Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Quiet Time

In spite of the squally winter storms and frozen water pipes, this is a keeper's (and wife's) favourite time of year. Shoot season is over, but we haven't started catching up our laying hens yet. We have fewer responsibilities than any other time of the year, so it's our annual two week holiday. Work resumes on 14th February with our traditional Valentine's evening spent eating takeout while making wire tunnels for the pheasant catching pens.

The end of the season comes with its own ritual and tasks. I wash the dog coats and leashes, and drop off our tweeds to the Margaret at the feed store. She does a weekly run to the dry cleaners for those of us living out of town. It's so convenient and I can pick up sheep nuts and pig oil at the same time. Margaret used to keep the Queen's goat when he wasn't on duty, and still cares for a menagerie of rescued horses and donkeys. We have a quick chat, comparing notes on our animals and sharing treatment advice. Along with my tweeds, I drop off a few pheasant carcases as Margaret likes to feed a buzzard and a red kite that live in the area.

All the working dogs get an end-of-season refurbishment: bathed, nails clipped, wormed and flea-treated and a health check. At the moment we have one case of ear mites, one ear infection, one case of conjunctivitis, another of dandruff, two overweight dogs, and two underweight ones. And poor Dakota had a mild stroke a few days ago. She's recovered with no lasting effects. My morning routine now includes ear drops, eye drops, wipes, and stuffing pills into reluctant dogs, all before coffee.

The dogs go back to school now. I took Tinker and Molly to the dog trainer yesterday. Tinker did a few days' work at the end of the season. She's been a late bloomer, so we've taken it steady. She excelled at the trainer's yesterday.

On a shoot day, Tinker stands on Spud to get a better look

Molly is at the very beginning of her training, which is all done around her food: whistle to come in, whistle to sit, wait, command to eat. That, plus a couple of retrieves a day, is all she'll do for the next eight weeks. The rest of her time is spent playing or sleeping. The others will accompany me on walks in the Welsh hills.

Pip and Molly has devised a Stacking System for making best use of the couch

It's a pleasure to see all the birds that deftly avoided the guns now strutting about the estate. The cock pheasants are fighting and preening. The ducks are starting to pair up. We still keep the feeders full with wheat and maize to see them through the winter. Pigeons will start coming in to feed on farmers' crops and we'll try and put some of those pests in the freezer.

The boys are tackling our fox population, and I will make time to bag a couple of deer. This estate produces woodland products so deer are a nuisance. Deer and hare also attract poachers. Mike caught a poacher's dog but not the owners. He brought it home and put it in our kennels where it howled a protest all night long. He hoped the owners would claim it but they didn't so he handed it over to the police. Deer prices have doubled and there is a lot of rural poverty, so poaching is rife.

The hunt also came though this week. Kitty wasn't fit enough for a day's hunting, so we went on foot and waved off the field (ie the people on horseback).


Also Kitty, who lives out, is not quite as smartly turned out as the other horses -



Tomorrow's job is to gather up the pregnant ewes and give them their annual vaccine and a dose of wormer, and trim any overgrown feet. I want them ready and comfortable for motherhood. The farrier will drop in to do Kitty's feet at the same time. There's also wood to be split and stacked. We were so preoccupied with shooting that we let the heating oil run out, so we only have the wood stove and a little space heater, and no hot water until Monday.

Yup, this is our quiet time.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Un Gran Regalo

Look at what came in the post today!



A very talented blog reader, who is a friend of the family and lives in Spain, painted this picture of Dakota and our new home, and generously sent it to us. I will post another picture of the artwork after I have had it framed.

Muchas gracias Keith, de todos nosotros en Milkweed y Teasel!

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Gun Dog's Working Day - a Brief Pictorial

Watch,



Hunt,



Retrieve,


Repeat for six hours.


Sleep.


Wake up. Eat Breakfast, Repeat until 1 February.

Monday, 26 January 2015

The Scanner Man Can

Apologies for anyone who has taken the time and effort to compose a comment on the blog, only to have it disappear into the internets somewhere, never to be read or appreciated. I jiggled some settings and hopefully any comments will now be saved. And read. And appreciated. Let me know if the jiggling worked.

To make it up to you, I will now post a picture of a cute puppy -


Meet Molly. She's Mike's new puppy. (Now we each have four dogs, so we're even.) She's a black and white springer spaniel, four months old. She's very endearing.


Mike's going to struggle to discipline that face. 

Even Pip accepts her -


Well, maybe accepts is a strong word. Tolerates. Endures, possibly. They already share a love of napping.

Molly will soon be joined by baby lambs. The mobile scanner man came today and my flock is officially in lamb -


Malcolm the scanner man pulled up with the whole unit on a trailer. He was set up and ready to go before I could boil the kettle to make him a cup of tea. 

The ewes walk up the ramp, in goes the device, and an ultrasound of each ewe's uterus pops up on a screen. Malcolm counts the amniotic sacs and gives me the results, and I spray one purple dot on the ewe's back for each lamb inside her. We're expecting in total: 6 singles, 11 twins and 3 triplets. Eunice and my old matron lamb are both empty, so they will have a season off.

Before lambing starts, we still have the final week of shoot season to get through. The dogs and I are doing 4 shoot days this week, and our last day is Saturday - a beater's day, which means all the beaters and pickers up who helped though the season can bring their guns and shoot a few cock pheasants. I butchered a fallow deer to make a huge pot of venison stew for our end of year meal. All in all it's been a successful season. This winter will soon be over, spring will be here bringing lambs and pheasant chicks, in preparation for the next winter.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Plough Monday

Last Monday was Plough Monday, the traditional start of the agricultural year in England. It's our "back to work after the Christmas holiday" day, which I found hard as I spent my holiday binge-watching Game of Thrones and wasn't ready to part company with my couch just because the calendar said so.

The sheep needed my attention first: Pumpkin the runt had diarrhoea and looked listless. Worms most likely. Being a committed shepherdess, I wanted to get a poo sample and check it for worms so I could dose him with a target-specific wormer. So I stood in the field, sleet coming down, getting cold and wet, coffee going cold, staring at the ass end of my most worthless (economically-speaking) sheep, willing him to hurry up and poo. A watched sheep never poos. Nearly an hour went by and my sample pot remained empty while my coffee cup filled with icy rain.

Being also a practical shepherdess, I am adaptable. I opted for a general purpose wormer and some electrolytes, dosed Pumpkin and decided to monitor his progress for the next few days, and went inside for fresh coffee and dry clothes.

The scanner man is due on Monday, and I hope that 22 of my ewes are in lamb. When we moved from Dorset, we left our lambing shelters behind. With no protection from the winter weather, I had to change to Spring lambing instead of having lambs born in autumn to overwinter. Easily done - you simply put the ram (or tup) in at a different time.

Pre-tupping preparations begin

Into the rollover crate to trim feet, check teeth and teats

Through the foot bath, then stamped with their ear tag number,

This year's crop of lambs is due starting March 25th. Lambing all the ewes will take a few weeks.

Moving a flock of sheep to the border of Wales - where sheep already outnumber people 3 to 1 - is sort of like starting an ice farm in Alaska. Not a genius business plan. We don't have our own land up here (yet) so have to rent available acreage, and we can't secure as much grazing as we owned in Dorset, so I sold 12 of last year's ewe lambs as breeding stock. On the plus side, it was the first time my flock of sheep turned a profit.

Not only did I bring sheep to Wales, I brought the wrong type of sheep. Markets don't like my breed for meat. Again, I am a practical shepherdess so I'm trying an experiment: I borrowed a commercial-breed Charolais ram to put to my ewes this year. He's not a looker in my books, but the ewes were happy to see him -

The ram wears a chalk marker that lets me know which ewes he's covered. 
I numbered the ewes so I can see at a distance which ones are marked and track their due dates better.

This ram is a terminal sire. It means every lamb born from this mating will be sent on for meat, none will be kept for breeding stock. The Charolais genes should square up the lambs and make them suitable for the meat trade here. It doesn't compromise my purebred ewes so I can put them to a Dorset ram next year and expand again, if we gain more acreage.

Normally I wouldn't worry about the meat trade as I butchered my own lambs for direct sale to a customer base. I also had to leave my customer base behind when we moved. Where we live now - an area known as the Welsh Marches - is not as affluent. There are not so many bankers from London with second estates who wish to purchase speciality-bred artisan-butchered hogget. We will try the meat market option this time, and I will work on building a customer base here.

I experimented with a fleece option last year, and sent my best fleece away to a mill in Yorkshire to be cleaned, carded (combed and debris removed), and turned into ready-to-spin fibre. Meh. Turns out Polled Dorset fleeces are OK but do their best work on the backs of the sheep keeping them warm through winter. I will enjoy spinning it and knitting it into a coat / cardigan thing, but it's not a revenue avenue.

Between having sick sheep, wrong sheep, and hungry sheep I was feeling discouraged about my ovine future and my ability to make sheep work as part of our farming life. I was certainly doubting my shepherding skills. I did this often while leaning on a fence staring at the breeding stock I decided to sell. Out of thirteen ewes, I sold twelve; one shearling ewe, number 42, caught my eye. Her overall conformation made me decide to keep her.

On one of my fence-leaning outings, Bill the retired estate shepherd came out to join me - fence-leaning, like yawning, is contagious. Bill is soft-spoken and contemplative, probably from years of practice watching sheep. After a time he nodded his head at a shearling ewe - number 42 - and said "That's a very good ewe there, nice long back." MY sheep. One I'd selected. And he didn't know I was keep any. My judgement coincided with that of a bona fide shepherd: I got the Bill Seal of Approval!

I have just moved the (fingers crossed) pregnant ewes to the field next to our house. As their pregnancies progress and my normally fat ewes get ginormous, they can end up on their backs and suffocate. Having them so close means I can check them very regularly and flip them right side up as necessary.

We may not have enough grazing, but we have convenient grazing.

It's also small pleasure to start my day by putting my wellies on over my pyjamas, grabbing my coat and a cup of coffee, wandering past the kennels to pat the dogs and tell them breakfast is on its way, then crossing the lane and wiggling the gate latch (I must fix that post) into the sheep field, just to be run over by bahhing sheep demanding to know where their sheep nuts are, and what time do I can this? we've been awake for hours.

Well ladies, I have been approved by Bill so you know you're in good hands. Let's get this year of farming started!


Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Our First Shoot Season

We're nearly through our first shooting season in Hereford. I don't think either of us were truly prepared for how tough the first year would be. It's been made easier by good employers, and a great staff of beaters and pickers up. However, when you're trying to move, farm, and pull off shoot days on unfamiliar ground, you look forward to years in the future when you can rely on well-worn routines and experience to take some of the work out of it.

Our first shoot day didn't go to plan. It was edging on disastrous. A gate from Mr. Winney's sheep field was left open and the sheep decided to head off into the woods where the pheasants were settled. A flock of wandering sheep has very un-settling effect on pheasants, and birds came out of the woods in great flushes, cocking and shouting their surprise, before the guns were on their pegs ready to shoot.

Not to be left out, Heston the bull decided he no longer wanted to be in his bull pen without the company of some lovely heifers he could smell on the other side of the woods. He simply pushed his fence over and went for a wander.

Bulls have a very unsettling effect on beaters, especially when the beaters find themselves standing between the bull and his Good Time. Normally beaters stay in a straight line, no gaps, and slowly take the line forward to move pheasants quietly over guns. When Heston hove into view, the line quickly parted to let him through. No one wanted to be in the way of this guy -


Not an auspicious start to our first day but, in the end, we put enough birds over ready guns and got the bag. "The bag" simply means if you set out to harvest 100 birds, then 100 birds are hung up in the chiller at the end of the shoot day, OR you fired enough shots that, had you hit the birds, there would be 100 birds hung in the chiller at the end of the shoot day.

So far we've successfully made the bag every shoot day. It's not been easy, at least early in the season. Yes, there are more birds at the beginning of the season, but a warm autumn and lots of natural food allowed the birds to wander. A cold autumn helps the birds feather up quickly and fly stronger, and lack of natural food means that birds hang around feed bins provided by us. In the drive. Where we want the birds on shoot days.

It seems only weeks ago I was helping small chicks out of their shells and tying to keep downy chick fluff out of my coffee cup. Now I find myself butchering full-grown pheasants, and picking finger-sized, copper-coloured feathers out of my coffee cup. These pheasants get roasted and put in a stew to feed the workers on a shoot day who, in turn, bash through brambles and around fallen trees to push pheasants over waiting guns. We then retrieve the shot birds, which go back into the food chain. And so it goes.

Not much is lost or wasted. When I'm preparing the pheasants for the pot, I even save the contents of their crops - a pocket in the oesophagus where the bird stores grain it has eaten -

I'm holding the crop - it's full of grain!

I tip out all the undigested wheat and maize for the hens in the garden to eat.

The pheasant carcases, picked clean of meat and grain, are put in a hole along with all the plucked feathers to compost down and feed the soil. In summer, spent eggshells from the hatches are put here too.

Something we haven't harvested yet is turkeys. All our turkeys had a reprieve in November as I flew to visit family in North Carolina for Thanksgiving, and ate one of their unpardoned turkeys. Then, just before Christmas, our turkeys came down with a mysterious turkey sickness and had to have antibiotics. Antibiotics that had a 28-day withdrawal period before the turkeys could be eaten. When I call to them in the morning, their gobbles sound like laughter. I'm their gullible caretaker

The 15 young turkeys have grown well, and soon outgrew the old dog kennel I was using as their overnight accommodation. They graduated to sleeping in a plastic coal bin, turned on its side and filled with straw -



Now they have outgrown everything, bar maybe the horse trailer.

They prefer to sleep out in the open. For their own protection they're fenced in with wire panels and electric fencing, I stacked some straw bales, stuck perching bars between the bales, and ratchet-strapped a plywood roof on top so they have a weatherproof shelter if they so require. The five bantam hens that share their run still choose to sleep in the coal bunker. As long as everyone is comfortable.

Enrique and his two hens are still sleeping in the end dog kennel, but Enrique visits me first thing in the morning when I'm eating my breakfast -



That's him peeking around the door, looking for treats. I have toast, and he has a handful of mealworms. Tina, my oldest hen turkey, still follows me on my morning rounds to share in everyone's breakfast.

We had to get a new cockerel to replace our old infertile cockerel (he's living in the woods in a pheasant pen, fully retired). Our new cockerel is a young Light Sussex. He was "free to a good home" from a local small farm. He's called Brian Cox.

Tina and Brian took an instant dislike to each other and had to be separated by a fence until they could learn to get on. It took time, and much posturing at each other through the fence -




I don't know if there was any poultry "trash talk" but there was a lot of noise to start. They're fine together now. Who knows what goes on in their little pea-sized brains?

There is still another month of the pheasant shooting season, but I think we can say that we've weathered the first year. The bosses and our team of guns are happy, and all next year's shoot days are sold, with a waiting list if any more become available. So I will soon be picking chick fluff out of my coffee cup again, but not before lambing, which starts 25th March. I will tell you all about the sheep next time.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Morning Rounds in the Truck

All the animals like to see the truck arrive, but for all different reasons. The sheep make full use of it to scratch those hard-to-reach itches while I dispense sheep chow into feeders -

video

The sheep would do that all day if I let them. They would be awesome at one of those Touch the Truck competitions.

Kitty capitalises on her height and prefers to investigate what's in the flat bed. This morning she thought she hit the jackpot, finding straw and bags of cut maize -


Then she sniffed the wormer paste -


Poor Kitty. Sometimes the truck giveth, sometimes the truck taketh away.