Today, the small Bellever Youth Hostel does an excellent job of concealing its agricultural past and royal associations. It was only whilst delving through old copies of the Times newspaper that I realised how important the old farm was. Hemery, says very little about the later history of the one-time farm apart from the following: “An ambitious stock-farm was started which included a herd of Aberdeen Angus, for which new barns and a pretentious house for the farm bailiff were built“.
On the 3rd of May 1915 the Times reported that the Duchy of Cornwall had recently taken into their hands, “Bellever Farm in the valley of the East Dart”. At this time the Duchy of Cornwall started a scheme to improve the utility value of the lands lying in the Forest. The aims of the plan was to make better use of the Forest by raising various classes of stock and to set a good example in the rearing and management of high class animals.
Prior to the induction of the scheme the predominant breed of cattle seen on Dartmoor was the South Devon and various cross breeds from it. Whilst fully appreciating the meat and milk producing qualities of the ‘Devon Bullock’ the Duchy wanted to compare how well other breeds could do on the moor. Accordingly, Galloway and Aberdeen Angus cattle were introduced to Dartmoor from Scotland. It soon became apparent that the Aberdeen Angus thrived during the summer months but needed to be, “comfortably housed” throughout the winter. This was heralded as a, “feasible”, proposition but in many ways fell short of the aims of the scheme. Ideally the Duchy were trying to find a breed of cattle that could be kept out in the open during the winter. This was because the area of cultivated or cultivatable land was deemed insufficient to grow enough fodder to feed the large numbers of cattle that were pastured on the moor in Summer. It appears that the Galloway cattle provided the solution as the small herd that was introduced remained on the moor for two years without the need for winter housing. During this time the breed demonstrated its ability to survive the harsh moorland winters and their, “excellent breeding properties”. To further their plans the Duchy built sheds to winter the housed cattle and planted shelter belts of trees for the out-wintered animals.
By 1925 the pedigree herd of Aberdeen Angus’ were thriving, so much so that they were fetching top prices and picking up many prizes at shows and sales. It was thought at this time that the Bellever animals had the distinction of being the pedigree pure-breed that was reared at the highest altitude in the country. One commentator considered the nearest rival to the Bellever animals was a herd in Scotland which was reared at an altitude that was 200ft lower than the dizzy 1,200ft heights of Dartmoor.
The Bellever Angus cattle soon became a valuable asset for the Duchy and regularly began fetching top market prices. In 1927 there was a sale of Aberdeen Angus cattle at Banbury (Oxfordshire) cattle market. Here three young bulls went under the hammer where ‘Eric of Bellever’ fetched 42 guineas, ‘Baron Fourth of Bellever’ got 37 guineas, and ‘Tope of Bellever’ brought in 26 guineas. To put this into modern-day perspective, today a guinea of 1927 would equate today to about £43 which meant that those three bulls made £4,515. The following year another three bulls were sent to Banbury where they all received a ‘commended’ rosette and ‘Eloric of Bellever’ fetched 29 guineas (£1,247). In 1928 a bull called ‘Premier’ fetched the leading price of 105 guineas (£4,515) at the Aberdeen Angus Society sale at Banbury. The same bull had already won the Supreme Champion at the Cornwall Show earlier in the year and went on to do the same at the Three Counties Show in 1931. In 1929 the Bellever herd won three 1st’s at the Exeter Christmas Fat Stock Show and a heifer called ‘Envey’ sold for £66 (£2,673). Over the years other notable bulls of the herd were ‘Wych’ and ‘Bounder’ who made a combined sale of 64 guineas (£2,576) in 1928.
In 1930 Bellever Farm was handed over to the Forestry Commission and the herd, by which now numbered 70 was moved to the Duchy farm at Stoke Climsland. Here they joined the Prince’s herd of Devon cattle where the Angus’ were later crossed with the Devons and produced what was described as, “some good looking beasts”. Many of the old buildings can still be recognised amongst the modern day hostel complex such as the barn and sheds. The hostel was let to the Youth Hostel Association in 1934 and is said to be the oldest youth hostel in Devon
In many ways it could be said that the experiment to find a cattle breed that could be out-wintered on the moor failed as far as the Aberdeen Angus was concerned. But the legacy of the Galloway breed can still be seen grazing the moors today and so should be heralded as a success story of the early 1900’s and the innovation of the Duchy of Cornwall. It was a great pity that they were not so forward thinking when it came to turning Bellever over to the Forestry Commission. There is an old photograph of Bellever Farm taken in 1889 on the Dartmoor Trust’s Archive website.