The highs and lows of being a smallholder

Broadgate, Sutton St Edmund'Feature on freeholds'Names: Shane, Emma and Finlay Durston

Broadgate, Sutton St Edmund'Feature on freeholds'Names: Shane, Emma and Finlay Durston

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IF SOMEONE had offered Shane Durston the right money he would have sold his smallholding in the harsh months of last winter.

But they didn’t, and anyway, when he looked around at alternative lifestyles, nothing came close to what he, parter Emma and three-year-old Finley have got on their 12-acre plot in Sutton St Edmund where they have cattle, ex-battery hens, Orpington hens, Indian Runner Ducks and two geese. Some pigs are currently being weaned for them, and they are expecting six Southdown lambs soon as well as a Dutch rare sheep breed.

Broadgate, Sutton St Edmund'Feature on freeholds'Names: Shane, Emma and Finlay Durston

Broadgate, Sutton St Edmund'Feature on freeholds'Names: Shane, Emma and Finlay Durston

Emma too will tell you about the high points, such as young Finley loving being out of doors with the animals, and when the cattle are born and new lambs arrive. She says: “But then you have snow and the water is frozen for eight weeks, and it’s harsh and you can’t switch it off. It’s not a seasonal hobby; it’s 365 days a year, no matter what the weather.”

She doesn’t talk of selling up, but of “questionable moments as to whether we should continue”, such as when a calf died at nine months because of a tumour.

What has helped them through the tough times are the other members of Fenland Goatkeepers and Smallholders Club, made up of 150 families, some with really large gardens, others with acres to look after, but who are all experiencing similar highs and lows to Shane and Emma, who are chairman and secretary respectively of the club.

They are obviously a helpful bunch, assisting newcomers to the smallholding lifestyle or offering practical advice to members interested in taking on a new breed. Members are also sociable, enjoying monthly meetings at people’s smallholdings during the summer.

Shane came from a background as far from farming as it is possible to imagine: his father left the family when Shane was five, and he grew up with his mother in a council house in Hackney.

Two experiences left lasting impressions. One, when he was 15, was seeing someone pick and cook wild mushrooms. The second was some years later when Emma, as a birthday present, bought him six hens and a hen house.

That sparked an enthusiasm for a different lifestyle and they moved from Milton Keynes to a renovation project in Norfolk with two acres, which allowed them to keep pigs and chickens and see if they liked the life of a smallholder.

They moved to Sutton St Edmund in 2006, and when Finley was born in 2008 it was Shane who stayed at home to look after the baby and run the smallholding while Emma continued to work full-time. Shane admits now his low point was probably down to the isolation of being on a smallholding with a baby, and missing out on adult company.

However, he says now: “We have looked at alternative lifestyles and all sorts of options, but I can’t find anything to beat what we do.”

There is a chance to find out if smallholding is a lifestyle choice others want to make next weekend (June 4-5) at the Deeping Show where the Fenland Goatkeepers and Smallholders Club have a stand.

Visit www.fgsc.org.uk and for Shane’s blog go to www.durston.org.uk.