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In the north of the Island is a Permaculture smallholding
Paul Crocker met us at the end of what looked like a long grassy lane jutting off a main country thoroughfare. We’d driven past it already but on the way back his light straw hat and waving arm helped us locate the entrance to his smallholding. Dressed in a casual pair of jeans, boots and a comfortable polo shirt it was hard to believe that this man was anything other than a local farmer. In fact he’s a stockbroker by day and pursues his love of working the land and raising rare-breed livestock in his spare time. I’ll hazard a guess to say all his spare time since his wife has installed a clock on the property to remind him to come home on time.
Stockbroker and Smallholder sound like worlds apart but Paul has managed to pull it off. Living just a short drive away, he keeps a seven acre mini-farm on a piece of land he bought over a decade ago. Agricultural land in this part of the island is dear and mainly owned by a couple of local farmers. However this smallish piece of field and hills was left derelict and abandoned until Paul came on the scene.
It was soon clear why though: the land was an absolute mess seeing as it had been used as a local tip until the 1950s. Apparently the way the tip was run was that rubbish was collected from local homes on a fortnightly basis and then was dumped and burned on the site. This practice stopped only when the bungalow you see in the above picture was built and the owners began complaining of the smoke.
Our tour of Paul’s land began with the field. It’s currently empty and filled with a mixture of rough grass, gorse and bracken which he is single-handedly attempting to clear. He’s on a tight deadline though since he hopes to introduce six rare-breed Shropshire sheep onto this land later this summer. Already he’s begun putting up a sturdy fence and has planted the borders with Italian Alder, which are fast-growing trees that will provide a good windbreak for the animals.
From what he says it’s been quite a process to get a hold of these sheep since no other farmer on the island keeps them. Paul wants Shropshires for two reasons; first is that they’re a good dual-purpose breed and he wishes to produce meat from them. The second is due to the fact that they’re one of the few sheep breeds that do well living in woodland. One of the main principles in Permaculture is trying to get more bang for your buck and having sheep living in orchards will give you fruit, nut and meat crops from the same space that others might only get a single crop.
The conventional way an orchard is managed includes the farmer manually mowing and fertilising the ground under the trees. This uses the farmer’s time, the cost of a mower, fuel for the mower and often expensive artificial fertilisers. Sheep who can live in an orchard will mow the grass for free, fertilise the ground with their droppings, help control tree disease and pests by eating wind-fallen fruit and will also produce a high quality meat product. It sounds like a no-brainer doesn’t it? This is what integrated systems mean when it comes to Permaculture.
Onward we walked from the pasture to a lovely little pond sunken down among green willows and thick hedges. Though the soil on Paul’s land is quite sandy, the natural clay on this part of the property allows it to fill in with rain water, thus creating a natural water feature. It’s been thoroughly cleaned out since the property was acquired and is now home to frogs and a type of fish that the herons fly in to eat.
However the idea is to give this body of water a dual purpose that will benefit people as well. A small wind turbine is being constructed which will help power a pump that will enrich the pond’s water with oxygen. This extra oxygen will make the pond habitable by the trout that Paul plans on farming.
This small body of water has been one of the major projects on the smallholding as seen from the images below. Back when the land was used as a tip, locals would abandon old vehicles and rubbish in the pond and on the land around it. I was aghast to hear about this but it really shouldn’t surprise any of us since people have been dumping rubbish into the sea for ages – out of sight, out of mind.
Fortunately the tip was in use at a time when plastic was uncommon but there was still quite an accumulation of glass and other debris that had be dredged up before the pond could be considered bare-feet friendly.
Though most of Paul’s gardening space is located around his home, the land on his smallholding is dedicated to larger integrated systems that utilise the presence of animals. With the sheep arriving this year and cattle being pondered for the future the rest of the land is inhabited by a mixed flock of poultry. Four different species live together on the land and all of them fulfill distinct roles.
One of the prettiest of the birds he keeps are the silvery Chinese Geese that run in a tight flock around the site. Their main function is to work as sentries for the rest of the livestock since their loud honking and carrying on will warn of others of impending danger. Fortunately there aren’t any foxes on the island but feral ferrets, which are locally called Pole-cats, are known for squeezing into coops and killing every hen they find.
The geese are valuable to the hens since they can help warn and chase off any daytime incursions by these predators. The second function these birds provide is in helping keep the grass down. Geese are the most economical of poultry since it’s possible to feed them with grass and not much else.
Other farmers might also use the geese for meat but Paul’s wife has taken them under her wing so to say. To be honest I probably would feel the same way since they’re not only lovely to look at but not as aggressive as other geese I’ve known. The three my grandmother use to keep would chase and bite anyone coming through the gate but Paul’s Chinese Geese tend to scamper away if approached.
There are also dozens of chickens clucking and scratching around the grassier bits of the farm. Though it’s possible for hens to lay an egg a day it’s been a wet and cold summer so far so their production has been affected. Even so they lay around eighteen eggs a day, many of which are brought to Paul’s work.
In addition to eggs, having chickens on your land will help keep weeds and pest numbers down and their copious amounts of nitrogen-rich droppings enrich the soil. And at the end of the day, both hens and roosters can be harvested for their meat.
The most common breed of hen on the site is by far the Scots Grey which is banded black and white and turns out to be quite a rare breed in the UK. These were among the most common for me growing up in the USA so I was surprised to hear that Paul has to go through a rare-breeds association in order to obtain fertilised eggs. He has quite a few mature hens now and his goal is to use his Scots Grey hens to breed with a Rhode Island Red rooster in order to obtain a good cross. I wasn’t aware until recently that most crosses, such as used in commercial egg and meat operations, only live about three years. This is in contrast to purebred hens which can live to well over ten.
There are more than a few Guinea Fowl scattered among the hens which I find quite exotic, seeing as the only other time I’ve seen them is running wild in the African bush. But again these birds are on the land because they fulfill an important part of the system. Though there’s a future where roasted Guinea Fowl may make its way to the Crocker dinner table, the main reason they’re kept is that their shrill call keeps rats away.
The odd one does find its way onto the farm but these destructive rodents keep clear of setting up nests in the area due to the presence of Guinea Fowl. Though he didn’t mention it on our visit I also discovered that these birds are great at keeping down tick populations among sheep, which is probably why a guinea fowl shelter has been built near the pasture.
The last type of bird kept on the smallholding is your common duck. Ducks are extremely popular with Permaculturalists because they produce rich tasty eggs and meat and also keep down populations of slugs and snails. Whereas chickens in the vegetable patch can be bad news, ducks tend to leave your plants alone in preference to the protein-rich pests that we gardeners are always complaining about.
Paul also hoped that the ducks would find their way down to the pond which isn’t far from the chicken coops. However it seems that hatching the eggs under a hen has confused them about their parentage and they prefer to hang out with the chickens in the yard. There’s a second batch of baby ducks currently being sat by another hen and I wonder if they’ll grow up thinking they’re chickens too.
In addition to Paul’s plethora of poultry are honeybees – lots of honeybees. I think there are around ten hives hidden among the willows and together they produce well over a hundred pounds of honey in a good year. An early crop of honey has just been taken off this summer and Paul explained that he does this in case we have a lean August.
While some beekeepers wait until September to extract honey, he takes it off early and then supplements them with sugar-water. The rationale is that if the bees put on a good crop of honey by July and then we have a rainy August then it could be that all of the honey is gone by the time you get to harvesting it. It’s sound advice that I’ll certainly take into account for my own hives.
As far as Permaculture goes, bees provide honey and beeswax and also are instrumental in pollinating fruit. It’s an easy equation: no bees = no fruit. Currently the honeybees on site will be flying up to 1.5 miles away to gather pollen and nectar but they’ll be staying closer to home when the fruit trees in Paul’s orchard mature and begin producing flowers. The result of this system is that by having honeybees on the land, the yield of fruit will increase in addition to the yield of honey.
Even after working it for over a decade there are still more ideas that Paul has for his smallholding. By using Permaculture principles he’s able to think clearly about his property and the greatest opportunities it provides. Thus he’ll be able to farm it in a more sustainable and higher yielding manner than any conventional farmer could ever dream of. In fact it may be that this successful stockbroker has made the best investment of his life not in the office but in his land.
Permaculture is the way that our forefathers farmed and though their husbandry of land, livestock, and nature they were able to achieve a balance that gave a future to their way of life. With threats to the environment, quality of food, and the cost of petroleum there’s no doubt that more of us will be looking over the shoulders of people like Paul for gardening inspiration. Not only does Permaculture provide a way to grow in a sustainable and ecologically sensitive way but it just seems to makes sense.
A few notes from Paul Crocker:
- Today I [Paul] work as an investment manager, although I started out as a stockbroker when I realised I could not farm on my own account.
- With regard to the pure breeds, their life expectancy is 5 years plus. In reality few people would ever give them a chance to get to 10 unless they were pets.
- The next batch of ducks are Shetlands, which are a rare breed.
- With regard to the Italian alders it would be useful to point out to people they are nitrogen fixers both from the root system and leaf litter and lastly trout will only be used again as water quality monitors.