I try not to indulge in too many photographs of the Gloucestershire Old Spots looking cute, for the simple reason that on 21 January they will be heading down the road to the abattoir, but this week I can’t resist – they’re just too charming. The way they sleep top-to-tail, whether under the elder in their run or snuggled up in their ark, is quite frankly adorable (though I’m sure there is a very sensible and practical reason behind it, such as the need to conserve body warmth).
Meanwhile, they’ve also managed to transform the ground of their entire run to a lovely crumbly soil – the chickens seem desperate to get in there and peck about – the grass is always greener, though in this case not literally – and clear a fair amount of their extended patch, too, preparing it nicely for our fruit trees.
Planting an orchard is one of our plans for 2014 – does anyone else have a smallholding wishlist?
Now, pushing five months old, our two Gloucestershire Old Spot boys have well and truly decimated their quite sizeable pig run. Not that we’re complaining – they’ve turned over the earth and extracted the roots of all the nettles, thistles and comfrey (we still have plenty more of this great fertilising crop in other parts of the garden) that had covered the area very thoroughly indeed, meaning that we’re now even considering growing vegetables on it come spring. Their rotovating action is amazing to watch and pigs’ natural urge to rootle just staggers me. In fact, it was when James and I visited Helen Browning’s farm in Wiltshire, that we realised this behaviour is so fundamental: piglets just days old were determined to burrow their tiny snouts under the soil. Never has the idea of intensively reared pigs on concrete floors seemed so abhorrent – the animals must surely go mad through the inability to act on this instinct. No wonder they fight and bite each other’s tails.
Our Old Spots’ desire to dig and our need to turn over various places in the garden means that we have a very neat arrangement and have set up a new extension to their current run.
With the use of black stick electric fencing (what a brilliant invention!), powered by a solar panel, we’ve given the pair access to the previously wild area where we hope to plant trees early next year. This easy way to move them about the garden means that there’s no stopping us – next will be the site for the new fruitcage! And perhaps a little money-earner: we could hire them and future pigs out to green downshifters who want their gardens dug over.
It’s official: egg yields have hit an all-time low! This is the sorry box I brought in to Country Living HQ to sell at the unusual price of £1.25 due to the five not six items inside! Hope the customer isn’t planning a giant frittata or anything along those lines. As well as a certain shortage of goods from the chickens, I’ve reached that point in the year where the complete darkness, when I both leave the house for work and return in the evening, becomes a little wearing. It’s so rewarding to see the hens and pigs properly before the day begins and, while the two Gloucestershire Old Spots are out and about ready for breakfast so I can at least shine the torch on them and say hello, the Araucanas and hybrids are tucked up in their coops – and who can blame them?!
So, last Friday it was a real treat for James and I to have the day off, tend to our tiny number of livestock when the sun rose (as nature intended!) and then hop in the car to visit a very special mixed holding in Wiltshire. We’d been invited down to Helen Browning‘s Eastbrook Farm in Blagstone, Wiltshire, by the Soil Association of which she is chief executive, to see organic farming in action and, of course, admire her 3,000 Saddleback pigs! It was a gloriously clear, cold, bright day and after a warming coffee, Helen gave Natasha Collins-Daniel, Sarah Weston (both from the Soil Association) and us a tour around this inspirational place, starting with the dairy herd in the barn where a calf, born just hours earlier, was attempting to feed from its mother for the first time.
In a pen opposite were three Saddleback gilts snuggled up in the straw who were being lined up for serving by the boar.
Once we were out and about in the car driving down the track to visit the free-rangers, it was fascinating to see the organic rotation system that Helen had described – pigs spend just four months in one field and after that it’s five years before any return to it, ensuring that the soil is healthy again. During this period, it undergoes various changes including being planted with turnips; beef cattle will graze on the tops and feed on the roots, fattening up over the winter when the grass isn’t growing. We could soon see how the 1,337 acres are used, as well as raising livestock, Helen and her team also grow oats, barley and animal feed including wheat (also for breadmaking flour) and peas.
I called this part of the farm ‘Pig City’ – I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many gorgeous rare-breed specimens in one place – and with quite a view, as you can see. There were dozens of tiny piglets skipping about and we were all pretty smitten – including Helen, for whom their charm and ability to cheer hasn’t worn off even after years of farming. “When I’ve had a bad day or can’t work through a problem, I come up here and instantly feel better,” she says.
After several hours in the fresh, cold air, it was time for lunch at The Royal Oak in the village where the farm’s pork and beef features on the menu, from the burger with pickles and fries to pan-fried pork belly, crispy shoulder with buttered mash, red cabbage and elderberry gravy. Helen rescued the pub seven years ago and it’s now buzzing with locals and visitors alike (ramblers come here off the ancient Ridgeway trail). With a crackling fire, excellent local ale and great conversation, we could have spent hours at our cosy table. But our own miniature farm beckoned and we headed back to Essex full of inspiration and ideas for the future. After all, Helen started with just a pair of pigs…!