Rare breeds are a rare treat!

A lot of you will already know that I am a bit of an old softie when it comes to baby animals and fluffy things in general… so you can image how incredibly soppy I get when surrounded by a farm full of gorgeous creatures that I am allowed to stroke and pet!

Totnes Rare Breeds Farm is a really rather special place. It was founded by Jacquie and Barrie Tolley in 2001, who were concerned about the decline of traditional British breeds. A scythe, a digger, and a lot of hard work later, they’d built a rare breeds farm, which opened in June 2002. Since then, the farm has been expanded and is still being improved.

What began as a collection of farmyard rare breeds has gradually grown. The smallest pygmy goats, and very inquisitive pigs! I am a big fan of pigs and can assure you, theirs are the sweetest!

You can also get close to the endangered wildlife of the English countryside, making this much more than just a petting farm. You can touch a hedgehog’s prickly spines or admire the gripping pads on a red squirrel’s foot.

Wizard the eagle owl – who is very large and actually a little bit scary – really seems to enjoy affection and he, and his eight feathered friends, can be seen up close and stroked. It’s amazing to be so close to these beautiful creatures and to be able to look right into their eyes.

What sets Totnes Rare Breeds apart is the opportunity it gives to really get close to the animals. The majority of pens can be entered, and almost all their inhabitants stroked, patted and cuddled. They will even give you a free pot of special food to take round to ensure you are the centre of attention!

The Farm is a non-profit-making organisation and relies on the work of volunteers and the support of its customers. You can sponsor the animals with all funds going towards vets’ bills.  And the final icing on the cake…? You can visit the Rare Breeds Farm in conjunction with the South Devon Steam Railway and there are joint ticket deals available. Heaven!

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Living the good life…

Many of you will know Sandra Goodman as our bright and bubbly Customer Service Manager… but there’s another side to Sandra that you probably don’t know about! To find out about her ‘other life’, read on… 

Sandra met her husband, Charlie, in 2011 and they set out to fulfil a lifelong dream – running their own smallholding. With property prices sky high in Devon they headed west to Cornwall. In the wonderfully named village of Polyphant they found their dream home – an old barn once used as a potato store and now converted, in a rather rustic way according to Sandra, into a two-bedroom house.

Sandra says: “We knew instantly that this old barn, set in a picturesque valley with a couple of fields, was where we wanted to settle.”

Charlie, having been raised on a farm, has in-depth knowledge of not only livestock but wildlife and the countryside in general. Sandra’s background is in craft, interior design and floristry and she has a love of flora and fauna and all things country. 

Their aim is to be self-sufficient – yes, totally! To date, they have 20 chickens, soon to be 40, and are about to take delivery of a pregnant Oxford Sandy and Black sow, followed by two ‘Lowline’ cattle. These gorgeous ‘mini’ cows are bred to be about a metre high at the shoulder, they are easy to handle and docile and ideal for the ‘small acreage’ farmer, which Charlie and Sandra definitely are with their four acres having to produce a lot of food to sustain the two of them!

As well as livestock, they have also put up an impressive poly tunnel (in Polyphant – sorry!) and, when I asked Sandra what they were growing, I couldn’t write it all down quickly enough, but the list included: Carrots, onions, parsnips, potatoes, beans, peas, tomatoes, kale, cauliflower, butternut squash, aubergines, cucumbers, melons and lots more that I missed!

So far, Sandra says everything is germinating and growing really well in the poly tunnel, so she’s optimistic for good crops this year. Their next project is to prepare the outside veg beds and get even more produce underway.

Charlie and Sandra are keen to be as eco-friendly as possible and are looking at ways to generate their own power through a small wind turbine and solar panels. The River Inny runs through their land and they are permitted to take water from it to irrigate their crops as keeping overheads to a minimum is really important.

Sandra stays up in Devon three nights a week and then travels back to Cornwall where Charlie is based full-time. It’s a tough regime, but her enthusiasm when she talks about her Cornish life is so infectious, you just can’t help believing they will make a great go of it!

 

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Butterflies flitting by…

Butterflies are one of the loveliest things in a garden, fleeting, delicate and beautiful. True, their caterpillars can decimate plants, and a cabbage white munching its way through your veg patch is a very unwelcome sight… but I try to forgive them all that for their sheer beauty.

Larger varieties can live for up to a month, but many of the smaller varieties only live a week. All that beauty gone in such a short space of time…

The orange tip is one of my favourite butterflies and it is on the wing from April through to June. The males, predictably, are the show offs with orange flashes on their wings! Their caterpillars feed on cuckoo flower and hedge mustard while the adults often feed from plants such as bluebells.

Other favourites include the red admiral, the tortoiseshell and the very lovely peacock with its stunning ‘eyes’ on its wings. The buddleia in my garden is a huge draw for butterflies and, in a good summer, is absolutely covered in many varieties.

If you want to attract more butterflies to your garden, plant nectar producing flowers. Butterflies visit flowers searching for nectar, the sweet fluid produced by the flower as a reward for pollinating insects like bees and butterflies. Many British butterflies seem to prefer purple, pink and yellow coloured blossoms while clusters of short, tubular flowers or flat topped blossoms provide ideal shapes for butterflies to land on and feed.

No matter how hard we try to encourage butterflies, sadly we are all at the mercy of the weather. Statistics tell us that fewer butterflies flew in British skies in the miserable summer of 2012 than for thousands of years, leaving several species in danger of extinction from parts of the country.

Intensive efforts to conserve our rarest species mean that no butterfly has become extinct in Britain since 1979 but conservationists – as well as butterflies – are now struggling to adapt to climate change.

 

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Marvellous Mr Badger!

Why do so many of us see badgers as sweet and appealing creatures? I think, for me, it comes from reading ‘Wind in the Willows’ as a child and adoring Ratty, Mole and Badger. Mr Badger, in his dressing gown and slippers was rather grumpy, but wonderfully solid and dependable. Or maybe it’s just their lovely stripy faces that we like? They always look so characterful. 

Badgers are nocturnal and elusive. We have a great many of them in this part of the world and, driving home of an evening, we will sometimes see a badger lumbering along the side of the road. They are quite big creatures, with short, powerful legs and they amble along with a swaying gait like proper old men! They will often turn to look at the car lights before they disappear into the hedgerow and you get the lovely flash of their white-striped faces before they vanish. 

Like humans, they are omnivorous, although unlike us, they eat several hundred earthworms every night! Badgers are social creatures and live together in large underground setts, made up of a series of interlocking tunnels with nest chambers, toilets and several entrances.

Unfortunately, badger pooh, always neatly piled up in the toilet areas, is seen as the Chanel No.5 of doggy perfumes! If you are unlucky, your dog will come home ‘wearing’ it, usually liberally applied around their shoulders and neck – ugh!! It is very unpleasant, extremely pungent and hard to remove! Our spaniel Welly, the dear boy, has tried this a few times, but he finds the cleaning up exercise (baths, shampoo, towel dry etc.) more trouble than it’s worth.

Again, rather like some humans, Badgers inherit these homes from their parents, while always expanding and refining them. The resulting huge tunnel systems are, in some cases, centuries old. I like to think of them discussing the addition of a new bedroom, or enlarging the lounge over a supper of worms before snuggling down for the night in their ancient abode. Apart from the worms… could almost be me and Richard!

 

 

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A picturesque landscape…

As we drive out of our village towards the motorway for another of our trips to TV land, we get a lovely view of the high tors of Dartmoor in the distance. For quite a few weeks in January, the tors were covered in snow, as was much of the moorland area and the communities within it.

One of the many attractions of this beautiful area are the Dartmoor ponies that roam the moorland alongside grazing cattle and sheep. They are incredibly sweet and you will often see young foals by the road, barely able to stand on their ludicrously long legs, with their hugely round mothers watching protectively nearby.

They are hardy animals and, unless snow cover is very deep and prolonged, they manage to forage quite well. Contrary to what most people think, the ponies on Dartmoor are not truly wild animals. They are all owned by farmers, who let them out on to the commons to graze for most of the year and this is where most visitors to Dartmoor come across them.

They are an integral part of the moorland landscape and are a part of the area’s cultural heritage and important for conservation grazing.

Dartmoor National Park is home to the native breed Dartmoor Pony. But not all the ponies on Dartmoor look the same. Importing other breeds has created various colours and shapes and some of them are absolutely gorgeous – I’ve seen a spotted one, just like a Dalmation!

The ponies live out on the moor all year round. They spend most of the time in small herds of mares with one adult stallion and young ponies. Local farmers who keep ponies get together to clear ponies off their particular common. These round ups are called ‘drifts’ and are held in late September and early October. Once, driving across the moor to Tavistock, we came across a drift, and stopped to watch. What a magical sight it was as all these ponies streamed down across the hillside, crossing the road in front of us, and then down to the collecting pens.

Once in the pens, ponies are separated into groups according to ownership. The health of all the animals is checked, and treatment is given where appropriate. After the drifts pony keepers decide which ponies to sell. The rest are returned to the moor until the following year. And so the cycle continues…

 

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