Many people take up smallholding for the entire ‘lifestyle package’, but probably few as strikingly as Jenny and Ian, who moved to a croft in the Orkney islands in 2012. “We’d been living in West Africa,” Jenny explains. “When we came back to the UK, we just didn’t fit into suburbia anymore!”
Their 18-acre smallholding croft on Orkney, with its additional grazing rights to 50 acres of adjacent coastal meadows owned by the RSPB has given Jenny and family much more room. “We love the big skies and the space,” Jenny enthuses, “and there’s room for all the menagerie!” This comprises a mixed flock of sheep, four dairy goats, ducks, hens, rabbits and a border collie called Clara. “It’s meant to be enough to keep me out of mischief,” says Jenny, but she still finds time to run a fleece and yarn business on Facebook, produce photograph cards which are sold in the two island shops, and go beach-combing with her five-year-old son. “I’m a bit of a jack of all trades,” she admits. “I do like to try my hand at different things.”
The sheep were the first livestock on the croft. “We started with seven ewes,” Jenny explains. “Now we have a flock of Jacobs, Balwen/Border Leicester crosses, and Borerays“. The Borerays are the latest additions, after Ian fell in love with these little native Scottish sheep while visiting a friend’s smallholding. “We’re in our second year of lambing them now,” says Jenny, “as part of the RBST breeding programme. They’ve turned out to be the best. They eat anything, brambles, weeds, rough grass; and they never get upset tummies from salt spray on the grass if we have a gale.”
With their croft being so close to the sea, the meadows literally sloping down to a low cliff and the beach, the gales and salt spray have been a bit of a challenge. “Sadly, we lost our Border Leicester ram to scour last winter, as he just couldn’t cope with digesting the salty grass”, says Jenny. “That’s why we now have the Balwen crosses, as they do manage with it.” Island living does have its benefits for the sheep, too. “It’s always windy, so there are no flies or problems with flystrike, and we don’t have any foxes or stray dogs to worry the sheep and lambs.”
As might be guessed from such a mixed flock, the sheep are kept mainly for their fleece, although Jenny does raise a few lambs to supply meat for their own freezer. “We didn’t want to go down the commercial route, as that just wouldn’t pay on a smallholding scale, especially on an island when you have to pay transport costs onto the mainland for the abattoir and such,” she explains. Instead, Jenny has an exemption from the British Wool Marketing Board to keep her own flock’s fleeces, which she washes at home and then has commercially spun on the mainland. “I sell about 60-70 skeins a year,” she describes, “and also wash and card fleeces for people who want to use it for felting or hand-spinning.”
A new venture is to see if the mini mill on North Ronaldsay will spin a batch of her Boreray fleece, as it’s similar to the two-layered North Ronaldsay sheep fleece they normally handle. “It would be nice to have an all-Orkney produced yarn,” Jenny says hopefully.
When the sheep flock goes out to the more distant rented meadows during the summer, apart from any orphaned ‘caddie’ lambs which are reared as pets by Jenny’s two younger children, the home croft isn’t empty. “We have the dairy goats; two Anglo-Nubian nannies, and then four older Anglo-Nubian/Saanen cross kids, and another three new this spring. They aren’t very good in the wet, so they stay here and come into the barn at night,” Jenny explains. “We got the goats because half the family is lactose intolerant, and producing our own goats’ milk was easier than buying it! We make cheese, yoghurt, milk-based soap and have plenty of drinking milk. I’m also hoping to get cleared to sell the cheese in the island shops.”
Poultry and polytunnels
Round the farmhouse there are also the polytunnel and walled vegetable garden, and the flocks of poultry. “We have about 30 hens, and we’re registered to pack and sell eggs,” Jenny explains. “The hens used to have names, but once we got over 20 of them it got difficult, so now only the big black Jersey Giant cockerel and my daughter’s Pekin bantams have names. We have 20 ducks as well, which are for pest control – they eat up the liver fluked-snails, which we have quite a lot of on our clay soil.” As with the sheep, the lack of foxes on the island is an advantage, as all the poultry can safely free-range. This is probably reassuring too for Jenny’s small batch of meat rabbits, although they are destined to be eaten by the family instead.
Sea views and friendly farmers
What really makes all this different from any other well-stocked smallholding, is the island setting. “From the kitchen window, we have one of the best views in Orkney,” says Jenny happily, “down the paddock to the beach and Veantroy Bay, and Westray in the distance. I love it, and I’m sure the sheep like the view too.”
A bigger advantage of island living than the view, however, is the community network. “We’ve got an island goat group on Facebook, and the local farmers are really helpful and come in to make our haylage,” Jenny describes. “It’s the little things, like when I needed sand spreading on the pasture, our neighbouring farmer let them dump all 17 tonnes on his hard standing, so we could move it over a bit at a time. Everybody takes an interest in the local ploughing match, and then there’s the ‘Big Day’ of the island show.”
This has lots of categories, so everyone can enter something, and Jenny has a haul of 1st and 2nd place rosettes for her sheep, ducks, hens and craft-work, as well as Ian’s home-made wine.
“The real joy of a croft smallholding is that the seasons bring such a variety of different opportunities,” says Jenny. “Sometimes, Ian can go trout fishing when he’s not on call as the island nurse, or I can hang out on the beach to sketch or take photos while the dogs and children play, and I can’t imagine moving back to suburbia – ever!”
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