Nicola Hacking, an enthusiastic new smallholder, tells Debbie Kingsley how she and husband Graham have learned lots… the hard way
Nic Hacking and husband Graham started life together in a new-build house on an estate. “We grew our own veg and kept three hens. It all seemed easy in a small sheltered garden, but we outgrew it within a year and started longing for more space and fewer neighbours. In 2011 we moved to a nine-acre smallholding in Carmarthenshire after a long search for the right place. I’m not sure it occurred to us that it would be much more difficult to grow things on a windswept Welsh hillside!
“We started off with sheep by accident. A friend was struggling with bottle lambs and I said she should bring some to us and I’d feed them. Of course they never went home. One was a boy so the obvious happened and we had no idea of the due date for lambing. We bought some Herdwicks and this turned out to be one of our numerous mistakes with sheep that first year. We hadn’t realised how important it was as beginners with little equipment that our sheep were tame and catchable and now we had seven sheep loose in five acres that we couldn’t catch. One was pregnant so we made the tough decision to keep her and put the rest in the freezer. We then tried to buy some ‘very tame’ Shetland sheep, another mistake as two were wild and they were riddled with parasites, so the whole flock had to have injections against scab and lice. We decided we needed to know more and set off to Kate Beavan’s Country School to learn how to take care of our sheep. We also did their lambing course, which was excellent, and we wouldn’t have managed without it. Despite our training I was pretty nervous for our first lambing and slept in the barn with the sheep the whole time.
“We had a horrific experience when five urban foxes were released near us causing chaos, chasing ewes and not being frightened off by us shouting or by the dogs. They chased three of our sheep until they were lying on the ground, too panicked to run any more, bringing one ewe into fast labour with a distressed lamb. Incredibly, our horses chased the fox and stood guard whilst I helped the ewe deliver her lamb.
“Our other drama was a Herdwick with ringwomb. We rushed her to the vet for an emergency c-section. I was warned the lamb would probably be dead but we could hopefully save the ewe. The vet pulled one leg out and told us to be ready, and out came the hugest, loudest lamb. After an eventful first year we decided to do it properly. The flock was reduced to the core 20 ewes I wanted to keep for breeding based on temperament and ease of handling and the rest were eaten or sold. We invested in a tup, choosing to concentrate on Zwartbles. Now our sheep have to pay for themselves in meat and lamb sales but there’s always room for a few extras.
“We did go on a shearing course but I slightly cut one of their ewes and didn’t have the confidence to do it myself. I found it really difficult to get a shearer to do our small number of ewes so a local farmer invited us to join their shearing. They and two other farms collect their flocks to one farm for a long day of shearing; my little bunch looked quite terrified in the middle of hundreds of other sheep.
“We were keen to produce some of our own food when we moved here and meat is a big part of that. Turning our pigs into produce we could eat was great fun but required a lot of organisation. We started off with two Mangalitza piglets, a Hungarian breed known as hairy sheep pigs. They’re a very hardy lard pig and delicious. We kept them in for a few days to get to know us and where they lived but this made no difference to what happened. We’d built a beautiful pig pen in the field, lots of grass and a warm shelter and when we turned them out they had a wonderful time, squealing, dancing and rooting, but when Graham went out the following morning they’d gone. Finally we spotted them down the road and running after them made it worse. We all ended up in our neighbour’s bullock field. I spotted my moment and grabbed the smaller and nervier of the two, thinking the more confident pig would be easier once I had one. My overriding memory of the saga is lying in my pyjamas in a puddle of cow slurry, trying to restrain a small hairy pig screaming at the top of his lungs like something possessed while the entire herd of bullocks galloped across the field towards us. The larger pig looked at me, looked at the bullocks, and sensibly ran off at full tilt. Despite searching high and low he wasn’t seen for three days until he was returned to me happy and fat in the postman’s van. The Mangalitzas were total escape artists and real characters, but didn’t really fulfil our criteria of ‘easy to look after’ and nice to pet.
“We were determined to do right by them at the end so set off to River Cottage to do a course in pig butchery. We learned how to use all of the pig and not waste anything. Our favourite ‘make’ was to cure and air-dry the legs and we ate our own Parma ham as the starter at our wedding. We also tried Saddlebacks as it would support a rare breed and they’re known for sweet meat, but eventually chose Kune Kunes to concentrate on as they’re smaller, very easy to handle, don’t bite, and graze rather than dig.”
“We eat a lot of eggs and the chickens more than pay for themselves in meals. We currently have 20 birds, but have had up to 80 at a time since we’ve been here. One thing we really wanted to do was to grow our own Christmas dinner including the turkey. Turkeys are notorious for dying so we ordered three; unfortunately it turned out ours were extra notorious and one died before we even got it home. The turkeys were loads of fun and a lovely chatty affectionate pet, so when it was windy one night and one of them died because it was frightened of the noise, I was pretty upset. We were determined to actually eat some turkey and when they started flying everywhere it seemed time, and they were delicious, but Graham really didn’t enjoy doing it, and we decided not to rear our own again.
“We tried rescuing some battery chickens. Available for about £2.50 each, they’re often only 18 months old. I knew they’d be in a bad way but wasn’t prepared for the state they were in, and apparently ours were pretty feathery in comparison to many. I also invested in some fancy birds and decided on Ayam Cemanis and ‘Big Man’ and his girls did me proud at the shows. Although difficult to hatch they made an awful lot of money for the holding, but after coming first at a county show I decided to retire from showing as the stress of keeping the chickens pristine was too much hard work. Our chickens like free ranging, scratching on the muck heap, and supervising smallholding tasks and with chickens worth as much as the Cemanis, this just wasn’t possible.
“We wouldn’t have survived here without the help of our friends and family. Whether it’s re-roofing the barn or fixing our fencing, they’ve supported us the whole way. But it helps that there’s always something delicious to eat in return.”
MORE: Follow Nic’s continuing smallholding adventure on twitter @nicblaenffos
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