Smallholding Matters – Samphire
I am delighted to welcome Karen Nethercott from Samphire to the blog to talk about Samphire, her award winning smallholding in Norfolk which is rearing rare breed pigs and sheep. Ethical farming is at the heart of Samphire and they have been recognised by the RSPCA for our commitment to animal welfare. I think in light of the recent scares about the origins of our meat in the past few weeks it’s great to hear from smallholders who quite rightfully deserve a higher profile than greedy and negligent mass producers and retail chains. Karen talks candidly about raising livestock for meat and how being ethical about the meat you chose is crucial.
I started the smallholding thing because I wanted to know where my food comes from and what was in it. Initially it was just chickens for eggs and growing our own vegetables but I’m not a vegetarian and I soon had to face the prospect of raising animals for meat. It wasn’t entirely unfamiliar territory; my mother comes from Italian peasant stock and has a very unsentimental view of raising animals for food. Her stories were often macabre and I remember one involving detailed instructions on how to despatch the Christmas goose with the help of a stout kitchen drawer ! But I’d never actually done it so I wasn’t sure how I’d cope.
The first time was really very difficult but I found that my focus was not (as I had expected) on feeling sad that an animal was about to die but instead I was almost entirely focussed on ensuring that the animal remained as unstressed as possible through the process. I knew it had had a good life and I wanted it to have a good death. Our first animals were a couple of sheep who seemed quite unconcerned about the whole process. I was sad they were gone but felt I’d done my best to make it as stress free as possible. It was when the time came to take the pigs that I started to become concerned. I love pigs. They are so smart and so affectionate. Our first ones were two Gloucester Old Spots and they would hurtle down the field when they saw you and roll over to have their bellies rubbed. They had a large outdoor run, deep muddy wallows for when it was hot and were fed copious amounts of vegetables from our garden. They had a lovely life and I dreaded having to take them on that final journey.
It was easy enough to lead the sheep up the ramp into the trailer with a bucket of food but I thought the pigs would be less obliging. Then a friend told me how he does it. A few days before the pigs are due to go he backs the trailer up to the pen and then lowers the ramp into the pig’s enclosure. The pigs are then fed in the trailer to get them used to going up the ramp and so that they associate the trailer with pleasure (ie.food). On the final day it’s just a matter of closing the ramp behind them and driving off. I decided to try it. A few days before they were going we positioned the trailer as instructed. The pigs immediately came over to investigate and within five minutes had tested (with their teeth) the backlights, tyres and ramp. We repositioned the trailer so that they couldn’t get to the tyres and crossed our fingers that they would get bored with trying to eat the lights. Because most animals don’t like moving from one type of surface to another we had put straw in the trailer and down the ramp. The pigs cautiously walked up the ramp into the trailer and started tossing the straw about with their noses. When we came back a couple of hours later they had emptied the trailer of straw and were sleeping soundly in the back (obviously exhausted by their redecoration). We fed them in the back for the 2 remaining days and the final loading went like clockwork.
When we took the ramp down at the other end they were fast asleep. We nudged them up onto their feet and I watched as they came down the ramp and ambled off round the corner to the abattoir’s holding pens. They went past a pen full of commercial pigs who were making a bit of noise and gave them a look as if to say ‘what is all the fuss about’. We drove home relieved it had gone so well and started talking about when we would get our next lot of pigs. When the meat came back it was fantastic, really tender and flavoursome. There is some evidence that stress in the final hours of an animal’s life will affect the eating quality of the meat making it tough and affecting flavour perhaps that was one of the reasons this meat was so exceptional.
I firmly believe that if I am going to eat meat then I have a responsibility to make sure it come from an animal that has had a good life (and a good death). I don’t trust third parties to do it the way I think it should be done so I’ve chosen to do it myself. I know this is not an option for everyone but we all do have the choice about who we buy from. It is unlikely you will find any answers at the supermarket so why not talk to the producers at your local farmers market and see what you find out. You may be pleasantly surprised.
You can buy our products at farmers’ markets, online and from the smallholding. We also attend a number of food festivals in the summer.
Samphire is owned and run by two Norfolk smallholders Karen and Jeff Nethercott. Karen used to be a corporate accountant whilst Jeff worked in the building trade but a few years ago they moved to a Norfolk smallholding and life changed forever. If you want to get in touch with Samphire then you can follow life on the smallholding via Twitter and Facebook