It’s the 80’s. Boom time in the City. Harry ‘Loadsamoney’ Enfield on TV. Like many others making their way in the world, a young couple are starting small: a tiny flat in Balham.
But Dawn had a double dream which partner Paul soon came to share.
In unpromising urban surroundings she (they!) wanted above all to grow their own food and respond to a deep love of animals.
Well, they did make their way. And here they were, some 30 years later, vividly describing their smallholding at Redhill Library’s first Coffee Morning of 2020*.
And holding 40-plus attendees spellbound.
The smallholding in question came into their possession after they lost out to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on a site in Devon (another story!). They had just 25 acres – 14 rolling pasture, 9 water meadow – and a farmhouse dating from 1625. Nothing else. No barns (sold off for houses by previous owner). No fencing (essential for animal management). No tractor or trailer (essential for moving animals).
It’s safe to say our couple were on a steep learning curve. Never mind….determination and an unshakeable belief in animal-friendly practice saw them through. Along the way there were anxious moments and some hair-raising escapades. Take the sheep.
They are Ryelands with a heritage as old as the farmhouse. This made them irresistible to Dawn. History is a passion. She ran the children’s section of Holmesdale Natural History Museum for 10 years (although she also admits to finding these particular ruminants “cute”).
One day in lambing season Dawn was just home from work at the library when she heard the unmistakable sound of a ewe about to give birth but in trouble. The ewe had chosen her spot (they all do this) but had made a very poor choice to have her first lamb. She had to be moved. There was no time to change into farm clothes, so Dawn rolled up her sleeves, woman-handled the animal to a better place and gave the…er… earthy support needed. Job done!
Well, not quite. Instead of carrying out her first maternal duties, the new mum suddenly leapt up and galloped off to the spot SHE had chosen, leaving Dawn to take little one to the farmhouse for a feed. In the following days, both mum and lamb, and Dawn and her watch (lost in the emergency) were reunited. Dawn had combed the birth-site for the watch but to no avail. Eventually, she found it, muddied but unharmed, in the spot she had NOT chosen!
Lost! One heifer calf
The couple’s first experience of cows was no less traumatic. They bought three heifer calves from a lady in Leicester. Arriving back at the farm with snow on the ground, Paul successfully unloaded two calves into a pen. Then… disaster. The third one escaped! Ran down a footpath, through a style and off into the Surrey Hills. She was, Paul explained, trying to get back to mum….in Leicester. Paul could only follow but soon realised he was going round in circles. Giving up mum, the lost calf now saw a better bet in sisters. She doubled back on herself but on arriving at the farm couldn’t navigate the style and set off again. And again. Paul called all the neighbours and tracked her for the rest of the day without success. A sleepless night followed. Just think of the possible consequences. However, early the following morning, a neighbour was on the phone: “Your cow is in our yard”. Relief! Nightmare over.
It’s good to report that Dawn and Paul’s herd(let) has since produced 18 healthy calves. They concentrate on Shetland cattle introduced by the Vikings (more history). And good also to know they are succeeding in their overall aim of running at just about break-even. We haven’t space to do justice to the fascinating facts and stories of other animals. We heard about turkeys, hens, geese and of course bees: in 2004 the pair had just 2 hives; last year there were 60.
Love and principles
Follow the dream, a sense of history and principles of good husbandry. The secrets of Paul and Dawn’s journey. At present, cattle are the targets of much criticism. But as Dawn says: “It’s not the cows but the scale and demands of commercial agribusiness”. In future perhaps we shall only eat meat produced as they do it with love and principles, a treat for high days and holidays.
We might also do worse than swap some of our food and fashion for products that impressed historical figures. Among Dawn and Paul’s chosen breeds have been Silver Dorking hens (top picture) whose eggs were particularly enjoyed by Queen Victoria. (Apparently a “rangy” breed they’ve now replaced with more “homely” Buckeyes but still). And Queen Elizabeth 1 insisted on stockings made only with the wool of Ryeland sheep. We’re not sure if Paul or Dawn follow this precise preference but they’re definitely sorted for scarves and hats.
* Held on this occasion at harlequin Theatre by kind arrangement with theatre management. Note On behalf of its clients and the community, Citizens Advice Reigate & Banstead is delighted to help promote Redhill Library events and activities.