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Eric Freeman, flamboyant countryman who helped save the Old Gloucester cow from extinction – obituary

Eric Freeman
Eric Freeman - Rob Scott

Eric Freeman, the farmer and broadcaster, who has died aged 91, was a figure straight out of Laurie Lee. Dressed in archaic leather leggings, linen smock, red neckerchief and top hat, with an enormous beard and an extravagantly broken nose, he described himself as “Gloucestershire first, English second and British third”.

In the 1970s, he helped to save his county’s distinctive brown cows from extinction, when the Old Gloucester population had dwindled to a single herd, and became a prominent crusader for traditional breeds, such as the Gloucester Old Spot pig and Cotswolds sheep, long before celebrity chefs and farmers’ markets made them fashionable.

He was dedicated, even in his language, to preserving the old ways, careful to say “withy” rather than “willow”. A self-taught antiquarian, he revived the traditional wassail, first mentioned in the 8th-century epic Beowulf, to bless the apple orchards and ask for a good crop; and the Harvest Home, a banquet held at the end of the farming year, before the Victorians moved it into churches as the Harvest Festival in a desire to curb excess.

Eric Freeman
Eric Freeman - Rob Scott

In his lifetime, Freeman had watched the old meadows being ploughed up to grow crops for the war effort, hay ricks disappear, tractors replace horses and gangs of men, and hedgerows being rooted up to make fields more efficient. As a walking encyclopaedia of England’s rural past, he was much in demand as a broadcaster, and contributed to BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today, The Food Programme and On Your Farm, and the BBC televison programme Two Fat Ladies with Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson.

In fact, he was only the third generation of his family to farm, although all his relations came from west of the Severn, and all had some connection with the land, even if, as he put it, “some were more tenuous than others”. His mother’s family had been landlords in the town of Newent; his paternal grandfather was a successful hosier, hatter and undertaker there, who had bought nearby Byfords Farm, 60 acres on the edge of the village of Taynton, nine miles to the west of Gloucester, to realise his dream of rearing prize pigs.

Eric’s father started a dairy, and young Eric, who was born on September 8 1932, would be perched on the heavy horse as they did the milk round together in the mornings.

Eric Freeman with his Old Gloucester cattle
Eric Freeman with his Old Gloucester cattle - Rob Scott

He attended Picklenash School, then Newent Grammar, which he left at 16. He and his brother Barrie then started a poultry processing business, which escalated when they got electricity, and they could invest in a machine plucker.

By 1975, they had bought up a wholesale depot, and by 1979 were processing 40,000 birds a week. But the EEC regulations of August 15 1979 meant that the evil of dirt was replaced by a new evil, water: the Freemans had to wash the meat, which could not then be hung, because it was wet, so turnover grew ever faster.

Being a “slowish sort of person”, Freeman became disenchanted with the grind of mass-producing cheap food, and by the late 1980s decided to leave Freemans of Newent (which in 2019 had revenues of over £500 million, having been bought by a Canadian giant in 2008) and devote himself to the less remunerative pursuit of saving rare breeds.

Old Gloucester cattle produced milk that was high in protein and butterfat, ideal for Double Gloucester cheese, but never in great quantities, so commercial farmers replaced them with Holstein-Friesians, and the beautiful Old Gloucesters, very dark brown with a white stripe down the back, became glorified pets – “the plaything of the aristocracy,” as Freeman put it. By 1972, there was just one herd of 33 left, kept by the “old-fashioned, awkward” Dowdesell sisters of Wick Court.

Eric Freeman
Eric Freeman - Rob Scott

Freeman was one of a handful of farmers who bought up their herd at auction, and the next year helped found the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. “None of us knows what genes will be needed in the future,” he said. By the 2010s, he had 100 Old Gloucester cattle, which he passed on to his son Clifford.

He also championed Old Spot pigs, which had fallen out of favour because their meat was too fatty if they were fed on barley meal, but not if kept properly; and Cotswold sheep, labour-intensive to shear because their wool comes right down to their feet.

In 2013, he received an award from Prince Charles for his conservation work, and in 2015 became the subject of a documentary, A Legend in These Parts.

Eric Freeman, born September 8 1932, died October 29 2023

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