The 'manageable and affectionate' but refers to the cows, not me, as Jonny kindly pointed out. The full article, all about our first year at Farrantshayes is on sale now- how exciting!
I do love interacting with other likeminded folk on Twitter and have tweeted under the handle @farrrantshayes since shortly after we moved onto the farm. Whilst in the dentist one cheery morning I started reading an article about a professional chef called Marcus Bawdon who specialised in year round outdoor cooking and ran a magazine, a website and created videos on YouTube to help aspiring BBQ aficiandos to try out new recipes and methods. On realising that he lived only a few miles away I cheekily dropped him a message telling him about what we were doing on the farm and inviting him down to see us and meet the livestock.
Marcus dropped down some time later and brought his lovely young son to meet and help feed our pigs and meet the sheep and cows. I couldn't let him leave without pressing on him a slab of pork belly from our first ever OSBs and asking for an honest opinion as to whether it was any good or not!
Last week we finally got to see the results of Marcus' wizardry. The belly slabs were slathered in Mad Cows BBQ pork rub #1 which contains subtle hints of star anise. I think the photos (credit to Marcus) speak for themselves. I'd like to think I could smell it cooking from the farm, but we were probably doing something utterly prosaic at the time, like scrubbing out a trough! It does look utterly gorgeous though and it's super, as with Dis' pictures, to see our produce out in the world, being enjoyed in a variety of different ways. The photograohs hopefully showcase how juicy and marbled the meat is; this batch of pigsharers have an awful lot of this to look forward to!
Today's blog is called 'some thoughts about cows', principally in honour of a book I have just finished reading- well more accurately, listening to, as smallhold in combo with the day job doesn't allow much time to luxuriate in an actual book. In an effort to redeem my status as a reader I've been listening to audiobooks on my commute, which gives me roughly five hours of reading time weekly. I recently listened to Rosemary Young's 'The Secret Life of Cows'. Though I did sometimes fear that Rosemary's soothing, if rather monotonous, voice might send me into the arms of Morpheous on the A30, I can highly recommend her work. She writes compassionately and vividly about the close relationships between cows and also between cows and humans. Such is her belief that cows are able to choose what is best for their welfare, that her herd,over winter, can choose whether to stay in the barn and eat hay, to or wander out into the field to graze. Different cows, she says, have different preferences. I believe her entirely.
I would very much like to be able to offer our eight Rubies the same options.The current herd is comprised of the three Whitefield heifers, purchased last Autumn, the two cows with calves at foot from the Colleton herd and Alfie, the steer. Despite them all appearing identical to the uninitiated (one brown cow surely looks the same as another brown cow, no?) we know them very much as individuals. Ange,herd leader of the Whitefield gang, has grown one lonely horn. You can rely on Ange to do the right thing and reason with the others to follow her lead. If you have her head in a bucket of nuts, you've as good as penned the whole herd, ready to do whatever needs to be done. Audrey and Amber are her loyal followers- though Amber has a wilful streak and often won't listen to reason, or even the laws of physics. She is the most troublesome to get into the crush and would rather throw the whole thing over than in a fit of pique than submit. The two 'new' Colleton mums are recognisable by their lighter coats and loud, grating voices; unlike the Whitefield heifers, they're mums already and must need those loud calls to speak to their heifer calves. I must admit to preferring the low, kind moos of the maiden heifers. The calves, who arrived at food with the Colleton girls , Gracey and Georgia, are indistinguishable to us at the moment. Their time to be known will no doubt come.
Alfie, the only boy, stands apart from them all. He is the 'face of the farm' ; a casual picture I snapped of him munching hay one day conveyed his character perfectly and ended up becoming our logo.His eyes were lit up with humour and joy, his nose tipped upwards and his mouth formed what, for all the world, appeared to be a soulful, grin. It put across all that we wanted to say about how very right life could be for animals. This was no one off moment either - anytime we have wandered out into the field, sweet Alfie is first over to extend his pink, moist nose towards you, venture a lick and exhale slowly his scent of wet grass. Fortunately, or more often unfortunately, he is also endlessly inquisitive. He loves cars- mostly licking the paintwork but also wondering where they might take him (see video below)- and ponderously investigating new buildings en route to wherever he is going. He breaks my heart, because he is the only one who won't stay with us for life. I haven't had too many problems with 'sending off' any animals so far, but I am unspeakably sad about the thought of 'our' Alfie going. 'Why couldn't he be a bull?' we say sadly to one another. When I put a picture of him on an internet forum suggestions come in about the possibility of training him to pull a cart, like an oxen. Being as he can't even find his way to the water trough unaided much of the time I don't think this is feasible. I am (rather fruitlessly) hoping that our fondness for him might fade. Or that he might develop a womb and become a useful heifer in the first ever known case of bovine 'sequential hermaphroditism'- like that fish on 'Blue Planet' the other week.
Returning to the ways of keeping cows over the Winter, I would offer ours as a cautionary tale to any new smallholders thinking of keeping cows out 'au naturel' this year. Last winter, our four (at the time) Rubies stayed out on six acres. We had been told by some that they were a native breed and would cope well. We dutifully carted hay out to them in wheelbarrows (these were the pre tractor days) or begged the helpful stockman of the farmer who was (entirely sensibly) hiring OUR cowsheds (oh, the irony) to spear big bales of haylage and place them in feeders outside. The areas around the feeders looked like First World War trenches in practically no time. The rain fell, seemingly endlessly, rendering the fields lumpen,sodden realms of misery. The herd broke out almost daily; a combination of the rotten old fencing, hunger and jealously of the dairy herds, masticating contentedly in the warm sheds, drove them mad with frustration. They limboed over, under and often simply straight through the rusting barbed wire, carefully selecting days when we were away from the farm to do so, seemingly to create maximum chaos and inconvenience. for our poor smallholding sitter, who once ended up getting them out of our reed bed sewage system and tying the fence back together with baler twine. Have I mentioned she's a saint? When the short days finally grew longer, our fields were a sad sight to behold. We failed to get them reseeded or rolled at the right time. It was, without a doubt, the most hopeless, miserable few months of our 'farming' lives so far and I very much doubt it was a bundle of laughs for the cows.
In short, we made mistakes. Lots of them. All with a perfectly good cattle shed, standing unused.
So, we have learned our lesson. I've eaten humble pie. We have struck a deal with the farmer who keeps the happy dairy cows in our 'top sheds' and he is going to 'bed up' our shed at the same time as his own. Last week our little herd ambled into a shed full of golden straw and haylage made from the orchard field, which we miraculously managed to get 21 large bales off, despite it being utterly trashed. They seem happy and it is pleasant to be able to stroke their wide foreheads through the gaps in the feeder and know they are safe, warm and not causing havoc. The fields are now virtually empty, apart from our ever present fencer, who is spending a week putting right the damage from last year. Peace, temporarily, reigns.
In my last blog I promised to write more about our little flock of sheep. We only have eight ewes- six badger faced and two Herdwicks,who live in with Ernie the horse and are free to enjoy the shelter of the big barn or be outside grazing in the wedge shaped field. Two Badger Faced (Torddu) ewes are particularly fond of human company and will always come up for a scritch on the head- I call them my 'pet' girls. They were all bought as ewe lambs so we have had to wait a long eighteen months for them to be mature enough to breed; the upside is we've lots of time to get to know them.
Our little ‘ram a lamb’ arrived on the farm back in the Summer, fresh from Dartmoor and has been out enjoying the orchard field with a bachelor gang of store lambs and his permanent companion, a perpetually fearful looking Kerry Hill wether named Horatio. For two weeks before putting ‘ram a lamb’ in with his ladies, we were fortunate enough to borrow ‘Ted the Teaser’- a vasectomised ram whose sole purpose in life is to bring all the ewes into season at the same time, thus creating a tighter lambing period. Ernie, unfortunately, took an instant dislike to poor Ted, whose curled horns and peculiar sneer seemed to massively offend him. He picked him up bodily and flung him across the field in rage. They were kept apart from that point on. …
After his fortnight with the hareem, Ted was returned to his owners and sturdy little ‘ram a lamb' was raddled and put in. Raddle is a thick coloured paste that is slathered onto the chest of the ram in order to see when he has mated the ewe. The colour is changed weekly so that it is clear which girls have been lucky enough to receive his attentions and will therefore lamb first. As we watched him strut happily across the field he showed immediate interest in our throughly ‘teased’ and willing ewes. It seemed they loved their new ‘toyboy.’ Ernie presumably thought he was just one of the girls as he took no notice of the handsome newcomer.
After a few days we could only see yellow paddle marks on two ewes- Bethany - always recognisable by her white head- and one of my ‘pet’ girls. It was starting to feel like he was rather too faithful to these two as no other markings have appeared since, despite changing the raddle so it was wet and fresh last Sunday. I do hope that he is doing the job as it would be something of a disaster to only have two lambs this April! I am even beginning to contemplate putting one of the store lambs (who happens to not have been castrated) we bought for the freezer in with the girls if things don’t improve. A ‘chaser ram’ I guess you’d call him! He’s a Lleyn, so they would be crossbreeds, but that’s life.
In other ovine news, last Monday two of the store lambs we bought back in the Summer went off to the abattoir. They had grown on well and reached 40kg by the time they left. They were both Lleyns, so we will be interested to see how their meat tastes in comparison to our little Badger Faced lambs and hoggs that have gone off so far. There will certainly be more to go around! Their fleeces have gone for curing as well and will be back in a mere eight months, if the last lot were anything to go by. There aren’t many places left in the UK that do fleeces - we are lucky enough to have one down in Buckfastleigh and whilst it’s a long wait to get them back, there’s nothing like snuggling down into a real fleece. It’s hogget chops for tea tonight and it’s so good to start feeling that the majority of meat consumed in our house is grown on the farm. It now just remains for me not to ruin the cooking of it…..
It's been such a busy time here at Farrantshayes I hardly know where to start...
We did that thing that give every smallholder a twitchy bum last month and went AWAY FROM THE FARM (cue sharp intake of breath) for a few nights. Our superhumanly capable dog walker turned farm sitter, Lucy, couldn't cover this particular holiday, so our valiant, non farming neighbours rose to the challenge. 'Just chuck the food in' Jon said. 'It'll be fine!' We crossed our fingers and prayed to the God of All Things Livestock that they would.
Poor neighbour didn't have it easy. 'Ted the Teaser' ram who was spending some flirty time with our ewes, took a determined fancy to the chicken house (or rather to the feed inside it) and proceeded to single mindedly batter in the sides, presumably terrifying our two surviving quivering hens inside. Poor neighbour and her boy had to drag said house out of the sheep field. Bless them, they even showed up with a hammer and nails the night we came back, offering to fix it, so we can't have put them off too much.
The reason for going away was rather a wonderful and valid one. We got married on 26th October, up on Dartmoor at our favourite place (apart from here)- Bovey Castle. It was just the two of us and Rusty Roo; we didn't tell a soul and it was just a lovely, lovely day. No fuss. No drama. Just two people in a room, making some aspirational, nicely worded promises to one another that they will try and keep (even when it's raining and muddy and the cows have broken out yet again).
Our four Oxford Sandy and Black weaners are growing on nicely now and are booked in for their journey 'to the seaside', 'to say hello to Mr Coles' or whatever fluffy cloak you want to apply to the situation, in early December. They're exceptionally noisy, this lot; apparently gilts (lady pigs) are much more 'vocal' than boars (gentlemen pigs) and I'm not sure I wouldn't go back to having boars next time around. Our pig sharers are eagerly looking forward to trying their first pork. It's vital to us that folks feel that it's good value for money- otherwise it's perfectly understandable if they vote with their feet and return to supermarket pork, putting aside any feelings they may have about how its raised.
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised (for that, read 'grovellingly relieved') at the number of people that turned up at a 'pig chat' evening that I organised this month on behalf of DASH (Devon Association of Smallholders). So many people are eager to keep their own pigs, and whilst you can put this down to them being wonderful animals (which of course they are) I also hope that it's part of a wider desire that people have to know where EXACTLY their food comes from, what it has eaten and how it has been treated. The number of new venues springing up in the South West that pride themselves on sourcing their meat locally is increasing. The Pig (ironically) at Coombe, down the road from us in Gittisham, is a notable example- everything on the plate there is sourced from within a 25 mile radius of the hotel. Brilliant stuff- and very encouraging for small scale farmers.
There's lots going on in the world of our little flock of sheep,but that might have to wait till the next post. Now, where's that little badger faced ram a lamb?
A fortnight or so ago I made the fatal mistake of showing Jonny a picture of a breeding pair of Mangalitsa pigs that were advertised for sale on one of the online smallholder groups. We had read before about the delights of the ‘woolly pig’. They were rare but known for the wonderful marbling running through the meat that makes them wonderful for charcuterie, which we thought we might one day try our hands at, if we could find a course to go on that didn’t require you to remortgage your house. The lady advertising them had lost some of the woodland she was renting, so this pair and their remaining two entire male piglets needed to be rehomed,as they were currently hanging out in her back garden. Having said, with no great conviction, ‘NO PIGS OVER WINTER’, my intrigue got the better of me. We had just created another pig pen on some rough ground at the top of the yard and it had a spare secondhand ark in there. We had the old open fronted bull pen for the piglets. It would all be JUST FINE.
So we found ourselves,with a borrowed livestock trailer, rattling up the road to a village in Wiltshire. Having got ourselves into a space suitable for loading, the lady owner told me about the pigs escapologist tendencies. They were using electric fencing, and (as so often happens) it had gone down a few times and both she and her partner were fairly done with chasing multiple mischievous pigs around their garden.
Matilda, the sow was big but Marmalade the Mangalitsa boar was a huge mass of porcine muscle. He looked something like an angry, prehistoric version of Puumba from ‘The Lion King.’ His yellowing tusks jutted by at odd angles and his screwed up little eyes peered at me from beneath large, pricked ears. I remembered all the excellent advice I had read about always having pigs with lop ears. They can’t see where they’re going, which gives you a fighting chance of being able to persuade them into your way of thinking. Having said that, not having been fed the night before, all the pigs were fairly eager to run up the ramp into the trailer in exchange for apples. We exchanged paperwork, thanked the (relived looking) lady owner and trucked off down back to Devon.
The service station stops on the way home were interesting. There were some slots on the side of the trailer that opened up to allow for air. People would peer in and then draw back in fear at Marmalade’s primitive grin. When we got back to the farm we unhooked the trailer and our sheep farming tenants took a break from grooming their show sheep and came out to see the new arrivals. The look of horror on the faces of those who encountered our new acquisitions was by now becoming worryingly familiar. At nine weeks old, the two uncastrated male weaners needed to be taken away from mum and dad. Fortunately the two older pigs ventured out into their new pen, leaving their offspring behind in the trailer just long enough for us to shut the gates and separate them. They were duly deposited into their new home and christened Ivan (the terrible) and Isaac.
Marmalade and his good lady set about uprooting everything green and pleasant in their pen. Within twelve hours it resembled a badly ploughed field. Our feed bill had doubled overnight, but fortunately the apples were coming into season and all the pigs loved the bitter crunch of the underripe fruit. Over the period of a few days I became brave enough to tentatively scratch the top of Marmalade’s huge head. He chuntered away in piggy pleasure, in a bass voice very different to our squeaky OSBs.
I might be warming to him. Give it time.
My mum's good friend Di has been cooking up some of our very first home reared meat in recent weeks. Neither Jon or I are ever going to be in the running for Masterchef so it has been a pleasure to know that Di, who truly loves to create amazing dishes, is enjoying being creative with Farrantshayes' produce. The dish on the left is our traditional pork and herb sausages with mustard mash, minted mushy peas and caramelised onions. It looks delicious!
The incredible platter on the right is a roast leg of our Oxford Sandy and Black slow grown pork with pigs in blankets, stuffing, proper crackling and apples. According to Di it was 'absolutely delicous- lots of flavour and brilliant crackling...I think there's added water in supermarket pork and no matter how hard you try it's just impossible to get decent crackling.' We couldn't agree more!
As well as pork, Di also cooked up some of our Welsh Badger Faced (Torddu) hogget chops with Mediterranean vegetables, Jersey royals, seared tomatoes and pesto. I was mortified afterwards to remember that I had told her that they were LAMB chops- oops! Either way, I would be more than happy to be served this up in a restaurant! What's great is knowing exactly where the meat came from. I could even tell you the name of the exact sheep, but of course that's not generally information everyone wants!
Thanks ever so much to Di for her wonderful photography and the permission to use it. Knowing that our first efforts at rearing our own animals for meat are being enjoyed by our friends and family is extremely rewarding.
Most of the last few days have been taken up with settling in Ebony, our new cocker spaniel puppy. She is the only daughter of our beloved Rusty Roo and though taking on another animal was the last thing on our 'to-do' list we just couldn't say no to her. She is being fairly angelic thus far and really makes us laugh. We are hoping she is going to be slightly more trainable than Roo, who is a bit of a free spirit when it comes to obeying commands! He is forgiven everything though, on the basis that he is just so utterly charming and sweet natured.
We recently picked up our first ever ram, sold to us courtesy of Debbie Kingsley at South Yeo Farm, who also sold us our original Badger Faced ewes nearly a year ago. He's a handsome little chap and it's novel to see his neat little horns after looking at our girls for so long! He needed a buddy and we were lucky enough to have some friends with a Kerry Hill wether they were happy to sell us. Ding Dong (what other name could he have?) and Horatio are now the best of pals and will have one another for company till mid October when they will go in with the ladies and Ding Dong's bromance will no doubt be forgotten. Poor Horatio.
The 'awesome foursome' were put out into their new quarters a couple of weeks ago- and they just loved exploring! It is important to us that our animals have as much space as possible in which to express their natural behaviours. The pigs will root around and churn up the ground, because that's what they do. It does sadden me to see pigs being sold to smallholders with nose rings to stop them doing this and 'ruining' the land. To us, it's all part and parcel of owning these wonderful creatures.
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