Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Dog Days

Shoot season is three weeks away, so I've turned my attention to our dog team. Some of the girls have been working all through the summer, chasing wandering pheasants home to their roosting pens. Here's a little video so you can see what they do each morning before breakfast:


The dogs run through margins of cover crop and over large stubble fields, where the pheasants like to wander and sun themselves. The dogs rouse any pheasants they scent and force them to fly home. I drive in my truck to keep up with the dogs, and because I'm lazy. I praise the dogs, even though they can't hear me. They are such good dogs.

Of the four dogs out that morning, two of them are so old that I have to lift them in and out of the truck, and I still expect them to work. It's like hitching your grandmother to a plough and telling her to go clear an acre. Dulcie and Dakota are both 12(ish). They still love their work, but I keep a close eye on them, ready to bench them at the first sign of a limp or stagger.

I had hoped by now that Tinker would be doing the summer bird-chasing work, but she hasn't got the temperament. Tinker loses her mind when the birds fly, and she cannot be steadied. I've never known a dog embody absolutely every fault a gun dog can possess: lack of concentration, running in, giving tongue (yipping and barking while hunting), hard-mouthed (crushes any game she finds) - the list is endless. But she's got the perfect temperament as a pet: loving, great with kids and other dogs, playful, retrieves toys.

Our friends Matt and Julie, who re-homed Hazel and Jazz when they retired as gun dogs, happily agreed to give Tinker a home too. Tinker now lives in their house, and takes daily walks on the beach (a pheasant-free zone!) Julie sends photo updates -

Watching the waves roll in...

Hazel, Tinker, Jazz in their dri-bags, post swim

Tinker is happy, because she can't fail at being a pet.

It still leaves a big gap in our gun dog line-up. Molly should be working now but, with her knee op, she is on a limited winter work schedule. Gertie's training is coming along well but she's not a year old yet, and still needs time to mature.

So, we got another puppy.

A yellow Labrador. She was born on the 4th of July so her full kennel name is Hadley Yankee Doodle. I've been naming my labs after towns from my home state of Massachusetts, so I have a theme to help me chose names. After three spaniel pups in a row, I am looking forward to training a more laid-back breed. As the saying goes: Labs are born half-trained, and spaniels die half-trained.

It doesn't solve our immediate dog shortage this year - I will have to rely on Spud and Quincy for picking up though the winter. I'm just hoping that it will stave off future dog shortages. Gertie should be able to do a whole winter's work in a year's time and Hadley will be coming on behind her. Some keepers train a new dog every 18 months to keep up with the demands of their job. We only do half the days we used to in Dorset, so maybe we can cope with only 9 dogs in our kennel: 3 retirees, 1 semi-retired, 2 working, and 3 in training.

They are all good, good dogs.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

The Neglectful Gardener

I have a small, underdeveloped vegetable patch at the bottom of my garden, which came with the cottage. It came complete with rhubarb plant that gives me enough rhubarb for a few crumbles in the late spring and a couple dozen autumn fruiting raspberry canes that are prolific, even when I forget to cut them down in winter.

My bijoux, semi-tended patch

There's also an orchard stuffed with apples, pears, damson and plum trees which are more or less self-sustaining. I just need to carry out regulatory pruning once a year.

It's the annual vegetable planting that catches me out every time.

I forget to start seedlings under glass. I miss the opportunity to direct sow in the ground by at least a month. I start to prepare seedbeds and, before a third of the veg patch is tilled, I've wandered off to deal with livestock. My gardening professor told me "Never let a weed see Sunday", Surely it's easy enough to find time to hoe between rows once a week?

If only I could eat the weeds we would have a bumper crop. In that spirit, I tried making soup from the nettles that invade my garden. It tasted like weed soup, even with a half pint of cream stirred into it.

I'm surrounded by fields of crops, which I treat as "wild food" to be gathered. This only adds to my gardening laziness, These crops are grown for animal fodder but, if picked before harvest, are sweet and delicious (and don't get sprayed by chemicals). This year's bounty included peas, broad beans, and new potatoes. Technically it's stealing, except the farmers are OK with it. That's three crops I didn't have to plant.

Bill the retired shepherd has a magnificent garden. His veg beds are cleaner and better kept than my living room. I barter with Margaret - Bill's wife and chief neighbourhood cake maker - our extra chicken eggs for runner beans and courgettes (zucchini) to round out our vegetable harvest.

That's five crops I didn't have to plant.

raspberry canes - look at the nettles encroaching!

Bill gave me some of his extra runner bean plants, which I planted in my veg patch. Luckily they were big enough to outgrow the weeds and they are starting to crop now.

I especially love yellow squash and pumpkins - "no brainer" crops for sure, but not easy to buy in the UK grocery stores. I have planted some of each and tend them haphazardly: a bit of water, fertiliser, hoeing. I put a fence around them, which keeps the chickens off but seems to be exactly the right size for rabbits to walk through. I'm waiting for the rabbits to grow a bit bigger, and I'm going to harvest them as well.

"fenced"-in Connecticut field pumpkins & Runner beans 

I'm less of a gardener, and more of an opportunistic forager.

Our fruit trees are our main crop. It's looking like an average fruiting year, but there will be enough to share with friends and neighbours. The gentleman who owned this estate many years ago made sure that every estate cottage had an orchard with early and late fruiting trees, so no employee would ever go without fruit - as long as they were thrifty enough to preserve or dry store the harvest. His forethought and generosity is still paying off today. The first early season cooking apples are ready now and, as it's raining, I'll spend today canning chutney, and making hedgerow jam with wild blackberries I picked yesterday while dog walking.

The dogs love the fruit too, picking their own blackberries and cleaning up windfalls in the orchard at breakfast time. They all adore pears, and will pick any they can reach straight from the trees. I watch the retrievers eat at least 5 raw pears each, every day.

I spent a few years studying horticulture, garden design, and food production. I try and apply principles I learned to my own gardening work, but I've never bettered nature. One morning as I opened the gate to the goat paddock, I looked at the fence line and saw this profusion of "weeds" and wild flowers -

Mallow, grasses, & bindweed

It was better integrated and more aesthetic than I could have designed with my big human brain.

I am going to expand my vegetable garden and have decided on the No-Dig approach. I am layering the soil with horse manure that I collect from Kitty's paddock every few weeks. I'm making compost from horse manure, used straw (from the dogs' beds), and grass clippings. I've covered over weedy areas with plywood sheets and tarps to kill off the weeds. I like the idea of layering waste, composting, and - of course - not digging the heavy clay-rich soil every year.

I've also scrounged inherited a hoop house, which I plan to put up next to my neglected veg patch, to grow the most precious of commodities: tomatoes. A poly tunnel is one more gardening task I can forget to do next year. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Mike's Hands

Mike and I celebrated his 52nd birthday this week. The celebrations were low-key; after all the animals were tended to, we threw a few logs on the outdoor fire and drank a bottle of champagne, a kind gift from Mike's employers. We discussed rams going to market, pheasants yet to be delivered to other shoots, ageing dogs, and that day's deer sightings. You know, the usual birthday banter.

It was a warm evening, and Mike had his sleeves rolled up. Looking at his hands and arms he sighed sadly. Mike is very self-conscious of the scars and grafts that crisscross his arms. I took a picture of them -

His fingers don't bend, and the webbing between them tears. He's always banging his knuckles and making them bleed, but he can't feel it. Sometimes his hands swell from lymphoedema and I rub them to try and disperse the swelling. Mike can only straighten his elbows as much as you see in the picture because the muscle is damaged from the burns.

And he can only rotate his arms this much. His pinky joints are hooked because the tendons tightened irreversibly. The skin on his hands is always dry and dirt stays in the creases of his palms.

It was a big step for him to let me photograph his hands.

Mike hates when people tell him he's brave. He says there's nothing brave about having an accident, and he wouldn't do it again - not even for charity. I tell him he's brave for how he's dealt with life after the accident. And that he's still a big pain in my ass, so he's not all that different from before the accident, scars or no. 

Eight years ago his doctors sat me down in a private room and told me he wasn't going to live. Now we're celebrating his 52nd birthday. Bravery, blind luck, or determination? Maybe some of each. 

Here's to your 53rd birthday and beyond.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Loosey Gooseys

The orphaned Canada Goose goslings have all grown up. We started with one gosling, but quickly acquired three more, all siblings from the same pair of Geese. Perhaps the geese were a young pair who hadn't quite grasped the responsibilities of parenthood yet. Responsibility no. 1 - Don't let strangers walk off with your kids.

Anyway, the goslings have survived, mostly intact. I say mostly because Ian put the goslings in an A-frame pen on the grass. The pen was tight as they grew and didn't allow the geese much space to stretch their wings. The wingtips of two geese didn't muscle properly so at the moment they can't fly. I checked the bones are fine, and turned the wingtips to fold in correctly. Over time, the muscles should develop and they will be able to fly.

It was time to release the geese into the wild to fend for themselves. Sort of. Semi-wild. I chose a secluded pond just below the goat house. The geese will be far enough away from the main ponds not to be shot at, and I can feed them every day after milking the goats.

We put a dog crate in the back of the ATV and loaded the geese for their short journey.

We carried them from the crate straight to the pond. By evening their natural instincts kicked in enough that they avoided me. When I checked on them, they all made for the reed cover, and hunkered down until I left. They eat the food I leave for them, but have made it clear they are wild geese now, and want none of the fuss we give livestock.

Oh, except the daily feeds. That's cool with them..

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Wildlife and Wild Boys

After nine weeks without a home internet connection, we are finally back on-line. Via satellite. It was our only option as we're too rural to reach any broadband connections. I've just finished a two hour cyber-binge, looking up all those random questions that come to me during the day. Nine weeks' worth. I now know what the Dover devil is, a good recipe for soap, current market prices for lambs, and who played Mrs Kotter in the 1970's show Welcome Back Kotter. (183.4p avg and Marcia Strassman respectively). Some of the answers are more vital than others, I give you that.

By looking at online photos of birds and birds' eggs, I also confirmed that a spotted flycatcher has hatched a brood of chicks in a tree hollow in our orchard.

It's at eye level so I can peek inside when the mother is out, presumably looking for flies to catch. Two of the three eggs hatched a few days ago-

The chicks are only the size of my thumbnail, 

This apple tree happens to be one of the trees that holds up my washing line -

While the flycatcher family has been in residence, I've been drying our laundry in the dryer or on an airer in the sun room, to keep from disturbing mother flycatcher.

The wood stove door remains open too. We still have at least a bird a day coming down the chimney, both fledglings and adults. It's school holidays so maybe the sparrows - it's always sparrows - treat it as a fun slide. Their activities are dislodging lots of creosote build-up in the flue. At this rate, they will have swept my chimney clean by winter.

The farm animals, on the other hand, are testing my patience. I split the ram lambs from the ewes and ewe lambs now. I only hope it was soon enough and there are no surprise babies in the dead of winter. (I'm already 1-nil with goats and surprise babies.). I normally castrate the male lambs at birth and, as I watched a youngster sniff and court an old ewe, I tried hard to remember why I decided not to cut them this year. Something about growing faster, less fat I think. An experiment.

So what happens when you separate pubescent ram lambs from their mothers, and put them in a field on their own, unsupervised by sensible old ewes? Imagine a playground full of 13 year olds with no adults around. Oh, and add a weak fence to that scenario, and "cool stuff" the other side.

Every damn morning those boys are the wrong side, in the neighbours' field, hanging out with horses (aka the bigger boys). The neighbours are great about it, and say there is plenty of grass to go around. I'm horrified and drive the delinquents back to their own paddock with my crook and some harsh words. You can see for yourself how many ways I've patched the fence -

Hurdles, cable ties, baling twine, logs, and an old hay rack wired into the fence. And while I'm patching the day's new hole and cursing like a drunk sailor, this is what I see -

They are just waiting for me to leave so they can start testing the fence for the weak spots, and push back through to the neighbours and the horses. Delinquents and recidivists. 

I'm moving them tonight to a field with a good fence. I will get in touch with the estate as they are responsible for fencing, and ask them to renew the boundary fence. The new field also has really good grass, so these boys can fatten up and go off to market. Ram lambs are too vexing with their testicles left on!

Pumpkin the wether (front) and horned ram lamb born January, to stay as my breeding tup. 
Both are good sensible boys. 

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Got Milk? Heck, yes!

We’ve had our Great British Summer – sunshine and 80F for three days in a row – and most of the young pheasants are in their pens in the woods enjoying it too.  Fledglings in the garden find new and interesting ways to put themselves in danger while learning to fly. I’ve re-nested (is that a thing?) a few blackbirds from the ground before the dogs found them and ate them.  

Four sparrows fell down the chimney over the past few days, so I’ve taken to leaving the wood stove door open. When I find them flap-hopping over the furniture, I just pop them out an open window. The morning bird song is still tremendous, so I guess the song bird population is doing pretty well this year despite all that.

We’re filling our freezers for the coming shoot season. Underkeeper Ian shot a muntjac deer trying to break out of a pheasant pen. The estate has let us keep the deer for our freezer (and beaters’ lunches). I put a goat in the freezer too – the female half boer goatling that came with my milkers. We’d sold her, but she came back to live with us. She wouldn’t gentle or tolerate being handled by humans, so she became meat.

With that one exception, our goats are a pleasure to handle and nearly as companionable as the dogs. The two does are giving milk, though I’ve left the kids on their mother. I only milk her out, about a pint, to relieve any pressure or balance up her udders. Kids and lambs both seem to favour one teat and a doe / ewe ends up full on one side, milked on the other. This can lead to mastitis, and certainly it’s less than comfortable for the mother. I swear you can see the sense of relief on a goat’s face when you milk out a full side, then rub teat cream on to soften the skin.  I brush them both after milking too. It’s an outdoor goat beauty parlour.

I enjoy the milking process but, with age and wear, my elbow and wrist joints hurt. Milking by hand every day doesn't give my joints any time to heal. I looked online for small portable milking machines but the only options I could find were a) still reliant on using one’s hand to pump or b) upwards of £1000 to buy. No kidding. (Excuse the pun.)

I started searching for a design that I could build myself. Preferably on the cheap.  Preferably something that runs on batteries as there’s no electricity in the goat paddock. And portable. But still cheap. I mentioned that, right?

I found Sherri Chekal at Windhaven Farm, a milking mastermind who designed just the thing by re-working a food saver pump. Sherri offers step-by-step instructions on her website to build your own portable goat milker. I was so thrilled to find her design and emailed her to thank her, and to point out her genius. Sherri's gracious response was "Aw shucks".

All I needed to buy was a syringe, some food-grade tubing, the largest Kilner jar I could find, and the Food Saver pump.  I scavenged pipe joiners from parts we use to build water systems for pheasant pens and sealed them in place with silicon. I was so excited to test drive my new milker that I didn’t even change out of my pyjamas that morning to milk the goats. Wellies on, and I was ready.


It worked!!

I milked the goats and saved my old joints. The goats didn’t mind the pump milker either. When I'm done milking, I bring the food saver pump home and plug it into a kitchen socket to recharge, ready for the following morning. Total cost? Less than £40!

At the moment, a litre of my fresh goat milk is being taxed every day by this little ewe –

She’s one of the twins born to the ewe with mastitis / tumors. That ewe had enough milk to feed one of the twins, but not both. I bottle fed the smaller lamb but left her to grow up with her mom in the flock.. The lamb knows that my milking time is her breakfast time, and she chases the Land Rover shouting for her share. Once she’s finished, she runs back to be with her mother and brother, so it’s the best of both worlds for her.

The goats have provided us meat, milk, cheese, a sense of achievement (building my own milker) and entertainment value. I provide them with the best husbandry I can, and occasionally with their favourite treats: nachos. They also like asparagus spears, banana skins, raisins, broad bean pods, and bread. But mostly nachos.

Ole goats!

Monday, 11 July 2016

Shearing Time & Show Season

The weather conditions finally allowed our shearer Matt to come and shear our flock: a spell of warm weather to raise the lanolin and no rain so the fleeces dried out on the sheeps’ backs.  Matt shears after lambing and before hay cutting. It’s all part of the family farm’s income, so wife Donna and children Llewelyn and Ffion came along to help. 

They are our good friends as well as our shearing team, and we know how hard they work year-round, so I put together a quick supper for afterward. I wish I could say it was homemade but Mike and I are very busy this time of year too, so it was grocery store pizza for the children and salad for the adults, plus wine to help with those aching muscles. Donna brought scones and fresh fruit for dessert. Kath, whose husband is the woodman on this estate, also joined our shearing team as she loves working with sheep.  Chores double as social time when friends get involved.

Donna and I vaccinated all the lambs and tended to any sore feet.  Ffion attempted to mark each lamb we finished with a dot on the forehead, but she’s only seven so a streak of marker paint anywhere from the neck up was good enough.

Matt started shearing while we vaccinated. We finished the lambs, and then assisted Matt. Kath worked the gate, Donna and I rolled the fleece.

Kitty oversees the proceedings -

I haven’t been to the wool depot to get bags so we stacked the rolled fleeces in the sheep trailer temporarily. The rolls made a comfortable seat when we were forced to shelter from a heavy shower.

Kath was a great gatekeeper but I forgot to tell her to be vigilant of Grumpy ewe. With only a few sheep left to shear, Grumpy saw her chance and blasted through a small gap in the gate. I shouted some choice swear words at Grumpy and threatened to go home and get the rifle (as I always do) but I went home and got sheep feed instead, and lured her back to the pen.

Bloody ewe.

Last week two of my ram lambs broke legs. One broke a hind leg at the ankle joint.  An easy repair.  After injections to bring the swelling down, I fitted a splint (“borrowed” on a visit to the dog vet) and set his leg properly. It’s stable and he’s walking alongside his mother, grazing and still milking. The ankle joint will fuse and he'll have a limp, but he will heal - just in time to go to ice camp.

The second ram was not so lucky. The break was at the knee joint in a front leg and it wouldn’t heal. The ram went downhill quickly, so we harvested him rather than let him die.  I necropsied the leg. The ram burst the synovial fluid capsule and the joint was full of infection the colour and consistency of McDonald’s Shamrock shake. That is an Injury of No Return.

Aside from the infected leg, the carcase was clean meat. However, this was a six month old entire ram I had kept for the breeding sales, and he was gamey – even though I tried to hide the flavour in a strong curry. Our loss is the dogs’ gain, and they have been eating raw bones and cooked meat scraps all week.

I finally got my shorn fleeces packed and sewn into their wool sheets, and took them to a wool buyer. This year I skipped the Wool Marketing Board depot and sold straight to an Irish trader for a better price and faster payment. The Wool Board is a middle man, and sends payment only after your wool is sold on the open market, minus their cut.  Yet another good connection made through my shearers.

It was my turn to help Matt and Donna this week. We’re into the agricultural show season where farmers bring their best livestock to show, be judged, and sometimes sold.  It’s the best advertisement for your product that you can get. A lot of effort is put into preparing sheep for show, and rather than watch your hard work go straight back into a pen and lay in muck, exhibitors put coats on their animals.

Donna tried to make these coats herself as they are expensive to buy. As she doesn’t sew, she tried to make do with iron-on hemming tape.  I offered my meagre sewing skills and machine, both good enough to hem sheep coats and sew heavy duty leg straps. I set up in her kitchen by the warm Rayburn.

July in Wales - of course the stove is still going!

Meanwhile, Matt and Donna headed down to the farm to groom the showing sheep. When I finished my seamstress duties, I watched some of their preparations.  Their Welsh Black sheep are a quarter of the size of mine, and can be lifted onto a grooming table.

It's a husband and wife grooming team, but they work in tandem on the same sheep. First, the sheep is combed to bring up the fleece -

Then the fleece is carefully trimmed using hand shears to show off the shape of the animal: a nice straight back, full legs, graceful neck-

Once trimmed, spray shine is applied to enhance the bloom and keep the farm dust from settling back into the clean fleece. Matt uses a wooden paddle to tamp the fleece and make it tight -

As a hill breed, a “tight skin” (good weather-proof fleece) is a desirable breed characteristic. 

Now the newly sewn coats can be fitted-

More finishing touches – plucking stray white hairs, putting linseed oil on rams’ horns, using a toothbrush to clean between the cleats of each foot – can be done before loading up in the morning.

It is a labour of love, as much as an opportunity to advertise your stock. And not without financial risk. Entering a few main classes in the big county and national shows can total £1000 in a season. I won’t be entering anything any time soon.

After my bit of sewing, I drove home and pulled into our drive to find this waiting for me-

The guys have started Canada goose hunting. 

The dogs are going to eat better than us this month.