Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Old Dogs, Old Tricks

There's only two weeks left of the pheasant season. The dogs have worked hard, been invaluable, and have enjoyed themselves thoroughly. And I enjoy working with them. In case you wondered, my job, as far as the dogs are concerned, is to drive them to work, carry the birds they find, and dish out big helpings of cooked dinner. I don't like to brag but, yeah, I'm pretty good at it.

If the dogs had opposable thumbs and a driver's license, I would be obsolete.

Before the season started, I worried that I didn't have enough dogs to spread the load on shoot days. I didn't take extra work on other shoots, which I do most years, because I though I would be under-dogged. However, Molly has recovered so well from her knee surgery, she's been able to do a full day's work picking up birds. And she's a pleasure to work.

And I'm very pretty...

Gertie is only a year old, but she's been out in the field a few times this month. It was just to give her some experience, but Gertie impressed me with her confidence and desire to please. She's always looking at me, waiting for the next command-

Next season is going to be wonderful with these two on the team.

The old dogs, Podge and Pip, have been out picking up too. They are past the training stage, and well into the "I know what I'm doing. You just worry about driving and making our dinner, mum." stage. Field trialers (those who train working dogs to compete at a very high standard on simulated game days) claim that after around 6 years, a field trial dog is often retired as it knows its job so well, it stops taking directions from its handler.

What is a drawback in a trialing dog is a blessing in a working dog. Pip and Podge know from experience when a bird is wounded, or where it will be likely to hide. Each has followed enough blood trails to recognise the scent, and remembered pulling birds from the security of thick brush, fallen trees, or even rabbit holes, so that's where they look. They mark falling birds, accurately estimating the distance they need to go before trying to pick up the bird's scent.

They also know they are not as quick as the younger dogs, so each has come up with a solution: Get a head start on your competition -



Podge sits ever further away than Pip does; I'm sure it's because Podge knows she has shorter legs than a retriever.

I'm certainly not going to tell them off for doing their job -

They never complain about my driving or cooking.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Group Photo!

The gang's all here, except for Hadley Bubbles - she's off to the left eating an apple, and hasn't quite got the self-control to sit still for a group photo yet.

In other dog news: I'm sad to report that Hazel, companion to Jazz and Tinker, passed away this month.

You may remember we adopted Hazel as a failed gun dog (c.2010), and our re-homing angel Julie offered Hazel a forever pet home. Hazel lived a long life as a house dog with a family that loved her, threw loads of tennis balls for her to fetch (Hazel's favourite game) and took her on daily walks on the beach. Hazel died happy, at a ripe old age, from natural causes.

Friday, 16 December 2016

9 More Sleeps 'til Christmas

I finally got around to getting our Christmas tree last Sunday. I joined Mike on his morning feed rounds, which passes the tree plantation, so I could make use of his off-road buggy to haul out the tree. Molly, his regular feeding partner, wasn't keen to share her front seat-

Being able to choose and cut a Christmas tree from the estate's plantation is a great perk of the job. Mike defers to me to choose our tree. I cut it down and loaded it in the buggy -

 while Mike fed maize by hand to the pheasants -

Pheasants love maize, probably for its high energy value. Mike broadcasts handfuls as he walks along feeding rides (areas). The pheasants stick around, scratching the soil and picking at the maize. A good feed keeps them at home.

Molly and I used the time to do a little training: sitting steady while pheasants fly over us out of the hedgerows.

Our training goal is: alert but steady. She's pretty good at it.

I cut the tree on Sunday, but it was Thursday before it was up and decorated with lights and ornaments. I managed to do a little bit each day, whenever I could scratch together a free half hour.

It is a nice tree, even without the decorations, and fits the space just right. It's even got a job after Christmas - we recycle Christmas trees to put in the flushing points (i.e. where birds fly out from on shoot days) to build up the natural cover that has died down from repeated frosts and wind.

The house is beginning to look more festive, inside and outdoors. A few leftover ornaments put in vases make centrepieces for the Christmas dinner table-

Festive Chicken tablecloth!

The fallow deer skull by the back door gets a few lights and an evergreen wreath -

Very Saturnalia-esque, don't you think?

The front door has a wreath with lights too. The guys say they can see it through the woods, just on dark, when they are finishing their evening feed -

My first store-bought wreath, and I really like it.

The mantelpiece just has a simple green garland with a few lights for decoration, and Cecelia our stuffed red squirrel, of course. I had some leftover red yarn so I knitted her a little nisse cap -

Nisse are the little people of Scandinavian folklore. They protect the farmstead and bring luck if well-treated. Besides the cookies and milk for Santa, and the sweet feed for the reindeer, I will have to leave a bowl of porridge for my squirrel nisse this Christmas eve. I can use all the luck I can get when lambing season starts.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Angus Arrives

I didn't realise how much time has passed between posts. Autumn is almost over and winter is creeping up behind. We're being battered by storm Angus, which is why I'm in the house on the computer. The rain has stopped play on outdoor work, other than essential chores. The drains are full and there's a bit of flooding, but really it's no more than an inconvenience so I'm not going to complain. And I have an excuse to sit by the fire and finish knitting this winter's cardigan! I've only completed the back, and half of two sleeves so far.

The leaves are still beautiful, bright yellow and russet red. Mostly on the ground now instead of the trees. I found a chestnut tree with huge nuts and spent an afternoon toasting and storing a couple of pounds of chestnut meat for use through the winter. I also made marrons glac├ęs, then ate far too many by myself.

Huge nuts!

The pantry is re-stocked with chutney and jams too, and half a freezer is full of the best summer goat's milk.

The goats are still giving milk now, and resist all my efforts to dry them back. I'm getting pretty good at making goat's milk mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. Mike had a goat milking stand made for my birthday and the goats were quick to learn how to use it -

One goat has already been to the buck to be served (that's fancy talk for impregnated). I swapped ram services (our Dorset ram) for goat services with a local farmer. I left my doe with his two Sanaan bucks for 24 hours.

When I picked her up the next morning, she had been thoroughly covered in buck scent. Not only is the smell eye-watering, but it's made up of urine and sticky gland secretions. It clings to everything, including the goat handler. I had to work at the pub only a few hours later and figured a shower and some perfume would be enough. My perfume? Yeah, it's called Chanel no. Nope I Still Smell like Goat.

My own ewes are in with a ram now.  I'm a little late this year; the ewes took longer than usual to bounce back from lambing. Other farmers suffered the same problem, but I've pinpointed mine to lack of good grazing. All flesh is grass and my overused grazing cost me flesh - £15 of it per lamb at market. As soon as the rain stops, I have autumn fertiliser to spread on all the fields, which will boost the root system. Feed the soil, feed the grass, feed the sheep.

Alongside the regular pre-tupping routine (worming, clipping the wool around the tail, trimming feet) every sheep got a long-acting vitamin bolus about the size of a shotgun cartridge plunged down its throat.

Yeah. That was as much fun to administer as it sounds.

Still, the ewes and ewe lambs look lots better already. Necessary, but it was another £140 spent in supplements because of poor grazing.

My trimming skills never improve, but the job always gets done.

I'll skip posting the sheep shaving photos (you've seen it all before). Instead, here's one of Podge who came along for the ewe-prepping party. She isn't bothered with sheep but she found my electric shears case and its foam packing made an excellent place to nap -

An experienced working dog knows to conserve energy.

 Plus, Podge thinks sheep are boring.

I borrowed a Beltex ram to service my ewes this time. We have enough Dorset ewe lambs to replace old ewes so this season I'll be breeding meat lambs for market. The Beltex ram will produce the kind of carcase buyers request (we get a newsletter every sale outlining what buyers are looking for) and Dorset mothers will provide plenty of milk and good mothering to help them grow. If I can provide improved grazing, we should do better this year.

Seven ewes were officially retired from lambing, too old and thin to withstand any more baby-making nonsense.
Officially out to pasture

They would make good money at market but Kitty likes their company, so she now shares her shelter and her hay rations with these old ladies. Unfortunately one of the old ewes had teeth too worn down and she couldn't eat enough to survive. I shot her rather than see her suffer, and butchered her up for the dogs, who ate well for days.

This year's meagre lamb profits did contribute to purchasing some new farm machinery -

Chickens sold separately

It's old but reliable, and cheap to fix. A definite upgrade from the quad bike. Now I can mow my own fields, spread fertiliser, and split lots of wood. I can if the weather gets better, that is.

We did have some late babies: in mid-September, I hatched a small number of turkey chicks in an incubator, then managed to convince a broody chicken to do the hard work of raising them for me -

Of course, the Turkchicken family lives in a dog kennel.

The hen started with seven chicks. Two took a nap face down in their water drinker at a day old.

Then there were five.

The first time I let them free range in their mother hen's care, one ran straight into a dog kennel (with dogs in it) and got eaten.

Now there are four, but they have managed to outlive their siblings by at least two months. I could use another hen turkey or two in our flock. Boys get a trip to ice camp, but not this Thanksgiving. They're still only nugget-sized

It's also shooting season. We've shot seven days so far and it's going well. A dash of cold weather has kept the pheasants at home where we can find them on shoot days. We're shooting tomorrow and I'm in the middle of cooking beef stew for 30 people, butternut squash soup and sausage rolls for Elevenses. I'm alternating writing and stirring, writing and straining, writing and chopping. Running up and down stairs is keeping me warm though.

Quincy and Spud are thrilled to be back to work retrieving pheasants.

Found it!

Molly joined them for her first day last week, She's a sensitive dog and bit shy of the gun noise, but the excitement of finding birds to retrieve takes her mind off it. Her leg is healed but she still carries it some, maybe out of habit.

Pip, a usually well mannered and laid back dog, pushed past me one shoot morning and made a bee-line for the Land Rover, hopping about and begging to come to work picking up with the team. She let me know she wasn't ready for the scrap heap, even if said scrap heap was on the sofa in front of a warm wood stove. I let her do half a day once a week, if the weather is not too harsh.

Gertie and Hadley are wonderful - happy, attentive, full of fun. Mike has given Hadley a nickname: Bubbles. I really hope it doesn't stick. I can't face the thought of shouting "Spud!" and "Bubbles!" in front of a team of straight-laced shooting gentlemen.

Pip & "Bubbles" - Is it tea time yet??

Again, my apologies for the long break between posts. I lost track of time. Although I can't promise poetry or epic tales of adventure three times a week like clockwork, I can at least put up a few thoughts and photos more regularly. Actually, if it keeps raining like it is, I may have time to write an entire book.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Dog Days

Shoot season is three weeks away, so I've turned my attention to our dog team. Some of the girls have been working all through the summer, chasing wandering pheasants home to their roosting pens. Here's a little video so you can see what they do each morning before breakfast:


The dogs run through margins of cover crop and over large stubble fields, where the pheasants like to wander and sun themselves. The dogs rouse any pheasants they scent and force them to fly home. I drive in my truck to keep up with the dogs, and because I'm lazy. I praise the dogs, even though they can't hear me. They are such good dogs.

Of the four dogs out that morning, two of them are so old that I have to lift them in and out of the truck, and I still expect them to work. It's like hitching your grandmother to a plough and telling her to go clear an acre. Dulcie and Dakota are both 12(ish). They still love their work, but I keep a close eye on them, ready to bench them at the first sign of a limp or stagger.

I had hoped by now that Tinker would be doing the summer bird-chasing work, but she hasn't got the temperament. Tinker loses her mind when the birds fly, and she cannot be steadied. I've never known a dog embody absolutely every fault a gun dog can possess: lack of concentration, running in, giving tongue (yipping and barking while hunting), hard-mouthed (crushes any game she finds) - the list is endless. But she's got the perfect temperament as a pet: loving, great with kids and other dogs, playful, retrieves toys.

Our friends Matt and Julie, who re-homed Hazel and Jazz when they retired as gun dogs, happily agreed to give Tinker a home too. Tinker now lives in their house, and takes daily walks on the beach (a pheasant-free zone!) Julie sends photo updates -

Watching the waves roll in...

Hazel, Tinker, Jazz in their dri-bags, post swim

Tinker is happy, because she can't fail at being a pet.

It still leaves a big gap in our gun dog line-up. Molly should be working now but, with her knee op, she is on a limited winter work schedule. Gertie's training is coming along well but she's not a year old yet, and still needs time to mature.

So, we got another puppy.

A yellow Labrador. She was born on the 4th of July so her full kennel name is Hadley Yankee Doodle. I've been naming my labs after towns from my home state of Massachusetts, so I have a theme to help me chose names. After three spaniel pups in a row, I am looking forward to training a more laid-back breed. As the saying goes: Labs are born half-trained, and spaniels die half-trained.

It doesn't solve our immediate dog shortage this year - I will have to rely on Spud and Quincy for picking up though the winter. I'm just hoping that it will stave off future dog shortages. Gertie should be able to do a whole winter's work in a year's time and Hadley will be coming on behind her. Some keepers train a new dog every 18 months to keep up with the demands of their job. We only do half the days we used to in Dorset, so maybe we can cope with only 9 dogs in our kennel: 3 retirees, 1 semi-retired, 2 working, and 3 in training.

They are all good, good dogs.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

The Neglectful Gardener

I have a small, underdeveloped vegetable patch at the bottom of my garden, which came with the cottage. It came complete with rhubarb plant that gives me enough rhubarb for a few crumbles in the late spring and a couple dozen autumn fruiting raspberry canes that are prolific, even when I forget to cut them down in winter.

My bijoux, semi-tended patch

There's also an orchard stuffed with apples, pears, damson and plum trees which are more or less self-sustaining. I just need to carry out regulatory pruning once a year.

It's the annual vegetable planting that catches me out every time.

I forget to start seedlings under glass. I miss the opportunity to direct sow in the ground by at least a month. I start to prepare seedbeds and, before a third of the veg patch is tilled, I've wandered off to deal with livestock. My gardening professor told me "Never let a weed see Sunday", Surely it's easy enough to find time to hoe between rows once a week?

If only I could eat the weeds we would have a bumper crop. In that spirit, I tried making soup from the nettles that invade my garden. It tasted like weed soup, even with a half pint of cream stirred into it.

I'm surrounded by fields of crops, which I treat as "wild food" to be gathered. This only adds to my gardening laziness, These crops are grown for animal fodder but, if picked before harvest, are sweet and delicious (and don't get sprayed by chemicals). This year's bounty included peas, broad beans, and new potatoes. Technically it's stealing, except the farmers are OK with it. That's three crops I didn't have to plant.

Bill the retired shepherd has a magnificent garden. His veg beds are cleaner and better kept than my living room. I barter with Margaret - Bill's wife and chief neighbourhood cake maker - our extra chicken eggs for runner beans and courgettes (zucchini) to round out our vegetable harvest.

That's five crops I didn't have to plant.

raspberry canes - look at the nettles encroaching!

Bill gave me some of his extra runner bean plants, which I planted in my veg patch. Luckily they were big enough to outgrow the weeds and they are starting to crop now.

I especially love yellow squash and pumpkins - "no brainer" crops for sure, but not easy to buy in the UK grocery stores. I have planted some of each and tend them haphazardly: a bit of water, fertiliser, hoeing. I put a fence around them, which keeps the chickens off but seems to be exactly the right size for rabbits to walk through. I'm waiting for the rabbits to grow a bit bigger, and I'm going to harvest them as well.

"fenced"-in Connecticut field pumpkins & Runner beans 

I'm less of a gardener, and more of an opportunistic forager.

Our fruit trees are our main crop. It's looking like an average fruiting year, but there will be enough to share with friends and neighbours. The gentleman who owned this estate many years ago made sure that every estate cottage had an orchard with early and late fruiting trees, so no employee would ever go without fruit - as long as they were thrifty enough to preserve or dry store the harvest. His forethought and generosity is still paying off today. The first early season cooking apples are ready now and, as it's raining, I'll spend today canning chutney, and making hedgerow jam with wild blackberries I picked yesterday while dog walking.

The dogs love the fruit too, picking their own blackberries and cleaning up windfalls in the orchard at breakfast time. They all adore pears, and will pick any they can reach straight from the trees. I watch the retrievers eat at least 5 raw pears each, every day.

I spent a few years studying horticulture, garden design, and food production. I try and apply principles I learned to my own gardening work, but I've never bettered nature. One morning as I opened the gate to the goat paddock, I looked at the fence line and saw this profusion of "weeds" and wild flowers -

Mallow, grasses, & bindweed

It was better integrated and more aesthetic than I could have designed with my big human brain.

I am going to expand my vegetable garden and have decided on the No-Dig approach. I am layering the soil with horse manure that I collect from Kitty's paddock every few weeks. I'm making compost from horse manure, used straw (from the dogs' beds), and grass clippings. I've covered over weedy areas with plywood sheets and tarps to kill off the weeds. I like the idea of layering waste, composting, and - of course - not digging the heavy clay-rich soil every year.

I've also scrounged inherited a hoop house, which I plan to put up next to my neglected veg patch, to grow the most precious of commodities: tomatoes. A poly tunnel is one more gardening task I can forget to do next year. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Mike's Hands

Mike and I celebrated his 52nd birthday this week. The celebrations were low-key; after all the animals were tended to, we threw a few logs on the outdoor fire and drank a bottle of champagne, a kind gift from Mike's employers. We discussed rams going to market, pheasants yet to be delivered to other shoots, ageing dogs, and that day's deer sightings. You know, the usual birthday banter.

It was a warm evening, and Mike had his sleeves rolled up. Looking at his hands and arms he sighed sadly. Mike is very self-conscious of the scars and grafts that crisscross his arms. I took a picture of them -

His fingers don't bend, and the webbing between them tears. He's always banging his knuckles and making them bleed, but he can't feel it. Sometimes his hands swell from lymphoedema and I rub them to try and disperse the swelling. Mike can only straighten his elbows as much as you see in the picture because the muscle is damaged from the burns.

And he can only rotate his arms this much. His pinky joints are hooked because the tendons tightened irreversibly. The skin on his hands is always dry and dirt stays in the creases of his palms.

It was a big step for him to let me photograph his hands.

Mike hates when people tell him he's brave. He says there's nothing brave about having an accident, and he wouldn't do it again - not even for charity. I tell him he's brave for how he's dealt with life after the accident. And that he's still a big pain in my ass, so he's not all that different from before the accident, scars or no. 

Eight years ago his doctors sat me down in a private room and told me he wasn't going to live. Now we're celebrating his 52nd birthday. Bravery, blind luck, or determination? Maybe some of each. 

Here's to your 53rd birthday and beyond.