Christmas Dinner 2013 for several members of Dry Arch Growers and their friends and families will be a very different affair than usual as they have reared and grown most of the ingredients!
The story almost began back in March 2011 when at the launch of Bathampton Community Co-operative Dan Smith (one of the founding members) tried to drum up enthusiasm for a Pig Club. For many at that time it was a step too far but when Dan floated the idea in 2012 of a Grow Your Own Christmas project there was a deal more interest. This was mixed in with a fair amount of trepidation about being able to raise animals in conditions that we would feel comfortable with – after all none of us could claim to be experienced livestock farmers!A combination of Dan’s determination (not to mention his generosity in investing in the equipment required), a lot of research and some first rate support and advice from Mike Wright at P.J.’s Pigs and from Bath City Farm meant we felt confident enough to launch the scheme at the beginning of 2013.
By June 2013 a pig enclosure was ready with a delightfully appointed “piggy penthouse” to provide shelter for three pigs. With the help of volunteers a feed store was erected along with a very superior shed for the turkeys.
Our three rare breed British Lop Ear piglets supplied by P.J.’s Pigs duly arrived in June, small enough to be carried from the trailer to their new home but old enough to be away from their mother. We made a small enclosure for them out of straw bales within their field so that they would get used to their luxury accommodation and recognise it as home. Within forty eight hours they had escaped the straw-bale enclosure and were exploring all four corners of their field. Very confident little pigs indeed.
Our animal care rota swung into action with the pigs being visited and fed twice a day. All went well without mishap for several weeks as they began the process of rooting up the field. One (whom we named Andouille or Andy for short) was clearly smaller than the others but all of them began to put on weight rapidly. Our first experience of the emotions farmers must feel when their animals get sick struck at the end of July! One Monday morning Andy suddenly went off his food. Not a problem we initially thought. All the advice we had was that occasionally a pig will have a bit of a stomach upset and will stop eating – maybe for two three days- before getting back to normal. Well we watched him carefully. He tried to eat but after a few mouthfuls he would turn away and throw up. He even began to throw up after drinking water. We became seriously worried and so the vet was summoned the next day. Sick he may have been but he gave the vet a real run-around before he could be corralled for examination. The vet said he could hear a bit of a rattle in a lung so injected a powerful anti-biotic. Then he broke the news that the pig would need two more injections over the next two days …and here were the syringes for us to administer them!
We put out an appeal to the animal care rota for a volunteer to administer the first dose and Julia bravely stepped forward. Again we discovered how uncooperative and fast-moving a sick pig can be! Anyway with three of us having eventually trapped Andy in the ark Julia crawled in and did the deed. Unfortunately Andy didn’t really play ball and part of the dose failed to make it into the pig. Time for another call to the vet! His advice was to use the second syringe and come and collect another one for the next day. We also needed another volunteer for the second dose as Julia had to go to work. It fell to Jan and Dan to play “chase the pig” later that day and then Dan did the pig wrestling and Jan did the pig injecting.
The next day after a trip to Bristol to pick up another dose it was the turn of Alex and Keith to do the pig wrestling and managed to get the needle in. We watched and waited. Worryingly the pig just seemed to get ever more lethargic in what continued to be a pretty hot spell. He just seemed to spend huge amounts of time just standing, looking into space and continued to be off his food despite being tempted with fruit and other goodies which we hoped he’d like and would provide him with energy. We even put sugar in the water supply.
On the Friday afternoon Phil spent an hour or so watching him closely and managed to tempt him with a banana which he managed to keep down and a drink of water. Encouraged by that he called for more supplies of fruit! All was looking hopeful until just as Jan arrived with more bananas he appeared to stumble. “Has he done that before?” said Jan. “No” said Phil and with that Andy rolled over onto his back with his legs stiff in the air, not moving! We were convinced we’d just seen him die…a third of our herd! However, after a bit of a nuzzle from his litter mates up he got again. Even so, we were pretty sure this was the beginning of the end so we called the vet for advice on putting him down. The vet was a lot more positive than we felt and said it was far too soon to be thinking of that. Well, we reckon the pig overheard Jan talking to the vet because by Sunday morning he was up for his breakfast with the others as if nothing had happened. He then went from strength to strength and made up for lost time in feeding and putting on weight. In fact he became quite aggressive to the other two in making sure he got at least his fair share of food and by December he was no longer the smallest of the three!
August was also when we took delivery of 25 Kelly Bronze turkey poults: another heritage breed. They were of various sizes and at that stage easily managed. We installed them in their house (which some members reckoned could easily have been accommodation fit for Centre Parcs) and left them to acclimatise in the hope that when we let them out they would take themselves in automatically when it got dark. Dan had installed a sophisticated entry system on their shed which meant that when it got light the doors would open and when it got dark the doors would shut: hopefully with the birds inside. Some hope as it turned out!
After two days it was time to let them roam and that first evening Phil managed to get them into the shed at about 6.30pm quite easily and he confidently went home for tea expecting them to stay put and the doors to shut at dusk. However, when he returned at 8pm to check he found that they were all outside in a tight flock, comfortably snuggled down in a clump of cut grass which made a very comfortable bed. Phil managed to get them back in the shed again in about ten minutes or so and waited for the sensors to shut the doors as it got darker. He waited…and waited…and waited. He adjusted the sensors to the highest sensitivity but still the doors would not shut! It was 8.55 before the doors actually came down. Phil left hoping that the bright moonlight would not cause the doors to open again!
The next night Phil decided to check on them a little later so that he would not have to hang around so long. At 8.10 it was still light so Phil went into the polytunnel to do some weeding, thinking he’d have plenty of time to get the birds in before the doors shut. Big mistake! When he came out it had clouded over, the turkeys were happily sitting in their clump of cut grass…and the shed doors were shut. What was worse it started raining. With that Phil opened the main shed door and started to herd the turkeys in. Unfortunately they were in no mood to play ball and did not like being separated. As soon as Phil got three in and turned to get the rest, out would pop the first three. Phil called Jan for help. By that time it was properly dark and Phil had to resort to picking the birds up one by one and depositing them in the furthest corners of the shed where there was a low level window. Simple things that they are, the rest of the flock huddled against the glass on the other side so they could still see their chums! By the time Jan arrived there were 19 birds inside the shed clearly somewhat traumatised by being unceremoniously picked up and dumped in a corner. Jan kept guard on them while Phil chased the others around the outside of the shed until he had caught the last one. By the time they had finished it was nearly 9.30 and raining hard. Phil and Jan decided that maybe turkeys were not quite as clever as they had thought!
The turkeys never really did get the business about taking themselves in automatically at night and so we eventually disconnected the door sensors and resorted to herding them in. Everyone developed their own strategies for getting them inside: the most popular being enlisting friends and families to wave arms around but Hannah probably came up with the best solution which was to hold a bamboo cane in each hand to encourage them toward the doors. We never imagined at the beginning of the year we would become such experts in turkey behaviour by the end!
Meanwhile the pigs were putting on weight rapidly, were taking great pleasure from the mud wallow we established in one corner of the field and were making great inroads into rooting up the enclosure and fertilising it naturally! They were always pleased to see us morning and evening but only because we were a source of food! As time went on they became ever more enthusiastic at “greeting” us, or, to be more precise, at trying to be first to the trough before we even started emptying feed into it. The feeding tactics then became trying to distract them with fruit and vegetable in one corner of the field while running to the trough with the bucket of feed and hopefully avoid being bowled over by a sprinting porker. The pigs, however, developed their own counter tactics and would happily eat the vegetables we would throw for them but continue looking over their shoulders to see if we were on our way to the trough! As the year progressed the enclosure became muddier and muddier and by the time it was for them to go it was pretty much mission accomplished in terms of preparing that area of the site for cultivation. The pigs had done a wonderful job at rooting up the field.
By the time December arrived all the animal carers certainly agreed that feeding and caring for animals is a much more pleasant experience in the summer than it is in the winter so there were probably mixed feelings as Dan made preparation for the slaughter and butchering of pigs and turkeys. Again Mike at PJ’s helped us out by collecting the pigs early on a Thursday December morning and taking them to the abattoir for us. Dan went with them and saw our pig rearing experience right through to its conclusion. As we had always intended the pigs went to slaughter with minimal fuss and maximum care.
With the turkeys due to go on the following Sunday we crossed our fingers that they would not fall victim to turkey rustlers whose operations we had seen reported on the news. Thankfully all went well so we did not lose a single turkey to predators (animal or human) or to disease and we were able to deliver all 25 birds to the processors for dispatch and preparation for the oven.
That Sunday afternoon Dry Arch seemed very different with no birds or animals moving around and making a noise at the top of the growing area and it will take a little bit of getting used to them not being around. However, wading through mud on a wet and windy winter morning probably will not be missed quite so much!