Microholding

Double trouble: the two 11-week-old Gloucestershire Old Spot weaners continue to rotovate the land with their impressive, powerful snouts
Double trouble: the two 11-week-old Gloucestershire Old Spot weaners continue to rotovate the land with their impressive, powerful snouts

We don’t come close to claiming to be fully fledged smallholders, but I feel as if we have expanded our livestock quite significantly lately, so that we’re getting that bit closer. The ex-council smallholding where we live once afforded its owners a modest living by growing flowers for seed, apparently (one day I’d like to look into the original residents by digging around in local records and history books), and providing enough land for self-sufficiency in vegetables, but as James and I both work full-time, it’s not nearly as productive a plot as it could be. However, I do think our efforts could be worthy of the term microholding.

Mabel (right) and Audrey, who have been moulting profusely for what seems to be the second time in a year. Have any other henkeepers heard of this?
Mabel (right) and Audrey, who have been moulting profusely for what seems to be the second time in a year. Have any other henkeepers heard of this?

Our morning and evening rounds consist of four stops – first Audrey and Mabel, our two Araucanas who become pet chickens between September and February when they shut up shop and don’t lay a single egg between them. Next, it’s the five cobb chickens we recently acquired and are raising for Christmas (two will be served at our 12-strong lunch; the other three are destined for the freezer).

Meaties

Then it’s the turn of the magnificent hybrid hens who keep us, our friends and family in eggs all year round.

The worker hens
The worker hens

Our last port of call is now the pig run, where we are thoroughly enjoying the company of our two Gloucestershire Old Spot weaners, who remain nameless lest we become too attached.

Pigs

Feeding them is really good fun – they’re even more appreciative than the dogs in devouring whatever comes their way. James has been gathering acorns for them, because of course they’re a porcine favourite and this supplement means we can save a little by giving them fewer pignuts. Apples and pears have gone down well, too. In fact, despite it being the tradition to take on piglets in spring and dispatch your porkers in early November, it seems there is an abundance of autumn food for them to enjoy and we’ll be making the most of it by, unconventionally, keeping them till the new year. Buon appetito piggies.

Meet the piglets!

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We had another full day of preparations last Saturday, during which we discovered a local farmer David Smith who not only can sell us a regular supply of straw by the rectangular bale – we don’t have room to store giant wheels of it – for £2 each, but also happened to have some beautiful old Mexican hat feeders and drinkers in a barn from when his family used to keep 100-odd breeding sows and their litters. Now they’ve turned their attention to arable with a small beef herd and some diversification schemes, including letting business units on their land.

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So after loading up the pick-up truck we borrowed from James’ work, we headed back home where my brother David, who had come to stay on the Friday night, nobly set to work cleaning up the rusted cast-iron treasures with a wire brush and carried out other tasks such as cleaning out the hens, while we put round the stock fencing. We all downed tools by dusk and admired our handiwork. Finally, Project Fence was complete and, furnished with our CPH number from the Rural Payments Agency, we could look forward to collecting those piglets the following day.

Despite the constant rain that greeted us the next morning, it was a joy to drive over to pig breeder Roger’s on Sunday and visit the litter. We chose two male weaners as we’ve heard they become rather boisterous and bullish by the time we’ll be taking them to the abattoir, which will hopefully make the deed a little easier. The pair we picked have distinct markings, too, so we can distinguish them – one has just a few splodges of black (below, right), while the other has more numerous and smaller spots (although so far we’ve resisted naming them for obvious reasons). Ear-tagged and wrestled into the dog crate in the boot of our car, during which they squealed in true porcine fashion, we expected them to protest loudly all the way home, but they simply snuffled and snorted to our delight. A careful introduction to the dogs, who it seemed took a while to figure out that the new additions weren’t canine, and they were soon truffling around the plot.
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James and I sat on a bale and had our lunch while watching them eat pignuts and explore their new territory. They are even more enchanting than I anticipated – such a joy to watch. So far they do everything together, too, which is rather charming. They’re also magnificent Rotovators, of course, and have turned over large tracts of earth around the circumference of their run already. So much of Sunday was spent gazing at them – with my mum who also came to admire them – and polishing off little jobs around the place. After a busy few hours cultivating our soil, the piglets flopped into their ark – so intelligent, they knew where their home was immediately – and didn’t show much interest in their evening feed due to the vast quantities of nettles and roots they’d eaten.

The following morning I went to give them their breakfast and peered in the ark. They were nowhere to be seen. I searched the run and, again, not a sign. Panicking that they might have undermined the fence already or, worse, been stolen, I got into a bit of a flap until I went back to the ark and dug deep to discover that they had covered themselves in around a foot of straw! I gave them a stroke and replaced their insulating layers with a huge sigh of relief. Clearly, we’ve much to learn about these wonderful creatures!

PS Any advice from seasoned pigkeepers would be much appreciated – including information about quantities of feed as they grow…

Porcine plans postponed!

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Some of the herd we’ll be choosing our two from
Our piggy hopes were dashed last weekend when we discovered that a.) The breeder we are buying our Gloucestershire Old Spot weaners from hadn’t obtained the licence he needed in order to move them and b.) James are I were hideously behind with Project Fence! So, after the initial disappointment at realising we wouldn’t be picking up our porcine charges on Saturday as planned, we instead threw ourselves into clearing more of the land and collecting the stakes, stock fencing and staples necessary for the job.

Fully loaded with the necessary equipment for stock fencing
Fully loaded with the necessary equipment for stock fencing

The reason we hadn’t made more progress with marking the boundary was that we’d been talked into not only putting in the stick electric fencing – the ease of which was the whole reason we decided we had time to start pigkeeping now rather than next year – but also the more hardcore stock fencing. This requires clearing the (numerous) weeds, levelling the ground, measuring and some serious muscle!

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Despite preparing the site and getting the gate, all the corner posts and strainers in over the weekend, which took a remarkably long time, on Sunday as dusk fell and we could no longer see to carry on, we realised if we were to collect our pigs this weekend we needed to buy ourselves some extra time.

Darcy made sure all the work met his exacting standards
Darcy made sure all the work met his exacting standards

So with no meetings in the diary at work, on Tuesday afternoon we both came home to carry on. It was a beautifully sunny, warm few hours and we managed to get all the posts in by dark, leaving us just the actual stock wire to tack on tomorrow before driving over to Roger’s and choosing our pair of porkers this Sunday. Finally!

James adjusting the height of one of our posts which didn't pass quality control
James adjusting the height of one of our posts which didn’t pass quality control

A flurry of activity

Cobb chickens (full-size)
Cobb chickens (full-size)

Having picked up the meat chickens last Saturday from our friend Ken, we discovered that they were far smaller than we’d expected – and had prepared for! Cobb chickens are quick-growing so although we’ve raised them for the table before, it was their enormous size at around four months that remained in our memories – not their diminutive month-old proportions! So last weekend, we put the task of erecting electric fencing for the pig run aside and instead adapted the house and run for our new flock. Our main concern was the strong possibility of Beau, our Bengal cat and expert hunter, entertaining himself by predating these defenceless creatures (he doesn’t attempt full-size poultry, just likes to chase them occasionally). Another fear was that, if they ventured into their outside run, a sparrowhawk we’ve recently spotted in the area could swoop down and snap them up.

Proofing the house and undercover run against both these scenarios was therefore top priority – we chicken-wired everything in a bid to seal their digs, adding a gate, which James made from odd pieces of wood and bolts we already had. It was fiddly work and took the whole of Sunday to complete. We’re really pleased with the result and are enjoying seeing the miniature flock already growing, but it means we’re seriously behind for our pair of Gloucestershire Old Spots which we’re picking up on Sunday. Given that James is at work tomorrow morning, the afternoon is going to be Project Fence – quite possibly by torchlight if that’s what it takes! We have, however taken delivery of a very fine ark, from Sussex-based company Ardingly Arks. James and I even got inside it the other night to test it out before the porcine tenants arrive and can testify its quality. Once lined with plenty of straw, it should prove a suitably cosy residence.

Bess and Mark complete the build, overseen by Darcy our German Shepherd in the foreground
Bess and Mark of Ardingly Arks complete the build, overseen by Darcy our German Shepherd in the foreground

Then, of course, we’ll have the very exciting but challenging task of choosing the weaners we’re going to take home. This may take some time. Below is some of the litter pictured at a fortnight old six weeks ago – which two will we come back with…?!

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