by Sue Cade
Smallholders have been around for donkey’s years, but there’s a new celebrity charm attached to the concept, courtesy of such programmes as My Dream Farm and A Farmer’s Life for Me, and the emerging breed of lifestyle celebrities like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jimmy Doherty. Two small-scale farmers from very different backgrounds and circumstances explain the actual practicalities and emotions involved with raising animals then sending them to slaughter.
Wendy Wayne was born and raised in deepest, darkest Wandsworth, about as urban as you can get. She always wanted a rural life, and when she arrived in Devon she felt she’d come home. Wendy and husband Dave live in a neat Victorian semi with a small garden. Despite a lack of land, they harboured a dream of keeping livestock and started with four chickens (named Sage, Onion, Parsley and Thyme) on rented land that they paid for - with eggs.
In 2010, they decided to go the whole hog, and purchased a pair of pregnant ewes. The experienced ewes both produced twins without assistance from (to quote) ‘these useless idiots’! Wendy says that lambing was a huge learning curve, like climbing Mount Everest. ‘But what an experience,’ she adds.
They never lost sight of the fact that they would be eating their lambs. Both had been vegetarians for many years but they feel they are able to eat meat now as long as they know its background. ‘If it ain’t meat we know, we don’t eat it,’ says Dave. As the lambs were loaded on the lorry taking them to slaughter, Wendy brushed away a tear and began to look forward to tasting home-grown lamb!
The biggest dilemma for Wendy and Dave is when to stop ‘growing’ the flock. ‘We’re No Acre Farm,’ says Wendy. But local people have rallied; the breeding flock now grazes a field rented for the princely sum of half a lamb and the owner of a holiday complex has offered free grazing on his paddock so his guests can pet the sheep. ‘We see ourselves as gypsy farmers,’ laughs Dave, ‘we don’t own land and we don’t pay rent.’ And neither do they make any profit, instead financing the venture through gardening work, and several part-time jobs.
I’d had a look on the ‘My Dream Farm’ website and I mention to Wendy that it says; ‘in general, sheep are a good choice for first time farmers and even a large garden can support a few lambs and whilst they fatten up ready for your freezer, they’ll mow your lawn for you.’
Wendy snorts and tells me that when they went on a lambing course, they were shown the medicine container for pigs (the size of a shoebox), cows (another shoebox) then sheep – a whole double cupboard’s worth. It’s not quite as simple as the website infers!
From no land to loads of land! Fiona Cathcart’s parents moved to a farm in 1975, but rather than follow them into farming, she went travelling and started a business designing and selling ethnic-inspired tapestries. Fiona became a committed vegetarian, due to her love for animals and her concerns about eating meat without knowing its source.
‘During my 40s I began to feel physically run down,’ says Fiona, ‘and I started wondering whether this was in anyway due to a lack of meat in my diet. Deciding to eat meat again prompted me to think about growing my own!’ Fiona started a suckler herd (where calves suckle their mums for up to nine months then remain in a family group to graze) on land rented from her parents.
The first three calves were purchased in 2008 from a neighbouring farm for £30 each when they were four days’ old. An avid Star Trek fan, Fiona called the calves after characters in the series; Deanna and Beverly (after Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher from the Next Generation) and Kira (after Major Kira in Deep Space Nine). Fiona milk-reared her calves and they became very tame, although Kira had a skittish temperament.
So while Deanna and Beverly were put into calf (with Deanna going on to produce the captain of the USS Enterprise, Kirk), Kira was destined for slaughter. How is it possible to go from staunch vegetarianism to choosing who is to go in the pot? ‘I knew Kira had lived a spoilt life,’ says Fiona, ‘and at the end of the day, it’s the way of things.’ Even so, the actual event was emotional, and Fiona made sure that Kira’s final moments were as stress free as possible by choosing a local slaughterhouse and asking that Kira could be put through first.
The cost of slaughter was £180, which included hanging the carcass for three weeks, jointing, labelling and crating up. Despite the high quality of the beef, Fiona viewed this as a trial, cooking some herself and giving various cuts to family and friends.
One acre is needed for every three cows and more if you’re producing your own silage. On top of rent, outgoings include the purchase price of the animal, milk powder, calf pellets, vets bills, mineral licks, vaccinations and winter straw. Every cow has to be registered and tagged when born, and has a passport that is filled in whenever they move farms. ‘The government knows where every, single cow in the country is at any given time,’ says Fiona. Both effort and cost seem high, particularly as Fiona gave away all of Kira’s meat for free as it was a trial run. ‘I view this as a five-year investment,’ says Fiona.
‘I want my herd to have a good life, so I keep them longer than most farmers who usually sell before the winter.’ When they are sold this autumn Fiona expects to make around £700 for Spock and £1000 for Kirk. However, she agrees that there are currently a lot of outgoings and not much return, and her living is earned from running her parents’ free range chicken farm.
Fiona is adamant that her cows (she now has 14) have very different personalities; some are shy, others are boisterous. Deanna is bossy, and Spock loves cuddles; ‘He’s softer than a Labrador,’ she laughs. They have all been treated the same she adds, indicating that their characters come by way of nature, not nurture. The herd races over to see Fiona when she goes into the field. ‘This,’ says Fiona ‘is work that I love.’
Dave, Wendy and Fiona say that their experience of raising animals is fantastically rewarding and highly recommended – as long as you don’t expect to make money and you don’t mind mud!