During the summer I had the opportunity to visit a local smallholding while taking an Introductory to Permaculture course. Owned by Paul Crocker and once the site of a rubbish dump, I was amazed by the transformation he'd made since the initial purchase of land. I remember standing at the edge of his idyllic pond and being shocked by the photos being passed around of when its water was murky and stagnant and old cars jutted from its surface. When I visited last weekend I was again pleasantly surprised by how much it had changed since September when I and the Hubster had spent a day helping clear bramble and put up fencing.
On his seven acres Paul keeps a menagerie of poultry and honeybees which he manages using permaculture principles. A great deal of work had been put into the land, animals, and structures by the time I first visited but it was clear that a future roadmap was set out in Paul's mind. One plan in particular was the introduction of larger animals and in particular, sheep.
Permaculture is about using interconnected designs based on natural systems, especially in the case of farming and food production. It's not a new way of thinking but it's been sidelined in the past sixty or seventy years of commercial farming and agriculture. On a sustainably organised farm you reduce the amount of inputs (feed, fertilisers, petrol, man-power) while increasing the amount of independence by cleverly designing a man made farming eco-system.
Sheep on Paul's farm made a lot of sense; they provide meat and wool and when rotated around different fields they help to fertilise the land and keep down bracken and weeds. If one of these fertilised fields is left to grow grass then that can be cut and baled for winter feed. Another place the sheep can help is in fertilising and maintaining Paul's newly planted orchard. In an orchard setting sheep keep the grass down and eat fallen fruit, which reduces the chances of tree disease. They also give back to the trees by fertilising them with their droppings.
The only issue that stood in the way was getting hold of the right breed of sheep. Most types, and all that were already present in the Isle of Man, will eat and damage trees. Leaves, branches, bark, the whole lot. One exception to this rule seems to be Shropshires which you can safely allow to graze in vineyards, orchards, and conifer/Christmas tree plantations 1.
Since there were no Shropshires on the island, Paul sent for some from Northern Ireland and had spent the good part of last year preparing for the arrival of six ewes and one tup (ram/male). It took an incredible amount of time to source and ship them here and the dealings with paperwork, bureaucracy, and the ferry sounded like a logistical nightmare. In the end they arrived safe and sound and are now situated happily in the two bottom fields.
It's still early days for the flock and for now the tup is separated from the ewes since they've been deemed a bit too young to breed. Until 'Alders' is introduced to the ladies he has a little buddy keeping him company though, a hand-reared Texel tup who is almost as friendly as he is cute.
We were visiting the sheep during their supper time but they're being fed twice a day to keep them fit and to get them comfortable around people. Without a sheep dog it would be difficult to herd and catch individuals so Paul gives them plenty of pats and scratches when they're munching away on their grain or hay. He plans on showing some of the animals at next year's Agricultural Shows and their performance depends on being calm and halter trained.
Until the back field and orchard are fenced it's the domain of chickens, geese, ducks, and guinea fowl, who spend all day scratching through the dirt and grass looking for grubs and insects. They get fed every day as well but I was not prepared for the whole contingency racing towards Paul honking, clucking, and frantically flapping their wings. Paul literally had to run to keep from being swarmed and I wish I could have captured it on video. After he started throwing out handfuls of feed the birds quieted down and started in on the vigorous act of hunting down morsels and gobbling them up. The geese get fed a bit apart from the others and generally as soon as they can be led away since they're the most aggressive. I saw first hand how vicious they can be if a smaller bird gets a hold of something they want.
The sun was setting as we were leaving and as we walked to the car I was struck by the beauty and pride Paul must have for the scene below. Visiting throughout the past half year has shown how much hard work, dedication, and thought it takes to envision and then create a small farm piece by piece. Clearing and fencing the fields and bringing in the sheep was no mean feat and just seeing it every day in its finished form must be incredibly motivating.
The work on a farm is never done though and I look forward to hearing what else he's got up his sleeve. There will be the fencing off of the orchard to go and the sheep to rear but I'm also keen to see how his project with populating the pond with trout will proceed. There seems to be a lot going on at the Crocker smallholding and probably many more plans and projects than he's mentioned aloud. I don't know about you but I think that Paul needs some convincing to start writing his own blog :)