Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Food for Thought

We're past Christmas now and the not-so-festive stomach bug that hit us Christmas day. Mike soldiered on and made Christmas dinner, but neither of us could eat it. We are having leftover Christmas cockerel tonight in a chicken tetrazzini, our first real meal since the illness.

Pip and/or Dakota also scarfed a plateful of cocoa-rich cookies on Christmas night so we were on the 'phone to the vets calculating how much chocolate per body weight they might have ingested, and whether or not we were going to have to get out of our sick bed and take them to the vets. I'm glad to report we all made it through.

A few days' illness meant we needed to catch up on some chores. I re-pressurised the heating system and cleaned up broken glass - the winds blew a pane out of the greenhouse during the night. Mike split logs. The weather's been cold and wet, but the fire's roaring away so much so that I'm stripped down to my long johns now. (note to self - no future career as a phone sex operator...)

A Christmas addition to the freezer

Although we haven't been eating much over the past few days, we have been discussing food. Particularly that our diet has been a bit meat heavy recently. Understandable as we're harvesting a lot of (free) game this time of year, and our garden is empty due to my poor planning and limited space. Traditionally only the estate owners and wealthy people would have had a meat rich diet. Workers like us would get their calories from carbohydrates like grains and root vegetables, and lard (which explains the British proclivity for suet puddings and pies).

I gave Mike a hand feeding the pheasants, and as we were driving around the cover crops I realised that they were in fact cover CROPS. Maize and kale and stubble turnip. Turnips may be sheep fodder but they are also a root vegetable, and there are acres of them. Kale is likewise edible, and not bad with chili vinegar dressing. Maize, aka "cow corn", when dried and ground is essentially polenta. Flour is just ground wheat, and I was emptying bagfuls of it into pheasant feeders. It's different than proper milling wheat, but worth further examination.

Why did I never notice this before?

I picked some turnips for this evening's dinner, and extras for the animals: the chickens eat the green tops and the sheep will eat the whole plant. Mike said as he set off to walk the dogs, Nellie the old spaniel was tucking into the green tops alongside the chickens. I guess even she's fed up with venison leftovers.


Mike was dubious after enduring the Great Swedefest of '08 (too much of a good thing..). But, having just finished dinner, I can confirm that the turnips were a success. Granted I mashed them with marscapone cheese and topped them with a parmesan breadcrumb crust which added flavor, but definitely edible. I see turnips in our culinary future.


Santa brought me a coffee grinder for Christmas and now I'm thinking that I might collect and dry a few maize cobs and see if I can grind them into a rough flour using the coffee grinder. Turnips with a polenta crust??

Santa also brought me a leather punch and rivet set which was fortuitious as I found a broken raddle harness abandoned in a field. I've hung it up to dry and it looks like it can be returned to work with a few minor repairs. I think it's a good omen as I intend to start my flock of Gotland sheep this year. Santa also brought me a set of butchery knives which is a bad omen for Big Lamb and Little Lamb.

A working raddle courtesy of donaghys.com

Now if only I could find a crop of peanut M&Ms...

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

There's always one

I'll admit that most of our animals are touched in the head. Maybe it's a by-product of always adopting the second-hand irregulars, I don't know. In this case I have no excuse. I bred it and raised it here. But every year there's one hen whose hard-wiring makes it perpetually broody.

That's our front hedge. Can you see her yet?

How about now?

It's -2 degrees (C), 2 days before Christmas and this little hen is incubating more eggs than her tiny feathered bottom can cover at the same time. I swear she has a look of determination on her face.

Before I moved her, I explained to her that it was a good first effort but unless she covers all the eggs equally, they won't hatch. And that it's the middle of winter. She's only young and can try again in spring.

I suspect there will be many broods of tiny chicks trailing behind this little hen in future.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Plucking Hard Work

I woke up to our first dusting of snow. After the initial oh..ah..pretty, it was hot kettles to melt the animals' frozen water troughs and to warm their breakfast bowls. The dogs got extra fat in their breakfast and the sheep and horses some extra hay, to keep them warm on the inside. The sheep had a sheet of ice on their backs - shows what good insulation their in-built wooly jumpers are. And it reminded me that I'm behind on my knitting, as usual.

On the board for today: preparing the Christmas chicken. Our lone surviving meat cockerel started crowing a week ago, and so put himself on the christmas menu. The meat will need a few days to hang in the chiller to improve its flavor and tenderness, so it was a trip to the log pile this morning. I noticed he got in a quick "visit" with some of his lady friends first, which made me smile.

Plucking and bleeding

Singeing the fine feathers
I noticed he didn't lay down as much fat as our more pampered meat chickens, but he did have bigger legs and thighs. I'm interested to see if his varied diet and access to the organic mixed pasture behind the house has added anything to the meat.

ready to hang out and chill (in the chiller!) til Christmas eve

Anyone who plucks birds for a living has my respect and deserves a raise. It took me nearly an hour to pluck and finish one chicken. My fingers are already cracked and painful from the cold weather. Plucking just added insult to injury. Now I must really get on and finish knitting, as the lanolin in the wool is the only thing that seems to properly heal my hands. Spinning is even better. Sheep - bloody marvellous things!

We finished shooting yesterday; now both we and the birds get a break until 26th December, Boxing Day. I've had an invite to go pheasant and duck shooting on Tuesday which I'm looking forward to. It's my first day shooting pheasant this season. No break for their birds!

I helped a lady gun yesterday who is new to driven pheasant shooting. I like helping the women but I wish they weren't all so stunningly beautiful. I feel like the fat, sway back shetland pony in a field of thoroughbreds. Mike's comment is always "Huh. She doesn't look like she could carry a bag of wheat up a steep hill." I'm choosing to take that as a compliment.

Barry and Mike taught me something yesterday and I thought it worth sharing: Tips for selecting a good brace of pheasant for the table:

1) select hens if possible, and cock birds without spurs. Hens make the best eating because they put down more fat than cock birds. Only older, tougher cock birds have spurs.

2) Give the back ribs a gentle squeeze. If it feels "crunchy", it was probably crushed by an over-enthusiastic dog during the retrieve. Choose birds with intact ribs

3) Hold the bird by the neck and give it a shake. Do the legs dangle about? "If they'll never dance again, they're no good for the table". Broken legs can mean shot taken in the abdomen, rupturing the guts. This can taint the meat or worse. Save these for "breasting out" only

And a quick Dulcie update: After making a great recovery from her last injury, she managed to split open her front leg on the first drive of her first full day back at work. Another rogue stick. So it was back to the vets for a GA and some stitches. And another week of antibiotics and bed rest. If she's angling for workman's compensation, she's out of luck, though I am seriously looking into dog armor for her.

A very cheery Dulcie in spite of it all

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Primitive Modernism

It's only dawned on me today why women - or at least one person - traditionally worked in the home. In the days before push-button central heating, it was a full-time job just to keep the fires in to heat the house (and cook and heat water). I knew I had some paperwork to do today so I got up at 6 a.m. to get the wood burner going in the front room so it would be roaring and I wouldn't have to reenact Bob Cratchit's scene in A Christmas Carol.
Both fires are going - in the front room and in the back room. The front room wood burner burns coal so it requires regular trips to the coal bunker out back to refill the bucket, and top up the fire.

The back room woodstove only burns wood. I nurtured it back to life from last night's embers, and fed it all the wood I had in the room. Out to the log pile to split a couple barrowfuls more. Then back to shake down the bed of ash in the front room, and back again to prod the back room fire. And again to the front room fire to empty the ash. And to the back room again to feed the wood in, which burns twice as quick as the coal.

I'm going to need to put a revolving door in between the rooms.

There is something holiday-ish and cozy about a fire, I don't deny that. But only when it's supplemental to modern heat. Otherwise it's an unending chore. We do have central heating - installed 4 years ago. The house was previously "heated" using a solid fuel burning system that allegedly pumped heat to radiators throughout the house. Mike disputes its effectiveness.

But our wood is free, our coal is cheap and the central heating burns oil which is not. So I chop and stack and feed the never-satiated stoves. This is my new second job.

And it's not unique to us. The BBC news report this morning said that 6.5 million Britons live in substandard housing, which includes bathrooms that are not attached to their house. Yes - outhouses. The first apartment I looked at in England had an unheated 2nd bathroom at the bottom of the garden, and the rental people seemed to think it was normal.

I'm not saying we compare to developing nations' living conditions but we certainly fall short of first world conveniences. Like bathrooms not at the bottom of the garden.

We only have one bathroom, but it is heated and inside the house (another tick in the 'modern' box). However, at least once a day I need to 'spend a penny' and either the bathroom's occupied or I'm too lazy to take my boots and rain gear off to walk on the carpet (another tick) and I sneak behind the house to where the drain is. We've affectionately termed this our 'en-suite'. I've learned to pee really fast when it's raining.

What life choice did I make that has put me in a position where I have limited access to indoor plumbing?

Yet we have wi-fi and a laptop (albeit an ancient IBM ThinkPad).

I'm not against modern improvements. Any tool, be it an axe or a computer, is useful if it makes the job more efficient and easier to accomplish. I watched our mate Colin with his tractor-mounted hedge trimmer trim our front hedge this morning. In minutes. From the warm dry cab of the tractor. I've cut that hedge with a hand-held petrol hedge trimmer for the last few years and I can confirm that cutting it with a tractor is a vast improvement on my quality of life at least.

Bless you, Colin

When I was head gardener, I used to cut all these topiary by hand with a frame, secateurs, and a hedge trimmer. Before me they were done with shears and a lot more human labor. I used to cut the lawn with a petrol mower. Not long ago they were cut with gang mowers pulled by horses wearing special shoes so their hoof prints wouldn't mark the lawn. I like some of the 'old ways' but I can appreciate that technology can bring improvement. A horse and plow was an improvement over hand hoeing.

An example of the horses shoes courtesy of The British Lawnmower Museum website

This is what inspired my thoughts today while poking the fires. And this is the result of my efforts:

I will refrain from making a hot dog joke.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

11 Days and Counting

A quick update from the estate as Christmas preparations are in full swing -

Bertie the tree is up and decorated, sitting on a reindeer skin in the front hall. I made a kissing bough for the warm habitable room, and a holly wreath for the front door. Old Bertie's got a bit of a lean to him - I must remember to stuff some newspaper in the tree holder to straighten him up before the 'big day'

I took Hazel out on the less formal boundary shoot yesterday, with her collar on, and she worked very well the whole day. She didn't run off, which was our goal, and she found a lost cock pheasant so a big pat for her. We have a few things to work on like quicker recall but it's a good start.

I pleased to say that Dulcie is fully recovered from her injury and has been given the 'all clear' to go back to work. I'm going to take her for a half day tomorrow so she can build her fitness level back up and expel some of that spaniel energy.

Things are mixed on the chicken front. The little barbu d'uccle hen is still fighting on but only marginally improved. Still she's so independent even with a paralysed leg that neither Mike nor I can face taking her to visit the log pile.

However, one of the young brown pullets has taken a beating from her siblings. The only thing crueler than teenage girls are chickens. The minute they draw blood, they don't stop until they've killed (chickens not teenage girls). They can be brutes and bullies (chickens AND teenage girls). This poor hen had both eyes swollen shut and blood-encrusted neck feathers from being pecked. I syringed fluids and a special food with antibiotics into her and put her on her own in the spare kennel to recover. I hope the shock of the attack doesn't kill her.

I also meant to go out a harvest a deer but the gamedealer had a spare 40kg youngster gralloched and skinned which he's left for me in the chiller. I can practice my butchery skills, but it's going in the freezer. We've eaten too much venison recently, I'm going to grow antlers.

Mike is making Christmas dinner this year (more fool him for volunteering) and he's decided on chicken. Fresh chicken. The meat cockerel still free-ranging in the garden who has just started to crow. So I'll be plucking next week. There's still a meat hen left in the garden but she's small and may lay eggs so we'll wait til spring to decide her fate. Depends how empty the freezer is then.

I still have a few cards to write and a few presents to make but it's getting there. I hope you all are ready for Christmas with full larders and time to relax and enjoy a well-earned rest.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Christmas Tree

Some years ago Mike planted 200 small fir trees as shelter to hold pheasants. He feeds the birds here too (that's what the plastic bins are) so, between food and shelter, he knows where to find birds on a shoot day. We harvest our Christmas tree from this little plantation every year.

The sun finally came out today, after weeks of miserable, unending rain (which I have been complaining about ad nauseum in my blog). Thank god - I was starting to feel like that girl in the closet from the Ray Bradbury story I remember seeing on PBS when I was young. I was inspired to go find our tree today and enjoy the sun while it lasts.

I'm not very spiritual but I always wait for a tree to pick me, one that kind of speaks to me. C'mon I know you all do it too! You want to feel your tree is special. Imbued with the magic of Christmas.

Every year the tree gets a name. This tree is called Bertie. Here's Bertie in situ:

A handsome specimen. Here's me being lazy and using a chainsaw to cut him down (I wanted an excuse to try my new chainsaw helmet - an early gift!):

Anyone who knows me can tell you that that's my best side. We've taken Bertie home and I hope to put him up this evening along with the basket of holly I collected today:

I hope all your Christmas preparations are in hand, and that you have found your own tree. If not, email me - Bertie's got lots of relatives looking for a home for the holidays! I'll lend you my chainsaw.

Sunday, 6 December 2009


Nigel and Bertie have been laying the hedges around our house. They were in pretty desperate need of doing. Hedgelaying is both a skill and an art. I had to lay hedges as part of my gardening degree but I can't profess to have much skill or artistic flair for it. I remember as a general rule to lay the hedge uphill and work with someone who is the same-handed as you, whether right or left, or you can get in a muddle with your cuts. And I remember it's bloody hard work.

Nigel had to call it quits Friday when the rain was making his billhook too slippery; he would take a swing at a pleacher and the tool would fly out of his hand, mostly missing Bertie. Not wanting to go home and explain to Mrs Bertie why her husband had a billhook sticking out of his leg, they had a quick cup of tea and promised to return Tuesday. Here's the pre-laid hedge:

Very spindly and not very stock-proof.

Here's the hedge after laying:

It's still not stock-proof yet, but the view is much improved.

The hedge will double in height each time it's laid. When spring comes its shoots will grow vertically and we'll be back to a spindly hedge ready for laying again. Eventually it will be thick enough that the fence behind can come down. With the screen gone, I expect we will have a lot of cattle hanging over the fence to watch the activity in the garden - cows are nosy creatures, but I find their bovine placidness relaxing. I'll have an audience when I'm hanging out the washing.

Surprisingly, Nigel and Bertie didn't find any hidden clutches of eggs in the hedgerow. The hens haven't been laying in their houses and my egg supply has dwindled. I thought maybe they were hiding them in the hedges. I stumbled across a fresh nest in the greenhouse but that was less than a dozen. C'mon girls, Christmas is coming. I bristle at the thought of paying for eggs when I have over 40 chickens in my garden, a few of whom should still be providing even now. No matter. I will salve my soul with our new and improved view.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Cold and wet, but at least no one got shot

Except for a quick glimpse of the low winter sun, it has been perpetually raining in our part of England. The ground is so saturated, we've worn muddy tracks in the lawn on our usual routes: to the kennels, to the sheep pen, to the clothes dryer in the back shed. Very similar to the deer tracks I look for in the woods when I'm out stalking.

And the cold has set in. Not enough to freeze the muck unfortunately, but enough to remind me that living in a quaint English cottage has its definite drawbacks. I plugged the gaps in the old metal window frames that were big enough for me to get a finger between them. I 'upcycled' Ace bandages from Mike's no longer needed wound dressing supplies. Half a bandage per window, poked into the gap with a knitting needle has stopped the worst drafts but we're relegated to 2 rooms - the kitchen and the front room - which I can keep warm with cooking and a roaring fire in the woodstove.

It's so cold in the rest of the house that there are assorted cardigans hanging from the bannister - in case you need to venture outside the 'warm zone' for any length of time you can add layers. I have to wear fingerless gloves to check my email, and to write this. Expect a brief update. I periodically warm up by checking the chicken that's roasting in the oven. A glass of sherry helps too - even an episode of Mythbusters confirmed alcohol's restorative properties (although they mentioned something about succumbing to hypothermia eventually...I can't remember the details)

I'm waiting for the game dealer to drop by. I have a pair of mallard ducks hanging outside the door (shot on the estate so I need to make them a 'gift' to Lord and Lady) and Paul will collect them and prepare them for their larder. I didn't realise that the ducks were hanging right over our mailbox which is actually just an old metal bread bin. Our kindly postman knocked on the door and handed me the mail as the ducks were dripping blood and he didn't want them to bleed on the mail. How thoughtful is that?

We have a busy weekend of shooting, regardless of the weather. I thought I would share a shoot story from Monday with you -

Gun's wife, elegantly dressed - "Mike, Mike. There's a man standing on the hill in front of the gun, and the gun is swinging throuh the gentleman. Surely it's not safe. Shouldn't you move that man out of the way?"

Mike (to gun's wife): "I understand your concern. But the gun knows he's only to shoot up in the sky. As we say 'You don't pull the trigger unless you can see only sky around the bird'. The man on the hill is a 'stop'. He's there to make sure the birds fly over the gentleman gun, instead of sneaking out the side."

Gun's wife (frustrated): " Yes but there're some lovely birds that fly acoss the front of the hill and the gun can't shoot them if he's in the way. Can't you ask that man to get down on his knees or something?"

Mike (stifling a laugh): "That will only clear the path for your gun to hit the other 15 beaters behind him. I'd really rather you don't shoot the staff. No, I think it's best if the gun only shoots at birds in the sky."

There's no pleasing some people. With that I think I'll go check the chicken and wait for the feeling to come back into my fingers. (Note to self - ask Santa for an orange hat and high-vis vest for Christmas this year. And stand behind a tree)

Saturday, 28 November 2009

In the Line of Duty

Poor Dulcie.

We were shooting yesterday and Dulcie and Podgie were the picking up team for the day. It was a hard day for them; they did extra 'dog' jobs - working birds over the guns as well as retreiving them. By the penultimate drive, Podge was limping. Her front leg. Probably twisted her wrist. She was retired for the last drive, much to her protestations. I learned that a dog's bark echoes quite a lot in the back of a covered truck. Excellent acoustics for a cocker spaniel.

Dulcie looked tired, not like the usual manic retrieving machine that she is. But she picked up 6 birds on the last drive which she hunted hard for, and then she stopped. She wouldn't go any further. I thought she'd just overdone it and needed some sugar water and electrolytes, and a good night's rest. I carried her back to the truck and brought her in the house to warm up. In the back of my mind something wasn't right and I knew to keep looking for the answer.

Although I had checked her for cuts, it wasn't until an area started to swell and get very hot that I found a small puncture wound. Puncture wounds are a 'big flashing light' injury. They look small but have the potential to be extremely serious. I felt an object behind the hole. Something had punctured Dulcie's lower abdomen and was still in there. Infection was setting in.

We rushed her to the vets at 6pm. By 8.30 she's had the operation and the vets removed a 2" piece of wood from underneath her skin. Very luckily it hadn't punctured the muscle or any organs.

The 'shiv'

She's got a drain in her and has pills to take, and she's going to be off work for a few weeks. She's recouperaing in the kitchen so I can keep an eye on her while I'm cooking, and Dakota seems happy to help keep her company. Or she's waiting for me to drop some food; it's hard to be sure of her motivation.

We're having a belated Thanksgiving dinner for a few friends tonight. I changed the menu to roast chicken so there are lots of leftovers to spoil Dulcie while she gets better. To think that little spaniel kept working until the end of the day, until the last bird was found. It's making me well up to write that.

Remind me again how much I love and admire her in 2 weeks' time, when she's doing the wall of death in her crate and howling to come out on a shoot day.

We've added the stick to the nature shelf.

Monday, 23 November 2009

View Halloo!

There is a small shelf in the kitchen. One half is the "nature table" - found fossils, interesting seeds pods and bug carapaces. The other half is the "information centre" where we prop up invites and schedules to try and remind us when we're supposed to be at some function or other. This time of year it's filled with lists of dates for local hunts.

I should clarify the terminology. In England, 'hunting' means 'foxhunting' - riding a horse in pursuit of a fox (nowadays, only the scent of a fox). What Oscar Wilde described as "The Unspeakable in pursuit of the Inedible". Mike informs me that, in his experience, you would have to be pretty damn hungry to eat a fox. (Being experimental in college had a whole different meaning for him). What we Americans term 'hunting' - going after birds or deer with a gun or bow - is called 'shooting' (birds) and 'stalking' (deer) in England.

Semantics or no, I've never been foxhunting. But one of the local hunts crosses our land, and I thought it would be fun to go and watch the horses and hounds running over our little piece of England. Landowners who support the hunt are invited to attend hunt meets and sent a list of dates. The MFH (Master of the Fox Hounds) also called to ask if she could put a jump on our land for the day, so it looked like it could be a promising show. Particularly for an American who still finds British traditions a great source of hilarity.

But hunting is considered a rather upper class pursuit. And I didn't want to embarass the hosts by making too many faux pas (or is it fox pas in this instance?) Hurrah then for a guide to the British upper class - Debrett's.

I consult Debrett's - the bastion for etiquette and manners - for information on social matters. They publish books and have a handy website. They are the very definition of antiquated snobbery - in the nicest possible way.

In the appendices of its Correct Form guide is something called the Table of Precedence. This guide arranges everyone in England according to rank and status. Having a dinner party and you're not sure whether to seat your Baron or your Viscount at the head of the table? Why, simply check your Debrett's guide. (It's the Viscount in case you were wondering). There are even Tables of Precendence for ladies, and for Scottish people.

I guess, then, the starting point is finding your place on the list.

At the top of this list is HM The Queen, and at the bottom of the list is 'gentlemen' (and 'ladies'). Because we own land, we are raised one rank above 'gentlemen' to 'esquire' (and 'wife of esquire'). Only 90 places or so below the Queen! And to think, last year we were 91 places below Her. We're still below sons of knights and circuit court judges, but I'm begining to feel my own sense of self-importance growing. I may even start ironing my tractor overalls in keeping with my new status.

Armed with foxhunt how to's, I was ready to attend my first hunt meet. As with everything I arrived late, and my first image of the hunt was this -

Those minute dots on the horizon are actually horses. My initial thought was "Huh. Not much of a spectator sport then..." But I stood there, and then a horn blew and soon after the view changed to this:

And a second later, to this:

Then suddenly all the other spectators except us went running off in some pre-ordained direction to intercept the hunt at its next location and watch the whole 10 second spectacle again. So we just followed the pack, not unlike what the hounds were doing.

By the way, I am told they are called 'hounds' not dogs'. And they have a 'stern' instead of a tail.

I think that it's similar to watching professional cycling races like the Tour de France. A few seconds of frenzied excitement as the participants whizz pass at speed, followed by long periods of lull. I don't know about cycling, but a hip flask with homemade sloe gin is essential for watching the hunt. I'm glad I knew this bit of information before we set out for the morning.

We watched The Field (as the group of horses and hounds are called) ride off to our field (of the grass variety) and jump the hedge jump. Then it started raining again. That dampened my enthusiasm to follow them any further. I think I got the jist of this hunting thing, even if I haven't masterted all the terms yet. The next task is to actually get on a horse and join in. I have a plan for that too. Tally ho!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Indoor Days and Outdoor Days

The weather in Britain is less than predictable this time of year. Mike checks the BBC news at stupid o'clock in the morning when it's still dark outside to see what the weather's going to do. You can only have faith in the weather for up to 6 hours from the forecast, so checking the weather becomes like a compulsive disorder.

We cope by planning 'indoor days' - ie all the work that can be done inside when the weather is horrible, and 'outdoor days' - extra outdoor chores that are more pleasant to do when it's sunny, or at least not squally showers and hurricane-like winds.

Most days are hybrids, like today. A bit of outside and a bit of inside. But that can mean starting your day at 5am in order to fit in some outside time. It's nice being up though. It's half 9 in the morning now; I'm on my second pot of coffee, but I squeezed in a few extra outside chores before the winds and rain beat me.

This morning I found the first Barbu D'uccle chicken egg from this year's chicks -

And I found that my rat trap had worked -

Look at the size of her - she's as big as my hatchet! And fat from helping herself to the meat chickens' food.

The chickens are nonplussed by the weather and carry on their chicken business. Although Paula didn't make it (old age), the Barbu D'Uccle chick is recovering. She injured her leg or hip joint but was getting around fine. Then she started to go backwards and I couldn't understand why until I caught one of the young roosters showing her a good time - at least from his point of view. I think it was aggravating her condition, not to mention it was taking advantage of her inability to run away, which it what the other hens do when they don't feel receptive. The equivalent of a chicken headache.

She now gets her own day retreat with a personal food and water supply.

Our chickens have learned to recognise vehicles which have food in them. There is often wheat or pellet spilled in the back of the work truck or quad bike from feeding pheasants. The chickens offer a kind of valeting service and clean up the loose food. I've seen sparrows doing the same.

Or maybe she's waiting for a lift somewhere. Adventure chicken. They're smarter than you would initially think. As a child I lost more than one game of Tic Tac Toe to a chicken at the Aqua Circus in Cape Cod. I'm still harboring a grudge.

The little phoenix hen is still determined to hatch her small clutch of eggs. No sign of chicks yet, and I'm not sure when they're due. She's a sneaky sitter.

I would like to put some hay under her for her comfort. But I've tried that before and the hen thought the nest looked different and rejected the eggs. I guess if she chose to sit there in the first place she's happy enough. I can put some hay in when the chicks come.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Shock Tactics

It's miserable outside. I can't remember when the rain started, it seems to have always been here. The wind is picking up and gale force winds are expected overnight. I've been checking the animals by flashlight - the sheep are tucked under a hedge chewing cud with their eyes half closed, seemingly unperturbed by the storm. The horses have moved to the lower side of their field and turned their bottoms to the wind, but they exude a zen-like acceptance of the weather. I guess they know it will pass eventually. They've not even bothered to go in their shelter, which they prefer to use on hot sunny days (the few we have) to get away from the flies.

The dogs are less impressed. Jazzy and Nellie, who have definite likes and dislikes in life, do not go for evening walks in very bad weather. I leave the door open in case they wish to nip out of their kennels and do their necessaries. The others are mostly immune, including Pip who is the wimpiest dog I've ever known. She came out with me to feed the horses and happily mooched around, checking out the rabbit holes in the hedges. They will work in this weather without complaint.

Hazel is another tough little spaniel; as long as you offer her a game of fetch with a tennis ball, she will follow you anywhere in any weather. But, there's a problem with Hazel. If she's hunting in cover, she will not come back when she's called. And very occasionally on a morning walk, she makes a beeline in a flat-out run to the corner of the field, across the road and into the neighboring woods to hunt. She's what's called a 'self-employed' spaniel.

It's made taking her out on shoot days a huge gamble. I can't afford to lose a dog and hold up the team, or fall behind and leave them to pick up my slack. But Hazel is a great retriever. She lives to retrieve. When she brings me back a bird, she doesn't want food, or praise. I reward her by giving her a tennis ball to carry. She sits, obeys hand signals at a distance, waits to be told to retrieve. It's just this running away thing, but it's a BIG thing.

Assorted dog training goodies hanging in the porch

Hazel was offered to us as a working dog that wouldn't retrieve. Mike needed a dog just to run birds home, no retrieving involved, so we thought we could give her a home and a job. We adopted her at 4 years old and she'd had a rough time until then. We put her in the kennel with Nellie and they have become firm friends. At the beginning Hazel was aloof but over time she has become a lot more affectionate and involved.

I've done nothing but be consistent with training based on positive reinforcement. Turns out she retrieves like a thing possessed when she's rewarded for the behavior. But unless she has something to bring me, I can't trust her to come back. Mike and I have had many discussions about rehoming her. A dog that won't come back is no good for chasing birds or retrieving them. I am running out of options to give her a good working life.

In desperation, I have bought a shock collar. I'm really conflicted about this. Hazel had a shock collar used in her training before we had her, and it was used on her with cruel intent . I feel like a heel even thinking about it.

Yet, under circumstances such as chasing deer or cars, or running off, these collars are said to be effective. I've seen it work - in one case I know it saved the dog's life. I charged it up and put it on setting 2 (1 is lowest, 8 is highest) and put it around my neck and stood barefoot on the carpet, and pushed the button. It made me squeal. This sucks.

My plan is to put it around her neck every time she comes out of the kennel, and just work on our basic training with positive reinforcement as usual. And I should never have to use the collar until that day she makes a break for it. I will blow the 'stop' whistle and if that doesn't stop her, I'll give her a #2 shock, and praise her when she comes back. In a perfect world, she will learn the first or second time. Even if she has to wear the collar as a 'just in case', it means I can take her out into the shooting field to work more. And she'll be happier doing what she's bred to do. Is this the end justifying the means?


It's been charged up, sat on my desk for a few days and I haven't had the heart or stomach to put it on the little dog. I don't want to re-home her, she's had enough upset in her life. And Nellie would be just as heartbroken to lose her.

Mike always says "No dog should be an only child". This was evident today when Dakota was sulking about the house by herself. It was too wet to be outside and all her playmates were in the kennel. She looked forlorn. I brought her favorite playmate Podge in the house for a bath and left them to play together for the afternoon while I made soup.

Play date

Podge makes use of the furniture to dry off on. She's found one of my homemade dog retrieving toys: a length of tubifast bandage stuffed with old socks and tied on each end. Much cheaper than buying the canvas dummies, especially at the rate we go through them. The other favorite toy is a pheasant, sans stuffing, which is great for a game of tug-of-war

One day I'll be bigger than you!

I fell for a gamekeeper which means I fell into a gamekeeper's life. Dogs are the remit of the 'keeper's wife. I'm trying to learn as fast as I can, to make sure the dogs have the best quality of life they can. I wholeheartly love these little dogs and it's hard when you think you fail one. I hope this chapter will have a happy ending, for the dogs first and for me second.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Dia de los Muertos

Yesterday I put the rest of the meat chickens in the freezer. In a fit of self-reliance, I thought I would despatch them by myself. Turns out if you're doing this in your garden instead of in a well-equipped abbattoir, it's nearly impossible to do with less than 3 people. I couldn't stun, bleed, and hang a bird quick enough to be sure it was as humane as possible. I managed one by resorting to a hand axe but the flapping covered me, the shed, and the side of the truck in blood - just in time for a group of hikers to stroll by. We each pretended we didn't see the other. How do you make polite conversation in that situation? - "Lovely day strange lady with bloodied axe, please don't kill us". Mike and Ron came to help and we finished them (the chickens, not the hikers) in under two hours. I need to set a few rat traps and re-seed the grass where the chickens were scratching. Then I can just sit back and enjoy many months of fresh home-reared chickens.

There are still 3 or 4 meat chickens running free in the garden; the ones I had accidentally fostered under hens. They were leaner than their coddled counterparts and can go on until the freezer is looking empty again. There would have been one more but Pete's terrier jumped out of the truck and nailed it. I had the game dealer pluck it and prepare it for Pete. I presented him with the chicken the next shoot morning, with a rememberance poppy stuck to it. Pete said he'll share the chicken with the terrier, and he's taking a lot of good-natured ribbing from the rest of the team about it.

Just to round out my day of death, I had an appointment to meet Peggy, a qualified butcher who lives and works from her farm in the neighboring village. She very graciously offered to help me develop my butchery skills which currently can only be described as well-meant hacking. She talked me through a lamb and a pig, and showed me her own processing set up. She raises prize-winning Saddleback and Gloucester Old Spot pigs, and Suffolk sheep which she butchers and sells straight from the farm.

I don't know if this is me being a "rural geek" but I am obsessed with fencing and farmyard layouts that are particularly efficient. Peggy's was both, and cleaner than my house. Even her pig pens were clean, I mean REALLY clean. I left feeling envious. She's invited me to back this week to observe her processing a barren ewe, and next week to process a pig. I'm not expecting to become a proficient butcher in a few lessons - it took Peggy 4 years' schooling to qualify - but I hope to pick up some tips in order to butcher my own deer, wild pig, and lamb carcases better in future.

There's a bit of chicken illness going around too. Nothing specific, but both Paula and one of the Barbu d'Uccle chicks are unwell. Paula may simply be getting old. She didn't make it to roost last night and Mike found her sitting on the front step this morning. We were lucky Mr Fox wasn't by in the night. I put her in a biscuit box by the woodburner to warm up and used a dropper to give her water and egg yolk every few hours, just to rehydrate her. If she picks up, I might try a small dose of meds. Peggy swears by homeopathy for her pigs as a preventative. I might try it on Paula.

The wild birds are hitting the peanut feeders hard, which is usually a sign that a cold snap is coming. Some of the chickens are using the greenhouse like day center, to keep out of the wet weather. It offers amenities like dustbaths, heat, shelter, and a variety of places for perching.

It's a regular poultry playground. A kaffeecluck. A Chik-Inn. Cluckingham Palace.

OK I'm done now.

At least one hen is oblivious to the change of seasons. A little bantam has been incubating a clutch of two tiny eggs for at least a week now. Maybe they will hatch. Barbara the silkie hen has been incubating one of the china 'dummy' eggs for a month. That will never hatch, but it seems to fulfil her needs at the moment so I leave her in peace.

It's a shoot day tomorrow and a big bag is expected, and so is a day of heavy rain. There will be wet dogs and wet clothes and cold keepers to sort out. The horses got a rudimentary bath today. Both managed to get their cooler sheets off and roll before I had a chance to put their blankets on them. If I can keep them marginally less filthy than normal and keep them rugged so their heavy coats don't grow, then I can start riding regularly. What would Peggy think if she saw the state of our animals! I am definitely losing the battle.

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Braidy Bunch

The dogs and I have had 12 days in the shooting field so far this year, and it's now painfully obvious to me (and to anyone within shouting distance of me) that the dogs need some refresher training. Dulcie and Pip are passable, but Jazz and Podge...well, I despair of them both at the moment. But there's no bad dogs, only bad training so I got my faithful book out last night - Joe Irving's Training Spaniels - and I'm going back to the beginning with their training. Watch this space for progress reports.

While I was inflicting the first chapter's training on Spud, Mike went off to feed the horses and found that someone had put a single plait (braid) in Kitty's mane. There's been a spate of these 'hit and run' braidings of horses' manes in the local area (we get an daily email update of country crime from the police, to help us stay vigilant). There are two theories to explain the braids - one a harmless activity, the other a more worrisome one:

1) It's a hallmark of the Winter Solstice in the Pagan calendar. The days get shorter and darker, and the darkness allows the gremlins usually banished by the light to come out and create mischief. This includes braiding horses' manes or tails, as well as less savory practices like putting out fires in the hearth by peeing on them. Apparently the gremlins have good motor skills but poor toilet habits. To keep the gremlins away, you can burn old shoes - the smell repels the creatures. Mike has a pair of stinking old leather Fell boots I'd like to burn. That would not only repel them, but probably violate the Geneva Convention rules on torture.

2) It's an old gypsy method for marking horses to steal. The idea being that if a horse is socialised enough to allow a stranger to come up and handle them, then it's probably rideable and therefore saleable. Our horses are gypsy vanner (cob) horses.

So far none of the braidings in this area have resulted in the theft of a horse, and we do have a strong pagan community so I'm hopeful that it's just a religious practice. I'm happy for Kitty to participate. She's non-denominational. But just to be safe, we moved the pair to the small paddock closer to the farmhouse where they live, and checked all the gates. Mike will drive by later, and probably find nothing more than horses with their heads down, contentedly munching the fresh grass. I might burn his boots anyway, just to be on the safe side.

Friday, 6 November 2009

The Woodcock Moon

picture courtesy of wikipedia

We've had the first full moon of November - known as the Woodcock Moon - when the woodcock begin their migration from Europe to England, presumably to feed in a milder climate. It will be a little while longer before we see many here in the west, but I can hardly wait. They are my favorite little bird because of their appearance, and because of the strange behaviours and folklore associated with them.

Their eyes are nearly on top of their heads so they can watch for predators while they feed. It's rarely observed but a female with a chick, when disturbed, will fly off carrying the chick between her legs. What a wild ride that must be for a youngster!

They are also crepuscular, a great word I rarely if ever get to use in a sentence. It means they are mainly active at dawn and dusk.

They are also by far my favorite game bird to eat, and also the hardest to shoot which makes the reward that much sweeter. I have only ever shot two. If you shoot two woodcock - a 'right and left' as it's known - without reloading or lowering your gun and in front of two witnesses, you can be admitted to the Shooting Times Woodcock Club. I don't know any members personally. All I know is I can't wait until I hear the whirring wingbeats crossing overhead at dusk.

At the moment, I'm doing 'indoor jobs' as the weather is horrid and uncooperative. It makes everything so much harder slogging through mud, wiping paw prints off of everything, toweling off dogs every time they go outside, wearing layers and peeling them off one at a time as they get soaked, and hanging them in front of the woodburner to dry. I'm down to a t-shirt and apron now. Both fires are going at the moment to keep the house warm and, more importantly, dry. We're shooting tomorrow so I'll have to face this wretched weather then.

Part of the indoor jobs included cooking. I finished tomorrow's lunch for the workers, plus some pureed pumpkin for the freezer and a pumpkin bread. I collected our half a pig from the farm today which means a nice change from venison. I boned out the front leg and roasted it for our tea, and all the pork fat will go to the dogs to help keep their weight up as work and the colder weather takes its toll on their reserves.

The next lot of meat for the freezer is the last 14 meat chickens which I will dispatch this Tuesday. Then it will be big lamb and little lamb. I'm still not looking forward to that day. I keep putting it off.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

A Day in the Life of a "Working" Dog

We had a busy day's shooting yesterday. Pip worked the WHOLE day (with Jazz in the morning and Dulcie in the afternoon) and picked up lots of birds. Pip had a bath, and her dinner, and went to bed early.

We all got up this morning and did our regular chores.

"Pip - Do you want to come for a walk?"

"No Thanks. I'll just let my breakfast settle first. I had a busy day yesterday you know."

The sun came out and the pheasants all went for a wander. I needed some dogs to chase them back home.

" Pip - do you want to come and chase the pheasants back home?"

"Oh, no thanks. I just found this primo spot on the couch in the sun. It's keeping my muscles warm. I worked hard yesterday bringing back all those birds."

I needed to run to the farm shop and pick up chicken feed and supplies.

"Hey Pip - do you wanna come for a ride in the car with us?"

"Umm..no thanks. I'll stay here and keep an eye on the house. I know my main job is retrieving but I'm a skilled guard dog too..."

When it got too dark to do anymore chores, we stopped in to see a friend.

" Pip - do you want to come and see Mr and Mrs H?"

 "No thanks. It's raining outside and I just had a bath. I need to stay clean for Saturday's shoot."

We had a quick visit over a glass of wine in front of the fireplace. It's Guy Fawkes' Night and the fireworks and celebrations were starting. But we had to get home and tend to the animals' dinner.

" Pip - would you like some dinner?"