May 22 2021

Changing Times

I’ve just found an old copy of Country Living Magazine February 1994 “How to Survive Redundancy, a second career”. My, that took me back a bit! There we are photographed climbing the hill, pitch forks in hand and dogs in tow, starting our new life.

We had already lived in our funny old house for a number of years when Thames Television lost its franchise to broadcast and Paul found himself, part of the team in charge of closing down technical operations and making so many people redundant: a painful process which was agonisingly slow. Months passed as transmission wound down until finally, he was able to write himself out of the script. He walked out of the studios after twenty-seven years in television: “Can I have your car keys, please, sir” and suddenly it was all over. It seems a life time away now.

Then at the very same time, the strangest thing happened: our farming neighbour, born in our house, decided to sell up and move away. Most of the land went to his relation, up the valley, in Devon farming tradition; brother’s wife’s sister’s husband, just a few minutes’ walk from us across the fields. But the relation didn’t want it all; he didn’t want the steep thirty something acres which had once belonged to our house or the large ugly 1970’s ramshackle farmyard. We pondered our options; not a very promising farming potential.

We bought two sheep, a couple of Dexter cows, a few chickens, some turkey poults and quite a few books.

It seems a long time ago now that we bought those first two sheep, two Jacob ewes, Phyllis and Madge, named after the previous owner’s Bridge partners!

I knew very little about sheep and it took me some time to understand that sheep speed and human speed are very different. I had no idea how to catch the two of them and rushed madly about the field finally grabbing poor Madge by the horns only to be taken downhill very fast on my stomach. As she protested at my inappropriate efforts my husband looked on quite unable to help, paralyzed with laughter! Oh how quickly I learnt to slow down and show respect.

We soon added a few more Jacobs to our little flock, two Suffolk crosses, then Hazel, another girl gifted to us and Maisy, a stout woman who had lived in someone’s back garden. She, like Hazel, was a bit confused about her identity until she joined a flock of something similar to herself. Those were the early days.

How things have changed. Gradually we built up a beautiful flock of pedigree Whiteface Dartmoor sheep and, I’m glad to say, a much more professional approach to animal husbandry.

But, most important of all, a lot of our success was due to our neighbouring farmers overwhelming kindness and generosity, sharing their knowledge, help and support.

In time our thriving little business breeding sheep, producing free range eggs, raising table birds for delivery every week and turkeys for Christmas grew. We began making up salad bags long before the supermarkets caught onto the idea. All this we delivered in our minute, elderly refrigerated van to a quickly growing list of regular customers. And soon we supplied local businesses, hotels and pubs with our eggs, lamb and chicken.

A summer visitor in a big queue in our village shop was heard to ask the sell by date of our eggs “About half an hour “replied a local wag. We knew we had arrived!

One day we were surprised to turn up on BBC Spotlight, the Devon TV News programme; it helped our sales no end. A little later the Weekend Times did a half page feature of us called “Farming for Fun”! Despite the terrific input of the Regional Director of The National Farmers Union, South West, the journalist clearly new little about farming and described us, rather disparagingly, as Hobby Farmers! Some things don’t change.

Our weeks followed a regular pattern. From Monday to Wednesday I worked for Plymouth University, ran my own Psychotherapy Practice in Totnes and provided Clinical Supervision for local NHS GP Counsellors.

Paul farmed.

On Thursday’s I joined him and began preparing the chickens he had plucked. I drew and trussed them then packed, weighed and labelled them. I took the orders, worked out the delivery route, wrote recipes to accompany them, picked salad and herbs from my polytunnel and made up the salad bags. I collected, graded, packed and labelled the eggs.

We were approved and regularly visited by Health and Safety, Trading Standards, Environmental Health, MAFF which preceded DEFRA and the “Egg Inspector” who always made me giggle, poor man. Fancy being called an Egg Inspector, but someone has to do it.….and Paul had, of course, done the appropriate training to be awarded a professional poultry slaughterman’s license; not so glamourous either!

On Friday and Saturday Paul did deliveries while I cleared up, cleaned and caught up with paper work. On Sunday we crawled to church, planned the new week ahead, fed the animals, (no one told them it was Sunday!), cooked supper and collapsed: some Hobby!!!

Then a few years later disaster struck. We went to tea with my ninety-six-year-old father on his birthday. We returned home in sunshine to find a very distressed cockerel running round the garden. Alas, our flock had been routed by a family of foxes. Only a handful survived.

Time to take stock; we closed our egg business and concentrated of our Whiteface flock which went from strength to strength. Paul became Chairman and then President of the Whiteface Sheep Breeders Association, not bad for a Cornishman in Devon on his second career!!

And so now, here we are again, starting another new chapter. As time moves on, we must reduce our workload so we can continue to concentrate on opening our garden for the National Garden Scheme. We’d been pondering our options for some time, feeling sad and reluctant to say goodbye to our girls. And then out of the blue came a wonderful compromise. We met Matt, a young man who has a small flock of his own Whiteface Dartmoors and is keen to get into sheep farming. He will rent our fields and buy our girls to add to his twenty or so, and they will all share grazing on our fields. In the autumn he will bring in his ram and next spring he will lamb in our yard. So the cycle will continue.

A perfect solution: we will still walk over the hills and enjoy our sheep but now they are his responsibility! How wonderful is that!

Our garden is open on June 11th, 12th & 13th. in aid of the NGS Nursing Charities. We are praying for just a little bit of sunshine!

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