Jill McAree, Knapp Farm, Ledbury

Jilly-McAree-Sundey-Beltex-flock2I have had five smallholdings over the years and this one is the smallest at eight acres. I bred fish at ten years old! I have bred Red Factor canaries, cats, dogs, chickens, ducks, geese, tortoises and kept six colonies of bees.

Here, I have Beltex sheep, American turkeys, Freislander chickens, Plymouth Buff Rock, Silver Seabright bantams, Irish Water Spaniels, English Springers and a very precious cat (crossbred). I'm lucky to have a large Dutch barn and outbuildings. The latter holds newly lambed ewes, Ross Cobb chickens and rabbit hutches, as I was inundated with baby hedgehogs in late autumn which were under 600gms, which meant they would not survive the winter! I'm still feeding them with cat food although they are now all out and about!

When I first arrived here, the whole farm was covered in huge thistles taller than I am, and every fence was covered in binder twine and falling down, but the ground is marl and though it holds water it is free draining - however we don't have an early bite until late April whereas all my other holdings were further south.

My dad was a beef and milk farmer but never had sheep. I learned the hard way when I bought 150 old ewes. I'll never forget having a row of six with twins and discovering they had all gone in both udders! And that wasn't the end of it! Their feet had never been looked after properly and were deformed and most had no teeth at all. My previous flock was a doddle in comparison - and the moral of this is never ever get someone else to buy your stock. That year I had a vets bill for nearly £4,000 but I really learned from it as the ewes had twin lamb disease, Scrapie, listeria, and every problem you can possibly think of! I'm 72 now and so to make a living isn't so imperative and last year I made about £5,000 net.

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I'm always being offered ground for nothing, so could keep many more sheep and more bees as there are many fruit trees here. As for the dog breeding, I now only have one litter a year which I need as I do a lot of picking up at shoots and need 4 gundogs. Once I kept free range geese which were hard work, but very profitable, and I had a duck shoot on one smallholding because if you are prepared to pluck and dress them that helps cashflow.

Jilly-McAree-Sundey-Beltex-flockI will try to quantify what I've learnt over the last nearly 50 years with my smallholdings and I hope some of it will be helpful, as I really think you have to end up with even a small profit for your own self-esteem! Firstly, look at your land. It's no good putting Charollais ewes up the mountain! Get sufficient buildings for any eventuality. Look how many farmers got caught out this year with the terrible weather - buy a 2nd hand polytunnel if necessary. Buy the most suitable good quality stock and only a few to start as you can always have tack sheep which is easy and profitable, or make and sell surplus hay. Remember it's a whole different ball game breeding pedigree stock - much harder work but more profit and you need to know what you're doing. Personally I would avoid rare breeds for many reasons which would upset some of you if I listed them!

Have the courage to think about a niche market such as lab mice, tortoises, popular breeds of dog and cat etc You can have a nice little earner having puppies from your family pet and she could be a first cross such as a sprokker or labdoodle which sell well. But most of all, my advice would be make haste slowly and have another job to cushion the small profits initially. And finally "good luck" because you'll need it.

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There's another phrase that helped me - used by an old farmer I used to know - which is "bad start - good finish"!

Visit Jilly's website - www.jillymcaree.co.uk

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