Category Archives: Livestock

Trials and Tribulations of a Smallholder

Don’t worry, things aren’t as dire as the title of this post makes out. I just thought that my worries in life have changed somewhat since becoming a smallholder and it might be interesting to others…. although I will let you be the judge of that!

We have been watching our sow, Barbara, very carefully as, soon, we hope to start breeding from her. She has an absolutely lovely temperament and luckily it seems to be very easy to spot when she is on heat. She gave us a real scare a few days ago when we went to feed her and couldn’t find her. We found her sleeping behind some brambles, but we couldn’t get her to her feet, she wasn’t interested in food and was shivering. We worked out what had happened in the end; as she has lots of shade in her run and it only being March, we did not think it was crucial to give her a mud wallow. As it was very sunny, I sprayed her ears with sunscreen and I thought she would be ok but I didn’t anticipate that she would sunbathe all day and burn her stomach. She then must have been too hot to bother going to bed, so she slept outside and the temperature dropped very low at night, so she probably had a bit of a chill in the morning. Thankfully, another warm day and, this time, a lovely mud wallow saw her right as rain again (even if her tummy is still a little pink) and she was chowing down on her food like normal by the evening. Phew!

Incubating fertilised eggs has not been as straightforward as the first time round. We desperately want to keep Australorp chickens and after lots of searching for breeders, we finally managed to buy half a dozen hatching Australorp eggs. We were super excited after 21 days in the incubator waiting to see our new chicks, but sadly nothing hatched and it turned out the eggs were not fertile. Luckily the lady who sold us the eggs was nice enough to send a second batch and she threw in a couple of extra eggs of some Maran/Australorp crosses. Everything was going swimingly until disaster struck and a fuse tripped just after we checked up on the incubator for the night, so it was switched off over night and must have got quite cold. Now we doubt we will have any chicks after over 6 weeks of trying, but we’ve left the eggs in the incubator just in case….. doubtful and very sad. Third time lucky?

The saddest thing that has happened is that farmer who owns the field on the other side of our stream decided to clear some trees from his side of the bank. We were a little worried when we saw diggers and dumper trucks so we went to have a look. The contractor assured us all he would do was remove trees from the other side and a couple that had fallen across the stream and he got the farmer to come round and reassure us. The noise of the machinery went on for 2 weeks, 7 days a week starting at 7 in the morning every day, even on Sundays. When we saw what the farmer had done we were totally distraught. Far from just removing a few trees, the farmer had removed all the trees from his side, excavated the banks, straightened the stream and basically turned it into a ditch. He had uncovered horrible concrete that he laid previously and even cut the trees on our side of the stream that were in any way leaning over the stream. When we confronted him he said this had to be done to prevent “bank erosion”. Surely tree roots are the natural way to prevent bank erosion. The worst part is that we used to have otters in this stream and there is little hope they will return with the current state of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our chickens have caused us some anxiety too. Allowing them to free range entirely is very romantic and it is lovely watching the chickens investigating the woodpile, the hedges and wandering down the drive, but the downsides are a front door step covered in chicken poo, endlessly searching for their eggs and the seed from the bird table being gobbled up by the cockerel. All this was worth bearing as they didn’t seem to have any interest in the kitchen garden, but then, just as our first asparagus heads started to peep through, the chickens moved in and ate every single one and washed their gourmet main course down with a rhubarb dessert! So the chickens have now had their wings clipped and are confined to the orchard.  We are keeping them behind electric fence part of the time as we are worried that they are more vulnerable to foxes up behind the house.

Other worries on the animal front are that our geese have not yet laid a single egg and our cow is very rambunctious, head-butting, kicking and acting mule-like when you try and lead her out to the field.

Of course, our life is not all worries and dramas! These are mostly fairly minor worries with easy solutions but I thought they helped demonstrate how different our priorities have become since living in the city. It being spring and having had some unseasonally warm weather, things are buzzing and happy at Penybanc. The bees are busy and now have a honey super on their hive ready for filling, the birds are singing loudly and are building their nests, the daffodils have been and now the tulips are out in force, we have a new polytunnel which we’re about to fill with yummy things, yesterday we went on a vegetable sowing mission from dawn until dusk and we were fuelled by our own sausages and bacon. Happy Days!

Winter at Penybanc

Sorry that it has been so long since our last update. We thought winter would be the quiet season where we would get more time to do things like update the blog, but it was busier than expected. This blog has some of the highlights. The videos are especially for our three year old nephew Matty, so they may not interest everyone!

At the beginning of winter we used the last of our apples to make our first batch of completely home grown, home pressed and home brewed organic cider with help from Frankie and Luke, which went late into the night and had to be finished under the light of head-torches. Thanks guys! The brew was ready just in time for Christmas. It is fairly dry, very quaffable and packs quite an alcoholic punch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

woodpile in tumbling down shedIt was a mild winter, which was lucky as it was our first experience of trying to heat our house and water with wood alone. We haven’t yet managed to build our log store so all our wood is in a huge pile in the shed that needs rebuilding, with the most seasoned stuff being at the bottom of the pile, making it difficult to get to. That combined with our wood not really being seasoned enough as it needs another summer to dry as well as all the chopping and chainsawing of logs involved, means that it has been a lot of work keeping ourselves warm. We learnt that burning green wood means it is difficult to get the range cooker up to temperature and has also clogged it with soot much quicker so we have already had to clean it twice. It is all totally worth it, but we’re looking forward to next year when we have seasoned wood and an organised log store! Here is are a short video of Jules chopping a log for Matty:

Winter is, of course, the time to cut down trees, clear brambles and lay hedges. We discovered that our orchard field is actually bigger than we had realised and even uncovered 4 four apple trees that had been swamped with sloes and brambles.

As part of our winter clearing, We felled our own Christmas tree!

It was the best Christmas tree we’ve ever had. Although it was actually only the top third of the tree we felled. We also made some decorations with the off cuts.

With help from some of our friends, we cleared the area around the “well”, which is more of a spring really that we are going to turn into a pond for ducks and geese. This became more urgent when our fellow smallholder, Mandy from Glyn Elwyn offered to give us a breeding pair of geese called George & Gill. Here is a before and after picture (the trailer was where the recycled plastic goose house now stands).

 

 

 

 

 

Geese

We acquired a new Australorp cockerel from a lovely lady through Freecycle. We have called him JD and we were happy that the transition of alpha male from the old cockerel to JD was pretty smooth. The chickens suffered a few sniffles and sneezes over the coldest months of the year and they stopped laying eggs altogether. In spring we hope to start breeding Light Sussex and Australorp chickens for meat in earnest.

Another addition to the Penybanc menagerie is a Gloucester Old Spot piglet who we have called “Chanchita”. She was number 13 of the litter and so had little chance of surviving as (although sows usually have 14 teets) her mum only has 12 working teets as she has two blind ones. Again, this was a lovely donation to us from Mandy at Glyn Elwyn who has been an amazing source of tips and advice, including even teaching us to give injections.


Chanchita has already at least tripled in size and has discovered how to climb up onto the straw bale enclosure we made her in the kitchen. She even jumps down and plays with Dusk and generally gets under our feet.

And just a few days ago we took delivery of a compact tractor and some implements, which we got from a dealer in Somerset. We’re hoping that this will allow us to use our time more efficiently and do some serious planting of things like fodder crops on a larger scale, which will take us another step closer to self-sufficiency. This video is quite long as we heard Matty is likely to watch it over and over again:

Next week we’re slaughtering one of our Oxford Sandy and Black pigs. We’re going to attempt making ham, bacon and prosciutto for the first time. Eeek! Spring is just around the corner and it very much feels like the quiet before the storm as everything will start growing like mad. So we better get back to it – byeeee!

It comes form WHERE?!

Free range chickensWe often get asked why we made the slightly unusual decision to try and become self-sufficient and start a smallholding. Well, the truth is that there are many reasons why we are doing what we are doing, but one that often gets overlooked in its importance is, quite simply, FOOD.

It’s hard to overestimate how important food is to our lives and we think that is how it should be. Perhaps these days we all take it for granted too much as the time and thought spent on food gets squeezed by all the other pressures in life and the big supermarkets try to sanitise and unify everything that we eat (have you noticed how the choice of vegetables gets smaller but they stock them all year round. Gah).

In my opinion, the key to food is knowledge. Do you know what is in the food that you are eating? Do you know where it came from? How were the animals kept that went into it? What were they fed on? Sometimes you may be able to tell the contents and origin of what you are buying but scratch the surface and the reality is pretty scary and normally overlooked.

Free range pigsChickens seem to have hogged the limelight – so more and more people now buy free range. Good stuff, but hang on a minute… what about pigs? Pigs are larger and a whole hog more intelligent than chickens but next time you go to the place that Shall Not Be Named (rhymes with fresco) try asking at the deli how much of their ham or bacon is free range. I asked in Morrisons last week – the answer ‘None’. Oh, and here’s another one – notice how you might track down some pork that claims to be ‘Outdoor bred’. Hmmm, funny wording you might think – and you’d be right. That’s a clever bit of supermarket spin to con you into thinking that the pork was brought up free range, but actually it, most likely, means that the litter was had outdoors and then as soon as the piglet was at weaning age (or younger) it was brought right on inside into a nice small stall to fatten for 6 months. Nice.

So pigs, for one, have slipped under the radar. Interesting. But what about food that you buy in restaurants etc. Well, don’t assume anything, even in the poshest places – make sure you ask. We asked in the last Chinese and Indian takeaways whether their chicken was free range, fully expecting them to say no of course. Their answers surprised even us old cynics:  “I don’t know, it comes from Brazil” and “I don’t know, it comes from Thailand”. Ha. Now call me a lefty tree-hugging hobo but that isn’t for me.

In fact, we’ve found that the only way to really, comfortably know what you’re putting in you and your family’s mouths is, you guessed it, to grow it yourself!

Seminal Moments

Autumn 2011 has had important moments for us at Penybanc and in our quest for self-sufficiency. The first was a lot of work for Jules as he built a hearth in the corner of the living room, disconnected the old oil boiler completely and plumbed in both a stove in the living room (a Stovax Stockton 8HB to be exact) and an Esse (model W35) in the kitchen as well as putting up two new flues. This means that our central heating and hot water are now completely carbon neutral, with all the fuel coming off our own land. The timing couldn’t have been better as no sooner could he utter “let there be heat” than the first chill could be felt in the air. Admittedly we still hve a lot of radiators to install, so the fairly stressful plumbing journey has not quite ended.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next big moment for me was having to fulfil a promise, that I made over a year ago, that I would bake bread with flour from a local producer once the Esse was installed. Jules managed to source some flour from a water mill from mid Wales and I did my first baking! There is definitely room for improvement, but the bread was tasty and edible (if a little dense) – so I count it as success.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then we had our first anniversary, on 5th November, of buying Penybanc so we had a bonfire party with some friends who had, very very kindly, helped us clean the place on our first day here (back when the place had been empty for a year, smelt very damp and was generally filthy and cold). Our mates brought some incredible fireworks and sparklers, we carved a pumpkin, made a Van Fawkes, had three dogs running round and served mulled cider and home reared pork out of the back of our Defender.  It was a good way to mark this special ocassion.

unlit bonfirepumpkin jackolanternguy fawkes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It isn’t quite a turning point, but our border collie, Dusk, has recently been showing real development in her agility and intelligence. Also, her fear of the other animals seems to be a little less exteme. She is our little shadow around the smallholding, so I thought she deserved a mention.

7 month old Border Collieborder collieborder collie catching tennis ball

The last big moment I was to tell you about happened today. Our chickens are very cute but so far they have not been productive at all. Having been hatched here on 9 May, we expected them to start laying 21 weeks later as suggested by the books. But this date came and went and then another 5 and a half weeks went by. As our hens free range, we have been searching the place but we assumed that we must just be failing to find the eggs. We had this morning decided that from tonight we would pen them into an area for a week just in case they were laying them somewhere hidden away. Then a couple of hours later one of the hens started making a massive racket, clucking like she’d just had the shock of her life and the cockerel was standing guard, joining in the cacophony. And there it was. A very small, warm, quite pointy, extremely white, EGG.

leghorns

Animal Adventures

We’ve had a busy couple of months making cider and getting the central heating in. More on those later, but in the meantime here is a little update on what the Penybanc menagerie has been up to.

jersey calfDimple has settled in well and, in fact, is proving to be pretty boisterous. She moos vociferously if we’re late with her morning bottle. We have been training her to get used to a halter and took advantage of the unseasonally warm weather to take her out and about for her first nibbles of fresh grass.

Jersey calf on haltercute jersey calf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We finally made a decision on our pig’s name – she is called Barbara, which we thought would probably become Auntie Barbara when she is old enough to pull that off. Although we hadn’t intended on naming our other pig, she has become known as Patch thanks to the black spot on her eye.

Babs and Patch have been moved from  their training area where we got them used to the electric fence and have now been put to ‘work’ clearing brambles from in front of the house. Following what seems to be a theme with our animals, they are pretty bolshy and squeal at us if we dawdle on our way with their food.

oxford sandy & black pigs

The most adventurous of all the animals have been the chickens. We decided to let them free range completely and, after needing some initial encouragement, they now seem to think they own the place. Not only do they sit up in trees, fly onto our roof, eat our windfalls, sit (and something that rhymes) on our front doorstep and bully Dusk but we even found them in our living room!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The funniest thing of all has been the animals’ interaction. Dusk is scared of all of them, although recently we have seen what we think are the first stirrings of a herding instinct. Dimple is a lot braver and immediately fronted up to the cockerel and, unlike Dusk, came out on top.

Anyway, we better go and feed them now – byeee!