Smallholders in Scotland are soon to have their own representative organisation. Rosemary Champion, one of the 12 trustees behind the move, believes the new body will be unique in the UK in terms of its remit. Ewan Pate reports.
There can be few smallholders as enthusiastic as Rosemary Champion. Her website, the Accidental Smallholder, attracts about 700 regular visitors.
Some contribute through forums, others are quite happy to read the diary entries and blogs outlining the trials and triumphs of running a small farming enterprise.
A major feature is Rosemary’s willingness to share her experiences in a self-deprecating way, while at the same time offering useful tips to beginners to the smallholding way of life.
It is no coincidence the website is professional in appearance and easy to access, as her husband Dan is a website developer.
The couple run a five-hectare (12-acre) holding at Dalmore, near Barry, on the Angus coast, with only the railway and the sand dunes between them and the North Sea. They also rent a further 4ha (10 acres) of grazing further inland.
The Accidental Smallholder moniker reflects the Champions’ own journey into running a smallholding.
Rosemary has a degree in agriculture from Edinburgh University, but her early career was with Tesco, then in various posts in local government.
By 2000, they had bought a house near Alloa, central Scotland. It just happened to have some land with it and the seeds of a new lifestyle were sown.
She says: “By 2007, I had really become a full-time smallholder and had started the website. I also worked for the Royal Highland Educational Trust [RHET] in Forth Valley for a year, before we came up to Angus in 2010.”
The interest in educating children about food and farming persists with regular RHET and local school group visits to Dalmore.
“I think RHET is a terrific organisation. In many ways, a smallholding is ideal for visits, because everything is close at hand and children can see a whole range of livestock within easy walking distance.”
The website is entirely a labour of love and is only supported to a limited extent by advertising. Rosemary says the purpose is to help people avoid mistakes.
But this is not the full extent of Rosemary’s espousal of the smallholding cause. She was very much the prime mover behind the first Smallholder Festival held at Forfar mart six years ago.
Now relocated to Lawrie and Symington’s Lanark mart, it has become an annual event run by Smallholder Events (Scotland), but is enthusiast-driven.
It is to be held on September 23 this year. As well as a range of stands and attractions, the festival offers a great chance to see some of the rarer breeds of livestock and poultry in show classes.
A companion conference is now held in winter, with this year’s event held recently in Perth.
Rosemary says: “We have chosen the name Smallholding Scotland and it will be a membership organisation registered as a Scottish charity.
“We want to be the body Scottish Government comes to when it wants to discuss smallholder topics. No-one else quite fills the role, but we do want to work with other organisations where possible.
“In some ways, crofting and smallholding are not that different, and we do not want to be in competition with, for example, the Scottish Crofting Federation.”
As an example of the sort of issues Smallholding Scotland will tackle, Rosemary cites the Small Farms Grant Scheme. It is a capital grant scheme offering up to 40 per cent support and, in some ways, is similar to the crofting scheme.
For lowland smallholders, however, there is a £30,000/annum income cap which is not replicated in the crofting scheme.
Rosemary thinks this stifles demand and puts up a barrier to those with ambition to take their businesses further.
There were further shortcomings in the Small Farm Grants Scheme, with only 50 per cent of applications being approved, despite a significant underspend of the budget.
She says: “It is not worth the expense of going to a consultant when the chances of success are so poor.”
Smallholding Scotland will have a website designed to act as a reputable information hub.
For many smallholders on a limited acreage, there is a temptation to concentrate on intensive fruit and vegetables, which is not really an option for Rosemary and Dan’s holding.
Although land is light, the water table can be high over winter. The holding, which is amid the belt of links golf courses which makes the Carnoustie area famous, is therefore better suited to livestock.
The couple rent a further 4ha (10 acres), located four miles inland, to give them enough grazing for cattle and sheep, but the main daily income comes from the 100 Rhode Rock laying hens.
A constant flow of locals arriving at the back door of the house keeps cashflow regular at little expense in terms of marketing.
On a nice spring day, the hens and Nugget, their companion rooster, enjoy the sunshine, after spending winter indoors to comply with bird flu regulations.
Rosemary says: “We cull after about two years and buy-in about 40 pullets every April.”
A recent development has seen an orchard of 100 apple trees established using traditional local varieties, such as Lass of Gowrie and Tower of Glamis.
They hope trees will bear fruit for sale, while at the same time, provide shelter for foraging hens.
This sort of thinking has to be applied if a living is to be made from a restricted area.
Asked if she regards the smallholding as a business or a paying hobby, Rosemary answers: “Definitely a business. It works because nothing is wasted, but we do not have the benefits of scale.”
As an example of the ‘waste nothing’ philosophy, every aspect of the 15-strong flock of Ryeland ewes is commercialised. Lambs are grass-fed and all but selected ewe lambs are slaughtered at a newly established venison and sheep abattoir in Fife.
Carcases are then butchered locally and meat is sold in boxes. Customers take the meat fresh rather than frozen.
Rosemary says: “It works well, as long as we keep everyone informed as to when it is likely to be ready for collection. We supplied mutton for the first time last year and it was really popular.”
The distinctive Ryeland wool has value added in a major way. Rather than just selling fleeces, the Champions send wool to Devon for spinning.
Because they have a mix of coloured and white ewes, they are able to mix the fleeces, so each year’s clip provides a different ‘vintage’ in terms of colour.
Spun wool is returned to Dalmore and sold in 50g balls to a ready queue of knitting enthusiasts.
It might seem all value which could be extracted from a sheep had been dealt with, but that would be forgetting the skins. These are sent to Skye to be tanned before coming home for sale.
The small herd of Shetland cattle is also multi-purpose. In many ways, this hardy native breed is ideal for smallholders.
The archetypal crofter’s animal, it was bred to produce a small frugal cow, able to suckle a calf at the same time as provide milk for a family.
As a bonus, its meat has a fine reputation. The Shetland breed nearly became extinct as islanders crossed the cows with larger breeds, but smallholder and hobby interest across the UK mainland and in Shetland has saved the day and ensured there is genetic diversity.
The Champions currently have three in-calf cows, a young bull, two 2015 steers, a 2016 heifer and a 2016 steer. Steers are slaughtered at 26 months old, producing a carcase of 360kg off grass with minimal winter feed.
In keeping with tradition, Rosemary milks cows once-a-day for home consumption during summer.
To complete the livestock complement, a few Oxford Sandy and Black cross Large Black pigs are bought-in each year as weaners.
Rosemary says: “It all works well, but we rely on having good abattoirs not too far away.”