We moved here with an average age just a few months under 40 and no prior experience of, or family links to, farming. So how did that happen? Well, after moving away from a densely populated town and spending a couple of years living in a village on the edge of the moors we had started to think about getting an allotment. But it turned out that the queue was ten years long and growing so we began with a few planters in the garden for herbs and strawberries. Then came the ducks, two white Campbells living in a run at the bottom of the garden and our eyes were opened to keeping stock. As we read more we discovered the world of smallholding and soon the idea of fattening a couple of pigs was also part and parcel of a future vision.
Our ambition grows
A smallholding taster course further whetted our appetite for what was possible and a flock of sheep started to grow in the imagination. Then followed a year or so of contacting local farms and landowners to enquire about land for sale or rent, bidding on some parcels in the next village only to find restrictions on building even a simple barn for storage. Finally we came to the conclusion that we had to move and find a home with land attached and the search really began. Websites were scoured, several more tenders were submitted unsuccessfully, and weekends were spent working out property locations on Google Maps and walking footpaths across the county. During this time we had kept the plan alive by visiting agricultural shows and taking opportunities to learn new skills that might come in useful. Sheep management, lambing, and shearing were all tried on a range of courses in evenings or at weekends. A smallholding programme at the local agricultural college introduced record keeping and grassland management amongst other things.
Finding the farm
After a couple of years looking and trying to progress one property for many months we happened upon a listing for a farm. There were no pictures but by that time we had become experts in pinpointing sites based on tiny clues in the details and we drove out that weekend. By then we had been living in rented accommodation for five months, surrounded by boxes and watching programmes on the laptop screen at night as the TV aerial didn't work.
One walk along the footpath through the yard and we knew this was it. Within three days we had badgered the agent into a viewing and made an offer the next morning. Then followed an anxious further five months as the complexities of conveyancing took over but in October 2017 we were finally the new owners of Monk Hall Farm and spent our first night rattling around in the empty house enjoying a celebratory drink chilled in the water trough on the track.
The first weekend we brought home a rescue cat that we hoped would help with rodent control and put 27 rare breed chicken eggs in the incubator to hatch. But before we could add more stock there was much to do to prepare - new fencing, clearing space in the outbuildings, building a secure chicken run, planting new hedging, running pipes and more.
The jobs list hasn't got much shorter since but slowly we have worked out the things we need to make it easier to run the farm alongside our full time jobs.
All the time we had spent researching had convinced us that the type of farming we wanted to do was based on native breeds that would be well adapted for our setting and could help with regeneration of the land. Low impact, high welfare, extensive management allowing the animals to free range as much as possible was critical. There are undoubtedly compromises that have to be made - for example is it more important to protect the chickens from predation or to allow them unlimited ranging? But throughout we aim to allow nature to flourish, whether that be letting wildflowers in the meadow set seed each summer rather than mowing it, which would provide better grazing for the sheep, or supporting farmland birdlife by planting new hedgerows. The livestock are a layer that builds on this foundation, rather than the other way round, but there is much still left to learn and adjustments to our approach to be made as we do so.
Our primary produce is food - meat and eggs - partly to buy for ourselves and partly to sell to family, friends and local people who value a slowly matured premium product.
This isn't high volume intensive or factory farming, this is hands-on, knowing our individual animals and letting them grow naturally to develop great flavour. You aren't going to find free range, properly outdoor-reared, rare breed pork or 18 month old pasture-fed Hebridean hogget in the supermarket anytime soon. You can only source such high quality meat from small scale producers.
We also have raw fleece from our Hebridean sheep available to spinners and crafters.
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