ONE OF Ryedale’s most successful enterprises, Moorland Trout Farm in Pickering, has been put on the market for sale or lease, with the retirement of its founders, Mike and Judith O’Donnell.

The couple established what was to become a British pioneering form of farming with the Newbridge Road business 38 years ago when they hatched their first eggs. Over the years it expanded to transform what was previously a water-logged field into a complex of 17 acres of ponds and lakes which, in addition to producing thousands of tons of trout for the table each year, also developed into a popular tourist attraction.

Originally in the police force serving in the Humberside area, the couple decided a major change in their careers after meeting Danish fish farming expert Neils Truelsen, and with Mike’s keen interest as a coarse fisherman, they set about searching for a suitable site, eventually targetting Pickering because of its abundance of good quality water.

They acquired a giant digger from the Wigley company in Kirkbymoorside and did much of the pond-digging themselves, said Mike.

From a modest beginning, the business expanded three years later and another was opened at Kirkbymoorside, with a third in 1977 at Harome.

Daughter Paula went into the business in 1988 after achieving an MA in business studies and fish farming.

By 1999, the farm was processing seven tons of rainbow trout a week, said Mike, much of it heading to London’s Billingsgate Market and wholesale markets in Hull, Manchester and North Shields.

“The water in Pickering Beck has always proved ideal for growing trout because it is so clean and cold,” said Judith.

Meanwhile, they developed a highly successful hatchery at Howe Keld, Kirkbymoorside, serviced by water from Howe Beck and from a deep bore hole.

As a result, fry – young trout – were produced and sent to the growing number of fish farms nationwide.

Today, Ryedale has become a major centre for fish farming.

Over the years, some staff – a number of them on the former Youth Training Service scheme and trained by the O’Donnells – have gone to set up their own farms, including one in South Africa and another in Greece.

With the North Yorkshire Moors Railway running alongside the farm, the O’Donnells recognised the potential to create a another new tourist attraction for Pickering, and created lakes for fun-fishing.

The venture not only saw youngsters and dads able to go home with a fish which didn’t get away, but also promoted the eating of fish as part of a normal diet, said Judith.

One of the most successful ventures at Moorland has been the smoking of trout, said Mike, who added that oak shavings from the legendry Mouseman Furniture of Robert Thompson at Kilburn, are used to produce the fine taste.

From swimming in the ponds, it can be just two hours for trout to leave the Pickering farm, ready- processed and frozen and on the road to the wholesale markets.

Retirement will see Mike going back to his lifelong hobby of coarse fishing and Judith able to pursue her interests in swimming and as a tennis coach at Ryedale Sports Club, where she is treasurer.

Meanwhile, daughter Paula and her husband are to run the fun-fishing side of the business.