rather than the usual weekly bookings at this time of year. People do not have the money but are still eager to get away for a break.”
Rede Hall Farm Park actually started as Oakley Soils in 1971 when the family was involved in drilling services for iconic landmarks such as the London Eye.
About 35 years ago, Nigel developed an interest in Suffolk’s heavy horse breed. His efforts have become so well known that he recently scooped the Sir Colin Stebbing award – presented to him by The Princess Royal at the National Equine Forum in Westminster.
“Initially I used them to work the land – but over the years, a commercial side of working with the horses developed,” he explained.
“I’ve subsequently bred 34 foals of my own and 15 for other people. They are a category one rare breed and this means they are critically endangered. So it’s nice to be able to play my part in saving this wonderful breed.”
Nigel hosts training days for numerous organisations and was booked to go to Countryfile Live, the Burghley Horse Trials and various other country shows when the pandemic struck.
The business ground to a halt, but the work – including maintaining the properties and looking after the horses – continued.
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“These are uncertain times but to be truthful, we are very fortunate to have enough land to walk around, as and when we like,” said Nigel.
Apart from not being able to see family or socialise with friends or eat out during lockdown, the pair count themselves lucky.
“I find it difficult to be negative as we are 100% more fortunate than many others.
“Our children have grown so we don’t have to worry about education and we are at the stage of life that if anything like this was going to happen, we are in the right position to see it through,” said Nigel.
“Other than the worry of protecting ourselves against the virus we have tried to keep positive.”
He added: “I don’t think things will get back to what we call normal – after this people will reassess what they do with their lives. I think people who used to commute for hours every day have now realised that they can work sensibly from home.
“This has opened people’s eyes to what they appreciate in life and what really matters.
“It’s cost us thousands – we’ve lost well over £10,000 on the holiday lets and around £15,000 in terms of the horse side of the business.
“We’ve also had several cancellations for future bookings so it’s difficult to put an exact figure on exactly what we have lost.
“Suffice to say, like many businesses in the land, we have taken a significant hit.
“It’s difficult to know how long it will take to recover the amount we lost because of the current uncertainty.”
But you have to be optimistic, he said.
“When it first happened, we were as worried as everyone else in terms of how the virus would pan out – and of course our thoughts go out to everyone who has been affected by this.
“However, it’s important not to just sit there and worry about yourself in a situation like this.
“I don’t think this is going to go away in a hurry and I think we are going to learn to live with it.
“Our economy has taken a hit and so has the world’s economy – but you have to try and find the positives – so hopefully people will stick together and get through this by helping each other.
“On the upside, we are getting lots of enquiries for our holiday lets. I think as travelling abroad is off the table the British tourist industry will recoup quite quickly as people are going to want to take their holidays in the UK.”
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