Sheep farmer ‘re-inherits’ family farm sold to a neighbour

A sheep farmer whose great-uncle sold off the family farm has been told he will now inherit it back from a neighbour.

Richard Thirlwell, 43, from Simonburn in Northumberland, ran into the farm’s then-owner, Richard Burrell, at Hexham Mart in 2018 while trying to buy Red Aberdeen Angus cross cattle.

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When he failed to buy any, the older man asked Richard if he would look after his heifers.

The arrangement worked so well that when Mr Burrell died in February 2022, aged 80, he left his farm on the edge of Kielder Forest to his younger colleague.

“It’s pretty remarkable, really. It was a chance encounter – I hadn’t seen him for a few years,” says Richard.

“I didn’t quite believe it when he rang up and asked if I’d like to have it. He wanted a young family to take it on because he didn’t have any children himself.”

Richard and his wife Heather, and their two young daughters, will move into East Whygate – a 100ha hill farm – once the probate process is complete.

It is where the girls’ grandmother Sylvia grew up, but was sold by her cousin in the early 1980s because there was no one in the family able to take it on.

As children, Richard and his brother David often visited the farm next door – it’s where they learned their first farming skills.

Man and two young girls with farm buildings in the background

Richard Thirlwell with his daughters © Richard Thirlwell

“I’ve known the farm and Mr Burrell all my life,” says Richard, who grew up nearby in the village of Stonehaugh, where his father worked in forestry.

Richard himself worked as a full-time shepherd for 15 years, looking after 1,000 sheep for the Nunwick estate. He was renting a field on a yearly lease for his own breeding ewes when Mr Burrell made his extraordinary offer.

He says he is excited about taking on the farm, but has reservations about how he and Heather, a district nurse, will finance everything.

The farm they’re moving into doesn’t have mains electricity, because of its remoteness in the Upper Wark Burns Valley, so Richard is investigating the cost of installing solar panels and batteries.

The two-bedroom farmhouse also needs total renovation.

The land itself is also extremely challenging. It includes a couple of small pasture fields, but most of it is fell.

“It might take 10 years to get it back to where it should be, but hopefully I should have time on my side,” says Richard.

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