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 -


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.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Birds, Dogs, and Dogging Birds

Our first shoot day is Saturday, less than 48 hours away. We are getting through a long list of jobs that still need sorting before the first bird goes over the first gun, but I thought I would give you a quick update on the work so far.

The birds have been to wood for a few months now, and the October frosts have helped them feather up. The cocks have grown long tails and assumed their autumn colour, matching the chestnuts and changing leaves in the park. They are never content to stay where they're put. They come off roost on daylight, eat a quick pelleted breakfast, and begin their daily rambles. Like their chicken bretheren, they love crossing the road. We put up signs to warn motorists -

"Slow" describes a pheasant in more ways than one.

Every morning, the dogs and I pile into the truck to chase birds back where they belong, which is the centre of the park. We sweep the margins and edges of the woods. I say "we" but the dogs do all the work. Podge goes with Mike -

I take Pip and Dakota. Even though we have seven dogs, there's a lot of dog work to do. We're short of dogging in dogs so Dakota, like the old cop in an action film, has had to come out of retirement for "one more job". Her hips are holding up, though she deigns to let me assist her into the back of the truck. She's as proud as any self-reliant old woman, and twice as cantankerous especially if I try and leave her behind to give her a morning off.

Lazy dogging in: I drive the truck and drink my coffee while the dogs do all the work!

Ian borrows Dulcie, as his Labrador Stella is too young to work yet. Instead, Stella gets dropped off for play dates with Tinker, also too early in her training to go dogging in. The pups work on their social skills instead. Dulcie is a hard worker, She was as fat as a pork sausage in June, but is back on double rations having run the extra weight off before the shooting season even starts. 

After dogging in is done, I have to go round the kennels and check each dog for injuries. Scratched faces, bleeding tongues and noses are usual for dogs that work hard in brambles and tall grass. The spaniels always need their eyes wiping over with cold tea bags at least, and everyone needs the burrs and sticky buds combed out of their fur. 

Happy but a bit scratched up - Pip after a morning's work.

Quincy and Spud take the night shift, usually less busy than the morning shift as birds are wont to go home to bed on their own. I try reserve these two girls as my picking up dogs. Giving a dog carte blanche to chase birds one day then, on a shoot day, expecting it to sit steady while birds drop all around can be confusing for the dog. As a dog matures, most seem to understand the different jobs required of them. Pip is at that perfect age. Quincy will be there soon.

Recently, a Big Time cocker spaniel trainer came to the estate to give a demonstration. His dogs were impressive, very responsive to his commands to go left, right, back, and stop and hunt an area. He trains them to win field trials and he's the 2102 and 2013 champion so he must be good at it, but he doesn't work his dogs on shoots. Different training you see. 

The big difference between us (besides his skill and my amateurishness!) is our expectations. My dogs often need to find game that I haven't seen fall, or has run off. I expect them to work independently without handling from me. Mr. Trainer can take all the time needed to fully train his dogs. Our dogs have to earn their keep as soon as possible, or we don't get paid. Food and vet bills are only covered for working dogs, not puppies or retirees. Finally, if one of Mr. Trainer's dogs doesn't make the grade, he can sell it on as a part-trained dog to a shooting person. I'm not sure I could regularly part with even the most useless dog, as they quickly become part of the family for me.

His highly trained trialling dogs are tools of his trade. I suppose mine are too (tools of my trade, not highly trained!), but they're also my companions. I take a dog or dogs everywhere I go. In late summer, we hiked the local woods together and picked fruit from the hedgerows to make into jams and chutneys -

The dogs pick for their own consumption alongside me, and come home with purple tongues. Quincy shares her windfall apple finds with me, but these are tart cooking apples -

She doesn't share the sweet pears that she picks for herself from the low hanging branches -

Dakota and Pip check for wandering birds while I glean the potatoes left behind by the big harvesting machines and bag them to store over winter. The smallest potatoes get cooked up for the dogs' dinners. Pip snacks on raw ones. 

I don't think any of my dogs would starve in the wild.

Sometimes I do things just for the dogs' enjoyment. This summer Dakota and I spent the day canoeing up the Wye river in Wales -

Dakota loves canoeing and I worried that this might be the last summer she was fit enough to enjoy a day messing about in boats. Swimming is good for her joints and her float vest means she can swim without too much effort. I even tied a bandanna around her neck, so she could feel like a real outdoorsy dog -

So I said I was going to fill you in on all the work we've been doing to get ready for our first shoot day,  but I'm not making it sound like work. I suppose that's the secret. Alongside the fruit picking and bird chasing, the dogs have got fit. When I'm not being lazy and drinking coffee in the truck, I've just about got fit too. I'll let you know how our first day on the new shoot goes. Soon I'll have to turn my attention to the sheep, as the ram goes in, in under a fortnight. But that's a story for next time.

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.