Sali Earls gets back to basics at Kate Humble’s new farm venture.
Smallholding. It’s a word that I’ve always been fascinated by. I’ve never considered myself to be the farming type, but smallholding seemed somehow altogether different. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I had been imbued with a certain romantic notion that smallholding would be exactly as depicted when Tom and Barbara Good donned their Wellies, bought a goat, and annoyed a certain Margo Leadbetter. When I was invited therefore to attend a smallholding session at Humble by Nature, the Monmouthshire farm owned by TV presenter Kate Humble and her husband Ludo Graham, there was no way I was going to refuse. This would be the opportunity for me to find out exactly what smallholding was all about, and find out if I was prepared to get my hands dirty and get stuck in.
The wonderfully named “Oink Cluck Baaa! Smallholding for Beginners” course took place at the farm, and was led by expert Liz Shankland, with input throughout the day from Ludo. There were seven would be smallholders taking part and we all diligently listened to Liz’s presentation detailing the finer points of getting started with smallholding from legislative requirements, to the cost of purchasing and looking after animals. She told us how she had given up a successful career as a journalist to pursue her dream, and sold her designer suits to buy a tractor. Her experience has led her to write a highly successful book; one that is regarded as the bible for the would be smallholder.
Once it was time to put the theory into practice, we moved from the barn onto the farm and into the area designated for chickens. Humble by Nature keep several breeds of chickens, but we were able to get hands on with some that had only been on the farm for around three weeks, having previously been battery hens. The British Hen Welfare Trust rescue and re-home around sixty thousand chickens each year, and many can go on to lay for around five years in a domestic environment.
With Liz’s guidance, we literally got to grips with some of the rescue birds, finding out the best way to catch and hold a hen, and also how to clip their wings to stop them flying. Although it appeared rather brutal, Liz showed us that we could simply cut across the wing at a certain point with scissors without causing the hen any distress. We were advised that if buying hens, it’s best to buy them at the point of lay, when they are around 16-20 weeks old. Pure bred hens can cost around £20 each, but in Liz’s experience hybrids are better layers.
The group then moved on to view the hives Ludo and Kate have been nurturing, and advice was given about courses and equipment needed to keep bees. Indeed Humble by Nature offer beekeeping courses.
A delicious lunch was served by Katherine Marland of Kather’s Kitchen, based on the farm. The ingredients had been locally sourced if not from the farm itself then within the surrounding area, and the menu had been developed to enhance our enjoyment of the course with a very tasty Smallholder’s Pie being served as a main course, containing pork and chicken with a local beer.
Following lunch, we moved on to talk about sheep, and spent time with Tim Stephens, the farm’s tenant farmer who breeds Welsh Mountain sheep and Hereford cattle. Tim had selected several sheep from the flock in order to demonstrate the correct way to deal with a variety of very common problems. For someone normally pretty squeamish about such things, I was pleasantly surprised at how eager I was to find out more about these problems, although I hadn’t quite expected to see the effect of flystrike in quite such graphic terms. Although unpleasant, this was a highly necessary and excellent demonstration of the methods to employ in safeguarding the flock, quickly identifying and alleviating problems before the effects are irreversible. Following demonstrations on treating ailments, clipping hooves and shearing, we were invited to get up close and personal with the sheep and many of the course attendees tried their hand at catching and holding a sheep in the most efficient way.
After the sheep, we moved onto pigs, an animal that Liz feels especially passionate about. We saw first hand the damage that pigs can do to the land by rooting through the soil, and then had the opportunity to try our hand at working with some young pigs. Known as weaners, these piglets could be purchased and were being reared by the farm on the behalf of their new owners prior to a trip to the abattoir. Humble by Nature also offer charcuterie courses to enable the owners to make the best of the animal.
The day came to a close with tea and cake from Kather’s Kitchen, and a good chat with Liz, Ludo and Kate. We were left in no doubt that smallholding is a passion, but is also a labour of love and can be unpredictable and ultimately expensive. I don’t think smallholding is for me, but in my case that’s more to do with a lack of land than anything else – I certainly surprised myself with my eagerness to get involved. Several of my fellow course attendees were extremely buoyed by the knowledge and skills gained and went away excited about their smallholding futures.
The course was well run, very enjoyable and extremely comprehensive, and at £95 offers great value for money for those seriously considering the life of a smallholder. Find out more about the course and the others on offer at Humble by Nature at www.humblebynature.com/whats-on.