Cheering On Spring At An Open Farm

Why The Hens Aren't The Only Things Happy at Highfield Farm …

I've often thought there can be few things more springlike than helping to feed a little lamb or goat. Or rather, I've assumed it to be the case, because, despite a lifelong yearning to be Heidi up in the Alps with her grandfather, eating homemade cheese and bread and walking through the wildflower meadows every morning, it's something I've never done.
Actually I've done some of that. I've made my own bread, and cheese even. I've walked through an alpine flower meadow and, of course, I've spent time with my grandfather (both of them). But I've never hand fed either a lamb or a goat kid. Or at least I hadn't. Until last weekend. 
Many people local to us get their free range eggs from 'Happy Hens', a local producer. Indeed several of the shops round our way stock them, and very tasty they are too.

 At Highfields Happy Hens all the hens are happy! And visitor can collect their own eggs, or just pop in the farm shop to get some.

I knew that Happy Hens, based at Highfields Farm on the outskirts of the village of Etwall in Derbyshire, and just a short distance from home, 'had a few animals' to look at.

 But what I hadn't realised, until a small note about lambing season there appeared in our local newspaper, was that Highfields Happy Hens is an open farm. A place where members of the public can meet & greet all kinds of farm animals and where, at this time of year in particular, there were lots of baby animals to look at. 

 This open farm is easily to navigate & full of interest for all ages. It's large enough to keep you occupied, but small enough that you don't get worn out. And, if you're feeling lazy, you can take a tractor ride.

Never one to miss an opportunity to ooh and ahh about a baby animal (strangely, I've never felt the same way about human offspring), I couldn't really get down there fast enough. As it happened the hourly bus that passes the end of our lane also takes you straight to the farm. Well, not quite straight, but a shortish, and pleasant, walk from the bus stop down one of those winding country lanes us townies think we must have got lost along, and you're right there. It wasn't as busy as I'd feared, it being Saturday and all, so I suppose the farm is as much a secret to most people as it had been to me. You enter through the farm's shop/tea room where fresh produce & sensibly priced souvenirs are available.It costs £3.50 per adult to enter (less for children and there are special family rates) and for £1.00 you can buy a large bag of animal feed, containing four sorts of food each with a picture of the appropriate animal and feeding instructions to save confusion (and the case of the pigs, little fingers).

You learn a lot at Highfields Happy Hens, but what you might not realise is that as well as providing a welcome break from the stresses of modern life for its visitors, over the last 16 years the farm has provided hundreds of vulnerable and disengaged youngsters with a fresh start and a new outlook.  As part of the National Care Farm Inititiative Highfields Happy Hens gives those youngters new focus by teaching them to work on the land and take care of the animals, as well as collecting, counting and boxing the eggs, and so on.  This introduces calm to their lives and a sense of allowing nature to make the rules and, most importantly, it's a place where the details of a youngster's past are irrelevant. But for most visitors it's all about the animals … and what a variety there are to see. This year has seen the introduction of several emus. They always make think of fluffy dinosaurs, but they're very, very cute and really quite elegant. Some of the smaller kids seemed a bit intimidated by them, but then they really do seem to look you in the eye.

  Wouldn't fancy collecting one of her eggs!

Kune kune piglets like taking it easy. And much cuter than their parents.

  I suppose we're just not used to having our birdlife at eye level! In various parts of the farm there are several kinds of fowl, including the white Aylesbury ducks (the Jemima Puddleduck type for those of us not members of the RSPB). One of the highlights, of course, is the animal tunnel where it is particularly easy, or rather encouraged, to feed the animals kept there. 

Referring to the instructions I learned to throw the pig food on the ground near the ugly-beautiful kune kune pigs, rather than try to hand feed. Undoubtedly this was a sensible precaution because, while the piglets were as cute as could be, their parents were in possession of some mighty fine, and sharp-looking teeth. And the're pretty muscly and loud, although apparently quite placid. The kune kune originate in New Zealand, were once endangered and their Maori name means 'fat and round'. Male visitors, in 

But plenty of mothers seemed to be letting their little ones risk their digits so I assumed it was safe enough. And so it proved. In fact the sheep could not have been more gentle. And, you know, there's nothing more surprising than looking straight into the eyes of an animal you've previously only really thought of a a giant cotton wool ball on legs. Yes, I am afraid that, despite my love of all of Mother Nature's creations, I've always regarded sheep as a little bit, well, devoid of personality. Come on, can you name any famous sheep? Okay, there's Shaun the Sheep and Larry the Lamb. Oh, and Baa-baa Black Sheep, but what do we really know about them? About who 'they' are? Okay, I'm going off on one here, I know, but I was surprised by how intelligent the sheep seemed. Probably you think I'm barmy, but if you get the chance you go and take a look! 

There were several goats too, and they just love human contact. They eat the same food as the sheep, so you have to be careful to ration it. And they'll eat your clothes too. I learned this years ago when a little black goat at Disneyworld took a fancy to the black t-shirt I was wearing … but that's another story. There are two sorts of goat at the farm. The pygmy goats are incredibly adorable and I immediately wanted to take one home with me. I could have done too – the farm breeds pygmy goats to sell and they apparently make good pets. However any ideas I might have had of playing Heidi on the lawn were spoiled when I realised that first I had to be Defra-registered. One day, perhaps …

 particular, seemed fascinated by the pigs. Perhaps they just prefer the less fluffy creatures?But there was little doubt what the women liked best – sweet, pretty, dainty little lambs – and there were plenty to see. There were several enclosures containing lambs and sheep throughout the tunnel. And although the feeding instructions told us that sheep were naturally shy, and so might we might need some patience while they came to feed, these sheep were certainly people lovers. In fact, they were rather pushy. As it happens I saw a lamb being born when I was a schoolchild. We happened to be passing through a Lake District field just as one came into the world, but I'd never actually touched one.  Now, I have to admit, I was a bit unsure about sticking my hand out for a farm animal of any kind to take food from it.

 Is there anything more adorable than watching a lamb with its mum?

 In truth I'm never that far from what an proper English teacher would call 'personification' when it comes to cute animals. But I swear it's true. But then, I'll also swear a sheep tapped me on the arm to get my attention and that an emu kept flirting with me as I walk around the edge of its enclosure!  

The goats, indeed all the animals at Highfields Happy Hens, are very bright. They know where their bread's buttered and as soon as people appear near the edge of their field or pen, then trot up to get their food, so you have no problem interacting with them. What you might struggle with is getting into some of the pens. Getting in the cow shed was like a task from the Krypton Factor, but that might just have been our soft towny brains. Once you're inside the cows move quickly to the front of their stalls. Again the leaflet warned they were shy. But not a bit of it. And they're just as happy to lick food from your palm as the other animals.  And the cows, with their big chocolately cow-eyes look up at you with so much love, you just have to let them have just one more handful of food and they look so grateful. And yes, I know I'm starting to go into Walt Disney territory here. 

What everyone wants to see on a visit to Highfields Happy Hens. 

Highfields Happy Hens is a real farm. Its owners make no bones about the fact they breed many of the animals for meat. Indeed much of it is on sale at the farm shop. It's something of which I heartily approve. I've been a fish-eating vegetarian since the age of 16. I've no problem with other people eating meat, I've always viewed it as a personal choice. But I do think it's important that the visitors to Highfields Happy Hens, especially the youngters, are made aware of this. They should understand where their food comes from, and not have only a romantic view of a farm's business, life or animals. Communing with nature really is the most marvellous, stress relieving, thing. And hand feeding animals is a multi-sensory experience. And you know what? Sheep slurp, cows are very gummy and goats are super gentle. And lambs? Because yes, I did get my chance to feed a lamb. Not with milk, I grant you , but with food from my own hands … and it was delightful and rather tickly!   

 Pygmy goats are very friendly, but they'll eat anything, including your cardi!

 Cows are surprisingly gentle when you feed them.

Highfields Happy Hens is off Heage Lane, Etwall, Derbyshire and is open from 10 am to 5.00 pm and is closed on Sundays.

Find out more  here.