Simon Fairlie and his Cows

Written by patrickw on . Posted in Uncategorized

Simon Fairlie is a man of many parts: purveyor of Austrian scythes, co-editor of The Land magazine and major contributor to it, expert on planning law for smallholders, and a smallholder himself. He co-taught the smallholding course (see previous post) with Jyoti Fernandes – of whom more in another blog. Simon keeps dairy cows on the fields belonging to the community where he lives, Monkton Wyld Court in west Dorset. The tradition of dairying there goes back almost uninterruptedly to Victorian times, when the house was built, and probably long before that.

Simon Fairlie

Commercial dairy farming is in a bad way. It’s capital-intensive enterprise, involving expensive high-tech equipment for milking plus tractors and other field equipment to grow the grass. The cows are also fed a great deal of grain, and the work involved in milking and caring for today’s large herds is unremitting. The supermarkets have an iron grip on prices and persistently pay farmers less than the cost of production for their milk, with the result that almost half of all dairy farmers have gone out of business in a decade. Those that remain get ever bigger, in the hope that the economies of scale will save them.

The farmyard at Monkton Wyld fits snugly into the Dorset countryside.

Simon comes in at a totally different level. He has just two cows. He milks them by hand and makes hay with hand tools. The most expensive piece of kit he uses is one of his splendid Austrian scythes. Grass and hay make up almost all of the cows’ diet, supplemented with lucerne (alfalfa) nuts as necessary. No grain is fed. Milking is a leisurely affair, and there are other community members who can do it for him if he needs to be away or take some time off.

Monkton Wyld Court.

He sells his milk to the community, which gives him a regular market at retail price, and he makes cheese with any surplus. Selling at retail price and adding value – in this case by cheesemaking – are fundamental to the economic viability of small-scale production. Not everyone has the advantage of such a captive market on their doorstep as Simon does, but the demand for local, naturally produced food is strong enough in most parts of the country to make a similar enterprise viable. Simon reckons that with four cows rather than two a person could make a full living.
The whey, the residue from cheese-making, is fed to pigs, at the rate of one growing pig per milking cow. The pigs live in a little paddock which, by the time they go to slaughter, is completely cleared of vegetation, manured and ready to grow a crop of vegetables. Two paddocks are alternated between pigs and vegetables, saving much of the work of ground preparation and manuring. This integration of cattle, pigs and vegetables is a good example of the permaculture principle of linking, where an output of one part of the system becomes an input to another. It’s a cyclic system, just like a natural ecosystem. The beauty of it is that it reduces the need for both work and external inputs while making profitable use of outputs which would otherwise go to waste.

Pigs and vegetables alternate between these two plots.



Planning advice

Austrian Scythes

The Land Magazine

Monkton Wyld Court

Flintbatch Wood

Written by patrickw on . Posted in Uncategorized

Last autumn I went on a smallholding course taught by Simon Fairlie and Jyoti Fernandes at Monkton Wyld Court in Dorset. I’m not actually planning to take up smallholding at my ripe old age. But, as a permaculture teacher, many of the people I teach aim to get their little plot of land in the country one day, so it seemed a good idea to learn a bit more about smallholding from a couple of people who really know what they’re talking about. The course fulfilled my expectations and more.
An important element of the course was the visits we paid to smallholdings in the area. I thought there’s no better way to start this blog off than with a series of posts about those visits. The first of them was to Flintbatch Wood.

Guy Furner owns and manages the wood and his aim is to demonstrate how animals can be combined with woodland crafts to make a woodland like this productive. He makes part of his living from the wood and the rest from managing other woods and landscaping. Charcoal is a useful output as it makes use of small or crooked wood which has no value for other crafts.

Guy Ferner.

The trees are mainly beech, planted in the 1950’s. Many of the larger ones were of poor form for timber so he felled them and allowed the younger ones to grow on. To replace them he’s planted sweet chestnut for timber and chestnut, hazel and lime for coppice. These are planted in a mosaic of small single-species blocks. Sweet chestnut is a particularly good choice here as it suits the sandy soil.

This area has been thinned and replanted, leaving beech trees with beautiful straight, branch-free stems.

The animals are pigs, chickens and ducks, and he plans to introduce other kinds of poultry too. The pigs are used to prepare the ground for tree planting by rooting out the existing vegetation. The wood is divided into 6 compartments and the pigs clear one of them at a time. Guy finds two sows and their progeny are just right for this 16 acre (6.5ha) wood. The sandy soil suits pigs as a heavier soil would suffer from compaction, even with this light stocking rate.

Some of Guy’s pigs at work.

There’s a clearing in the wood where a number of springs made the soil too wet for tree growth. Guy turned this problem into an asset by making a series of ponds, which dried up the land in between them. This is naturally where he keeps the ducks. Unfortunately the surrounding trees still cast significant shade, enough for the ducks’ internal clocks to register the onset of autumn as early as August, and they stop laying then. So he’s thinking of changing from egg production to meat birds or breeding ducklings. He has also planted some fruit trees on the dry land between the ponds.


The duck ponds.

I was impressed by the huge amount of work that Guy has achieved in the few years he’s had the wood, by the diversity of produce he gets from it and by the way he’s integrated animals and woodland. This is a good example of permaculture applied to woodland management. In fact Guy came on one of our courses many years ago, but I don’t think I should claim much credit for what he’s done at Flintbatch.


Guy has built a cordwood cabin and a barn for processing woodland produce, using all his own timber and wood.


Permaculture Design Course on Dartmoor