Wednesday, 20 November 2019

A Long Winter Ahead

It's taken two glasses of wine to get this far.

I haven't posted for awhile because Mike was diagnosed with cancer in August and we've been working hard to fight it with chemotherapy and a positive attitude.

Sadly, the cancer advanced quickly. My husband passed away in the early hours of Monday morning. He went peacefully in his sleep with family around him, which was a blessing.

I'm lost and broken and I miss him terribly.

The shoot season has to go on. I began filling in as Head Keeper when Mike got too poorly to come out. But I had his guidance and experience to help me. Now I'm on my own with two inexperienced young lads, who themselves need guidance. I put Mike's tweeds on and do my best to run the day, manage the clients. and support the underkeepers. Mike always joked that I was his longest serving apprentice, but it feels almost impossible to go on without him.

This winter is going to be the longest and the hardest to endure.

The livestock and the dogs give me a reason to get off the couch, and I'm comforted being around them. Even that damn goat who still keeps getting his head stuck in the fence.

Mike and I were in the process of buying a farm together. I don't know exactly what the future holds but we will still have our farm together, me in practice and him in spirit.

There's a lot of grieving ahead. Those of us left behind have to figure out how to go on. I will write more when I can, when the grief allows me to see a way out of this.

Keep us all in your thoughts.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

A Beginner's Guide to the Cow

Our neighbour is a cattle farmer, but he's in hospital with back spasms. For sure an occupational hazard in farming, made worse by the ageing process that affects us all. He will be fine, but not in time for today's vet visit to PD (pregnancy diagnose) his herd of 85 cows. He has a very capable farmhand called Ed to do the technical cow type stuff, but today they needed a scribe, someone to write down 1) the cow's ID number and 2) their pregnancy status, shouted out by the vet as he scanned each cow.

Fact number one: Cows are unbelievably noisy when you separate them from their calves.

Before the vet arrived, I helped (or tried to help) Ed separate the cows from the calves. It saves time for the vet, and it saves space in the handling yard. I was on gate duty (open / close as needed) and as a sort of cow speedbump, to stop them running through the gaps. But then I had to leave a gap to let their calves out. But not the cows. Cows in, calves out. While preventing the cows you put in from coming out again.  I could hear the Benny Hill theme song playing in my head as I moved back and forth, waving hands, being still, and waving hands again.

We got there in the end. Ed was almost impossibly patient with me and with the cows.

Fact number two: Cows can be as idiotic as sheep.



This calf ran the opposite way and got stuck between the feed bars. Ed and I tried to move her in, then out, but she was stuck fast.



Ed never said a word but walked calmly off, and came back a few minutes later with an angle grinder.



He cut the bar and tried to push it open. It still wouldn't budge. He walked off calmly in the other direction and came back with a big hammer. A couple of hits shifted the bar to widen the gap. I pushed the calf's butt, he pulled the front end. Freed calf.

Ed never once swore, or lost his temper. He's as calm as his bovine charges. Mike and I can't even move sheep together without nearly starting divorce proceedings. Ed simply picked up where he left off, moving calves one way and cows the other.

I might have to hire Ed as my part time shepherd. It's cheaper than a divorce.

Due to some confusion, the vet was 2 hours late but the farmer's wife plied us with tea and cake so we were content to wait.

The vet arrived and kitted himself out in a neck-to-ankle plastic gown and two sets of armpit-length gloves, ready to insert the scanner and read the finding though his super-neato computer glasses.


Fact number three: Cows poop A LOT.

The vet inserts the scanner into the cow's rectum and reads the findings from above the uterus. He shouts out (above the din of blaring calves and bellowing cows) his findings, i.e. how pregnant is this cow, from empty (no calf), to  25 days pregnant, to 2 1/2 months, 4 months, etc. I write his findings next to the ID number, on paper with a pencil, in the rain, to be tallied by the farmer later. The tested cow leaves the "crush", which is a big crate that immobilises the head so the vet can do his work. A lever opens the crush, but I can only push the level high enough if I stand on my tiptoes. Ed did smile at this. My shortness amuses him.

Did I mention that cows poop a lot? It's also nearly liquid grass and after a few hours in the yard testing cattle, they pooped enough that a literal lake of poop was up to my ankles. And I got off easy. The vet, being right-handed, was covered in poop all along his right side from the neck down, after inserting his scanner into 85 cow butts.

And, when cows poop liquid grass, they poop right onto their tail. Which they flick about. I had a few cow poop beauty marks on my face before we finished.

It was only a few hours' work and I loved every minute of it. Maybe some sunshine and less poop would make it better, but it was fascinating work. And Monty the collie - my favourite farm dog - kept me company throughout.

Monty in action - he's quicker on the cows and more help than me!


I'm wearing a rubber suit so it's fine that Monty comes in for full-body cuddles, covered in....you guessed it...cow poops.

I was happy to be able to help my neighbour as he has so often helped me when I have been short of winter grass or when I needed somewhere to put my horses temporarily. He can peruse my notes on his pregnant cows when he gets home, although the paper is pretty damp and there are some suspicious stains on the paper. I bet you can guess what that's from.

Friday, 6 September 2019

The County Fair and Autumn's coming

In August it was our estate's turn to host the County Fair. It's a lot of work for the staff - estate owners want everything to look its best for the public so fences are repaired, fields are mowed, potholes in stone tracks are patched. It's an added expense for the owners, but a chance for an estate to effect repairs and rejuvenation projects mostly ignored for the rest of the agricultural year.  After two years, another estate takes over the responsibility of hosting the show and the burden is shared out.

Walking to the County Fair

County fairs are traditional events. They're usually quite small compared to the Royal (national) shows. Still, there are showjumping competitions, arts and crafts tents, artisan gin and ciders makers, local food served from the back of converted horse trailers, falconry demonstrations and gun dog competitions. Essentially the county fair exists to showcase all the craft and talent available in the community. I don't class myself as talented but I did make some training toys to sell, made from my felted sheep's fleece, and my dogs are big fans of my work.

Prototype. Molly claimed this one as her own.

I also got the opportunity to cross something off my bucket list: racing a camel. 

No, camel racing is not a common sight in the Hereford countryside but it was a special attraction at this year's show. A team of professional camel handlers allowed a few volunteers to race alongside them. I couldn't believe that they were struggling for volunteers to race ride a camel. I begged for a chance. It seemed people willingly gave up their spaces for me, relieved to be off the hook and camel-free. 

I borrowed a traditional Arab dishdasha (like a long tunic) from the big house as, unsurprisingly, I don't personally own any camel riding clothing. Apparently the estate does. I used my scarf as a belt, and tucked in the spare material to keep from tripping over the hem. I put my comfy training jodphurs on underneath, so no one had to see my underpants. Plus, you know, chafing.

And I won a race!
Bertram the camel 

OK, I lost two other races, but honestly it was the highlight of my year.

Anyhoo, back to daily life.

All our pheasants are now in their woodland pens. The birds like to come off roost and wander in the morning, especially now the wheat fields are cut and they can glean wheat berries as they go. Our first job of the day is taking dogs to round them up, move them off the lanes and back towards home. As jobs go it's a pretty good one. The dogs love it. Mike takes Cheyenne and Biscuit, I take Gertie. Gertie seems to understand the difference between "shoo" the birds and picking up season, and performs both jobs well. She especially loves cooling down in a puddle when we're done.


All the other dogs are fine. Dulcie continues to have mini-strokes (AKA Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome)  but still enjoys life, she just falls over every now and then. We have Oldies Afternoons in the garden with Dulcie, Podge, and Pip. They can mooch, chew bones, and sniff about without getting knocked over or bumped by rambunctious play from the youngsters. Molly is on cage rest as she pulled a muscle, but she's on the mend. Miss Betty had an emergency hysterectomy (early signs of pyometra)  but she's recovered too. 

The sheep are not doing so well. The flock contracted haemonchus worm shortly after lambing. I lost four ewes in total, even after calling the vets to post-mortem the first dead ewe and starting immediate treatment. 

I lost Grumpy ewe. 

I was upset at her passing, even though I can recall numerous times I would have throttled her with my bare hands (if I could have caught her!). Grumpy's one and only ewe lamb is still doing well which is a small consolation. 

Losing ewes meant I had to bottle feed some of the orphans, just to keep them topped up while they grew into eating grass and hard feed (what I call "sheep chow"). My neighbour James who farms dairy goats came though for me as usual. After he sent his milk away for cheesemaking, he let me have what was left in the tank. I filled up a 20 litres water can with goat's milk. It kept us going, and the goat's milk is much better for the lambs than powdered formula.

Each lamb's daily allowance 

The last poorly lamb not responding to treatment died this morning. This year, the vet bills will outweigh the cheques from the livestock market. With the vet's help I've since adapted my flock management program for next season and I hope this will prevent such a poor post-partum lambing result next year.

But there's no time to worry about the past season. I have to look forward with hope toward next season's lambs. It's tupping time again. I've put the rams and ewes on good fresh grass, to "flush" the ewes and make sure the rams are in top condition for tupping. The rams will go in with the ewes at the end of September. Lambs will be born the end of February through early March..

Mike is taking the boys to Dorset tomorrow as it's underkeeper Ian's first day running his own shoot. They are there to shake a stick at pheasants and lend moral support. I'm staying behind to chase the wandering pheasants here and make sure my butchery records are up to date. We're being audited for the British Game Alliance Assurance Scheme on Tuesday. The audit ensures we're producing game birds to the highest welfare standards and that the meat has traceable provenance. The BGA purports to help find new markets for our game meat, including China.

I cut the laying and rearing fields with the tractor over the past few days, so our fields will look tidy for the audit. It also gets rid of old grass and encourages new shoots, which will give me more winter grazing for my sheep. 

It's so satisfying to mow those old weeds down

I still haven't replaced the tractor window I smashed with the tree branch because the tractor cab is much cooler without it. I'll get it repaired in time for winter, when we take off the mower attachment and put on the hydraulic wood splitter. 

My squirrel traps are shut down now, until next spring. My trapping total for this year is 843 grey squirrels. I'm happy to have a break from running my daily trapping route. There are autumn jobs on the horizon. The pear and apple trees are fruiting well and I will make all our chutney and canned fruit for next year from the harvest. The boys shoot a deer a week so there's always something for me to butcher and put in the freezer, or give away.

We have no wood stacked for winter and we will need to start logging and splitting downed trees that we've earmarked after storms or old age put them on the ground. Because of a disease called Ash Dieback, all the ash trees on the estate need to come out over time. Ash is great burning wood and can be burned green. Mike has his eye on a dead oak that's ready for logging. Oak burns longer so it's a good wood to have in your pile.

For now, I'm going to put a cake in the oven so there's something to send down to Ian for his first day. It will be hectic and stressful for him, but he can keep cake in his truck and snack when he needs a sugar high. All keepers live on baked goods. I've just wormed the goats this morning, so I'll check on them too, before I walk the dogs. 

I'll let you know how we get on with our audit.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

June's Work

Summer has finally arrived and brought not just warm, dry days but many of them in a row. It makes it easier to plan big jobs like getting pheasants out to wood or hay cut which require a spell of good weather.

Last Tuesday was our last hatch of the season. The incubators and hatchers are all scrubbed down and closed up for the season. I will turn the hatching room back into the butchery over the coming months, ready for shooting season.

Mike, with a lot of help from beaters and staff, managed to get almost half of our birds to wood. Beaters - like Andy here - catch pheasant poults in the sheds, crate the poults and stack the crates on a buggy, ready for their short trip to the woods -

.
The crates are stacked 4 high so each trip carries 8 crates. We run two buggies in tandem, so we're always loading or unloading and can keep the process moving. I'm following Mike -


We pass our neighbour's herd of Hereford suckler cows, i.e. calves that are born and stay with their mothers in a small herd, out on pasture, free to suckle and graze and enjoy the views. The cattle look so well, healthy and content. I can see his hay field behind is cut and on the ground, soon to be baled.


Hey it's not just the cows that want to enjoy the views. I love admiring good stockmanship.

When we get to the woodland pen, I check and make sure feed and water stations are full and working-



Then I can open the crate doors and let the pheasants out -


They come out in their own time. The brave ones take flight, but the cautious ones stand on the edge of the buggy and check out their surroundings first. I stand back and watch. Way back, as the pheasants inevitably poo when they fly so it's best to be out of target range.

When my crates are empty, I drive back to the sheds to swap my empty crates for full ones and the process repeats until the woodland pen is full or the sheds are empty. I have to keep a tally of how many crates (15 birds to a crate) that I release. I have a perfectly good phone that has apps I could use to keep track but no, I do this -


It's only slightly better than Mike's system of scratching marks in the mud inside his buggy -


Honestly, you think we would embrace the modern conveniences in our pockets.

The birds are embracing their new outdoor lifestyle and settled in well, finding food and a place to perch up high from predators. We surround the wood with 8ft wire and a strand of electric wire at ground level, just to help protect them while they adapt to living outside. Both will be lifted in due time.

Now we have to bring food to the woods to feed the pheasants. About this much a week -


It's delivered to the house on Mondays and the guys have to feed every bag by hand. It is hard work.

Speaking of animal feed, I've made my own hay this year. This is only because I rented a field and didn't graze it soon enough. The grass got so long, making hay was the only option.

I hired a contractor to cut and ted (spin the hay to dry it out) my grass. His tedder broke down and rain was coming. I called my neighbour Margaret for help  She's runs a feed store and knows everyone. Margaret sent her husband with his old tedder and a friend with even older baler to get me out of trouble -

You can see the rain clouds amassing behind us.

They left the bales on the field for me to pick up. I rushed out of bed early the next morning to bring them home and stack them. In total it took 4 trips with the trailer. Mike met me to help after I finished the first load. He even brought coffee - the whole pot, sloshing around the floor of the Land Rover, and a couple of mugs on the front seat with Molly. Typical Mike catering, but most welcome even with the dust and dog hair in it. .


Yes I am still in my pyjamas but I managed to beat the rain! Here's my haul: 125 bales of meadow hay which cost me 50p each for the baling, and a nice bottle of Malbec for Margaret's husband.

Last month during lambing I was paying up to £7 a bale!

I have put tarps over the stack and will leave it for a month or so. Hay can heat up and even burst into flames when it's first baled (same concept as the heating up of your compost pile) so I will wait to store it in the barn until autumn.

So, to recap (because I love reminding myself it's all done...) ---

Our hatches are finished,
Half the birds are to wood,
The sheep are all sheared and the fleece sold,
Lambing is done (042 never produced, she was just fat!),
And the hay is in!

It's been a productive month.

On the down side, my vegetable garden is pathetic. The rabbits ate my runner bean plants and kale, so I will be eating rabbits instead of greens. The crows are still stealing my chicken eggs if I don't collect them quick enough. The window on the tractor is still waiting to be fixed, along with belts on the mower and an oil leak on the telehandler.

And finally, we did not buy the farmhouse and 11 acres. Sadly, we couldn't get the funding in place in time for the auction. But our pheasant vet and her husband bought it, so that's good news. There are plenty of good places out there and we will keep looking until we find ours.

There's no time to sit on our June accomplishments. Next on the list is the County Fair being held here at the estate, so I have a lot of tractor mowing to do to make everything tidy. My horse field is going to be used as the gun dog arena so I need to get that in shape next. And now that the butchery will be back on line, I can spend a few evenings in a high seat and bag myself a muntjac deer or two to save for beaters' lunches.

I might even have a day off.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

An Indoor Day. Mostly.

It's still raining so I've decided to have an office day indoors. Well, mostly indoors; I will have to spend a few hours outside checking my trap lines and walking dogs.

And there's no point going in the garden. The vegetable garden is shocking this year. My beans and squash are way behind. My only good harvest this season may be tomatoes and cucumbers from the greenhouse and fruit from the orchard. Only the weeds are flourishing and it's too wet to walk on the soil and sort them out. It happens like that some years.

Molly likes having office days too -

She "doesn't do rain".


We just finished taking off this morning's hatch of partridge and pheasants. My job (and it's my favourite!) is helping stragglers out of their shells. Here's a short video showing a partridge needing a little help -

I'm only doing it one-handed because I have to hold the camera

In an average hatch, we probably help out about 100 live pheasant and partridge chicks. About half of those survive, so over 12 hatches that's about 600 extra live chicks. Partridge chicks, though smaller, are tougher than pheasant chicks and more of them get up on their feet.

Not a lot of hatcheries do this. Some even feel that it's pointless to rear anything but the strongest chicks. We have to pull out and box all the chicks at a fixed time, so some of the chicks, although strong, are just late.

Mike usually gives these chicks, which we call "wets", to youngsters who like to raise a few for themselves or to young keepers starting out who can do with an extra few free chicks (each chick costs about 70p to buy normally).

When I help the late chicks out of the shell, I try and leave a bit of eggshell on the bottom. This encourages the chick to kick off the shell and help strengthen its legs and straighten out its body after being curled up inside the egg -


The wets go back in the warm hatchers for a few hours together to dry off and gather their strength while we clean down, disinfect and prepare the other chicks for shipment. It gives the wets a bit of extra time to recover.

Other babies this week include two healthy ewe lambs from Friendly ewe -


This one's for your Janice!

Friendly ewe has mastitis in one side, so she's short of milk to feed twins. I bottle feed the lambs a couple times a day to top them up, but they stay with mum for everything else. 

I looked back in my breeding records and see that I noted both ewe 0007 and Friendly ewe had mastitis previously, hence they've both lost one teat (the teat is hard and won't produce milk again). I gave them a free pass from ice camp because 0007's fleece is excellent and Friendly ewe is, well, friendly. Still, they both gave me 3 new ewe lambs in total so it's worth a bit of bottle feeding on my part. 

Ewe 0042 is still left to lamb. I turfed her out in the field a few weeks ago but it looks like she's getting ready to lamb. Finally. I'll bring her back in to the barn and hopefully by the end of the week I will be done with lambs. I will not lamb this late again, if I can help it.

The other reason for having an office day is organise my paperwork for my accountant. Yes, I have hired a farm accountant now, which is a good sign of progress. 

I'm also meeting with the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation tomorrow, to see if I can get a loan in principle against Milkweed & Teasel, our farmland in Dorset. We have found a farmhouse and 11 acres locally that we're going to make an offer on when it goes to auction in July. We may be quickly outbid which is fine, but Mike and I are now concentrating on selling our land in Dorset and buying a farmhouse with land as our final home, here in Wales. The search may take a year or two, which is also fine. 

Of course, I will keep you posted. Until then I will keep expanding our small farming operation here. And paying taxes I hope!

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Elderflowers, Lambs, and a Wet June

I think it's rained for most of June so far. It's cold enough today that I'm wearing a scarf indoors. If I had any wood left I would light the wood stove. Instead I'm making do with a sweater and a hot water bottle.

Until this rain came in. I was getting stuck into my tractor mowing. I still have a few fields to cut and the grass is getting too long to be of good feed value. The weather stopped my work, as did my run-in with a tree branch -


I was watching the mower out of the other window and didn't see the cut branch sticking out. I've ordered another window and will pick up the mowing again when the new window and dry weather arrive.

Just before the rain came, I managed to pick some elderflower heads to make elderflower cordial, a sweet floral drink that is great as a soft drink in sparkling water, or as an addition to gin or prosecco. 

Common elderflower (Sambucus nigra) grows worldwide and is easy to identify. You want to pick the flowering heads when they're creamy white. The photo below shows flower heads not yet open (green), at their peak (behind), and gone over (right). If you use the overripe flowers, your cordial will have a musty, compost-like taste.


I use the River Cottage recipe as a guideline. I do pick them early and on a warm day. I drop all the heads in a bag and give it a half hour for the bugs to leave the flower heads. 

When the cordial is made, I freeze it in batches in plastic leftover containers.


It's not glamorous or Instagram worthy to look at, but it's simple and effective.

When they're frozen, I slide all the batches between wax paper and into a plastic ziplock bag to save freezer space. I can just pull out a few servings at a time through the year.

I also sent my first Dorset x Friesian lamb to Ice Camp -


The carcase looks pretty good. Leaner than a pedigree Dorset.


When I ringed this lamb's testicles I missed one, so he grew a lot quicker than the others. I wanted to put him in the freezer before any hormones made him taste gamey. I butchered him myself so I could have the bones and scraps for the dogs.

I can't tell you yet how he tastes. The same afternoon that I set about breaking down the carcase, Mike was given a whole sea bass from our friend Scotty, and a selection of game meats to try from a new butcher. We've been spoiled for choice!

I had another lamb born last week - a big ram lamb. 


Friendly ewe will lamb next, by the weekend I expect. And I still bottle feed lamb number 7 in the field once a day to keep her topped up as mother hasn't got much milk.



As I'm rained out of the garden and fields, I got on and delivered my fleeces to the Irish wool buyers early this morning.


I still had the big delivery van from delivering pheasant chicks yesterday so I made good use of it. Each of those bags is called a "sheet" so I have two wool sheets to sell. The buyers will grade the fleece then send payment, so I have to wait and see how we did this year.

On a positive note, I've just finished last year's tax return and for the first time I have a tax bill to pay! Normally I make so little on the farm after deductions and capital investments that the government pays me a small refund. This year I owe them - only £28 but still a small milestone for the farm business.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Shearing Day

The bulk of my flock gets shorn once a year. Timing depends on a lot of factors: after the last frost has passed but before it gets too hot, when the flies that lay eggs in fleece start hatching, on a dry day, long before or shortly after lambing, when you're shearer can fit you in.

Hence, shearing is probably one of my most stressful times of the year. My anxiety dreams go from my default recurring "I'm a week late for my university classes and don't know where my class is, plus I'm carrying all my luggage with me" dream, to the " I'm trying to gather my sheep and I can't find five of them, some won't be caught, where did I park the trailer?".

It's not just me who stresses. Angela, my fellow small flock enthusiast, asked me to give her a hand on her shearing day for "moral support". Big farmers with thousands of sheep have no problem getting teams of shearers to work for them - a lot of sheep means good money, usually with commercial (small and less hairy) breeds that shear quickly.

Only some shearers will even consider doing small flocks like mine where the sheep can take twice as long to shear and it's only a couple hours' work for the time and trouble it takes them to set up their shearing stations. I do understand the economics of it all. And, like so many things in farming, if you need it done so does everyone else, all at the same time. We're all competing for the same skilled workforce.

We were lucky to find Kieran. He shears big flocks during the day, and does a few small flocks in the evening. He has a mobile shearing unit that he tows behind his truck. He's only 27 yet runs his own farm with his mother and siblings. Kieran is laid back, friendly and talks to the sheep in a kind voice, never losing his temper with even the worst of my thrashing, kicking ewes.

Kieran set aside time to shear my girls for me. I gathered them and moved them to our lambing barn as rain was forecast and my sheep needed to be dry. Thankfully, the barn holds about 50 sheep comfortably for a couple days as Keiran got held up on some big commercial days. My flock overnighted happily in the barn with plenty of hay for dinner. The extra day also gave me the chance to vaccinate, worm, trim feet and treat any conditions that needed attention, all in a dry barn. Pure bliss!

In the barn ready to be rid of their heavy fleeces

The In box....

...and the Out box

Raw fleece ready to be rolled. The dirt and grease washes out easily.

I roll the fleeces while Kieran shears, and the flock filled two great wool sheets to sell to the Irish wool merchants. Selling the fleece will recoup about half of my shearing bill (and Kieran is very reasonably priced).  Both Angela and I have booked him for next year, sweetening the deal by keeping him in cakes and cider while he worked. Having the barn and a chilled out shearer took most of the stress out of shearing day. I can go back to my "late for class" anxiety dreams now.

There are 3 ewes still to lamb. They're taking their time, probably enjoying the pampering and extra grain rations. I had to move them to a makeshift pen during shearing and they go out on grass during the day, but in the evenings they have the whole barn with fresh straw beds and hay for days all to themselves.

A bit of grass and sunshine for the mums to be. 
The third ewe is a few weeks away yet so I've put her in the field until it's closer to her time.

The shorn flock (minus 6 lambers) have gone back onto good pasture to spend the summer looking at the views and converting grass to flesh. Aside from daily checks, my sheep flock will go on the mental back burner until October, when I will prep the ewes for mating and put the rams in with them for lambs next spring.


Now my focus is on fields and garden. I will take the log splitter off the tractor and put the mower back on (another sign of summer coming!) and cut any of my grazing pastures that have got too long, This will encourage grass growth that is more nutritious for the sheep in later summer, when I need to rotate their grazing. I can't believe it's the first of June already.