HORSE TRACKS HARVEST CASH FROM HEADLANDS
Turning some of your field
headlands into tracks
along which horse
riders pay to ride can
bring more than just
financial benefits, as
David Cousins explains
HEADLANDS, as every farmer knows, rarely yield as well as the rest of the field. They also suffer from inevitable encroachment of weeds from hedges and they are often a pain to combine. So what about doing away with quite a few of them and replacing them with tracks that pay you money?
Sounds logical? It certainly did to David Talbot nine years ago. An arable grower himself, he was instrumental in setting up a scheme whereby farmers turned some of their headlands into tracks and then charged horse riders £10 a time to use them. Called UK Chasers, the organisation now has 22 courses around the country and numbers of riders using them are building by 10-15% a year.
If corn prices were still at their 1995 levels, UK Chasers would probably continue its slow-but-steady growth. But with most crop prices well below 1989 levels, the economics of the headlands-into-tracks scheme looks distinctly more attractive and David Talbot is convinced that the number of tracks could at least double.
The potential market, he points out, is huge. "The British Horse Society says that there are 3.2m riders in Britain, of which 600,000 ride three times a week. If you guess that 10% of those 600,000 would find a UK Chasers course of interest, that means 60,000 possible riders.
"If each of those visited a course twice a year, that would be 120,000 rides (at 1000 rides a year a course that suggests a need for 120 courses. So there is plenty of scope."
Those using the courses range from three-day eventers looking to have a relaxing afternoon out (or to exercise a young horse) to riding club members riding two or three times a week. Occasional riders also come and the jumps are set to appeal to the broadest possible range of riders; an inexperienced rider can simply miss them out if they want.
Numbers of people visiting the courses have built up steadily. The quietest track gets 120 riders a year and the most popular 1200, but most are in the 325 to 525 a year range.
Numbers could be boosted by spending more on marketing, adds Mr Talbot, but the labour requirement for host farmers would probably start to increase as well. At the moment its fairly minimal.
New courses needed
"We are keen to build up the numbers of courses," he adds. "At the moment there is generally only one UK Chasers course in any one area. However riders like to have a variety of courses to ride over and it would increase our appeal if we could provide several in each area. We particularly need new courses in Kent, Surrey, Staffs, Sussex, Notts, Derbys, Cheshire and Yorks."
So what sort of farm is suitable? David Talbot gives the following pointers:
• Location. Courses dont have to be close to centres of population – one is up near Louth in Lincolnshire, a relatively sparsely populated area, and is doing well. But it does help if they are. What is more important is access to main roads; riders dont like to tow their horseboxes too far down long twisty lanes.
• Soil type. Free-draining, light soils are ideal. Heavy-land farms could consider being part of UK Chasers but should bear in mind the effect that 200-300 horses a year could have on the track, particularly either side of jumps. One answer might be to close over winter, another to use moveable jumps that minimise poaching in one area. Both hilly and flat land are equally suitable – both are likely to provide far more pleasant riding conditions than Britains increasingly dangerous roads.
• Size. UK Chasers used to specify a minimum track length of five miles, which generally means a farm of more than 200ha (500 acres). However it now has one or two shorter tracks of about 1.5 miles, where the lack of overall distance is compensated by extra jumps. The jumps are 5.5m (18ft) wide so host farmers either leave a full 7.3m (24ft) along the length of the course or cut it to 5.5m where there are jumps and steer out to 7.3m wherever theres a jump.
• Jumps. All courses have jumps on them, generally grouped into clusters rather than spread evenly around the course. Numbers of jumps per course vary from 25 to 50, generally ranging in height from 0.76m (2ft 6in) to 1m (3ft 3in). A water jump or two is also desirable, either by using an existing stream or delivering water by bowser if theres no water on the farm. UK Chasers says allow a sum of £5000 to cover the construction of the course, though it can be done more cheaply (see Simms Farm story). All courses are inspected each year by an independent equestrian body, so riders know they are getting a safe, well-managed course.
• People. You need to enjoy meeting people, David Talbot points out. Not that youll have hordes on the farm every day, but you have to feel comfortable talking to a whole range of people. Not all farmers are.
• Time. Compared to most diversifications, demands on the host farmers time are pretty small. Even 365 riders a year is only one a day, but someone needs to be around to take the riders money and check they are a rider-member of UK Chasers (a cost of £10/yr). Some farmers operate an honesty box for riders known to them. Riders have to be in groups of two or more in case one gets into difficulty.
• Grants. UK Chasers courses arent eligible for set-aside. But land put down to tracks can be entered in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) under the arable margin option.
• Earning ability. A five-mile course requires about 4ha (10 acres). However some of that area would probably already be down to tracks and much of it would be poorer-performing headlands anyway (see table).
• Other costs. Since UK Chasers was bought out by its members last year, new members pay a one-off £250 to take a shareholding in the company.
Wheat v horse tracks – cost comparisons
3t @ £70/t £210 7.4t @ £70/t £518
Area payment £98 £242
Total crop income £308 £760
Seed £22 £54
Fertiliser £27 £67
Sprays £45 £111
Total variable costs £94 £232
Gross margin £214 £528
• Total loss in income from 4ha (10 acres) would be £2140. However a £198/ha (£80/acre) saving in growing costs would reduce this to £1340.
• At £10/ride, a course having more than 134 riders a year would be making more money than growing wheat.
• With set-aside currently at £304/ha (£123/acre), it would require 123 riders/yr to better the set-aside income on the 4ha (10 acres) of land.
• David Talbot, UK Chasers organiser, can be contacted on 01865-351688 (tel) or 01865-351233 (fax)