Well, what a year!
When we kicked off the monthly blog in January, little did we know that grumbling about the British weather was going to be the least of our challenges 🙂
But grumble we did – of course – as we went through the wettest winter that we can remember here on the farm, and officially, in February, the Met Office agreed with us as we were battered by storms with charming names like Chiara and Dennis! Our pigs, all being native rare breeds, are well equipped to cope with such weather – they grow thicker coats in winter – but even they must have been getting a little bored with the rain. As long as they have a warm dry, well strawed ark and plenty to eat, they are fine!
And as we moved into March and April, the sun did come out, unexpectedly warm on many days which brought Spring forward, just as we were all getting used to life under lockdown restrictions. Hedgerows burst into leaf earlier than normal, primroses appeared on the banks of streams and we found our first guinea fowl eggs of the year in late February – a good 5-6 weeks ahead of schedule.
With the restrictions of lockdown, our holiday cottage was closed to guests which seemed such a shame as nature was bursting out in all its glory but if we wanted a semi-normal summer, it was a necessity! Not everything went quite according to Mother Nature’s plan either – fruit and nut trees were in full blossom in May when we were hit by a late frost. The apples and pears seemed to survive but the walnut trees were knocked right back and had to start all over again – no nuts to look forward to for the Autumn sadly.
Lockdown or not, nature continued to move ahead with the year. Swallows arrived and started nesting, the pair of barn owls nesting in the field shelter suddenly picked up their work-rate, a clear sign that they were feeding youngsters and we had a flurry of piglets arrived with 3 litters being born within a week.
There’s nothing more time-wasting than piglets – and with a lack of visitors to the farm, it was down to us to do their socialisation, which, to the inexperienced, might look like we are just spending hours petting piglets! But, joking apart, it is important to have well-socialised animals. Throughout their lives, they will be interacting with humans and it is calmer and safer for all concerned if they learn that humans rattling buckets are a good thing!
The owlets made an appearance in June, standing on the perch platform outside their box stretching their wings – just 2 this year we think but they both appeared big and healthy and the parents were often seen hunting in daylight to keep up with their food demands.
A good year for the swallows too with most of the nests producing two broods this year.
Spring gave way to summer and the serious business of wallow digging and maintenance kept the pigs busy – they are expert and enthusiastic diggers and our job is simply to keep them topped up with water. Pigs cannot sweat so this is not simply a leisure activity for them – then need the water to help regulate their temperature, although I see them wallowing on cool days also so I’m pretty sure they do it for fun as well!
In late Spring, we loaded up the incubator with Guinea Fowl eggs and 23 days later were rewarded with 11 cute bundles of fluff emerging from their shells. They spend the first weeks in a coop in the barn with a heat lamp while they feather up – as they are naturally natives of Africa, an English summer would be a little chilly for them to begin with! Once they are fully feathered, we release them and they join the flock of adults, albeit being somewhat bullied for a few weeks – the ‘pecking order’ being played out before our very eyes!
July saw the end of lockdown and the welcome return of guests to our holiday cottage able to enjoy the open countryside, the fresh air, the wild flowers and nature. Many were holidaying in Wiltshire after the cancellation of their trips abroad but I think I can safely say that Buttle Farm and Wiltshire exceeded expectations and we’re hoping to have some return visitors this summer.
August and September slid by with a mix of weather but again, our cottage guests seemedreally happy with their visits with lots of positive feedback on the quality of everything in the cottage. Some came because we had pigs, others came despite it, but everyone who joined me on a feeding round was enchanted by them! Even when it is not feeding time, the pigs always come over to check out their visitors!
But Autumn was starting to show itself – the blackberries began to ripen, the apple and pear trees were laden with fruit and the swallows, swifts and housemartins started to mass ready for their long flight south for winter. The stunning views from the terrace of the wooded chalk ridge began displaying the reds and golds in the trees and sadly in November, it was back into lockdown.
As the year went on, it became apparent that COVID was not a temporary blip, that it would take some considerable time to work its way through and to be brought under control so some decisions had to be made with a view to the long term.
All the restaurants we supply were closed for much of the year so we switched our focus to direct sales and started reducing the herd.
Whilst our private customers did us proud and kept us going throughout the summer and autumn, two things became apparent – that restaurants would not be returning to normal for the foreseeable future and that a direct supply model was not going to be a long term sustainable business model for us.
We started the year as farmers of native rare breed pigs, producing top-quality pork and charcuterie products, and unfortunately, have ended the year as former livestock farmers. Nothing is forever, and whilst there is some sadness, there are no regrets!
The guinea fowl are still here, entertaining us all, and the fields will become pastureland producing hay and silage.
The cottage will be open for business whenever we are allowed (as I write this, we just went back into lockdown) and we hope to be able to host more events on the terrace this summer, so do come and visit – warm welcome guaranteed!
So, wishing everyone a happy New Year and fingers crossed for a return to a more normal world before too long.