Saturday, 12 April 2014

Mother's Pride

Readers in the US will be very familiar with bumperstickers that say "Proud Parent of an Honour Student" or My Child is an Honor Student at --- School". I get that. Parents should be proud of their children's achievements. I only have fur kids, but I'm proud of their abilities too. So proud, in fact, that you may want to turn down the volume before watching this video:


That's Quincy retrieving a goose (in spite of my enthusiastic overhandling). 

She's never retrieved a goose before this morning, and she retrieved four out of four, all shot and lost last night on dark. All were blind retrieves (she couldn't see the bird) on cold game (scent is not so good as when freshly shot), in water, with the wind in the wrong direction for scenting (to her back - carrying any smells that might help her locate the bird away from her). Everything was against her and she found them all.

I'm so proud of that dog. 

I want a bumper sticker that says "My Kid may be crap at calculus, but she can scent dead game and swim carrying a 10-pound bird in her mouth". 

Canada geese weren't such a problem in Dorset, but they plague farmers in our area, eating the young maize crops. The old legal classification relating to common land grazing says is that two geese will graze as much as one sheep. We counted 40 geese lifting from the small pond this morning. The pond adjacent to a farmer's crop of maize. 

There is no closed season on Canada geese. However, wild goose meat cannot be sold in England. And there is a lot of meat on a goose. Each breast is about 3/4 lb of meat. That's over ten pounds of meat from the seven geese shot last night. It wouldn't sit right with me to shoot something and waste the bounty, so the dogs are eating goose alongside their pheasant egg omelettes, and we're having goose breast schnitzel for dinner. Courtesy of my wonderful girl.

Sunday, 30 March 2014


As a paid up member of the "I've recently moved house" clan, I can say officially that it sucked, and I hope I don't have to do that again soon. We didn't just move house, we moved farm and workplace with us as well. The logistics of moving your livestock to make sure it's in a place where someone can look after it is complicated. Our solution was to leave Mike in Dorset catching pheasants - fifteen hundred pheasants! - and send underkeeper Ian and me to Hereford to keeper them as they got delivered. In the interim, I had to move one horse, 43 sheep, 16 chickens, 2 turkeys, and 7 dogs, and 24 years' worth of Mike's accumulated possessions, two and a half hour's drive up the road.

Did I mention that the Land Rover, our towing vehicle, broke? It's still in Dorset now waiting for a new engine. The truck decided to follow suit when I was halfway to Hereford, loaded with all the dogs and guns. I managed to limp it here at exactly 56 miles per hour, fearing the alternative: convincing a tow truck driver to let me decant a pack of excited dogs, 60 lbs of dog food, and a small armoury of weapons into his cab.

I got a moving company to drive the contents of our house to Hereford. The stuff in the house was the least of my concerns. The movers get our stuff to this end, dump the boxes and run, but there's nothing to feed or water - unless you count the houseplants. While they loaded their vans, I organised a bank loan and bought a new truck. I drove to our new cottage and found it filled with boxes that, in hindsight, I should have labelled more clearly. Along with boxes, I found a visiting relative who dropped in for a week's stay on his way back from Germany. While I wrestled with the contents of the boxes, he made shims for all our furniture, as the floors of the new cottage are less than level -

Our Tim Burton-esque architecture - top of the stairs

Hell, I'd sag and sway too if I were a couple hundred years old.

At the same time, our house was full of workmen trying to rewire the incubator shed via the house. The electrics needed upgrading to run the six incubator and hatcher machines we'd brought from Dorset - well, the machines that a pair of specialist incubator service guys had dismantled, driven up, and reassembled in the shed.

The incubator room, pre-tidying! The hatching room is to the left.

My technical knowhow ran to brewing coffee and tea for the workmen, and cooking dinner for my visitor.

I also wished that I hadn't given up drinking for Lent.

As everyone worked furiously to get the electrics and machines working, the pheasant hens started to lay eggs. The first batches were too early, so I fed them to the dogs in a ginormous omelette mixed with out-of-date foods I found while unpacking. So, dogs' dinner was pheasants eggs with soba noodles one night, and cooked barley the next.

As of last night, we have two incubators up and running - enough to get the earliest eggs in and get the dogs back on dry food.

With our trucks out of commission, farmer friends stepped in with their trucks and trailers. Mike H towed Kitty in my horsebox, and Dominic and Bridget from Simply Dorset took time off during lambing to drive my flock up to Hereford. They now have our mobile high seat, a spare shed, and our unending gratitude, none of which is recompense enough for their help.

Unloading the top level of the trailer onto the new field

Towing a trailer full of livestock turns a 2+hour drive into 4 hours. One way. The sheep had a long ride in the trailer, carefully driven for their comfort by Dominic. They had been under Mike's haphazard shepherding care the week I was moving house, and he'd let poor Pumpkin go backwards. We almost lost Pumpkin from the stress of the move, but he toughed it out (after a dose of wormer and some TLC from me) and he's pulled though yet again. Man, I wish all my flock were as hardy as that ugly, runty Pumpkin.

They've hammered the paddock of fresh grass I rented, so I have to supplement with forage and ewe nuts until I can fence off our small orchard as a temporary stop gap. Bill the retired shepherd on the estate says when you start putting your hands in a bag to feed your sheep, you start putting your hand in your pocket too. I'm so glad that there's an experienced shepherd on our new doorstep.

The dogs settled quickly, and we're starting to explore the estate on daily walks. My little yellow hedonist has already claimed her new spot in the sun porch -

On reflection, the move could have been worse. Things can always be worse. Yes, we're all tired before we even start our busy time of year, my tendonitis is so bad at the moment that I can't even lift a tea kettle to pour water, and I'm fretting about how to pay for the new truck.

But, people and animals are all safe and housed, our sticky livestock problems were made un-sticky by great friends, and Mike has finally moved up for good this week. He seems OK about leaving his home and beloved pheasant ground of the last 24 years. Well, he's getting there anyway. There's no time to look back when the ground in front is covered in this year's pheasant eggs. The eggs are the potential, and the new start. We're moved in and moving on.

The start of this year's crop!

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Almost moved

I'm still here in Dorset, but Hereford bound this week. Our move was delayed by a month in total while the previous occupants of the cottage moved out and the estate very kindly refurbished the inside for us. In fact, I only had a full tour of the house for the first time yesterday. It's an old black and white house, the vernacular architecture of the area.

There are exposed wooden lintels holding up doorways, curvy plastered walls inside, and the floors slope in every conceivable direction. Basically your standard oldy-Englishy workman's cottage.

The owners added the sun room at a previous keeper's request. Another huge kindness on their part. Even the kennels are above standard: brick-built but lined inside. And heated.

Mike's incubator barn faces the kennel -

With under keeper and apprentice

It's conveniently right outside the house. Incubators in one room, then hatchers in the next, and the final room is where chicks are boxed and ready for transport, some to pens on this estate but most to other shoots in England. And the laying field is just across the lane -

The sheep will graze down the laying field when they arrive at the end of the week. We took Kitty up yesterday, a 3 hour ride in a horse trailer for her, but she's settling in fine.

The new place seems even more rural than our old place. A man in a horse and cart was the only vehicle that came down that lane all afternoon. The local shop sells milk, horse feed, and ammunition. And there's a working outhouse in the garden. That bit is quaint. The downside is our broadband speeds average 3 mb/s. The guy in the horse and cart could drive the data to my house faster than that. No fibre optics in Hereford.

The garden is enormous. I'm going to have to trade my push mower for a ride-on. There is a small orchard of perhaps a dozen fruit trees - with a crop of mistletoe in them! - at one end, and a neglected vegetable patch at the other. I won't be able to grow any vegetables this year, but the big house has a walled veg garden complete with gardener. I will offer my weeding services to him in trade for some produce this year. At least I know I won't be short of apples or mistletoe.

The extra month in Dorset was as busy as ever. Unable to move house, a two week visit from my sister turned into an unexpected holiday - if feeding sheep and walking dogs is your idea of a holiday. Lucky, it is for Kerry. 

The weather was all rain and howling winds so when we weren't caring for bedraggled animals, Kerry was beating the pants off of me at Scrabble, sometimes by candlelight when storms knocked out our power. Her reward was wine and puppies.

Something that's never in short supply here.

The weather has turned dry but the work continues: lambs to ice camp, giving the odd hand to friends who are spring lambing, working on my own flock of sheep in preparation for tupping (mating). The Land Rover broke again, the fields are still waterlogged, and the government needed all my forms filed for this year's farm payments. And I've been packing. 

Lord willing and the creek don't rise (anymore than it already is anyway!) I'll be a permanent resident in Hereford from Thursday.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

End of the Season

Pheasant shooting finished on 1 February. The dogs are tired, and the keepers are tired. But mostly, the dogs.
Podge power napping on the underkeeper's coat between drives

The end of the season means a round of chores: washing and mending dog coats, cleaning and oiling guns, taking inventory of our ammunition stores. The keepers' suits - known as "tweeds" - have gone to the dry cleaners, but our move to a new estate may mean a change of tweeds. It's sort of like Scottish tartans or state flags - estates can have their own preferred tweed pattern. Ties are often embroidered with the estate owner's family crest as well. Some shoots even produce their own brand of sloe gin for a shoot day.

But I digress.

The weather has put a stop to all but essential outdoor work: checking livestock or walking dogs. Our part of England has suffered devastating floods and gales. As if to make my point, the roof just blew off the chicken house that I can see from the window over my writing desk cum kitchen table.

We are winding down our wood and coal stores with the impending move, and perpetually feeding both woodstoves to stave off the damp and cold. As fast as we stoke the fires, the wind acts like a blacksmith's bellows devouring the fuel. The little cottage would be toasty warm but the metal-framed windows, none of which close completely, let the hot air out and the gusts of cold wind in. I won't miss this decaying, cold cottage.

I'm chain-drinking hot cocoa to stave off the weather and my dismal mood. The sheep paddock is more mud than grass and the ewes are making do with hay every morning, and ewe nuts - what I call  "sheep chow" - in the evenings. They need fresh grass to do well, and this regime only keeps them in a holding pattern. They have sheds for protection, but as soon as I fork dry straw into their sheds, the wind blows the rain in sideways. The flock is a shameful sight - heads down, wet fleece parted along the backbone, and dirty knees. When I feed them, they rub against my legs vying for the best feeding spot and the water wicks from their fleece to soak my jeans. I miss my white, dry summer sheep.

The dogs have had their end of season 'thank you' bones, saved from the deer carcase I butchered for our end of year staff dinner. By now they would also be bathed and brushed, and their beds freshly strawed. It's a pointless task until the weather turns drier. I'm glad to report no major dog injuries this year. Pip has a few raised scars on her muzzle from taking on a barbed wire fence with her face, and Spud has a minor puncture wound in her right armpit that's healing nicely. Dulcie's age is slowing her down but she's not ready to retire just yet.

Tinker came out on the last day, as an introduction to her future field work. I wanted her to hear the gun noises and meet other dogs, as well as see some fresh game in the field. My heart was in my throat as she's quite a manic, busy puppy at home. I wasn't sure what her reaction would be to all the excitement of a shoot day.

Just arrived

On peg with Dulcie, watching the drive

Well, she was all business in the field. It was like she walked in wearing a hardhat and carrying a metal lunch pail, and punched a timeclock. The end of drive whistle blew, and I worked her alongside Dulcie for guidance. Tinker dove into the thickest cover, completely focused, working by scent. She even retrieved her first pheasant to hand. It was one she found in a pile ready to be strung, but she picked it and ran straight back to me.

With Dulcie, and their birds

Can you believe that only ten months ago she looked like this?

I have put less training into her than I would like, but her natural abilities will out. She will be 18 months old at the start of our next shoot season, and ready to join the team. She's already learned like her mother Podge, how to power down between drives - with the help of our young neighbour, Chloe.

Work hard, cuddle hard - that's the spaniel philosophy.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Doggie (Can) Do

There's only one more week left of this season's pheasant shooting. For the dogs, it means one more week of doing what they love most: hunting birds, flighting birds, and bringing birds back to hand. They're gun dogs and it's in their nature. They have a shared working nature, but boy are their personalities different.

Dulcie is on one end of the spectrum. She wants to go to work every day. A morning walk before a shoot day looks like this -


Pip is the other end of that spectrum. On shoot days, Pip works and will happily retrieve everything -- but at her own pace. Pip has the speed and urgency of a pensioner counting out change in a long grocery store queue. Pip finds a bird, and she'll get there when she gets there-

I work the girls as a trio, usually in a "one spaniel and two retrievers" combo. I'm not skilled enough to run four effectively. I cover my deficiency with the excuse that it gives each dog a day off in turn.

The Pip-Dulcie-Quincy combo

Do you know the saying about young boys? One boy is a boy, two boys is half a boy, and three boys is no boy at all. This should apply to working dogs too. Individual personalities mean that some dogs work together, and others distract each other. Quincy and Spud play all day together, and see a shoot day as just a "pheasant finding" extension of their daily games. Ditto Pip and Podge. This is fine as long as birds are eventually brought to hand, and no one even thinks about a game of tug o' war - a venial sin in the shooting field (and one which has happened to all of us).

The Dulcie-Quincy-Spud combo

Podge is currently doing a solo gig in the beating line with Monty, our new apprentice underkeeper. Podge will work for any handler - a rare and appreciated trait in a dog. She knows her job, and will stay with whoever takes her out of the kennel in the morning. 

There is an even more special dog on the shoot. He belongs to one of our favourite clients. Merlin is a black lab with PRA. He lost his sight at a very early age. He's about four now.

Merlin and his companion Jasper

 And he retrieves his owner's shot birds -


I love this video for the genuine feelings that both owner and dog reveal in this one small act.

We're all looking forward to the 2014-15 shoot season, and a job for every dog.

Friday, 17 January 2014


After a particularly long, cold and wet shoot day I went out to check that the dogs were settled in for the evening. I found this:

Podge curled up asleep on top of Dulcie.

I'm calling it a "Spanwich".

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Catching Up

I apologise to everyone reading this for the long silence. Our change in circumstance frightened me and I lost my voice for a while. Well, my own voice. I was saying a lot of things in my head that were dark and bitter, but that were not me. And those thoughts definitely didn't need sharing.

So was does an American - even the ex-pat, overseas variety - do when her mind turns against her? Exactly.


I believe you all know my therapist, Dr. Kitty?

It's impossible to explain the healing properties of a long, quiet plod around the villages on horseback. Even the smell of horse, the warmth on the inside of your calves where they rest on her sides, especially on a cold day, along with the rocking motion in the saddle is quite possibly the key to my overall mental health. Well, that and lots of dog cuddles. 

So, instead of telling Mike that I'm off to ride Kitty, it's now common parlance in our house to say "I'm going to see my therapist." Technically that means "I'm going to see my therapist - if I'm not back in 3 hours could you come and check that I don't need scraping off the road" and I give him a rough map of my intended route. Group therapy is of course riding, or "going for a hack", with others. What a friend's husband refers too as going for a yak. You can probably work that one out for yourself.

Anyhoo, I feel heaps better and ready to embrace change. It might take a few posts to find my voice again, but at least I've got the confidence to get back on this particular horse and start blogging again.

That said, how about a quick round up of life at M&T to bring you all up to date? I will put it in categories so you can read about your favourites, and skip what doesn't interest you. This post might ramble a bit from topic to topic, I hope you can plod along for the ride.

Filming on Far from the Madding Crowd is finished, and the estate is back to its normal anachronistic state. I did one day as an extra in the market scene. To arrive in makeup and wardrobe for 6am, I had to do all my chores by torchlight. A quick wash and change, and I arrived on set to be laced into a corset and layered in calico and wool. I was then sent to makeup where the artists rubbed makeup "dirt" all over my hands and face (Lady, I could have saved you that step...), and pinned a huge bonnet to my head. I had to drive my Land Rover and box of chickens to the market area where they were filming a mile or so away, which in a wide-brimmed bonnet and tight corset presents its own set of challenges. If you watch the film look out for a chicken seller in a blue bonnet - that's me. In film, as in life, I am typecast.

It was an absolute hoot and I would certainly do animal film work again. Goat minder, toad wrangler (I keep forgetting to tell you the tale of Kevin the toad), and chicken seller are all going on my resume under 'special skills'.

Thanksgiving was quiet. It was just Mike, underkeeper Ian, and me. The turkey turned out delicious, very tender. Perhaps because of the special basting it received from Dakota.

Christmas was equally relaxed. I cut down a tree from our small plantation, and Pip helped me string popcorn decorations. Well, "helped" when I wasn't looking anyway -

One of them climbed on the armchair to reach the tree, and ate the lowest strand of popcorn string.

All the working dogs are well, too: heathy, well muscled, and better behaved than the house dogs.

The sheep are fine and the lambs are well-grown, if wet and muddy from winter rains. Pumpkin is still with us. I returned him to the flock when he started waking me up before daylight shouting for his bottle. He's been weaned now and though he's part of the flock, Pumpkin hangs out on his own a lot. He's a bit of a lone wolf - in sheep's clothing. He's runty and about the ugliest lamb I've ever seen -

He's tough though, and pushes his way into the feeder between his much bigger siblings -

No points for guessing who's got the tiny hiney.

He's so small he can push under a ewe and stand between their legs, and steal food from their feeder. He may be slow to make weight, but you can't beat him for entertainment value. Grumpy's spring ram lamb is headed for ice camp this Friday. The rest of the flock will come with us to our new job, including Pumpkin.

The long dark nights and bad weather have been great for pheasant shooting, but make other aspects of life difficult. Deer have been on the agenda this month. 

This one appears to have a dog growing out of its neck. (You would never think a dog with hips as bad as hers could be a "counter surfer".)

The stalkers are harvesting roe and fallow deer, and I've been doing my best to keep up with butchering these for our freezer and the estate (once I sent the dogs outside). I want to have a ready supply of venison when we move. It will take me some time to settle in, to get to know our new piece of ground and deer movements there. 

I just about finished the butchering backlog, and Mike and I had just sat down to dinner, when there was a knock at the door. Someone picked up a road casualty sika hind (female deer). These cases are reported to the police, then usually dealt with by the local gamekeeper. It wasn't quite dead, so I quickly despatched it. Head trauma but no body damage. I gralloched it in the dim light of the truck's highbeams, groping around semi-blind inside the animal with a knife -

We hung it in the chiller, and I tidied up my gralloching job.

As you can see, our chiller is pretty full. By the way, it's not best practice to mix fur and feather, but sometimes needs must.

We also had this unwanted visitor in our garden a few days ago -

I pulled into the drive after a trip to the feed store, and I heard a chicken in distress -the kind of cry that means something has its teeth in the chicken. The fox had been in my hen house in broad daylight, killed one of my layers and was dragging a hefty meat chicken into the hedge to store for later. That fox was so bold, it was trying to walk past me to get back in the hen house! 

I didn't have time to get a gun, and I needed to secure all four hen houses right now. Old Dakota came out of retirement for one more job. I threw open the back door and Dakota chased that fox out of the garden and down the entire length of the big house drive, which gave me time to shut the other chickens away. 

She's not as fast as she used to be, but she hasn't lost her bloodlust.

Not half an hour later I saw that old fox in the road, dragging my now-departed meat chicken away! He dropped his prize when he saw me and scuttled off. I collected the dead hen and used her to bait the fox cage we were setting in the garden. He was in there before I finished my evening chores. That fox had a very large last meal, but my chickens had their revenge.

If I've missed anything out, and anyone would like the update (and possibly a photo) let me know in the comment sections. I also have to say thanks for the kind comments and emails over the long silence. I wouldn't have a voice if there weren't good readers cheering me on to speak. So, hey, really....You know? (That's a New Englander being emotional.)

I'm truly grateful you're out there.