If you have the space and time to devote to them, it is immensely rewarding to keep a few small farm animals, either as pets or as livestock.
Taking on a pony is a huge and expensive responsibility and not to be embarked upon lightly unless you are absolutely sure your children will take on the daily discipline of mucking out, grooming, feeding and exercising. You may also find you need to buy a horsebox and give up countless weekends to go to gymkhanas and point-to-points. You not only need a paddock and stable, but tack, suitable clothing, and, of course, feed. Vet s bills add to the costs. However, once children have caught the pony bug their enjoyment is so overwhelming and infectious, that parents cannot help but be won over.
Goats are great fun and are useful to keep the grass shorn. They are easy to milk, and the milk makes fantastic cheese. Some sort of shed is vital if you want to keep goats as they are delicate creatures and must be taken in overnight, or if it is rainy or cold. They eat anything and everything, there-lore should be kept in a secure paddock or on a strong tether, well out of reach of prized plants.
It is curious that pigs have such a bad reputation as they are intelligent creatures with great character and, contrary to popular belief are very clean. If you are only keeping a few pigs a small shed with a paddock or enclosed yard attached will be sufficient, as long as the shed is draught-free, warm and dry. Some pigs, such as Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, are so affectionate that they have long been kept as, pets. They can even be trained to use a litter tray.
Firstly consider whether you want to keep sheep purely as a hobby, in which case it may be fun to concentrate on a rare breed, or whether you want to keep them for their milk, wool, or meat. Once you have decided, you can set about choosing a breed, although do get expert advice before buying. Generally sheep are happy left to graze with little or no shelter besides that provided by trees, hedges or rocks. If the climate is mild they can be left out all year, although in many places winters are so cold and wet that they will need to be brought indoors for the worst of it.
All poultry will attract predators such as foxes, so it is important to provide them with a secure house for night-time, surrounded by a strong, high fence. Remember that foxes can dig, so bury the fence approximately 46cm/18in and bend it outwards for the same distance.
It is possible to get surprisingly attached to a goose. Although they are renowned as excellent watchdogs, certain breeds can be quite affectionate. One goose egg will provide enough scrambled eggs for two hungry people. They will also, if you have the heart for it, provide you with a traditional feast for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
An obvious requirement for ducks is access to water, whether a pond, a stream or even a large container for them to dunk then heads in. Ducks are comfortable-looking creatures and, like geese, provide delicious eggs and meat. They will not do much damage to flowers, but must be kept away from young vegetables. However, if you let them into the kitchen garden in autumn they are very helpful, gobbling up pests such as slugs. Both geese and ducks are liable to churn up the lawn and both leave large, messy droppings.
Free-range eggs are so much better than the shop-bought variety, that for a growing family, hens are an excellent choice. Chickens and gardens do not mix as poultry is extremely destructive, so it is best to confine them in a run. They need green, leafy plants as well as grass to eat and plenty of grit in their diet. The ideal option is to allow them, like ducks, to graze the kitchen garden in autumn. If you have a portable hen house move this to the vegetable garden at the same time – this will allow the ground of their original run time to recover. You don’t need to keep a cockerel in order for hens to lay eggs and sometimes the hens are happier without one around.