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…!