Smallholding: starting out
PUBLISHED: 17:58 25 April 2014 | UPDATED: 21:07 29 April 2014
Jerry Spackman describes how he and his wife Dineke set up their smallholding in Saffron Walden,Essex
The dream of being self-sufficient goes back a long way for me. I was planning my home acre at the age of 16 and now, 34 years later, I have a chance of living the dream.
For Dineke, the dream crept up more recently; as she began to realise that she enjoyed being in the countryside much more than being in the city, she was every bit as excited as me at the chance of becoming – at least partly – self-sufficient. Our two sons, Josh and Joe, were less convinced at first, but space to run around in and the promise of driving a garden tractor swung things in favour of the move.
On mid-winter’s day, 2009, during a snowstorm, we moved from a comfortable, detached house on a modern (ish) suburban estate to a mid-terrace Victorian cottage in the countryside. We moved because the two acres of land attached to the new house fed our dreams of self-sufficiency and endless rural fun. We were out of our comfort zone and out of our depth from the very start, but, despite the cold and the exhaustion, the new place felt like home and, covered in snow, the field looked beautiful! There was already a chicken run, with a few hutches in it, covered with garden netting – which was sagging under the weight of the snow. With a bit of shaking and a few new fence posts, it looked habitable, so our five bantams could move straight into their new home. This felt like a good first step towards ‘the good life’.
Mice and rats
Although we had paid a lot of money for the freehold ownership of the new house, it turned out to havesitting tenants! There were mice under the kitchen units and in the drawers, and some even found Joseph’s secret stash of Christmas chocolate, which he had hidden under his bed.
A few strategically set mouse traps proved effective, and I began to think that we humans were back in control; but then we noticed the rats – and rats are more cunning than I had ever realised! I saw our first rat outside in the chicken run. It scampered off soon enough, but a brief investigation revealed several rat holes around the perimeter and rat runs beneath the chicken houses. The holes kept reappearring after being dug in, so I raised the chicken houses on bricks to give the rats less cover, and placed a few traps in strategic places. We caught a few young ones over the next few months, but the adults were (and are) generally far too canny.
Having taken control of the house, the next logical step was to tackle the land. We had big plans and we clearly needed to invest in some exciting new equipment. In fact, we had set aside a small sum to allow us to buy a few ‘essentials’. By shopping around, we were able to get a few bargains, the most exciting of which was a 6.5hp rotovator, which arrived in a metal cage and was put together in under an hour. I love it! It copes very well with our heavy clay soil during the brief periods in spring and autumn when it is not frozen, waterlogged, or parched and baked and brick-like. In retrospect, I should have waited for a year before buying it – mainly to find out how much land we can actually manage to weed and look after. I bit off far more than I could chew, and wasted a lot of time, money and effort planting seed potatoes into land that I could not water or weed. But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had the fun of careering around the land behind my favourite toy!
While we cannot really justify the cost of the rotovator just yet - this year’s harvest of fruit and vegetables might have paid for the petrol used, but it certainly didn’t pay for the capital investment – the chainsaw is turning out to be a different story!
Last winter, we ran out of heating oil just before Christmas. There was a waiting list for oil deliveries and prices were rapidly rising, but, thanks to the chainsaw, we were able to harvest a steady supply of firewood, which kept us from freezing, and saved us a lot of money! It did involve a good deal of time and work, but burning wood harvested from your own land is very satisfying and, when being miserably cold is the alternative, it is well worth the effort! We are now considering a woodburning stove – or maybe even a woodburning boiler - and we are planting more trees to ensure a sustained and sustainable supply of wood.
Discovering just how productive the hedgerows are has been a real revelation. As well as nuts and berries, shelter and protection, they provide firewood, stakes and canes. We have a 30 metre stretch of hazels, and these have been supplying us with all the garden stakes we need. The next step is to learn how to make hazel hurdles. I have taken a few steps in the right direction, but it is already clear that some skill is required. My first hurdles may notbe quite as beautiful as I had hoped, but, with time, I hope my technique will improve!
Geese going cheap
One of our first livestock purchases was a trio of surprisingly cheap Emden geese (Eric, Lucy and Moosey). The two geese produced a total of eight eggs this spring. I let Lucy sit on four of them, but without success. Her eggs were eaten – either by the local crows or by Lucy herself. There may have been a reason these geese were going cheap! We considered eating them for Christmas dinner (Dineke and Eric don’t get on well) but I have grown to like them too much. They are handsome birds and they don’t eat much feed, so, nine months on, they are still with us. This year I may try incubating any eggs artificially to see if this is any more successful.
Next we bought a family of lavender Muscovy ducks – Boycie and Ellie – and their eleven young. Muscovy ducks are not, aesthetically speaking, to everyone’s taste, but I like their ugly red faces and waggly tails. They are very quiet - they don’t quack - and they eat quite a lot of grass,which we have plenty of. Unlike the geese, these ducks have been amazingly productive. The ducklings grew very rapidly and Ellie went on to raise another two big broods: 32 ducklings in one season. The drakes grow to be big birds (over 6lb when dressed); ducks are a little over half this size. Both are very tasty! The meat is dark and… meaty(!) - much more like lamb than chicken or turkey. Delicious when slowly roasted.
The people we bought the ducks from had lots of chickens too and, amongst them, was a trio of the most beautiful and tiny bantams I have ever seen: millefleur Barbu d’Uccles Belgian bantams, and these were also for sale. We couldn’t resist them. They are the friendliest chickens! (Joseph would like to develop a Barbu d’Uccles theme park!) These bantams are pets, pure and simple. We may eventually show them and we will probably sell and exchange a few of their offspring, but just enjoying their company makes them worthwhile additions to our stock.
The pig adventure
Next came the pigs! The pen was all ready, with three strands of electric rope as a boundary and a cosy arc for them to sleep in; we had the necessary holding number and the pigs – three castrated Gloucester Old Spot boars – were booked and were busily growing at a local farm. All this preparation could not diminish the excitement we felt when the phone call came through to say they were ready to be collected. The farmers sat us down and gave us cups of tea whilst the paperwork was being completed and some very good advice – on feeding, buying in bulk, and electric fencing (not to electrify the gate for example), then, finally, it was time to back the car into the yard and load up our three pigs. When they were let out into the field, they nervously stayed very close together, nose to tail.
Gradually, though, they gained confidence and began nosing around, and it wasn’t long before they discovered the electric fence, which sent them squealing in all directions. By nightfall, they had found the ark, and they looked safe and settled. And, for the next eight months, watching, feeding and watering, and, whenever possible, playing with the pigs became a big, growing and enjoyable, part of our daily routine.
The three little pigs arrived in March and, by October, they had grown into three very big porkers. The time had come for them to go. To prepare for their departure, I made a narrow passageway leading to the gate, using salvaged picket fence panels supported by a few stakes driven into the ground. The pigs were very interested in this extra fencing and came to have a nose, but, when one touched the electric fencing, there was a squeal and a rush of trotters, and I found myself on my back and up to my elbows in mud! No harm was done, but I now knew first hand that these were weighty pigs! And the passageway did its job.
The pigs got used to feeding there and, when the trailer came to collect them, they were easily coaxed and nudged up onto the trailer – which was a great relief.
We were (and are) lucky enough to have an excellent and very accommodating butcher nearby, and he arranged everything for us. He collected the pigs, sorted out the paperwork, took them to and collected them from the abattoir, made us lots of delicious sausages, bacon and ham and butchered the pork perfectly, giving us plenty of small joints and chops and a few big joints for special occasions. One day we will want to make some of our own sausages and cure our own bacon and ham, but this year we didn’t have time and I’m very glad we didn’t. We now know just how good home-grown sausages and bacon can be! And, despite leaving the sausage-making to the experts, we did add some value by packaging them well and adding home-made labels featuring a photo of our own pigs!
Other projects – present and future
This year, we are going to try to do better with our fruit and vegetables – mainly by concentrating our efforts on a smaller area. Getting the better of the couch grass and nettles in our vegetable plot will be a top priority, and we will use a combination of digging, mulching and regular hoeing – lots of hard work in other words! We have run water pipes to the plot and onto the field and this should help. In the longer term, it would be good to find a way to combine the vegetable and animal rotations.
We are planning our plot with the long term in mind. We have ordered some sapling trees: osier willows for wicker, which should be producing within a few years, and, as longer term investment, ash trees for firewood, chestnut for stakes and fencing and, even a few walnut trees, which might (if we are very lucky) produce a nut or two before we shuffle off our mortal coils!