Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Turkey learnin'

I am really enjoying my first time raising turkey chicks. Each week, they grow older and demonstrate new (well, new to me) behaviours that I find endlessly entertaining.

Our apprentice underkeeper Monty discovered this neat trick when his phone rang while he was stood near the turkey poult pen:


Most evenings I had to chase the poults into their pop hole and the safety of their shed (OK. Not really a shed. A converted dog box. I'm not sure why you expected anything different.) Once we discovered that a simple ringtone sent them running for cover, it made my evening chores - the turkey ones anyway -  a little bit quicker.

Last night was the first night that I left the pop hole open between the run and their "shed" (it's in quotes, are you happy?). The poults are big enough and feathered enough to come out on daylight. When I went to check on them, the little poults were vocalising and the stag turkey poults were displaying - tails spread, wings down, and emitting tiny chuffs of air that will later become booming sounds when they're fully grown. I tried different noises myself, to see how they'd react to me:


I spared you the video where I sing "The Doggie Breakfast Song" (don't ask....) which generated only a half-hearted response. Possibly the poults were just humouring their food and water provider, I don't know. One low-toned, loudish but short word was most effective. I was a half hour late for my breakfast and now-cold coffee. That's how entertaining turkey poults are.

My second hatch of turkey eggs was pretty good too, resulting in another eight turkey chicks including a pure white one. That's sixteen new turkeys in total this first year. Not bad at all. The second batch are still under a heat lamp but will soon join the turkey chorus outside on the grass.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Happy Birthdays

It just so happens that Mike and underkeeper Ian share a birthday (albeit 30 years apart). On Saturday, Mike turned 50 and Ian 20, so it was a great excuse to throw a party in the garden-

Colourful bunting festooned the apple trees, and caravans and tents appeared in the orchard. I minced one of our lambs for burgers. Friends manned the grill, tended the warming fire, played guitar and sang. Dogs, kids, and slightly tipsy adults made everything festive. Pip and another labrador were caught pinching bread rolls from the table, but there was enough to go around. Even for dogs

Pip's on the Clean Up committee

Weekend over, and it's back to pheasant duties. Happy birthday guys.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Meet the Flockers

Eight turkey chicks hatched out this morning to add to our growing flock. They are huge chicks -

So far, not one of them has grumbled about living in a sheep trailer.

That's the good news. The bad news is the chicken eggs I incubated didn't hatch. Not a one. I had two Buff Orpington cockerels and gave one away. He must have been doing the work of two. I know my current cockerel is treading his hens, so maybe he's just sub-fertile. In which case, he will be sub-merged in the crockpot, in wine and herbs. I'll candle the eggs this afternoon to decide his fate. If there are embryos inside, then I know the fault is mine, and cockerel can stay.

There's a small tabletop incubator filled with a second hatch of turkey eggs due in two weeks' time. The sheep trailer will get a lot of use this month.

UPDATE: Huge apologies to my cockerel. The chicken eggs have begun to hatch. I must have miscalculated days. So it's beef for dinner, not chicken.

UPDATE TWO: Nope, I was right the first time - my cockerel is subfertile and only two eggs out of twenty were fertile, and only one hatched. Mike did remind me he's at least 5 years old. If the chick is a cockerel, he can replace dad.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Nesting Instinct

We have two big chest freezers containing our year's supply of homegrown, hunted and bartered meat. They now live in a lean-to attached to the house. The lean-to is open on one end and, unbeknownst to me when I put the freezers in there, was already occupied by at least three pairs of swallows.  The last, late brood in the nest closest to the open end looks about ready to fledge. I say that not as a bird expert, but simply from the fact that they're so large now that they overhang the nest, and are in danger of spilling out of it.

If they can fly, it will make certainly make falling a little easier. 

My first hint that the mud and straw nests were in use was the growing mounds of bird poo accumulating on top of the freezers. No matter, as the poo is on the outside of the freezer and a quick wipe when the birds have headed off for Africa will put things right. My first hint that the nests had chicks was less subtle: angry, screaming parent birds dive-bombing me. I thought they got mad when I disturbed their peace to get something out of the freezer for dinner, but they were apoplectic when I climbed up and took that photo of their chicks.

I apologised and topped up their feeders with mealworms by way of penance.

I had my own nest building to do today. Our hatch of chickens and turkeys is due on Tuesday, so I have day old chicks to keep warm, dry and safe from predators. I had planned on using one of the small kennels with a heat lamp, but we have dogs boarding with us while their owners are on holiday so the kennel block is completely full.

Time for Plan B -

Sheep trailer with the doggie swimming pool inside, lined with wood shavings, and a spare heat lamp suspended from a ratchet strap, parked by the incubator barn so I can plug in the lamp. An old horse blanket will cover the gap at the top.

I'm pretty sure the swallows are laughing at me now.

It means I can't move the sheep until the boarders come and collect their dogs, and I can move this set-up to the kennels, but it will work for now. Perhaps if anyone reading this is thinking about keeping chickens but worries that she can't afford an expensive set up, remember my sheep trailer nest.

Ingenuity and low standards, my friends.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

A Pox on Your Sheep Shed

Everyone loves animal stories. This first big book I devoured in one sitting was Aesop's Fables.  I remember my sister, maybe seven years old, walking into our kitchen clutching a paperback copy of Where the Red Fern Grows, in floods of tears after reading the sad ending (I won't spoil it, in case it's on your own To Read list.)

The nightstand next to my bed is a testament to my continued fascination with animals: books about wild mustangs, pet nannies, milking sheep, dog domestication, beekeeping, and horse tack. Today, traffic on the internet would be halved if it wasn't for funny animal videos.

I recently bought a book for its title alone: Today I Baled Some Hay to Feed the Sheep the Coyotes Eat. Now there is an author who can sum up farming in one sentence. Farming and gallows humour go together like, well, sheep and coyotes - an inevitable if unwelcome pairing. The author Bill Stockton wrote with great compassion for his sheep, and his spare, conservative illustrations convey in a few strokes the whole attitude of his animals, and must have come from years of close observation.

Farmers occupy an odd, contradictory space between raising animals for food and finding their behaviours endlessly fascinating, worthy of a lifetime's study. Let's face it, sometimes daily farm chores can be repetitive and not particularly mind-expanding. On a bad day, one amusing behaviour can be worth as much to the soul as the meat, milk and fleece are to the body.

When I'm not watching my own flock, pack or herd, I'm reading about people's observations of their own flocks, packs, and herds. I enjoy reading these books immensely, but for jaw-dropping surprises nothing trumps watching your own animals. The animals don't read these books, and therefore don't always behave as directed.

Turkeys are relatively new stock for us. I've only owned a handful, so not enough for a reasonable behavioural study. I've read a few anecdotal remarks about turkeys, all of which claim that turkeys are stupid. This is not my experience at all -


My bronze turkey hen demonstrates learned patterns around food. Without thinking, I let her out in the morning on my way to prepare the dogs' breakfasts, and she soon learned that if she followed me and stood by, I would give her some of what was going in their bowls that morning. (I learned that she's partial to oatmeal.) The turkey is even fonder of peanuts, and if she sees me take down the empty wild bird feeders, she will flap-run at full speed across the garden and follow on my heels to "help" me refill them from the storage bins.

That turkey perfectly demonstrates the new thinking behind animal domestication: animals that have shorter flight (as in "fight-or-flight") distances and can endure being close to people reap the benefits of our largesse - or at least the benefits our compost heaps and garbage dumps. I do tidbit her more than the chickens because she's "nicer" to me than my chickens. In fact, I know that if I dropped down dead in the garden, those chickens would strip my carcase before sundown which, I suppose, is a fitting end for me considering how many chicken carcases I've stripped in my lifetime.

Sheep are another animal that gets bad press in the brains department. Sheep also demonstrate learning patterns around food distribution. I feed the sheep; Mike never does. The sheep associate my truck with food, and shout like hell when I pull up in the truck at mealtimes. If Mike borrows my truck, they still shout like hell until he gets out. Then Mike says they lose interest and go back to grazing. That's because sheep recognise faces. Actually, they're very good at it.

One study claims sheep recognise at least fifty individual faces. That's more than I can recognise, as I suffer from mild prosopagnosia. I don't forget family members or anything, but if you and I have dinner together tonight, I won't know who you are tomorrow. I've developed adaptive behaviours that help me cope (i.e. hide it) but our recent move and subsequent meeting of new people and clients has been trying. Inexplicably, I recognise animals like dogs easily, and in point of fact I recognise most of my own sheep by their faces. Some people I never learn to recognise. The sheep have me beat in this department.

Sheep remember where they live, too. Have you heard of hefted flocks? It's a method of managing sheep so they are allowed to graze unfenced land, with only a daily visit from the shepherd to push them back if they stray too far. In time the ewes learn their boundaries, and pass on the knowledge to their lambs - where to find the best grazing, shelter from bad weather, the edges of their territory. It's hard work to heft a flock initially but once the flock learns, it takes on the teaching role for all future generations.

My sheep have taught me a behaviour too. When a normally aloof ewe deliberately seeks me out for a pat or physical contact, that ewe is telling me she doesn't feel well. Twenty-three of my breeding ewes are currently suffering from orf - a sort of sheep chickenpox. If you've had chickenpox you can empathise with my poor ladies. I saw one tiny sore on a ewe, and within 24 hours other ewes sought out my company.

My worst case

It's a horribly infectious virus which - joy of joys - is transmissible to humans. There's no cure for it; they simply have to ride it out. I can only alleviate some symptoms and bolster their immune systems, which are thankfully fairly robust in these older ewes. After suiting and gloving up, I administered 46 tiny vitamins, and sprayed sores with anti-bac spray, then I took a Karen Silkwood-style shower in virucide, and used a broom to poke my contaminated clothes into the washing machine.

I'm not sure what the title of that book would be.

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.