Kate Humble considers some smallholding lessons learned over the last 12 months, and makes plans for 2015
I like December. It is a month for looking ahead, for setting goals or drawing up a wish list for the coming year. I want to try making cheese, get more proficient at shearing and, most of all, to learn how to work my young Welsh sheepdog, Teg, who shows tremendous promise, but is hampered by her hopelessly inexperienced owner.
This time of year is also one for reflection. What have I learnt over the last 12 months? What have I experienced and how will I use those experiences in the future? Back in May, one of my ram lambs dramatically lost condition almost, it seemed, overnight. All the ewes and lambs had been doing well and the rest of them continued to thrive. Flummoxed, I took the lamb to the vet. A worm egg count showed his worm burden to be sky high and, although we tried everything to save him, it was too late. He died three days later. I’ve learnt the hard way. This coming spring I’ll be testing for worms much earlier, before the health of any of my animals tells me something is wrong.
Since becoming a smallholder, I’ve become far more acutely aware of the weather. It is easy to forget when we have had such a glorious summer that the preceding winter was so unremittingly wet; that it started raining in November and didn’t stop until April. Farms, gardens, houses, whole streets were devastated by violent winter storms. The ground remained sodden and waterlogged for six months. So, when the sun did come out, we spent a great deal of time and energy mitigating for the prospect of another ‘rainy season’. We fixed roofs, replaced rotten Yorkshire boarding, filled gateways with rubble, resurfaced the yard. The hay crop was good, but when a neighbour offered us hay she didn’t need we bought as much as we could store. It seems somehow outdated and old-fashioned to think ahead, plan ahead, buy ahead in an age when everything seems to concentrate on the immediate, when we can source or buy something at the click of a computer mouse and expect next day delivery. But one of the things I love most about my smallholding life is having a greater connection to the elements and to what they mean and how they affect us. I’m also beginning to learn that knowledge gained through experience is very valuable indeed.
A couple of years ago I spent some time working on a sheep station in Western Australia. It was a million acres in size, with 22,000 head of sheep and managed by a man called Bob. He was a quietly spoken man of few words, but possessed of a wisdom derived from years as a stockman in one of the most challenging places on earth. During his time as manager, the sheep station had endured 10 straight years of drought, lightning strikes that started a fire that wiped out 250,000 acres, flash floods so severe he and his men had to be airlifted out by helicopter, and a plague of locusts. How, I asked, aghast at this almost biblical list of catastrophes, did he keep going? “You can’t fight nature,” he told me, “you’ll just die trying. Work with it, learn from it, anticipate what it might do and make a plan – and never forget how lucky we are to have a life that allows us to understand that.” It is one of the finest pieces of advice I’ve ever been given and I hope you too might find it useful in your smallholding lives.
Kate’s book about her smallholding life, Humble by Nature, is published by Headline. It is priced £8.99 in paperback and £16.99 in hardback.