The Gift of Life…

The Gift of Life – at Birdsong Garden, St Ouen…

By Juanita Shield-Laignel

I’d heard of BirdSong from this friend and that…all extoling its many virtues, but nothing prepared me for my own beautiful experience one gloriously sunny Tuesday morning in June.

Parking my car, all seemed quiet – I wasn’t sure if I should wait for someone to meet me or if I should explore the trodden path in the long grass flanked by wire fences housing a pony and some sheep.  I decided to be bold and explore the path.  Clover made up much of the soft carpet beneath my feet so in true ‘earthing’ tradition, I took off my shoes to enjoy the cool grasses and leaves.  Apple trees were dotted around and as I got nearer to the end of the path, more and more flowers greeted me; echinacea, California poppies, sweet peas and borage to name a few.  Eventually I could hear voices and knew I was on the right path, and delightfully, I was escorted the last few feet by a black hen, eager to show me the way.

I was greeted by 3 smiling faces – Kate and Sebastien who I knew to be the founders, and another lady, a volunteer called Carolien (it turned out we knew each other from years ago and through natural therapies – Jersey’s like that isn’t it!) who was full of enthusiasm and first-hand knowledge of how everything at Birdsong works.  

We sat around the fire pit (not lit at the time) and began chatting…

I asked Kate to share with me, how they came to be doing what they are doing so magnificently in idyllic St Ouen?

“Although originally from Jersey; a farmer’s daughter, I’d been living in France for 14 years where Sebastien and I were subsistence farmers…subsistence being old traditional minimal farming, producing only what you need, living from the land and sharing or exchanging any excess, in preference of community networking with perhaps a blacksmith or whoever else in the village can offer something you need in exchange – but of course this gentle way of living disappeared rapidly under industrialisation in favour of cash cropping.

We returned at the end of 2014 knowing we wanted to pretty much continue the lifestyle we had created in France.  In 2015 we had a pure chance meeting with Mark Forskitt at a Jersey in Transition (JiT) event directly aimed at bringing people together who are into sustainability.  It just so happened Mark had an orchard he had been farming organically with the intention of growing a food forest to include hazel nut trees and soft fruit, so he was delighted with the idea of what we wanted to do and keen for us to set up here.  He’d been managing the land completely sustainably including scything the grass by hand, so it was a perfect fit and we began getting everything into place to launch in 2018.

From the beginning we wanted the project to be associative and open to all in the community and felt encouraged by Land Control, who explained that land use is not only granted for commercial production, and that they would support our project as long as we could show it’s benefit to the community.  So in a very gentle and organic way the community garden started with people from different horizons joining in and enjoying the space (individuals, social organisations, schools and clubs).

And then ‘the social disruption’ of 2020 hit but unexpectedly it gave us a huge boost.  So many more people were out in the countryside instead of following their normal routine of going to work or ferrying children around.  Walkers found us and the local community discovered us on their doorstep and brought their children to explore an outdoor life and our membership grew.”

I asked Kate to explain how the membership works;

“Anyone who wants to can become a member so long as they feel aligned with our core values of ‘GIFT, SUSTAINABILITY and HEALING’, treating the earth with respect helps us treat each other with respect.” 

I wondered if there was a membership fee;

“We are happy to receive donations if they wish but nothing is sold at BirdSong so membership is free too. Most of what we need comes to us when we need it.  Sometimes we put out a call to the membership and we have received so much for upcycling just by people spotting wood being ripped out of other places to be dumped and offering it to us.  We have very few overheads as we do everything by hand – having no electricity nor running water, doing our best to work with what is given; tending to avoid technical means designed to overpower nature and extract more than is given.”

I was interested to know how all this manual work gets done as the plot is too big to be managed by two people;

“Our membership is now about 70 strong and consists of obviously people who believe in our ethos of ‘gift, sustainability and healing’ but they also come with a cross section of skills.  We have a core group of members and volunteers who come and help out regularly and others who are just in the background.  But even amongst the members and volunteers we see a great variety in what people can help with; one lady who doesn’t enjoy gardening but wants to be involved, often comes along and just gets involved in food prep.”

At this point the phone rang and Kate had to take the call so invited Carolien to take over.  Carolien shared;

“I’ve been volunteering with various groups for years, but sadly one of my roles was suspended when[C1] [C2]  we were all asked to lockdown.  I had been looking for something else and came across Birdsong on and being almost entirely outside in nature it ticked all my boxes.  In July 2021 Kate invited me up to have a look around – and started not long after.

Initially I was working with Kate in the garden, so I learned a lot and very quickly, then my role slowly changed when I started walking Tegan, our resident pony and then I was delighted to be asked to work with youngsters who came through Highlands or Skills Jersey.  I had worked as a volunteer teaching assistance and was already aware that sadly, so many children are not connected to nature and the mental health problems arising as a result. I was more than enthusiastic  and helped put [C3] a programme together for 6 Wednesday afternoons beginning in March this year.

A few weeks ago we had a group of youngsters from Highlands College helping with the watering.  As it is all manual – no hoses, all the water on site is collected rainwater – we set up a chain gang to water the fruit and veg.  It was amazing to watch – to start with they were quite reluctant but as we got into it a few of them started humming then moving about a bit and eventually they were singing, and a bit of dancing was going on too.  And to see the delight on their faces when they chop and split wood, lay a fire and light it with a magnifying glass – the joy from that seemingly simple task is amazing.  We also madestick bread letting the dough rise in the sun and baking it over the hot embers. Recently we made 20lbs of blackcurrant jam on the fire – the youngsters picked the currents, put them in a huge pan on the fire which of course we had to stir constantly to make sure it didn’t catch on the bottom.  Sebastien made us a very long wooden spoon by inserting a regular one into a bamboo stick.  We then bottled the jam and they took some home with them.  It was phenomenally good.

It’s lovely to see the cognitive processes the young people go through.  So much of what is taught in schools is disparate, separated – the simple task of harvesting and then making something brings so much of what they have learnt together for them – connects the dots. You can almost see their ‘cogs whirring’ and pennies dropping!”

Kate returned and as she did Rosie, a resident hen, came running past clucking very loudly, I was told, to announce that she had laid an egg.  She was obviously very proud of herself for doing so and this led beautifully into Kate and Carolien telling me all about the animals on site, Kate started;

“You will have seen Beau – the brown lamb on your way down the path.  He came to us in early March as new-born from the field below.  He was a twin but abandoned by his mother, so the farmer came up and asked us if we wanted to look after him – we were taught how to make up his food and feed him but it was a big task so we put a call out online and set up a rota for people to do four daily feeds – Beau was a hungry boy but now he is fully weaned.

Tegan our Welsh mountain pony was donated by a lady selling her house and moving back to Norway.  Tegan is 31 so an old lady and we weren’t sure if we wanted to take on the expense of vet bills but the lady who owned her had been working with her doing therapy work to rehabilitate people with mental health issues, so Tegan had the perfect nature and is able to communicate amazingly with her body language.  We decided to reach out to the membership for help and a small co-operative of volunteers agreed to take on her care in every aspect – so she resides here but we don’t have to worry about steep vet’s bills.  She very quickly became part of the Birdsong family and the children who come up love her and she loves them to the point she will ignore the rest of us if children are around.  Tegan, Beau and the other sheep and hens are a marvellous way of engaging children and young people with nature and then the eggs and wool lead them into the idea of production of natural materials and food and then next comes the fruit and veg – so it’s all very symbiotic.”

As if to demonstrate this perfectly, Sage, a rescued hen, came and sat next to us to sunbath and preen her feathers. Carolien continued;

“Sage is very sociable; she likes to be part of a gathering. She arrived with 3 other hens last year rescued from the annual cullings of a commercial farm.  In May this year 4 more hens joined us – donated by a young man who took on a smallholding, but the cockerel wouldn’t leave them alone, causing loss of feathers and injury on their backs.  Fluffy Top here (the same black hen that escorted me) lays beautiful eggs and we also have two ducks and some feral ones.”

Kate carried on; “We benefited from basic authorisation to erect buildings to shelter the animals – so the main hut, and smaller shelters are permitted because we have animals without them it really would just be an orchard interspersed with fruit and veg. We obtained permission for the tool shed, the pond and even the composting loo in 2019. We have our outdoor kitchen of course and the firepit but the roof of the hut enables us to harvest rainwater and filter it into a tank, so we always have water on site. In purely subsistence farming, animals would triple your work though – you have to grow food to feed animals when you could eat it yourself!  So we do depend on donations to buy feed for the poultry.  Having said that, people bond with animals, build a rapport with them so they are a gateway into natural living.”

Carolien chipped in; “Also they graze the land making easier to manage and their manure contributes to the compost and urine is high in nitrogen. On 1st May we sheared Coco and Snowflake and the wool is used to insulate the hut and surplus wool goes around plants as a mulch.  Nothing goes to waste.”

Kate explained further; “As people discover us and come up and plant, water, harvest and cook I always feel I want to provide a huge variety, but we stick to core crops such as potatoes, beans and peas, pulses, chard and other easy veg such as courgettes and squash that don’t need a lot of care.  We supplement that with the wild food we have on site such as nettles and then we have all the soft fruits and herbs and include a few eggs – so we can provide a substantial meal and the young people in particular are amazed at what can be achieved and they in turn go home and tell their parents.  We feel very fortunate to be able to offer a space to people in this way and by keeping it simple we hope they take skills away that they can integrate into their own lives.”

Kate added; “The social disruption of the last two years has shown us how much people can be influenced by our fear of death.  Our knowledge of animals is so polarised between extreme sentimentally with pets and then being cut off emotionally with the food ‘category’.  Working the land with animals you have to engage with deep dilemmas.  Buying animal products neatly packaged in a supermarket alienates us from the way food is really produced.”

Carolien agreed; “Animals have a shorter life span which teaches all of us to deal with death and is good preparation – what once lived becomes part of the ground – the cycle of life is taught in a real-life scenario.”

Kate concluded; “I learnt recently that astonishingly Jersey has the highest rate of suicide in the world per capita so with mental health issues being so prevalent we are determined to keep working with local charities and groups such as Mind, Community Navigators, JET, Independent Living and more, allowing people to become more grounded with the land and local connectivity – benefiting from this little pocket of nature.  People even from childhood these days can become totally detached from what life really is, spending so much time in a virtual world – no wonder so many young people are struggling.”

With that, Kate asked Carolien to show me around the gardens proper.  We started with the flower garden – awash with colour as expected at this time of year; reds and oranges, golds and pinks, blue and purple and white and of course lots of green.  We stopped to smell sweet peas (and some not so sweet pee was pointed out in the form of the compost loo near a hedge at the back of the garden), we pinched clary sage between our fingers and inhaled the deeply herbaceous, slightly floral scent.    Carolien explained that although technically a herb, that the flowers were so beautiful they earned a place in the flower garden, this was true too of the huge sprigs of fennel reaching up and many other herbs  I could see…  The jugs of flowers on the table in the outdoor kitchen were testament to the beauty achieved by using conventional and not so conventional flowers together in one glorious bunch.

Our tour continued and comprised everything spoken about – invited to me to pick and taste a few blackcurrants left from the recent jam making, in the food garden, shown squash and beans, potatoes and rainbow kale and then across to the herb garden, each individual garden incidentally being surrounded by wire fences and handmade gates with painted signs to ensure the hens didn’t help themselves to the precious contents!  The herb garden was equally delightful and bulging with sorel and marjoram and marigolds, more fennel and – I was in my element.

Along the way we looked at the hand dug ponds, the water filtration system for drinking / cooking water, the tool shed, the hen houses and the only proper building on site, the hut where the lamb was raised, scythes and chairs and benches are stored, and children and other groups can work and shelter during inclement weather.  Recently painted signs were stacked on a worktable and Carolien pointed out the beautiful wool being used as natural insulation sticking out from under the rafters…it was dark and cool and somehow comforting. 

Soon and sadly, it was time for me to leave – to go about my business in the other world, the world where commercialism rules, the world of shops and high streets full of high heels, the world with fast cars and fast food…the world of stress and worry the world that keeps us away from the real world – the world of quiet, simple pleasures…I can’t wait to return and soon!

 [C1]This seems kinder towards the prison; I might return to volunteer there again the future.


 [C3]I don’t want to give the impression that I did it all; it was very much team work.