Poet and entertainer Pam Ayres has a secret passion … her smallholding. She likes nothing better than to unwind from her showbiz life with her poultry and animals. She talked to Country Smallholding editor Simon McEwan
Pam Ayres has made her name as a witty poet and entertainer – but she also has a passion for smallholding. Pam and her husband, Dudley Russell, have a lovely 20-acre property in Gloucestershire, with pigs, sheep, cattle, chickens, guinea fowl, bees and dogs.
Although Pam says she loves the showbiz work, the smallholding is her sanctuary from the fast paced world of entertaining and touring.
“I come home, walk round the fields and talk to the animals. Smallholding is a fantastic contrast and keeps me sane.”
Pam also says the fields around her home are a great environment in which to write and learn her lines for her solo show. “I often have a lot to learn. I don’t want to read to audiences, so I have a lot of stuff I need to learn by heart. I go off and sit on a stile or a tree stump and work on it.”
Pam and Dudley have lived at the delightful property – not far from Prince Charles’ home, Highgrove – for 23 years. Even at their previous home they kept chickens, geese, goats and cattle.
Her interest in livestock goes back to her childhood. “I have always liked having animals around me – I have been drawn to them since I was an infant,” she said.
“I love the way they punctuate the seasons. The year is gloriously divided up by the presence of livestock. This year we have had the most adorable calves from May onwards.”
In Pam’s childhood, the family home was in a row of council houses in Berkshire, and henkeeping was the norm. “They were essential for a supply of eggs. People didn’t have much money, and they gave a useful return for table scraps,” said Pam.
“I have kept chickens for most of my life. I normally keep six or eight ex-battery hens for humane reasons and six or eight highly efficient modern hybrid girls for the egg supply. The hybrids are Calder Rangers and are great birds. I like to give ex-bats a good life and some kindness after the nightmare of a life they had previously.
“I sell a few eggs and the family get armfuls of them. The eggs are not wasted. I use any surplus to make the mother of all cr£me caramels.”
Pam is a stickler for protecting the chickens from the attentions of the fox, and they have a secure run. “If a fox takes chickens, I think that is through neglect – it means that you haven’t given them the right protection.”
Her advice to beginners is to do thorough research. “Some people buy a plastic hen house and a few birds and haven’t got a clue what the birds actually need. I just like to see them kept in the right way.”
Then there are the Dexter cattle. Pam says she was ‘a duffer’ when she started with the breed, but got great advice from the Dexter Cattle Society. “I am all for joining breed societies rather than struggling on your own,” she said.
“Dexters are compact and easier to handle than bigger breeds. They are also a dual-purpose breed. You can milk them if you want to, and they are also good for beef. They are good mothers and are biddable. Ours are halter trained by me. They need proper looking after – the right feed and licks, having their feet trimmed and being wormed and treated for flies. There is a lot to do.” The sheep are Cotswolds. “They are big and friendly,” said Pam. “I just keep them as mowers really, but we send the occasional wether off for meat for the freezer.”
The guinea fowl have a special place in Pam’s heart, as, like the hens, they remind her of her childhood. “I can remember them trundling round the fields, and their distinctive call,” she said. Pam recently managed to hatch a brood under a bantam Silkie cross. The youngsters are now bigger than ‘Mum’, and Pam is amused to see them trooping around together “like a visual joke”.
There are bees, too, and Pam’s brother, an avid bee keeper, is able to offer advice. Pam and Dudley are also planning to develop a wildlife-friendly
The pigs, three Tamworth wild boar crosses, were bought from Adam Henson, a friend, and are Dudley’s domain. “The meat is fantastic,” he said. “The crackling is like you remember from childhood. We put the joint in a slow oven in the Aga at 10pm, and by lunchtime the next day the meat just falls off it.”
Pam confesses that she hates the idea of their animals being slaughtered. “I detest it. It feels like such a betrayal. But, if you are a meat eater, I can’t think of a better way than to look after the animals yourself.”
“Dudley is from a proper commercial farming background, so is a lot tougher
than I am. I am a real softie.”
The joys far outweigh the difficulties, though. “I can’t believe how lucky I am really, considering my modest beginnings in a council house,” Pam said. “I was the youngest of six children, and to end up in a beautiful house like this with
20 acres is unbelievable – and all because of stuff I wrote for the sheer joy of it. It is such an astonishingly enormous reward which I am not sure I deserve, but I do
appreciate it every day.”
Memoirs and national tour
Pam has written her memoirs, and the eagerly-awaited book is on sale from September 15. Pam Ayres, The Necessary Aptitude is priced £20. Pam is also on tour this autumn. For more details, see her website, www.pamayres.com
Pam Ayres has been a writer, broadcaster and entertainer for more than 35 years since winning the talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1975, and she has become an audience favourite for her sharp perception of the comic detail of everyday life. Pam is the author of several best selling poetry collections, including With These Hands, Surgically Enhanced and The Works. Many of her poems are in school textbooks in countries including China, Australia, New Zealand, Holland, South Africa, Ireland and Singapore. Pam’s books, record albums, CDs and DVDs have sold many millions since 1975, and she is a regular guest on radio programmes such as Just A Minute, Loose Ends and Saturday Live. Her own programme, Ayres on the Air, will be entering its fourth series in 2012. Pam performs her solo stage show annually to sell-out audiences throughout Britain and around the world. In 2004 she was awarded the MBE.
Pam and her husband Dudley have two sons.