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.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Vermin Patrol Part 2: Ferrets

If you don't like the idea of traps, how about using a ferret instead?

This is the first time I've tried ferreting. The concept is simple: Find a rabbit burrow with multiple holes. Using little purse nets, cover every hole you can find. Pop the ferret under a net into the burrow and let her (females are best) hunt the rabbits. The rabbits run in fear, bolt out of a hole covered with a net, and get caught. Rabbits can be dispatched quickly (and turned into rabbit curry later).

I shadowed Winsor, a keen ferreter. He was hired to clear out some rabbit burrows undermining the formal lawns at the big house. Moles and rabbits create soil mounds and hollows when burrowing. Mounds and hollows are tolerated around the informal parts of the garden, parts that are mowed with a giant tractor or grazed by sheep. But, in the formal gardens, the soil mounds ruin the blades on fine cylinder mowers, upset the flat surface of a croquet lawn, and are generally unsightly.

Ferrets are of the mustelid family. Most mustelids in Britain are the bane of a keeper’s life: mink, weasels, stoats, polecats, even badgers.  Ferrets are unique as most can be tamed by feeding and handling (there’s always some that hold on to their independence and bite when handled.)

Unlike working dogs, ferrets aren’t trained. Ferrets simply follow their instincts to hunt, and rabbits follow theirs to run away. The ferreter's job is to set the nets and redirect the ferret when it emerges from a hole by popping it down the next nearest hole.

I spent most of my time in this position -

Face down under a bush setting nets. Or popping ferrets back into holes. There's not a lot of training required for the humans either. The ferret does all the work; the ferreter just adopts the laying down position. As far as vermin control goes, this is pretty low cardio.

We worked along the walled vegetable garden. There were so many rabbit burrows underneath the wall that I was surprised it hadn't fallen into a giant sinkhole long ago.

The ferreter and I worked the outside of the wall, and underkeeper Ian waited inside the wall. We set nets on both sides to block both ends of a tunnel. It's easy to hear when the ferret is on her prey: the rabbits make a rumbling noise stamping their feet and fleeing. Then, WHAM! out of the corner of your eye you catch sight of a rabbit bouncing about, the drawstring purse net pulled taut around it. The ferreter’s only other job is to despatch and gut the rabbit (and, in my case, make the curry later.)

When it works, it's magic. But the odds are in the rabbits' favour. No matter how many bushes you crawl under, there is always one hole left uncovered. Inevitably that’s the hole a fleeing rabbit will choose for its escape. No net = no rabbit = no rabbit curry for dinner. We caught 3 rabbits this time. We lost 5 more to an overlooked hole. 

Ferreting works best in winter, and by spring/summer we are back to shooting the odd rabbit when we see it. And rabbit salads instead of curry.

Monday, 13 June 2016


We stop collecting eggs from our pheasant hens this week – a welcome milestone in the keeper’s year as it frees up 2-3 hours every evening! There are still at least four more hatches to come out of the machines (one per week) but it means the hens can now be released from their pens, back to the freedom of the surrounding woods and fields. We still supplement their food with feeders dotted around the estate, which we top up as needed from our feed silos -

If you feed a lot of birds, these silos are a great system. Trucks pull up and “blow” food in by the ton, which we buy at much cheaper bulk rates.

Silo 1 has high protein pellet which we give to the pheasants while they are laying. Silo 2 has straight wheat, the pheasants’ staple diet. The birds prefer the pellet and protest the change to wheat by scratching the wheat out of the feeders and spreading it everywhere, looking for any hidden pellets. Sometimes birds will even chase the feed buggy. The guys make up funny bird voices:  “’Scuse me, Mister? You got any more of those pellets in there?”

You have to amuse yourself when you work long hours alone in the woods.

This season’s pheasant chicks are growing well. One rearing field is already full, and we’ve been preparing a second rearing field next to the house. To prevent disease build-up, we move the rearing sheds to a fresh area of the field. This is done using a telescopic handler -

The sheds have rings attached to their frames at all four corners so a strap can be fed through and picked up by machine.  The driver plops each shed in a line, one next to the other –

Then we add a plastic-covered shelter onto the front of the shed, like a little greenhouse for tender pheasant chicks so they can start to enjoy the outdoors and sun, without taking the full brunt of any drops in temperature or heavy rain showers.

The "used" half of the rearing field was ploughed last autumn, left open to winter weather, and reseeded in spring with a new ley of grass. This autumn, I’ll graze my ewes on the new ley to keep the grass down and flush them (ie give them a nutrient-rich diet) ready for the ram in November.

Our hatches have been good, but we’ve been watching the professionals all around the estate do a better job. The pair of swans nesting in the formal garden hatched a brood of 6 cygnets –

The swans look haughty and majestic gliding on the formal pond with the manor house as a backdrop. The more common Canada geese have been hatching broods on farm ponds.

Our rescued gosling and his (her?) 3 siblings are growing fast.  Geese broods usually graze grass; our goslings were raised in a house with pheasant chicks on a high protein diet. By their second week, they were so big that the pheasant chicks were trying to nest under them.

Goslings are pretty easy to foster. Their main role in life seems to be converting food into poop, but they are chatty and companionable. I like them better than pheasants, but don’t tell Mike I said that.

The swallow family in my porch is thriving too. Every year they occupy the nest above my chest freezers. This year I got smart and put old feed sacks on top of the freezers to catch the droppings. I didn’t really get smart: I saw our neighbour do it and stole her sensible idea.

There is even a nest of blackbird chicks I check on every day. The mum nested on the fence line at waist-height by the entrance to our pheasant chick shed. She’s hatched 5 chicks that both mum and Mike are very protective over. Mike parks his truck well back when he checks his own brood of pheasants every morning, so he doesn't disturb the blackbird family.

Once the laying hens are released from their pens, they can hatch some wild broods of their very own. 


n.b.- Dispatch from the Department of First World Problems 

Our internet supplier has closed down, which means we no longer have access to good internet. In fact, for the foreseeable future, we have NO internet. Eventually we will have slow internet, from the only remaining provider, but we don't know when. Our cell phone service is sporadic too. For now, I check my emails in the grocery store cafe once a week, when I've finished my shopping . If I don't post comments right away, or answer them quickly, I just wanted you to know why. 

Don't feel bad for me. It just means I can spend more time laying in my hammock with Tina the turkey and Dakota.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Vermin Paradox

There are still more posts to come describing different methods of controlling vermin. This is a brief interlude to demonstrate the irrational behaviour of human beings.

We (farmers, fishermen, gamekeepers) consider the Canada goose a pest. Under General License Canada geese can be killed any time of year if they are destroying crops. It's spring and the vulnerable first shoots of maize and wheat crops are coming up. Later when barley and wheat are ready to harvest, 50 geese can eat up to an acre a day (so one on-line source says).

So why am I standing in my kitchen, typing this blog post, with a Canada goose gosling keeping warm in my armpit, in a makeshift baby sling?

Why am I caring for a bird that will grow up to become a "pest"?

Because babies are babies, I couldn't leave an orphan to die of cold and hunger, and because, well, just because. Everything, pest or not, deserves a chance to be, I guess.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Vermin Patrol Part1: Snares and Traps

Snares and fenn traps hanging on the side of our barn

Mike and I are doing a skills swap. Last year our neighbour Bill taught me a better way to catch moles, and I was able to clear our orchard of the little furry devils. I'm going to teach Mike the BMM (Bill Mole-catching Method) and he is teaching me to set fox snares. I've used cage traps but never snares to catch a fox.

I like the idea of snares since there's no poison involved, and non-target species that get snared can easily be let go. Especially badgers which, when caught in a snare, curl up and go to sleep until you wake them and cut them free (at which point a badger is wide awake and pissed off). Only non-locking snares are legal, so when an animal relaxes, the snare relaxes too. Animals too small (pheasants) or too big (deer) just knock the snare and it won't catch anything until it's re-set. In the UK, snares have to be checked every 24 hours minimum.

Mike checks snares in the morning, Ian checks them in the evening. I accompany Mike to check his snare line so he can talk me through how and where to set snares. "Where" is usually obvious by looking at paths travelled under fences, where the ground is bare of weeds from use, or hairs are caught on barbed wire.

The snare has to blend in with its surroundings. New snares are shiny and have to be "weathered", which is why we leave ours hanging on the side of the barn (or treat them with baking soda if we need them right away). Animals distrust objects that stand out from their surroundings. Look closely at the photo below which shows a treated snare set in a run.

Gateways and tracks used by people and vehicles are regularly used by animals too. To set a snare on an open track or underneath a long gate requires patiently blocking off more and more of the gap with logs and rocks over a period of days. The fox gets used to seeing an obstruction and goes around. The obstruction, just logs and rocks to the fox, gets larger and longer and eventually guides the fox through the only remaining gap - and a snare.

On our last check together, we found a fox in one of the snares.

It was a dog fox, the second of a pair. Ian caught the vixen a few days earlier. I despatched the dog fox with a shotgun and set a new snare wire while Mike talked me through the process.

Mike tells me that fox skins used to be worth money and a gamekeeper was allowed to supplement his income by selling the fox skins. Now there is no commercial use for the animal but because of vulnerable farmed livestock like lambs and chickens, fox populations are still managed in the countryside. It's not my favourite job.

Many snares are set at the same time, along a length of fencing, as animals use lots of paths on their daily rounds. We check about 40 snares on our daily round. We can check rat/squirrel traps at the same time.

Rats and squirrels are trapped using fenn traps. These are what most people think of when imagining a trap: the animal steps on a plate and spring-loaded bars snap shut.

We use barrels with openings cut to allow squirrels inside, and bait the barrel with wheat. Two fenn traps nestle in the wheat on the bottom of the barrel. We can check our traps by unscrewing the lid from the barrel or, if one of the dogs is with me, she will circle the barrel and wag her tail which is a pretty good sign the trap is full.

There are many concerns over grey squirrels in the UK. Primarily grey squirrels are a non-native species, and they carry a squirrel pox that is killing native red squirrels where their territories overlap. (There are no red squirrels in our area, or we wouldn't be able to trap using the barrel method, as we couldn't guarantee not to catch red squirrels.)

Fenns can be used to catch rats too. The fenn sits inside a small tunnel, and two sticks are poked in the ground at the opening of the tunnel, in an "X" shape, to block curious pheasants wandering in

These traps are only for rats in the woods. Nearer to home, we shoot the ones we can see. There is a nest in the roots of a tree outside the back door. The rats make regular forays from their tree nest to the chicken feeder 25 feet away. The deal is when you're having your morning/evening cup of tea, you have to keep the .410 shotgun handy and the back door open. If a rat makes a run for it, shoot it. Mike has killed the most, I'm lagging way behind. My excuse is that I drink my tea in the car while running errands, not sat down by the back door.

We use a 4-wheel drive buggy to reach all the traps. And this is why.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

It's why they're called "Springer" Spaniels


This is Gertie, now seven months old. We're going to our trainer Vic tomorrow for her first real training class.