There is so much to love about Di Hickleton’s first children’s picture book Butleigh Farm. Di, or ‘Nanny Hicko’, lives on Butleigh Farm, a real place just outside Geelong, with Pa Hicko, dogs Bonnie and Russell, Molly-the-Donkey, and a flock of chickens. Butleigh Farm is all about the animals that run the 40-acre property and their vibrant personalities. Molly, for instance, has the postman wrapped around her little finger (hoof?) and always manages to charm an apple out of him. We’ve been having such fun introducing our customers to the critters who live at Butleigh Farm that we decided to invite Di around for a chat and a pic. Read on to find out more about Di, the book and the farm…
Tell us a little bit about your home, Butleigh Farm. How big is it? How many animals do you have?
Butleigh Farm is on 40 acres. I grew up in Geelong with close neighbours so it seems really big to me. To get a good idea of its size you could fit about 150 Geelong houses on our farm. For my husband Terry (Pa Hicko) who grew up in Bannockburn before all the houses that are there now were built, he doesn’t think it’s very big at all and compared to most farms it isn’t. He and his family always had animals on their property, including a pet bull and even a turkey. My family always had a dog and gold fish – a little bit smaller than a bull! 40 acres gives us room for some bigger animals. When we moved there we only had Bonnie, but it didn’t take long to start getting more animals. Russell was next and then we adopted Molly the donkey. We like having sheep to keep the paddock grass low and chickens so we have fresh eggs every day. We have also had a goat, an alpaca, geese, ducks, birds and a pig. Butleigh Farm is really a hobby farm which means it’s small and the animals, although they all have a role on the farm, they are pets. We all like to talk to them, hand feed them and play with them. We especially like to adopt animals that are in need of a ‘forever home’ if we can.
Your website says the farm has been in your family for 15 years, but the property is much older. What is the history of Butleigh?
The first people that lived on Butleigh Farm built an old bluestone cottage in 1854 – that’s 166 years ago. They came here from England and named it Butleigh Farm because that was the town they lived in when they were in England. Their names were Samuel and Ann Morris. They had children and it was their son Samuel Jnr and his wife, Catherine McGill from Geelong, who lived at the farm until 1911 when Samuel passed away. The property was then given to the Morgan’s, their neighbours, who turned the property into a horse stud and farm. It stayed in the Morgan family until we purchased it in 2005.
In your picture book, Butleigh Farm, Nanny and Pa Hicko believe they run the place like clockwork, but really the animals are in charge. Where did you get the idea for the story? Did you discover Bonnie (the white dog) training the chickens one day, or Russell (the black and brown dog) rounding up the sheep all on his own, as happens in the book?
The idea for the book was really backwards to what I wrote. That sounds a little strange, but my first idea was about Molly who is pretty lazy really and just likes being fed. So my first idea ended up being the end of the story! I don’t think Bonnie and Russell really talked to the chickens and counted the sheep (maybe they did) but I do know they always followed us around whenever we were outside as if they thought they were helping us.
Why did you think the inner-workings of a small farm would make for a great children’s book (which it is!)? What’s magical about farm life?
I love all our animals and think they all have such different personalities. We have nieces and nephews that visit us with their young children and they all love feeding the animals and hearing about the funny things they do. Bonnie loved digging a little hole and lying in the dirt, Russell was a real hunter and would always sniff out rabbits and one day even found an echidna. One of our geese thought he was a dog and would follow Russell everywhere, even making a funny barking noise when someone drove down the driveway. Our birds do head spins and ‘whoopsies’ (turn upside down) and Molly sometimes squeezes so hard when she hee-haws that she pops off! I just thought children and their parents would like to read about their funny personalities and it might make them think and talk about their own pets and the funny things they do.
We noticed Molly-the-Donkey’s picture in the local paper recently. How is Molly dealing with her new found fame?
Molly loves to be the centre of attention, especially if it means she gets an apple or a carrot. She was already known by a lot of locals before I wrote the book. I came home one day and there was a car in our driveway and a mum and her young daughter where out talking to Molly. I was a bit shocked that they were on our property, but the mother explained that they drove past every week and they always stopped to talk to the donkey. This one day Molly had not seen them and her daughter was so upset she couldn’t talk to her. I told the little girl that her name was Molly so now she can call out to her from the front fence. We are often in the garden and see cars pulled over with their windows down talking to her.
For people who haven’t heard of Butleigh Farm until now: where is it, and are keen young readers of your book allowed to visit?
Butleigh Farm is in Murgheboluc, about 15 minutes from Geelong. The windmill is on the front fence, just like in the book, so it’s easy to spot. We plan to open on selected weekends for small groups of children early next year. Families would be introduced and be able to feed all the animals and then have a BYO BBQ on the front lawn if they like. It was too hard to get started this year with COVID restrictions so we decided to just hold off until 2021. It will be announced on our website, www.butleighfarm.com.au and on Instagram and Facebook, butleighfarmandfunctions. I hope to have book two released around April so everyone will know, and be able to meet, the cheekiest animal at Butleigh Farm.