I'm a Bit of a Wild Man; How Can a Hard-Up Father of Two Cut His Bills? Easy. Live off the Land for a Year, Dining on Boiled Nettles and Barbecued Bunnies, Washed Down with Sloe Wine. Just Don't Mention the Baked Hedgehog

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 10, 2009 | Go to article overview
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I'm a Bit of a Wild Man; How Can a Hard-Up Father of Two Cut His Bills? Easy. Live off the Land for a Year, Dining on Boiled Nettles and Barbecued Bunnies, Washed Down with Sloe Wine. Just Don't Mention the Baked Hedgehog


Two years ago, John Lewis- Stempel, 47, a former city dweller, found himself short of cash, so - to the horror of his wife, Penny, 47, and children, Tristram, 14, and Freda, 11, he decided to set himself an extraordinary challenge. Having moved to a farm with 40 acres, could he survive for a year on the food growing wild on the land? Here, in the first extract from a new book, he describes what happens when a 21st- century man, used to coffee and croissants for breakfast, turns hunter- gatherer...

The idea came to me as I walked around our farm one day in mid-September 2007. We had come to this place three years earlier to rear organic cattle, sheep and pigs, and offer self-catering holiday accommodation to townies in search of the rural dream. I was now a farmer by day and an author at night, while my wife sold her handmade felt bags and slippers made from the wool of our sheep. But our attempts to restore the farm's dilapidated buildings were proving more difficult and expensive than we thought. My credit card was maxed. We were overdrawn at the bank. I had even taken to writing the children IOUs because their moneyboxes had more money than I did.

And then a thought occurred to me. Wouldn't it be great if I could live on just what nature provided for free? I had read somewhere that a primitive huntergatherer needed 100 acres to support a family. Surely I could support myself on 40 acres? That afternoon I had seen a trout dive for cover in the local brook that forms the eastern boundary of our land and spotted field mushrooms in the grass, haws shining lipstick red against the blue sky and countless tendrils of blackberries. When I put it to my wife, Penny, she was encouraging. 'It's very "you",' she said. But she was adamant about one thing. 'You'll never get the kids to do it, and I don't have your cast-iron stomach. Also, I'm a vegetarian. There isn't enough veg out there for me.' And so began my solitary challenge -- a year of living on wild food.

I start on October 1, the beginning of the pheasant season, and one of my very first meals is a hen that walks into view while I'm hunting in the meadow with an air rifle. There's an honesty about shooting wild game, because one does not hand over the responsibility of death to an abattoir worker.

While I find no joy in killing, when you're finished with 21st-century sentiment, all the ethical aspects of meat eating are there in one intimate, stark moment and cannot be blinked away. Different creatures are easier to kill than others. Many of the pheasants are wanderers from shoots in other valleys. Hand-reared, they are so tame that they stand still to be shot. The first time I roast one, crammed with wild crab apples, I remember why the bird was once restricted to the aristocracy. It is a dish fit for a lord. Albeit a tiny dish.

One larder of food is closer to hand. At the far end of the farmyard is a briar patch, home to a warren of rabbits. Rabbit tastes light, like chicken, and one can't go far wrong in roasting it with a little salt rubbed into the skin. The children and I hunt them at night using an extremely powerful torch. The beam doesn't quite freeze the rabbits in the metaphorical manner of car headlights, but they do go into slo-mo, making them easier to shoot. We always make a strange hunting part: Tris and I eager to shoot, Freda tagging along in the hope that an animal will be injured and need nursing. Mallards, however, I find hard to kill, and I know why: childhood memories of going to the duck pond in Hereford clutching a sliced pan, and the excitement as a bird seized a bit of bread proffered on my hand. But when roasted, the duck provides me with a quarter of a cup of fat, a resource I desperately need for cooking and preserving, for rabbit produces none and the pheasant only a spoonful.

It's not long, though, before I get banned from the kitchen. One evening, when I come in from a hunt, Penny glares at the two wood pigeons dangling from between my fingers.

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I'm a Bit of a Wild Man; How Can a Hard-Up Father of Two Cut His Bills? Easy. Live off the Land for a Year, Dining on Boiled Nettles and Barbecued Bunnies, Washed Down with Sloe Wine. Just Don't Mention the Baked Hedgehog
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