Should another Beast from the East strike sometime soon — or an even worse winter — Kevin Alviti has plenty of advice on how to stock up and prepare
Get ready for winter, by Kevin Alviti
Last winter was a wake-up call for many and, with another hard winter predicted, being prepared for the worst is not something to be taken lightly. Living on a smallholding or a farm just increases the difficulty, often with remote, rural properties cut off from towns and villages. And with livestock to look after, any chance of locking yourself away from the world and waiting for it all to blow over goes out the window.
Getting ready for winter should be on everyone’s to-do list, and being prepared before the media tries to scare everyone into the shops to panic buy milk and bread when a snowflake falls is key.
Work on having at least two weeks’ worth of food in the house. A good store cupboard of long life items that can be rotated in your normal cooking is essential. It is easy to keep more nonperishable items that you use regularly in reserve; things like tins of beans and tomatoes, baking ingredients and dry goods, such as rice or flour, being good examples. Rotating these items means that you will never waste any, but you will always have some extra in case of emergencies. My grandmother used to have a cupboard full of sugar, a throwback from shortages during the war, and it was a habit she had no intention of breaking.
Janet Foggie is a smallholder from Fife in Scotland who tends to a large vegetable garden and keeps chickens and ducks on her two-acre patch. She says: “We always have a meal-kist full of flour and rice. There must be 40kg in there at the moment, so we know that we can always make bread and stay well fed if we get cut off due to bad weather.” A meal-kist is a large chest in which food can safely be kept and which was a feature of many crofts of the past.
The style of Janet’s house also helps when it comes to stocking up for winter. “It has stone built stores that take up a third of the footprint, including a good traditional pantry and another store as well. Whoever built it put a lot of effort into storing their food here and they knew that they could get cut off.”
Blogger Skyeent is a smallholder who runs a small shop in Skye.
“We don’t tend to get cold winters up here, just wet and windy ones, but if it does get cold and the hill into the glen gets icy then suddenly people start appreciating the local shop,” she says. “It would be quite nice if they invested in it year round. Sometimes I have to ration bread and milk and deliver to people who can’t get out of their drives. As well as the obvious food and salt, there are candles, torches and lamps, batteries, paraffin and gas bottles, coal, wood and kindling, camping stoves and grippers for shoes, all of which we stock just in case. At home over Christmas, I found it convenient to keep food freezing outside — free extra cold storage space.”
The water conundrum
Keeping drinking water in stock is also something to consider. Having bottled water as an emergency backup won’t break the bank and if water pipes freeze it prevents smallholders becoming victims who may have to be rescued by the emergency services. Two litres per person per day is recommended for three days and, with bottled water so inexpensive, for a family of five it works out at less than £ 3.
But providing drinking water for animals on a rural property often proves far harder than keeping the human inhabitants hydrated. Long-time smallholders Paul and Sue Breakwell live in Shropshire, but their animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — are kept a distance from their home, which can make life difficult.
“Animals can, at a push, survive a few days without food, but not very long without water,” says Paul. “Because they are given plenty of hay, they need to drink even more water. When it shows signs of freezing, Sue fills up a few water butts and puts them among the bales, covering them up for insulation. That way, if the pipes or taps freeze, we have water already in situ that we can use.”
Sven Bosley, who farms beef cattle and suckler cows on 101 acres in Herefordshire, says that getting water to his animals proves to be his biggest headache. “Last year I ended up taking them to the brook twice a day for a drink, putting up fences and making sure that they didn’t wander,” he says. “It was so time-consuming and something you normally take for granted and don’t even consider.”
Pipes may need to be insulated, and Sven also has experience of this. “Every time I do it, some little vermin thinks that it will make nice material for a nest.”
Sven can remember working on a large farm in Oxfordshire during the hard winter of 1981/82.
“The killer was trying to thaw out water tanks for the cattle. I would go around the holding with a propane bottle and a blow torch. I had to put a sack on my back to try to shield myself and the tank from the wind as I attempted to thaw the ballcock to get it to flow. You could be sure that within an hour of leaving and it filling up, it would be frozen again.”
Janet Foggie has a way of getting water to her animals during the harshest of winters. “I keep my hosepipe reel inside and roll it out to use each day. It’s heavy and awkward, but this way is much better than trying to defrost pipes,” she says.
Getting in food for animals is obviously a vital consideration, bearing in mind that the horrific winter of 1963 could occur again at some point.
“I work it out thanks to my years of experience,” says Sven Bosley. “Just praying you have enough won’t do the trick. I know how many animals I have and roughly what they eat, so I plan accordingly. I buy all my forage in in round bales, but some years the costs can be huge. My animals have access to the outside all year and although it can create a mess, they seem happier for it.”
Forums and Facebook groups can be great for asking advice if you are struggling to work out how much fodder you will need. Local farmers often love to share their advice and wisdom on what you should keep in for the winter — especially if they get to sell you some hay or straw in the process. And don’t overlook bedding, as keeping animals clean and dry inside is an important welfare issue too.
Many smallholders think about their animals first and themselves second — or hardly at all. But a small-scale farmer’s own wellbeing is vital. If you get sick, who is going to take care of your animals, especially if you live on an isolated holding and find yourself cut off. Therefore, before the onslaught of winter ensure that your primary heating source is well maintained. Servicing should be top of your winter check list. Run your boiler a few times in the summer so that it doesn’t sit idly for months and then won’t fire up when a cold snap hits. Having a secondary source of heating and cooking is a useful backup. Many people don’t think of the consequences of not having heating should power supplies be cut, or if their heating oil runs out.
Luckily, many country homes have wood stoves, which are ideal as they can provide
both heat and a means of cooking. If you don’t have one, a cheap camping stove could prove invaluable in a crisis.
Keeping fuel ready for your wood stove isn’t always straightforward, however, as Sven Bosley attests to: “Keeping enough wood is easy, but keeping enough dry wood is the difficult part. I have plenty of wood, but dry and seasoned is another matter. I keep a backup bulk bag of wood that my wife doesn’t know about for when things get really cold.”
Paul Breakwell has a tradition to ensure that he is well stocked for winter
“Each year, on the longest day, I take a load of hay down to store near my animals and I bring back a load of wood. That way I’m prepared for the shortest day,” he notes.
How facilities are set up on a smallholding can also make life easy — or unnecessarily hard. Smallholder Janet Foggie got caught out last year.
“I moved my chickens around — away from the westward prevailing winds, but then the Beast from the East hit and I ended up digging out my chickens every day. Even if it didn’t snow, it still blew and drifted in.”
In the winter, making sure that you are dressed for whatever the weather has to throw at you is vitally important. A hole in Wellington boots is an inconvenience in the summer, but it can be dangerous in the winter.
“I normally buy a new pair of wellies before winter, as there’s nothing worse than having a pair with little grip left on the bottom when you’re walking on mud and ice,” says Sven.
Keeping a spare set that matches is a great cost saving tip — that way you can just keep one boot if you rip or damage the other one of the pair.
Vehicles inevitably pose problems in the winter. Jump leads and a battery charger top Sven’s list of must-haves. “You can guarantee that a battery will fail when you need it the most.”
If you have to travel, always keep certain items in your car. My wife has a ‘get home’ kit in her car that includes things like a sleeping bag, water, food and a torch. These could prove invaluable were she to get
stranded, or they would make her more comfortable while she was waiting to be rescued. However, the folding shovel given as a Christmas present last year didn’t go down as well as I thought it would.
With winter already here, smallholders should start to look at the essentials and whether — or not — they are prepared should the worst hit. Ask the question, what would I need if I was cut off for a period of time? And look back to past winters to see how you could better prepare for anything that comes your way. You will be glad that you did.
Farming in winter is a serious business, so it is good to introduce the fun factor at times
If you have livestock and bad weather hits, you will not be able to shut yourself away from the world until it all blows over
Ensuring that you have enough fodder in stock to feed your animals if bad weather hits is essential
Keeping a ‘get home’ kit in your car if you live in a rural area is an excellent idea