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December on the COAM farm

Although the Museum was closed to visitors much of December, it was not a quiet month on the farm – far from it!

Like the rest of the Museum, the farm can usually enjoy some respite during the winter months, taking the opportunity to catch up with outstanding tasks, do some housekeeping and plan and prepare for the season ahead.

The goats, sheep, cows, horses and chickens still needed looking after and this meant that farm staff and volunteers had to come in every day of the Christmas holidays to feed and care for them all.

Cows at Chiltern Open Air Museum


Then there are the winter tasks that need to get under way in December such as hedgelaying. On many Chiltern farms of yesteryear, hedgelaying was an important task before the advent of wire fencing to keep boundaries maintained and stock in the fields. The winter months provided a little more time for the farmer and farm workers to complete this time consuming work. It is also the best time of year to avoid disturbing nesting birds (today hedgelaying must not take place from March until September).

So December is a great time to get on with this important job at the Museum and the farm’s volunteers have certainly spent some profitable time doing this, completing one side of an arable field. Good going in light of other disruptions!

Hedgelaying is not a quick and easy task and requires skill and patience. One of the characteristics of the Museum is the willingness of staff, assisted by experienced volunteers, to teach skills to new volunteers. So all members of the farm team and other Museum volunteers get the chance to take part in this popular activity.

Hedge and tree maintenance tasks including coppicing, are also best done during winter. This activity provides stakes and binders for hedgelaying, materials for hurdle making and logs for the Museum’s buildings’ fires.

The Museum also can benefit from skills brought along by volunteers. Farm volunteer, Steve Davis, who works in an unrelated full-time job, takes annual leave to come and help with tree maintenance. Steve has invested his own time and money in chainsaw use management.  His help significantly benefits the farm team in completing work that would take much time and effort using traditional hand tools or valuable funds if contractors were needed.

During December the farm was to experience major disruption. On a minor note, the chickens were confined to quarters for a month as a precaution due a new strain of avian flu that put all birds at risk across the UK. Not a major disruption, but the chickens were mighty put out by being shut away!

Goats at Chiltern Open Air Museum


Also not so happy were Beverly and Crystal the Old English goats. They were evicted from their home in one of Hill Farm Barn’s outer buildings. The two goats like to keep an eye on comings and goings around the farm from their prominent home, but they had to spend much of December in temporary accommodation in the more isolated lambing folds.

This was because of three weeks of preparation and filming that took place on and around the farm for a major TV drama. Farm buildings including Hill Farm Barn, were required as set locations. And the production company did not want Beverly or Crystal to have starring roles – their loss!

Few of the artefacts housed in Hill Farm Barn or around the farmyard were wanted for filming. So as well as not being able to get on with many of December’s planned tasks, the farm team spent days clearing out the barn and tidying up the farmyard. This required moving artefacts large and small including farm machinery such as the threshing machine, wagons and other machinery.

Although this additional work and restricted access to the farm disrupted farm manager Conway Rowland’s plans for December, Conway appreciated the benefits to the Museum from this opportunity stating; “Revenue from filming is a useful source of additional funding for the Museum. As well as underwriting the day to day running costs, it provides money for projects that help the Museum progress its plans. Hopefully the farm will benefit from some of this extra money!”

Although a useful source of revenue, the Museum wants to minimise the impact such activities have on the visitor experience. So with the Museum closed to the public, there was no disruption to visitors, the production company got the time and space they wanted and the Museum some additional funding.

So with animals and artefacts restored to their normal accommodation, the farm team is ready for January. And another major plus for Conway, “It made us give the barns a good clear-out and tidy up. With a busy schedule throughout the year, it is easy to put off such activity, but when forced to, you realise it was worthwhile!”

Written by farm volunteer Julian Stanton

Pictures by Charles Abbott