Monday, 14 July 2014

Firsts and Lasts

Our first season here and it's not a total disaster yet! Our last hatch came off this past Tuesday. Twelve hatches in all this year, and the extra day-old pheasants we hatched paid for all the equipment, the cost of the move, and provided a small net profit to boot.


I drove our last sold hatch to a game farmer, along with a ten week old labrador puppy that we found on behalf of a client. Finding dogs for shoot clients is another gamekeeper duty, but a very pleasant one. Travelling with a truckful of baby chicks and a puppy made me a bit hit at the rest stop car park.

A lot of neighbours gave up their time to help us through our first year: collecting eggs in the laying pens, counting out hatched day-old pheasants into travel boxes, and putting bits the growing birds on our field. (Bits are soft plastic nose rings that fit in the bird's nostrils and between the beak. It allows the birds to pick at feed but not to pick on each other). As a thanks to our free labour neighbours, we're running an incubator just to custom hatch eggs for our helpers: some want chicken eggs to bulk out laying flocks, quail eggs to start their own coveys, bantam hens as broodys, even duck eggs to replace ducks lost to a sly fox who visited a farm in the middle of the day.

I'm starting the ball rolling tomorrow with some of our turkey eggs. As the inserts for our incubator trays only fit smaller eggs, I had to fashion an insert from chicken wire stapled on a frame, to hold my big turkey eggs secure while the drum inside the incubator turns and tilts them through their 28-day hatching cycle.

I hope it will work. I hope the eggs are fertile!

I'll also hatch some Buff Orpington eggs to increase our stock, downsized to a rooster and three hens when we moved from Dorset to Hereford. So eggs have been off the menu for the past couple of weeks while I saved enough to hatch. It's not too much of a hindrance to my cooking; Mike only takes eggs in cake or cookie form, and the now free-ranging laying pheasants continue to drop eggs in the field across the lane. I simply gather enough for baking, and sometimes a few extras for adding to the dogs' dinner. I have missed the eggs as currency. My gardening neighbours have gladly swapped me gluts of broad beans, beets, and new potatoes for what I feel is a meagre trade of a dozen eggs. They leave surprise packages of vegetables in the bed of my parked truck while I'm feeding Kitty. It's like Christmas, but better.

My own garden should have an "Under Construction" sign posted. All I'm creating this year is compost and space. Weeds and bamboo have invaded the garden. I cut down the first clump of bamboo and found an entire mature apple tree inside it.

I should give up my sheep and keep a flock of pandas instead.

The pheasant chicks hatched for our shoot are growing well. (Even the chick raised by Turkey Mom fledged this week.) As sickly as the pheasant mothers were, their offspring are the picture of avian health. Each house on our field holds pheasants a week apart in age. In one house. the youngest are still hugging their heat lamps and eating crumbs in tight nursery groups; in another, the older birds are let outside in grass pens to stretch their wings, chase flying insects, and dust bathe to their tiny heart's content. The oldest birds have their bits removed (simply flick out between thumb and forefinger) and get taken in special crates on the back of our trucks to big pens in the woods. "Going to wood" is a trying time for both birds and keepers. They're released, on their own recognizance, where they join nature's food chain.

Our first birds of the season have gone to wood. We spent five hours on Saturday crating birds. On release they flew straight up into trees, peeping and whistling. They had a relatively uneventful weekend.

Until last night.

Predators are just part of the deal when raising any kind of livestock. Your first line of defence is, well, a line of defence - in our case a big wired-in area surrounded by electric fencing. Somehow a fox breached our defences in the early hours of this morning. Mike woke me at 6am with a cup of tea and the bad news.

After breakfast, Quincy and I went to search through the woods outside the pen for casualties. Foxes seem to kill for fun, and will tear through every bird it can spook out of a pen. Quincy worked quietly in the covert outside the pen and, after a half hour's work, retrieved thirty cold, dead pheasant poults. One retrieve was just a head! (Shudder..) I think even the dog - usually a retrieving machine - got too down-hearted to search out much more.

I will take Pip over there later and expand our search. I suspect Mike will spend the night out by the pen, with the birds for bedfellows. Second line of defence: night vision and a rifle. It might just be Mr. Fox's last visit to the pen.

We will repeat this going to wood with birds seven more times, in seven more pens. As the pens fill, our days get longer checking that batteries on electric fences are charged, the wires aren't dead shorting on nettles or fallen branches, and that birds of prey aren't worrying poults. Oh yeah, attacks come from above too, usually more devastating as there's no roof on the pens and the perpetrators are protected species. All we can do is dissuade them with our presence. Hence, loooong days and very early morning starts.

Actually I think I might just go and hide in the bamboo until shoot season starts.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Tune In

I posted last July about Mike's day participating in a reality TV show called Ladies of London. Well, it seems they actually made it and aired it. The episode which includes Mike teaching the ladies how to shoot premieres on Bravo this Monday 30 June at 10pm

Courtesy of the Bravo website:

We can't watch it over here in the UK, so you'll just have to let us know how it turns out if you tune in. Mike struggles with image issues post-accident, and he dug deep to find the wherewithal to be in front of a camera. I hope the camera captures his passion and commitment to his work more than his scars.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Why I don't Shear: the Evidence

When we moved home, we needed to find a new shearer. The first guy we booked never showed up. That was two weeks ago. There's another shearer booked for this evening. Both the sheep and I are keeping our fingers crossed that he shows up. The alternative is that I shear my own flock. And I'm a terrible shearer.

This poor chap has flystrike. When the weather goes wet then warm, flies lay their eggs in the humid fleeces, and maggots burrow into the sheep. It's both disgusting and, if left untreated, life-threatening for a sheep.

There is a special dip that I can pour over their backs to prevent flystrike, but I can't treat the flock until the fleeces come off or the fleeces won't be saleable. I can't treat the ram lambs at all as they're going to Ice Camp this week, and the spray has 40 day withdrawal period. This means that you can't put an animal in the food chain until 41 days after application. I never use the dip on any of my lambs or hoggets going for meat.

This ram lamb just needs to be safe and comfortable until ice camp on Wednesday. It won't matter that he looks like this, shorn by me with the cheap, plug-in clippers I bought for trimming bottoms, not whole sheep -

Basically, I just gave him the $5 student hair cut ours moms made us have at the strip mall hair salons when we were kids. 

After seeing their mate, the rest of the flock is really hoping the professionals turn up tonight. And I'm going to tell the guys at the abattoir that my husband sheared this lamb, and roll my eyes knowingly. Pffftt. Amateurs I'll say, without a trace of guilt.

If anyone near Hereford would like to purchase half a hogget, butchered and bagged, we have a few halves ready next week. They are for sale at £65 and can be collected at your convenience. Please email me.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

New Additions

Friday was the last day of egg picking - the daily chore of collecting pheasants' eggs from the laying pens. This means we can release the laying birds to go to wood. They're free to roam, but we still put out feeders for them.

This also means I can bring in new stock, without worrying about infecting our laying stock.

And yesterday was the big Spring Poultry Auction.

I thought of our lonely hen turkey at home. She will soon experience empty nest syndrome, quite literally. And turkeys are flock animals. There were a few pens of turkeys at the sale, but none as stunning as this pair of Narragansett turkeys -

When the first of the turkey lot - a scruffy looking lone Bronze stag - sold of £50, my heart sank. A pair of heritage breed birds in top condition would be out of my price range. When the auctioneer called "selling once, at £20" my hand and bidder's paddle shot up. I don't even think it was a conscious decision. A breed from home, well underpriced. It was meant to be. The hammer dropped on £22 per bird, my winning bid.

I worried that maybe other bidders knew something I didn't.

As I transferred the birds to the dog crate I brought with me - as a just in case, you understand! - two country-looking men stood back with their hands in their boilersuit pockets and nodded approvingly. "You got a good deal there, miss." said one. I don't know why two strangers' confirmation should allay some of my worries, but they seemed genuine. For all I know they were the sellers, and glad to be shot of this pair. Still, when it comes to livestock, I'm an optimist.

The pair are now in quarantine, in a spare dog kennel. I'm an optimist yes, but a cautious one!

Trevor never performed his reproductive duties with any real success. Perhaps because I gave him a name one might associate with a middle-aged dentist. So, I've called our new stag turkey Enrique. That's a name to make ladies (even the turkey variety) swoon. 

If it works, we'll have tiny turkeys this time next year.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Wasn't it Just Spring Last Year?!

Spring is the season that catches me out every time. Weeds go from nonexistent to knee-high. I find myself wearing only one sweater and that my feet are now sweating because I forgot to swap my insulated socks for regular ones. (Wellies are still essential, of course.) Spring rains cause the grass to grow so much I swear I can hear it creaking. Little fruit buds are swelling on the trees in the orchard, and the idea of all that chutney-making potential makes me way more excited than any normal person should get about fruit.

Garden birds are bringing their fledglings to feed at our bird feeders (I keep the feeders stocked with mealworms). On the lakes, the mallard family has six well-grown ducklings, and a pair of Canada geese has a brood of tiny goslings that dart about too fast for me to count.

Turkey hen still has her one chick -

That would be the small brown dot above and right of the turkey.

I let the pair out of their sheep trailer home every morning, and turkey takes her brood-of-one for a walk around the garden. Turkey is happy to stay out in the open ground of the orchard, but the pheasant chick is cautious by nature and keeps to the shadows - patches of weeds, clumps of grass, or the hedgerow for protection. Turkey will sit down and let the chick warm up under her, and she's very talkative.

It's certainly been a more successful fostering than I expected. So is the chick a turkant? Maybe a pturkey, where the p is silent.

We had our biggest hatch yesterday, including pheasants, partridge, and some quail - the last as a favour to our underkeeper's mother. (She who sends the homemade farmhouse cakes, rules the world.) I made a little video: it's a box of partridge chicks boxed and ready to go into warm sheds, and we're helping the last few stragglers out of their shell -


It's school vacation so the little hands belong to a local lad who's been helping us pick up eggs every day. The "payment" for helping with the hatch is a cup of tea, biscuits and some homemade cake with the last of the rhubarb from our garden. All served on the tailgate of the truck, of course.

Yesterday's hatch filled the stone shed. The shed was once a lambing barn, but it's been converted for raising pheasants. Kitty's shelter is built into the side of the stone shed, so she watches the flurry of our activity between tearing mouthfuls of grass in her pasture -

Pheasants hold little interest for Kitty. If she can't eat it or scratch her butt on it, it's not worth her attention.

It's an oppressive heat inside the sheds if you're a person, and perfect if you're a growing chick. Mike is decanting the chicks from hatching room boxes into the little rings where the precocious chicks will start feeding and drinking almost immediately -

The pheasant chicks will stay in here for a few weeks, then be let out during the day in protected runs for sun and fresh air. They can't all have turkey moms to care for them!

The partridges go into freestanding sheds, delivered and knocked together at a mad pace by some very kind Polish builders at the same time we were hatching the chicks to go in! I supplied the builders with tea and cake from our tailgate cafe to keep their energy and morale up, and they got it done-


Without a lot of the infrastructure here necessary for pheasant production, we have had to adopt a "build it and fill it" approach. We're only just keeping ahead of ourselves, but we knew we were in for a tough first year.

It's been a quieter day today, just checking on chicks and performing our daily ritual of collecting eggs. The elderflowers in the hedgerow are just right for picking, and I managed to start a batch of elderflower cordial, now currently steeping on the stovetop-

And I dug out a secret stash of sloes from my freezer to make sloe gin. It needs to be started now, in order to mature by autumn. It's a traditional eleven a.m. shoot or hunt day tipple. Gin, sloes, and sugar go together in a pot (in this case, an old jam tub) which needs to be shaken once a day for the next month to dissolve the sugar. I leave in the cupboard where the teabags are kept. With the amount of tea I brew, I'm sure to see it there and remember to give it a daily shake-

What spring jobs have snuck up on you?

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Small World

Turkey mom is down to one chick. And of course anything else she chooses to tuck under her enormous bulk. Being a big fan of the game "What Will This Cow Eat?" (pat pending), I devised a variation: "What Will This Turkey Incubate?" I removed the food pot and left my pocketknife in its place and waited.

No dice.

My deeply flawed experiment (but fun game!) has proved that the turkey will sit on a) chicks b) fake eggs and c) chinese takeaway containers filled with bird food. The pocket knife elicited no maternal feelings whatsoever.

That answers that burning question.

Speaking of burning, my tennis elbow hasn't been improving on a regime of no treatment and never resting it, but wearing a ulnar strap like it was some kind of superhero exoskeleton that would fix everything. I went back to the doctor this morning. Living in the country means that your mini-hospital is situated between the village hall and a fish and chip shop ( n.b. the shop holds a Guinness World Record for making the largest bag of chips). It also means you see this at reception-

A dog tied to the railing while its owner pops in for a consultation.

How sweet is that? I would also hazard that this dog looks like it's no stranger to a fish and chips dinner now and then (Well, someone had to eat that record bag of chips, right?)

I saw a new doctor, and it turns out that besides the elbow stuff, I've torn something in my shoulder and there's a capsule of blood, yadayada, limited range of movement etc etc. So I've been bumped up to steroid shots and painkillers. He told me to rest it, so I immediately came home and butchered a lamb for our neighbour.

I really don't understand why it's not healing.

None of that is interesting, I know. It was the conversation with my doctor that was interesting. My doctor was also severely burned in an accident ( an ill-conceived plan to start a bonfire with petrol) and was treated in the same specialist ward where Mike was treated. Since his accident, my doctor has specialised in chronic pain management, something that is still a huge problem for Mike too. In our move, we may have found just the right person to help Mike regain more of his quality of life.

If not, well, at least there's a nice doggie he can pat on his way out.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Hatches, Matches, and Dispatches

We're in the middle of pheasant hatching season now. We've taken off ( gamekeeper speak for "dealt with") four hatches so far, and hope to have six more.

This is the Thursday Night Transfer: Mike takes the nearly hatched eggs out of the incubators -

And Ian and I put them in the hatching machines. Like the incubators but more humid -

We remove the eggs from their individual holders, and put them loose in trays so the chicks have the freedom to move about and kick their shells off, somewhere between Sunday night and Tuesday morning. The hatch gets "taken off" on Tuesdays.

We're aiming for ten hatches in total, and each hatch has to average about 3,500 chicks over the season to balance our budgets.

Yes, of course there's a hitch.

Our laying birds caught a chicken virus.

We brought our laying stock from Dorset, and what we didn't realise is the sheer volume of chicken farms in our new area. Or that an airborne virus could transfer from chickens to vaccinated laying hens. Our old girls don't have immunity and there's no effective vaccine for what they have. The vet tells us to expect losses of 50% of our pheasant laying birds.

The good news is the offspring will have some degree of immunity. I don't understand the finer points of virology but we're trusting the vet's prognosis.

As if on cue, both Mike and I promptly contracted our own virus (human not bird), and although it didn't take 50% of us, we both felt near death for a couple of weeks. We actually did some chores on our hands and knees at one point. I think this is how the turkey got out and I didn't notice.

Fox + turkey = no turkey.

So we have one turkey left (and ham for Thanksgiving this year). The remaining turkey has gone broody with a vengeance. Capital B broody. She will not be dissuaded. I gave her a china egg to sit on and figured she would lose interest eventually. That was six weeks ago.

With limited options, I decided to give her three pheasant chicks from yesterday's hatch. This is the Hail Mary pass of poultry rearing because a) pheasant chicks are dumb and b) turkey moms are gargantuan.

Little and Large

Also, I didn't have a spare hen house, so I improvised (you know, for a change) and the family is living in the sheep trailer -

It's safe and weatherproof, if temporary.

The turkey is still not satisfied with her handful of adoptees, and I found her this morning with the chicks, the china egg, and their pot of chick food all pushed under her to "hatch".

Which is how chick no. 1 met its demise. It must have tried to eat from the pot under the hen and she sat down firmly on its neck.

I can't risk bringing in chicks from the poultry sales with our pheasant stock already in jeopardy. The turkey and remaining chicks will just have to ride out the broody storm on this occasion. 

Sometimes it seems to all go wrong on the farm. Why can't it be more like it is in books?