Reports that growing numbers of people were suffering from intolerance of cows’ milk prompted farmer’s wife Judy Bell to buy a herd of 47 British Friesland sheep and set up Shepherds Purse Cheeses.
Nineteen years later, the North Yorkshire company produces two tonnes of cheese a week and is set to break the £1m annual turnover barrier.
The cheesemaker supplies all the major retailers with one or more of its sheep, cow and buffalo milk cheeses.
Chief executive Bell began in 1987 by teaching herself how to milk her flock of ewes and freezing the output. The next winter she made unpasteurised cheese and “touted it round nice little delis”.
Joining Yorkshire Pantry in 1988 opened new marketing channels and provided a network of producers to consult. The association advised her to take stands at exhibitions and to enter competitions. In her first year, Olde York sheep’s milk cheese won first prize at the Nantwich cheese show.
However, persuading the public to try sheep’s milk cheese was still a hurdle. “I was shocked that probably 25% of people turned and went the other way if they saw it was sheep’s milk,” says Bell.
But the company won a marketing competition sponsored by Anchor Foods in 1993 and was subsequently approached by Tesco. Bell began providing its chill counter staff with tours of her small dairy; they responded by selling the cheese “as if it was going out of fashion”.
The only setback has been the EU court declaration that Yorkshire Feta infringed the protected status of Greek Feta producers and would have to be rebranded. Bell is awaiting the result of an appeal against the decision.
Greg Meenehan