‘Seabrook’s Year’ family celebrates 50 years of sheep farming 

The Seabrook family are celebrating 50 years of sheep farming on the Ickworth Estate

The Seabrook family are celebrating 50 years of sheep farming on the Ickworth Estate - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

In the 1980s, charismatic Suffolk shepherd Richard Seabrook won the hearts of a nation as he offered up a unique insight into the life of a farmer.

BBC documentary series Seabrook’s Year charted the life of the rural hero as he tended sheep at Ickworth Park, near Bury St Edmunds. 

The late Suffolk shepherd Richard Seabrook, who kept sheep on the Ickworth Estate

The late Suffolk shepherd Richard Seabrook, who was immortalised in a BBC series in the 1980s about his life tending sheep on the Ickworth Estate, near Bury St Edmunds - Credit: Seabrook family

He was filmed about his daily tasks birthing lambs and shearing sheep. He chatted with wry indifference in the pouring rain as he manned a bowling stand at the village fair or as he stood with his sheep - casting the colour and joy of rural life into TV viewers’ sitting rooms. 

All the while he regaled viewers with tales of the bellringer so dedicated to his task that he continued his peal after his trousers fell down — and the bowling expert who kept beating the house at the stand he now manned at the fair, thus defeating the object of making money for charity.

His son, Paul, who has continued the family tradition of sheep farming at Ickworth along with sister Gillian Mackinnon, recalled the series of five programmes — which were first aired in October 1984.

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“It was a great time for me,” he said. “He was a fantastic communicator and just oozed charisma. He was one of the most charismatic characters you could meet.”

An after-dinner speaking career beckoned and in 1986, following the success of the series, Richard secured 73 public speaking engagements. 

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As well as the often repeated TV series which brought the life of the estate to a much bigger audience, Richard had pioneered sheep dog trials and lambing days.

But just as his fame peaked, he fell ill with prostate cancer and died in October 1987 aged just 56 – after what daughter Jenny Pine described as “years of hard work and dedication”. 

Paul went off to study physics at Portsmouth Polytechnic and had no intention of going into farming at that time. But he returned from his studies in 1986 just as his father took a turn for the worse. 

When Richard died, three of his children, Paul, Sue and Gillian, stepped into the breach, supported by their mother, Daphne, who died in 2020, aged 88. They formed a business partnership which continued the family’s association with the estate. 

In her memoirs, Diane said: “We were never going to make the big money of the East Anglian arable farmers but our business did seem to give us all the sort of lifestyle we enjoyed – based on hard work and an inspired struggle for survival.”

Sheep farming is a volatile trade but was always a way of life the family enjoyed, explains Jenny.

“The ultimate irony really is it took him dying to give the space for me to do it,” says Paul. “It wasn’t so much a choice. It was just the way things panned out really – but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I never really looked back.”

Paul – one of five siblings – did spread his wings and spent four winters shearing sheep in New Zealand. Despite his lack of an agricultural qualification, his early grounding stood him in good stead. “It was in my blood. I had a grounding – it wasn’t like I was a complete novice,” he says. “We picked it up as we want along. We learnt a lot just from observing.”

It’s now 50 years since Richard first took on the tenancy with the National Trust at Ickworth Park, and the Seabrook family celebrated the milestone by hosting the annual farm walk of the East Anglian Branch of the National Sheep Association (NSA) on September 22.

Richard – whose own father was a mechanic who left to fight in World War II when his son was just nine – took on the tenancy in 1971 after a chance meeting during a hare shoot in Ickworth Park. He had developed a love of sheep farming through his association with the Chadacre Estate at Hartest, then an agricultural education institution next door to where his family lived. The principal, Mr Seaward, was a great sheep enthusiast and took him under his wing. 

With the help of his uncle, Walter Seabrook, he managed to stock the holding at Ickworth, at first with about 600 breeding ewes but eventually bringing the numbers up to more than 1,000 sheep  of all sorts and sizes which grazed about 450 acres. The family was at that time based at Glemsford, and he would commute in every day, staying in a caravan on the estate during lambing.

During the 1980s the younger members of the Seabrook family based themselves in cottages in the park and became increasingly involved with the management of the flock. 

Paul and Gillian continued where their father left off. But sheep farming has changed in some ways as agricultural techniques evolve and they have moved with it.

Today’s 800 ewe commercial flock is mainly grass fed and in the winter feeds on fodder crops outside of the park at Rougham, helping to fertilise the soil and creating a “virtuous circle” – the Seabrooks have almost weaned the herd off supplementary feeds entirely. “We are being encouraged to graze less intensively and with fewer inputs,” explains Paul. “It’s old-fashioned mixed farming.”

Paul says it was “lovely” to have a small gathering on the estate to celebrate the family’s long association.

“I used to take it for granted. But more recently I take it in now and realise how lucky I am,” he says.

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