My friend Jacqui (who I did a Q&A with about becoming vegan last year) spent a week volunteering at Jacob’s Ridge (better known as The Pig Village) and you can read all about it here. Thanks, Jacqui!
My week at Jacob’s Ridge (or Excuse me Miss, but there appears to be a pig trying to get in my tent)
Early last summer, when I was a relatively new vegan, I posted on a vegan Facebook group asking if fellow vegans could suggest suitable food that I could cook while camping in Norfolk. One of the responders, Lynn, told me to forget Norfolk and instead to get myself over to a place called Pig Village, an animal sanctuary based at Jacob’s Ridge in Southern Spain. This vegan idyll offered opportunities to volunteer with the day-to-day care of the animals, sleep in a glamping style bell tent and eat lashings of home prepared vegan cuisine. I didn’t need to be told twice, so I contacted Jacob’s Ridge for more information and, when the dates were announced in September for the upcoming summer season, I was one of the first in the queue to book.
A volunteering holiday to a remote animal sanctuary is not considered a package holiday with even the furthest stretch of the imagination and as such we were responsible for arranging our own flights to and from Spain. However, the staff at Jacob’s Ridge had kindly included transfers from either Alicante or Murcia airports as part of the paid holiday experience and so, with a brain full of both excitement and trepidation, I emerged into the arrivals lounge with my husband, Dean, at Murcia where we were met by Julian Nicholson, the co-founder of Jacob’s Ridge. After introductions and kisses, (well, kisses for me, not for Dean. He just got a handshake) Julian explained that we were in for a tight squeeze in a rental car as not only had the Jacob’s Ridge truck gone in for vital repairs, but also that he had just come straight from Alicante Airport with another two volunteers, Holly and Melissa, and their cases.
The ‘cosy’ car journey gave us a chance to get to know each other and a little more about Julian and his team before we arrived at Jacob’s Ridge itself to find the gates closed. “Ah, looks like the horses have got out again,” said Julian before opening the main gates and driving us up to the main house to meet the others. I soon found out that escapees are pretty much the norm at the Ridge with either pigs, donkeys or horses finding clever ways out of their enclosures and into the house or tents.
Jacob’s Ridge animal sanctuary, the official name for what has charmingly also become known as Pig Village, made its home at a beautiful rustic Finca, a type of agricultural estate or ranch, near the town of Mula. In addition to swathes of land in which the rescued animals roam Jacob’s Ridge centres around the main house which acts as both home to Julian and his team and as the volunteer hub. It is here that volunteers meet to chat in the morning and help themselves to toast, muesli, cornflakes or leftover grub from the night before. Perhaps more importantly, it is here where volunteers can use the one toilet/shower room. Surprisingly, this really wasn’t a big issue even with twelve of us sharing it as we all seemed very conscious of others’ ‘needs’ and quickly mastered the five minute shower technique. Most importantly, for me anyway, the volunteer hub was where we could charge our phones and get the elusive Wi-Fi signal. Phew. Crisis averted! For a while there I had thought that I would have to wait until I got back to England to share my pictures with the rest of Facebookland!
We were introduced to Lisa, Rachael and Abbie, all of whom had been volunteers at the Ridge themselves before their talents were spotted and they were magically transformed into staff. We also got to meet the current volunteers, Summer, Harley, Vic and Lisa, while a further two, Amy and Josh, were to arrive later that afternoon. Abbie showed us around the Ridge. She took us to the various animal enclosures and introduced us to the many, many animals, all of whom had their own story as to how they had ended up at Jacob’s Ridge. For example, Grace, a beautiful mare, had been scheduled to be collected for slaughter along with several other mares, some of which were carrying foals. The farmer who had owned Grace had kept her under control by hitting her around the head with a shovel which had left her brain damaged and unpredictable around people. The staff at Jacob’s Ridge pleaded with the farmer to let them take the horses rather than allow them to be collected for slaughter, and the farmer agreed on the understanding that if the slaughterhouse truck was not there by midday Jacob’s Ridge could have the horses. To be on the safe side Julian and his family barricaded the road, just in case the slaughterer tried to turn up. Sadly, Grace lost her foal, but the other rescued mares successfully carried theirs’ to term and had since seriously swelled the numbers of horses at the Ridge.
In addition to horses and donkeys we met scores of pigs. There is a reason people have called this place Pig Village! Wilbur the pig had his little clan that they share with the goats. Elvis and Oreo who rule the roost in another huge enclosure, and Bill and Ben, two massive pink pigs who had a large area all to themselves, but on our first tour the most important pig was the one who was curiously absent from her enclosure.
Sweet Pea (there has since been some discussion as to the irony of her name) had escaped and the tour was cut short as we were escorted back to the house “just in case,” as Sweet Pea had a reputation for being very territorial and it was considered unsafe for her to be loose among volunteers due to an earlier ‘incident.’
Sweet Pea was the result of a night of passion between one of the resident sows and a wild boar. Her mother had rejected her soon after birth and so she was hand reared by Megan, Julian and Lynn’s daughter and, as such, was afforded all the privileges of a pampered pig life, such as coming into the house to sleep on Megan’s bed or swimming with ‘Megan Mummy’ in the pool. However, as she grew older her temperament changed and she started to display attributes that were more likely down to her father’s side of the gene pool. As her ‘mother’, Megan was the only person who was guaranteed to be able to safely handle Sweet Pea and get her back into her enclosure, so she was summoned from the neighbouring town while we returned to the house.
While waiting it occurred to me how different all of the volunteers were. We were a bizarre mix comprised of one middle aged couple (that’s me and Dean), a set of boy/girl twins in their early twenties, a mother and nine-year-old son, a single girl in her twenties and another lady nearer my own age. Surprisingly they were not all vegans either, but this was fine with the staff at Jacob’s Ridge as long as they ate vegan during their time there. Who knows, it may even convince them to give veganism a go for themselves.
Note to self: Next time pack a she-wee.
With Sweet Pea recovered and reinstated, we were allowed to venture down to our tents which were situated in a gorgeous lemon grove. I had my own bell tent with a single bed, chest of drawers, bedside table and dozens of fairy lights, while Dean had a tent just across the way to me. As the tent area was a fair walk down a stony steep slope from the main house, and the door to the main house was locked at night to keep the pigs out, we were encouraged to ‘be at one with nature’ and pee outside in the middle of the night if needed. Note to self: Next time pack a she-wee for this purpose.
The tents were warm at night, but manageable, but I soon learned to avoid having to go back to the tent during the day as the heat inside became unbearable between 11am and 5pm. On the plus side this meant you didn’t need an alarm clock as the heat ensured you would be awake at a reasonable hour to help with the chores.
The chores included walking the three dogs, Marley, Daisy and Barney both morning and evening (check out this article about vegan diets for dogs), check out this article), mucking out and feeding the animals twice a day (starting the dumper truck required true skill and brute force as it was needed to transport the manure to the dung pile) and providing fresh water from the well using the many hoses around the ridge. This all went well, excuse the pun, until the well ran dry, in which case someone had to drive to and from the house and fill containers with gallons of water for the volunteers to refill troughs and mud pits.
Dean and I also ended up with the job of being the resident ‘alcohol experimenters’
Other jobs included helping to separate some of the pigs into two enclosures, as some of the younger piggy lads had taken to picking on Elvis and the older pigs. We also got to pick lemons and make homemade lemonade. Dean and I also ended up with the job of being the resident ‘alcohol experimenters’ and as such had to come up with new and delicious ways of imbibing alcohol with our evening meals. Our best success comprised a three course special of strawberry gin with home-made lemonade slushy for the starter, melon vodka smoothie for the main followed by a swirl of caramel vodka over vegan ice cream. Come Dine With Me, eat your heart out!
The real food was amazing. We had both a cooked lunch and dinner, the latter of which was eaten feast style next to the pool by lamplight sometime after the last chore of the day, which could be anytime between 9.30pm and 11.30. The meals were all inspired by Lynn who had lived at Jacob’s Ridge and had managed the cooking side while honing her culinary skills to emerge like a butterfly as the Vegan Food Pimp. Lynn is now currently working her foodie magic at a Monkey Sanctuary, but has just announced the release date of her cookbook, some of the profits of which will be donated to the upkeep of the animals at Jacob’s Ridge, so get your pre-order in!
The dishes we were served included mac ‘n’ cheese, pizza, spaghetti bolognaise, burgers, paella, curry, shepherd’s pie, filo pastry slices, hasselback potatoes, chickpea tagine, chilli and lots more, all served with oodles of salad, crusty bread and balsamic vinegar. The portions were huge and both volunteers and the staff would eat until fit to burst before a series of games would begin. My particular favourite was the ominously named but totally innocent “Willie loves…” but the “Light in the knife” game was also a real puzzler. After several games and drinks one by one the volunteers would disappear to brush their teeth and have a final inside pee, and then with happy, full stomachs and tipsy heads we’d all vanish into our tents, much like Mr Benn into a changing room.
Even though the chores list was never ending it wasn’t all hard work. There was a lot of leisure time to do with as you wished, be it grooming the animals, petting the kittens, swimming in the pool, sunbathing or, if you were really stuck, watching ‘Love Island’ over the Wi-Fi. There were also excursions planned by either the staff or by the volunteers as a collective, such as rock jumping into a lagoon (which I didn’t do because I am a class ‘A’ wuss) trips to Mula or Murcia, or even a trek up Mystery Mountain to see the sun set.
My personal favourite experience of the week was our ‘begging’ trip to the produce market in Mula on the Saturday. We turned up en masse and bundled out of the Land Rover armed with empty feed sacks and crates, and proceeded to go to every stall asking for their left over fruit and vegetables for the animals. The haul was incredible! Dean even had to borrow a market trader’s sack barrow to transport several crates back to the Land Rover and these were then manhandled (or mainly girl-handled) onto the roof of the vehicle.
And that is the true essence of Jacob’s Ridge. It is a magical place that exists to keep the animals happy and in doing so gives happiness to the humans who are lucky enough to get to care for them.
On returning back to the Ridge the animals were treated to a banquet of melons, peppers, courgettes, apples, tomatoes, carrots and juicy peaches for supper and there are no real words to truly express how happy and excited the animals all looked while receiving their weekly treat. I’ve never seen so many waggly tails, and that was just the pigs! The volunteers too were running around, almost as euphoric as the animals, laughing as the pigs chomped down on the courgettes that they were holding or playing a piggy version of catch with the peaches. And that is the true essence of Jacob’s Ridge. It is a magical place that exists to keep the animals happy and in doing so gives happiness to the humans who are lucky enough to get to care for them.
Essentially Jacob’s Ridge runs on kindness and compassion. Without the funding brought in by the paying volunteers, go-fund me pages and the goodwill of local market holders the Ridge would soon grind to a halt as the cost of animal feed and vet bills continue to rise. When an unexpected bill lands on the desk, such as the truck breaking down or a vet being required, the already shoestring budget is reassessed, resulting in bills being juggled and belts tightened even further to ensure that the animals are kept as the priority. It’s a kind of “Sod the gas for hot water this morning, the horses are running low on alfalfa” kind of attitude, and I love it.
Where else would you get a chance to lay down in the mud and tickle a pig’s belly, or get covered in dust from grooming a donkey, or get horse goo all over your hands as you feed them apples?
So, what advice can I give to anyone considering booking a week at Jacob’s Ridge? Don’t. You’ll regret it. Book two weeks instead! Jacob’s Ridge doesn’t run according to a clock. You eat when food is ready, pee when the loo is free and things happen when they happen, or sometimes they just don’t happen at all, but that’s OK too because the important thing is, that it works. Oh and leave the hair straighteners behind in England. You will probably look good twice while there, namely when you arrive and just as you are about to leave, but the rest of the time you just won’t care what you look like. Everyone at the Ridge gets covered in dust, mud, manure or a combination of all three at least twice a day, but that is exactly what it is all about. Where else would you get a chance to lay down in the mud and tickle a pig’s belly, or get covered in dust from grooming a donkey, or get horse goo all over your hands as you feed them apples? But most important of all, just chill out, relax and make the most of it because it will all be over in a flash.
For more information, visit the Jacob’s Ridge website.
To order a copy of the Vegan Food Pimp cookbook, visit the Facebook page.