THE second biggest attraction at a smallholders’ gathering held at Steven and Kim Ball’s home in Fleet Fen was their toilet.
The alpacas came first – three boys kept in a paddock next to their home on Bensgate Road – but the toilet proved almost as fascinating.
That’s because it’s part of Kim and Steven and their daughter Jo’s efforts to make their smallholding as self-sufficient as possible and it’s an eco toilet, or a traditional looking toilet which is actually compostable.
The eco toilet – behind a garden studio – contains something resembling a bucket. A rape husk is used to cover the contents until it needs emptying, at which point it is composted for a year in a special bin before being used to fertilise non-edible plants, such as shrubs and trees.
That’s probably the most extreme venture into self-sufficiency that the family has gone to since being influenced by the televised grow-your-own lifestyle of people such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and selling up to move to Fleet Fen almost four years ago.
There they grow vegetables in a polytunnel and keep a pony, goats, chickens, ducks and geese, as well as the three alpacas, and have set themselves up as Alpaca Thingz.
All the animals have to contribute to the smallholding in some way. It’s the alpacas that have the greatest potential, as Kim and Jo – Steven helps out but also runs his own IT company – run alpaca visits and courses on keeping the animals.
The alpaca visits involve walking them around their paddock and feeding them – something that, so far, has proved an unusual birthday gift for a number of people. Alpaca keeping is becoming much more popular, and people preparing to buy animals can find out the basics in a two-hour session on the smallholding.
Kim explains they are easy to care for, though they are more elusive than some animals, only coming when called if they think they are going to be fed. They eat grass in the paddock, hay and a special supplement.
They need to be penned in and harnessed for treatments, such as vaccinations or having their toes clipped – something that happens two or three times a year.
And, of course, they need to be sheared once a year, usually in May, and a shearer comes in to do that job. Kim says alpaca fleeces are “very sought after”, which was another factor in choosing them.
Kim, who trained as an antique furniture restorer and previously had a hand craft business making wooden Christmas decorations, decided she wanted to make use of their fleeces.
The three alpacas produced 23lbs of fleece this year, between 10 to 12lbs of which is the really good quality fleece. Kim and Jo spin the fleeces themselves – and offer spinning courses – and have a variety of looms to make scarves, hats, mobile phone holders and something called a scarflet, which is secured around the neck by a wooden clip or button, also made by them. They prefer to leave the fleeces in their natural colours, blending different wools to create exciting shades.
The eco toilet that caused such interest at the smallholders’ gathering is behind the studio Kim and Jo use to do this craft work.
Jo, who is 15, gets involved in everything on the smallholding as part of her home education. She has been home-educated for eight years, Kim beginning with what the school had failed to do – teach her to read and write – and following the national curriculum.
Kim says: “I worried about following the curriculum, but then decided if I was going to do that, she may as well be in school. What she has done instead is to do distance learning and she has a floristry diploma, a certificate in chicken keeping and she is currently studying self-sufficiency.
“She has done work experience at a florist’s in Holbeach and we have found a college in Peterborough she would like to go to next year to study floristry.
“Not many children of her age can sex a chicken or do half the things she does. I feel we have done a pretty good job of her education.”
To find out about alpaca visits and courses, visit the Alpaca Thingz website www.alpacathingz.co.uk where there is also an email link as well as telephone numbers.