Learning valuable skills at the Cheshire Smallholders Association

Cheshire Smallholders Association members; (from the left); Kevin Holmes, Melanie and Nick Webb, Car

Cheshire Smallholders Association members; (from the left); Kevin Holmes, Melanie and Nick Webb, Carys Jones, Andy Walker, Rosie and David Golding and hosts, Margaret and Neil Holding at Norley Bank Farm - Credit: Pics; John Cocks

A smallholding can be a taste of paradise, members of the Cheshire Smallholders Association tell Emma Mayoh

Hosts Neil and Margaret Holding with "harvey" their working cocker spaniel amongst the beehives

Hosts Neil and Margaret Holding with "harvey" their working cocker spaniel amongst the beehives - Credit: Archant

As Neil Holding recalls how he and his wife Margaret moved to Norley Farm near Frodsham, the scale of the project they took on becomes clear. As well as rebuilding the farmhouse – living in a caravan for years through some tough winters – they transformed the surrounding land.

Walk into their courtyard and you’ll be greeted by two rescue donkeys from the Donkey Sanctuary. Look into the adjacent field and you’ll see chickens running free and fluffy rare breed Coloured Ryeland sheep grazing. Walk around the side of the house and their greenhouse is primed and ready for the spring planting of fruit and vegetables. And walk down the field you’ll find bee hives they use to make honey.

There is also an historic pond Neil has worked arduously to bring back into use – a pursuit that has reinvigorated many types of wildlife on their land. It’s the kind of rural idyll many crave for. For Neil and Margaret it is a way of life.

‘It is something we love doing,’ said Neil. ‘Being out here and being able to see the animals running around, happy, is something we get a lot of pleasure from. We do use some of the sheep for food – but they’re so popular I’ve only ever tasted the lamb once. Our family always get first choice.

‘I get a lot of pleasure from doing the pond. It was filled in with trees and bushes. There was no wildlife in there. Now we have lots of fish and lots of birds that come for the fish. We have cormorants and even a heron sometimes. It’s wonderful to see the change.’

It was two years ago the couple, who moved from Helsby, joined the Cheshire Smallholders Association to meet like-minded people and learn new skills. They are just one of a number of families, couples and individuals who make up the group which has over 100 members. Larger than allotments, smaller than farms, smallholdings offer the opportunity to raise animals and grow fruit and vegetables as well as practice wildlife conservation and even wool spinning.

The not-for-profit association has been established four decades. They’re a diverse and dynamic group of small-scale and hobby farmers, horse enthusiasts and countryside lovers keeping everything from sheep and goats to ducks and geese. Some also have llamas and alpacas.

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They meet regularly to share knowledge on horticulture and husbandry, take part in training opportunities and enjoy specialist talks. They also organise workshops in everything from butchery to fencing.

Chairman David Golding, who has a smallholding on his property in Wettenhall, near Winsford, with his wife, Rosie said: ‘There is such a wide range of things that people keep and do on their smallholdings, there is also a strong interest in rare breeds which is fantastic as it is important we protect and preserve them.

‘It’s about thinking how you can live in a more sustainable way but you’re also giving animals a much nicer life, living in lovely conditions. The help and advice members give each other is fantastic and we have some great workshops.’

One of the long-standing members of the group, Kevin Holmes, got a smallholding because his daughters loved horses. Now he keeps several animals. His wife, Margaret, spins wool from their alpacas. Newcomer Nick Webb bought his smallholding with his sister Melanie last September. He is just starting on his plans to build up his piece of land.

For many members, the social side is as valuable as the knowledge they gain and they regularly meet for outings.

Young couple Andy Walker and Carys Jones, from Wistaston, near Crewe, have not yet found their rural idyll. They joined the association last autumn to prepare for when they secure that elusive spot. Their plans were sparked after 18 months working on a farm in rural New Zealand.

‘We’ve always had a dream of a rural lifestyle, where we live off the land,’ said Andy, 32. ‘Working in New Zealand gave us a real taste of that and it was just a normal way of life.

‘But we don’t want to rush into it. Being in the association means we can get brilliant information from other members. Being able to rear animals and grow your own produce is so appealing. It’s something we’re really excited about.’

Cheshire Smallholders Association is looking to boost membership. To find out more visit www.cheshiresmallholders.org.uk.