To launch our new series on training courses, where better to start than with the brand based on the TV show that inspired myself and many others to make a move into smallholding in the first place

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s enterprise continues to thrive and offers a range of courses all of which have the production of good quality food at their heart.

That said, their smallholder course was set up to enable others to get a taste for what goes on at River Cottage HQ outside of the kitchen and to promote their ethos of producing food to high welfare standards. It provides an informative introduction to every aspect of running a smallholding, covering everything from choosing and rearing chickens, to how to trim a sheep’s feet, as well as the importance of maintaining overall animal health. Teaching the basics of animal husbandry, it also enables people to put the theories into practice with lots of opportunity to get hands-on with the pigs, sheep and poultry on the farm.

Dan Powell has been farming since 1982 and running the smallholder course here since 2013. He told me that often at the beginning, people say they wish to keep sheep, pigs and chickens… a horse, a dog and a few goats. However, by the end of the course, they are much more realistic about what is achievable in their situation. In particular, he really enjoys the discussions that arise on subjects as varied as preventing fox attacks on chickens to the ethical issues surrounding slaughter and eating animals that have been reared at home.

Dan’s day long course for rookie smallholders starts in style with a tractor and trailer ride to River Cottage HQ, where guests are welcomed with a morning tea or coffee and tasty treats. As you would expect, food is a strong focus, with lunch a main event in between the opportunity to swot up on the skills, equipment and knowledge needed to raise the most common livestock. Warming up with a look at how to choose your site and what ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’ actually mean, Dan then shares his knowledge on the necessities of poultry-keeping, often the smallholder’s first choice.

After lunch (which is prepared by River Cottage chefs using produce from the farm) comes a session on the smallholder’s best friend, pigs. Dan covers everything from breeding and growing pigs, different breeds, health issues, housing, feeding, handling and transportation. This is followed by a focus on sheep, the gentle companion to the pig, where attendees will learn all about breeds and breeding, lambing, housing, health and how to choose when lambs are ready for slaughter.

There is just time at the end of the day to ask any further questions of Dan, meet the River Cottage team and take a final look at the idyllic surroundings before being whisked back up the hill by the tractor and trailer. After a day of swotting up and mucking in, the team hope to leave their pupils bursting with ideas for their own smallholding adventure ahead.

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