Why Killing is Kindness: My Decision

We’ve become disconnected from our food.

I remember sitting with my Bristol classmates at 11 years old. A group of girls were discussing why milk bottles had pictures of cows on.

“I don’t think all of them have cows on. I think it’s just a certain brand”

“What, like a logo?”

“Yeh. The cow’s just a logo”.

At this point I had to interrupt. I had recently moved to Bristol from the Cornish countryside and so was slightly more informed on the cow/milk connection.

“Milk comes from cows, that’s why there’s pictures of cows on it.”

“…comes from cows? How? Where does it come from”

“Well, the udders. Underneath the cow. You milk them”

“That’s. Disgusting.”

The girls went on to discuss how gross it was, how they were never drinking milk again. One then proceeded to take a chocolate bar out of her bag and munch on it quite happily. Apparently milk mixed into solids wasn’t a problem – especially if it were made by Cadburys.

This concept perplexed me. That they could have spent the majority of their lives drinking milk yet have no idea where it came from.

I was hit with a similar feeling recently. Me and my best friends spent the best part of our teenage years drinking at field parties and then suffering through hangovers together. We therefore consumed copious amounts of bacon.

One of these wonderful friends came to visit the farm and couldn’t believe how casual I was about eating our piggies. I pointed out that she loves bacon, sausages, ham and all the other delicious pig sourced foods. She replied that, although she did, she liked to think of her bacon as food rather than as an animal.

I suppose this isn’t exactly surprising. Lots of people don’t like eating fish that “looks like fish”, chicken breast sells better than anything with bones in and lets not even mention offal! The further removed people are from the animals that become the food that they eat the better (according to most).

This shouldn’t be the case.

So, me and my family aim to be self-sustaining and that includes rearing our own meat.

Nasty, right? How could we! We should just go vegetarian. Urm, unfortunately it’s not as simple as that.

Just because you’re not eating the animals doesn’t mean the production of your veg isn’t damaging to animals. Agriculture often forces deforestation and if the majority of your food is being imported in from Timbuktu then the earth will be suffering for your kale and coconuts.

So, I started only eating food sourced from the UK. Simple. But, turns out that food produced in the UK isn’t always packaged here. Food that’s locally reared may still circle the globe before making it to your plate. Sigh. Let’s try again.

This is why we decided to be as self sufficient as possible. By seeing each step of the food rearing process we couldn’t turn a blind eye to anything that made us feel uncomfortable. Were large areas of habitat destroyed to make room for this crop? No. Were any people mistreated in the picking and packing of this produce? Nope. Did the animals have a good life before being sent to slaughter? Yes they did! But ah, that gets us back to the sticking point. Why not just grow our own veg and leave the animals well alone?

We live on culm grassland. It’s boggy and a bit rubbish for growing crops. Commercial farmers laughed at our foolishness when we bought it, it would never yield a significant harvest. The only way to make it viable for growing large amounts of fruit and veg, or at least enough to sustain a vegetarian family and guests, would be to drain it and that would do more harm than good.

Wildlife LOVES culm grassland. We have a huge variety of indigenous plants which sustains deers, bugs and butterflies which in turn sustain birds of prey, hedgehogs, moles, shrews and all manor of British wildlife – so much so that Natural England helps us manage our land. The whole circle of life! So, if we drained the land, making it more crop friendly, it would become less wildlife friendly.

It’s also hard work! Pigs will eat anything, they’ll survive almost anything, they’re tough as hell! You know what’s not tough? Potatoes, sweet corn and salad leaves. They are taken down by slugs, mice, poor weather, too much water, too little water – seriously! It takes a skilled horticulturist to be able to grow the variety of plants needed to sustain a family. Living purely off home grown veg would also mean eating only frozen and pickled foods from November until around March. I don’t know about you but that sounds a little depressing to me.

So, we eat meat, but it’s not something we take lightly. I’m not religious but we still take the time to thank the animal, or whatever is up there, for the sacrifice. We try and make sure that nothing is wasted.

By choosing to undertake the occasional ruthless act ourselves we avoid hundreds of ruthless acts taking place without our knowledge. Killing animals isn’t fun, and nor should it EVER be, but if it means being in touch with our food then it’s the right choice for me.

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Why Care Farm?

Thirteen years ago I was living in the centre of Bristol, halfway through retraining as an Occupational Therapist. I accompanied my then fiancée to an auction in a small town in rural Devon to buy a ‘beautiful slice of countryside’ the auctioneers glibly said. Most of our acquaintances thought we were crazy. Neither of us had farming backgrounds, but both loved being outdoors and active. What I loved about my Occupational Therapy training was the use of meaningful activity to enable recovery from accident or injury and the dual focus on mental and physical well-being to improve and maintain engagement in daily life. I felt excited to be embarking on a career with a whole host of different settings to work in. But a seed of an idea was starting germinate: could I combine our land with Occupational Therapy and use it therapeutically?

As with most new ideas the beginning was slow to evolve. My business, Coope Care Farm, has been running for five and a half years now, it’s grown most effectively by word of mouth, despite many hours and pounds invested in marketing strategies. When a friend referred my first client we called the project ‘rural activities’, for six months he was the only one! But working alongside him and his various carers from the home where he lived confirmed the hunch the small holding setting if full of meaningful activity and being outside in all weather, being active and productive is good for everyone’s well-being.

At the time we still didn’t know that a new area of green care called Care Farming was emerging. I believe Occupational Therapy and Care Farming go hand in hand and I’m amazed that more Care Farms are not run by OT’s. I know of two others Beckside in Derbyshire, I’ve had wonderful e mail exchanges with the OT running it, after reading her article in OTNews in my early days of being up and running. I can’t recall the name of the other farm but loved their tag line ‘growing potential’ and was rather envious they’d coined that one!

Occupational Therapy is all about the therapeutic use of meaningful activity; our family-run small holding screams out ‘activity’; there is always so much to do! (‘More to do than can ever be done’ in fact, a line from the introduction to the Lion King, a DVD I listen to 3 times a week with a long term client with autism.) The seasons roll on, the job lists change. We sow seeds, weed, water, harvest, barrow wood and stone, muck out horses, pigs, chickens, collect eggs, laugh, chat and banter. We share stories about what we’ve done over the weekend. It’s a little slice of country life taken in half day sessions, punctuated by cups of squash on hot sweaty days and coffee on cold muddy ones.

I feel privileged to be doing something I believe in, in a setting I’ve grown to love. Our small holding has been built on my family’s blood sweat and tears. My work’s not rocket science, just good old fashioned time spent outdoors in all weathers getting our hands dirty. If you’re interested I’ll share more tales with you.

By Emma Middleton, Occupational Therapist at Coope Care Farm

Attracting Wild Birds

I love birds – I always have. When I was younger I remember being entirely torn. I desperately wanted my own bird, they were so fragile and chirpy. I felt that it would be impossible to feel sad with a bird singing in the background. But then the thought of a caged bird was in itself depressing. The only way I could have one would be by limiting its freedom and the reason that birds brought me joy was because they were freedom made flesh. This caused me much turmoil.

Luckily living on the smallholding has sorted this problem for me. We are lucky enough to have a variety of birds that come and eat from our bird table: robins, thrushes, nuthatches – even one particularly curious woodpecker. My favourite though is the blue tit (and not just for the amusing name). I could watch them all day.

You don’t need acres to encourage wildlife though, and our British wildlife can do with all the help we can offer it. In this post I’m going to discuss how you can make your land, whether it’s a patch of garden or a farm, more hospitable to our feathered friends.

The first thing that needs covering is the law surrounding wild birds. Most of it is common sense but the main points are worth stating none-the-less.

– Do not take, damage or destroy the nest of any bird whilst in use.
– Do not kill, attempt to kill or harm a wild bird (duh)
– Do not take or destroy the eggs of a wild bird
– Do not disturb wild birds whilst with or near their young
– Do not have in your possession or control any wild bird recently killed

There are more laws, and you can read up on the entire list here, but this simple general question should steer you right: is what you’re about to do what’s best for the bird? If you follow this advice you should usually land on the right side of the law. Now, moving on.

Birds will be best encouraged to your home with food, especially in the winter months when their usual resources are scarce. Bird feeders are great for this particular task and different foods will encourage different birds (I’ll go into that in further detail in a bit!). Keep in mind that a food table rather than hanging bird feeders may attract less welcome visitors such as squirrels. You may love squirrels and be pleased at their visitation but be warned: squirrels eat bird eggs and fledglings. If you particularly want to encourage the local bird population then hanging bird feeders are your safest bet.

There are also more long term options for encouraging local birds such as including certain plants in your garden. Below is a list of the most common shrubs and wild plants that will help attract birds.

BirdsPlantTable.png

Now, not all of these are pleasant. I know that if I had a small garden with my little brother and sister about I wouldn’t want to be encouraging nettles and hawthorns. I also know that we do our very best to keep the birds off of our cherry trees! This is also a very basic list so just because something isn’t on there doesn’t mean the birds won’t like it.

I’ve included images because many of these plants may already be on your land or  in your garden. Many landscaped plots have japanese laurel, honeysuckle and climbing roses and most overgrown plots will include nettles, blackberry and thistles. Plus all the images look so pretty!

Most birds are omnivores so berries and plants alone won’t be enough to keep them going! Luckily the more vegetation in your garden the more crawly critters will be around to feed the local birds. Below is a table of British wild birds that you may be lucky enough to see and their eating habits (by the way, if you have kids this is the sort of table that is great for printing off and doing “bird bingo” over the summer!

birds

British wild birds and their eating habits

Right. Well I think that’s enough information to get you started on turning your little patch of land into a wildlife sanctuary! If you have any questions or anything that you’d like to know then make sure you follow and comment!

Chow for now.

P.S. The graphs are not perfectly in line at the moment, I’m aware of that and it’s driving me mad, but I’ll alter it when I have another spare few minutes. I’ll also upload better quality with a download link for the graphs.

Why my Goats are High on Life

The thing I love about animals is their positive outlook. Whilst I’m worrying about the future, career, family life, everything that a 20 something year old would have to worry about, the animals trundle along, perfectly content with their lot.

Recently we moved the goats into a new field with electric fencing (see Why my Goats Hate me) and along with it we built them a new shelter. Rather than the entire shelter being raised off of the ground, as before, we decided to only raise their sleeping corner. And oh my word, Roger has never been happier about anything in his life.

The first night we heard an unusual amount of yelling we assumed that the goats were simply complaining about being left in a new area. When we went over to the field and called them they rushed out of their shelter, looking perfectly happy. The second night the same thing happened, and again they came running out of their shelter to see us. We soon noticed that the yelling always happened when the two of them where in the shelter together.

I’d like to quickly clarify that Jolly and Roger are sister and brother and that Roger is a wether (a bitless boy). If we were going to draw a Game of Thrones analogy then it would go as follows: we were worried the yelling was symptomatic of a Cersei and Jaime type of union, except that Roger has more in common with Varys than Jaime so there would be no risk of a Joffrey. Still it was gross and we’d rather it wasn’t taking place. We decided on a stake out to “catch them at it”.

When the yelling began we were in position, being able to clearly see the inside of the shelter. However,  rather than incestuous, goaty love making they were simply winding each other up – entirely appropriate brother sister behaviour. Roger, whilst mild mannered on the ground, becomes a terror on the raised bedding platform. He was strutting around and butting Jolly off of the platform whenever she tried to get on. She was yelling at him and he was yelling back, occasionally jumping in excitement or spinning around. Turns out Roger becomes a Mr Hyde if raised even a couple of inches off of the ground. When we snuck in the shelter with them, under cover of chaos, Jolly wagged her tail and came in for a scratch but Roger simply bunny hopped in his place, daring us to try and remove him as King of the castle. He seemed dizzy with excitement and could barely contain himself.

Now, if I could be half as happy as Roger was, frolicking on a slightly raised section of chipboard, then all my problems would be solved. If the monthly bills came through and I felt the blues coming on all I’d have to do is stand on the first step on the staircase and the blues would be swept away by a torrent of euphoria. If I were turned down for a job and felt those momentary spasm of self doubt I could sweep my CV off of the coffee table and stand in its place, taking in a new vista of the living room and, no doubt, seeing this failure from a whole new optimistic perspective.

Unfortunately people aren’t goats, but luckily for us  joy is infectious. The chipboard makes Roger happy, and that in turn makes me happy and so, I suppose, the chipboard makes me happy too. And this is the wonder of animals. It’s hard to think of bills and future stuff when Roger is so happy – even if it’s over a slightly raised platform.

Injury Everywhere

If everybody, humans and animals, could just take a break from injury then that’d be really great.

At the start of the week the boyfriend had a “severe” cold (man flu at its finest) which continued through the week. The ducks aren’t doing well: we have a mumma duck who’s sitting so needs extra attention and one of the new Cayugas has a swelling on the ankle – a sprain. Fabulous. Oxo, our super lurcher rat catcher, caught the wrong end of the rat and got nipped on the nose AND my marine training brother dropped a glass bowl on his foot and has been incapacitated for the week.

Now, to cap it off, Jack decided to dive off an eight foot drop. The most annoying aspect? It was entirely avoidable. He was searching for his stick (he’s a lab – he’s stick mad), jumped on the bank and then onto the roof of the log shed. The boyfriend called him down and rather than retreat the way he came he decided to dive off the storey high roof.

At first we thought he was fine, he didn’t even flinch, and the stick search continued. We didn’t realise he was bleeding until he returned the stick to us.

He lost a claw in the impact and has a great gash across his paw. He has been cleaned, wrapped up and is being kept indoors as much as possible. He is also feeling very sorry for himself (see above picture) and sporting a sock so he can’t get at the bandage. Queue lots of Dobby jokes.

I may joke about Jack, and the ducks and all of the other animals but actually whenever they’re harmed I feel genuine heartache. Yes, we keep animals that are headed for the freezer come Autumn but the trade off is that they have a good life. By buying supermarket meat we weren’t taking responsibility for the welfare of the animals that we ate.  By raising our own, even if it’s sometimes a bit grim, we know they’ve been well treated (read about why we kill our own meat here). When they’re harmed, like my poor duck’s sprained ankle, I’ve let them down. I’m not holding up my end of the bargain.

In a few weeks everybody will be right as rain again but, for now, I’ll just have to stay stocked up on the grapes and treat all my invalids with a little extra love.

When The Yurt Burnt Down

We were slick with sweat and sunscreen, me and my brothers, sticking to each other in the back seat as our crammed car wound its way through the country lanes that led home. Our focus was on each other: singing, dancing, faffing around.

We didn’t notice the smoke until we were at the gate, coughing great plumes of black against the underside of an oak branch. That branch is still a blackened reaching arm, its scars only accentuated by its greener, fuller siblings.

Dad and Ems were silent in the front seat, having just put the phone down. A neighbour had called to ask about the spiralling soot – after all it seemed rather odd to be having a 3pm bonfire in August, when the sun was boiling tarmac.

The conversation was a narration rather than a warning, we could see the rushing column as she described it, her phone call came through just as we pulled into the drive. We should be grateful for that – a warning may have encouraged us to rush home on roads that shouldn’t be rushed. Our car trundled towards the smoke and, we soon realised, our camp site.

When I say camp site I mean our second home. We had spent three summers and dozens of weekends in our yurt. It was where we spent our time with Dad and Emma as the three hours to their Bristol home became too huge a journey for three children.

A faded orange role of futon, pressed against the far wall facing the doorway, served as a sofa during the day and a double bed at night. Shrews could be heard scratching beneath the floorboards as I lay in the bottom bunk that was immediately to the right of the doorway. Glancing up from my vantage point the small blue flame that powered a gas fridge would glow, ethereal in the moonlight that shone through the conical window that capped the yurt’s roof. On a cloudy night, when the stars couldn’t peep through, the air would be thick with darkness: my hand lost before my face. On these nights we would listen to stories on the radio and slowly drift off, a pond full of newts and many acres worth of things to explore eagerly awaiting our rousing.

By the time we piled out of the car, leaving the sandy debris of the beach in the footwell, the skin of the yurt had been burnt wholly away and only its latticed skeleton was left aflame beneath the sapphire sky. It’s innards were entirely exposed as we stood around the rim, watching the bits that build a life blazing unhindered. There was no running water, no point in calling the fire brigade, nothing to be done but watch. We watched the pages of books curl slowly like too many sorrowful smiles, the bunkbed crumpling in on itself as its integrity gave way. Hundreds of memories swallowed by a hungry mouth that spat out ash and exhaled smoke.

When the mouth had eaten its fill we moved amongst the bones, salvaging what could be salvaged. Ems drove to our nearest shop and stocked up on all the important bits: toothbrushes, bottled water, underwear etc. Luckily we had a caravan on site that belonged to a member of the family and this is where we slept.

Now, this is the part that makes me sound entirely mad, so bare with me. Despite the huge loss that I feel when thinking about the yurt this memory is filed away as a happy one. The burning of the yurt seemed to encompass the adventures that it facilitated. I can’t think of a more fitting end for a home that had fallen straight out of a story. It was as though our treehouse had been set to siege by pixies and sprites, or our pond had been invaded by merfolk. The yurt wasn’t packed away and forgotten about when the teenagers in us demanded working showers instead of stream bathing. It went out in a rush of glory, another delicious story about my venturesome childhood, one of many stumbling blocks on the road to developing a smallholding.