Seven Bells Fold (SBF) is the name of the farm owned by Bonny McKay and Dale Lucey, located just off PR No. 470, between Onanole and Sandy Lake.
The name came about from the fact that both sets of McKay’s grandparents were fishers or seafarers on Canada’s East Coast and in order to operate 24 hours a day each workday was divided into six four-hour watches. Each watch was marked with the ringing of a bell at eight half-hour intervals, with seven bells meaning your watch was almost over.
McKay and husband Lucey have completed various ventures over the years but now semi-retired, they feel that this newest venture, begun when they moved here from north of The Pas in 2015, will likely be their last — hence “Seven Bells.”
“Fold” is the commonly used Scottish word for a sheep enclosure — denoting an enfolded safety for the animals. That is certainly the impression McKay gives when describing their “small, ethically run farm in the foothills of Riding Mountain National Park,” where they raise purebred American Blackbelly sheep and New Zealand white rabbits “in a calm, quiet environment,” said McKay.
One item that they sell is “Bunny Berries” — the manure or “droppings” from their organically fed rabbits. This manure is collected, dehydrated and screened to sift out any grass seeds like volunteer oats or barley that might transfer to another garden.
Rabbit manure is packed with nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, many minerals, lots of micronutrients and trace elements such as calcium, magnesium, boron, zinc, manganese, sulphur, copper and cobalt.
“Because it is considered a ‘cold’ manure, there is no threat of burning plants and roots,” said McKay. It can be dug into the earth, used as a top dressing or brewed into a kind of tea to water plants with.
The SBF rabbit barn, unheated because that’s healthier for the rabbits, can house between 30 to 60 animals. McKay, Lucey and their family enjoy the meat as healthy people food, but, not wanting to waste any part of the rabbit, they also produce and sell Raw Diet Pet Food for both dogs and cats, particularly good for pets that have allergies or older animals that have trouble digesting food.
The rabbits’ food must be carefully managed so they don’t get fat, and their diet consists of organic feed grain, willow leaves and fine branches, hay and garden and orchard produce.
“Most rabbit fur used in Canada is produced in China, but we have a standing order for anything we produce with a large furrier in Winnipeg,” said McKay. “For us, this added validity to our theory that if you raise a good, healthy animal, they will be healthy both inside and out, and nothing need go to waste.
“Also, we are careful to handle our animals daily, so that on harvesting days, they are not unduly frightened. We feel it is our obligation to be both kind and respectful to them.”
These ethical practices also extend to their flock of American Blackbelly sheep (ABBS), the only ones registered in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
These rare sheep are not the familiar woolly variety, but rather the hair breed, with beautiful black and white facial markings. The rams have tremendous curly horns, much like the wild bighorn sheep in the Rocky Mountains.
Because they have hair and not wool, the meat does not have the “lanolin, wet sweater” taste that is often associated with other breeds used to produce mutton or lamb, and no shearing or tail docking is required.
“Even mature animals retain a delicate flavour and tenderness in their meat,” said McKay, “so much so that when cooking, it’s best to season it sparingly.
“ABBS are hardy, versatile browsers (as opposed to grazers), that excel at rehabilitating pastures and they are excellent, easy-lambing mothers,” she said. They produce one lamb with their first pregnancy, but bear twins and occasionally triplets after that.
The numbers of ABBS at SBF vary, but there are usually 20 to 21 breeding ewes and three rams.
“We have four livestock guardian dogs,” said McKay “two Maremma sheepdogs and two Great Pyrenees.
“It so impresses me how intelligent these dogs are and how they are able to do their jobs without any interference from us,” said McKay.
“We have to be mindful of both aerial and ground predators, but we have no desire to harm anything that’s in the environment naturally. We just want them to stay away.”
McKay also makes willow wreaths and the couple also sells rabbit pelts and the occasional ram’s skull adorned with a spectacular rack. This fall they also hope to offer rabbit fur mittens and hats for sale.
For more information, photos and recipes visit their website.