Monday, 31 August 2009

Feeding the Birds

I checked on new mother hen Gertie and her chick this morning. The chick looked very odd - large head, tiny body. I thought at first glance that it was a second chick, it looked so different than 48 hrs ago. See for yourself - compare it to the picture of the chick in Saturday's post. Nope, all the unhatched eggs were still there, it was the same chick.

I spoke to Mike about it. He thought it sounded like malnutrition. The chick, when first hatched, lives off the yolk sac which it absorbs into its abdomen as it hatches. We reasoned that the chick had drained these reserves and Gertie, who was too focused on hatching the other eggs, hadn't yet taken chick to the feed tray and taught it to eat. It was starving to death.

We had to intervene. Either we had to take the chick and raise it ourselves, or we needed to take the yet unhatched eggs away to push Gertie into caring for her chick. We decided to remove the eggs. Even as a first time mother, Gertie had a better chance than me of successfully raising her own offspring and teaching it how to be a chicken. It was motherhood or bust for her now.

I checked on the pair at regular intervals. I'm pleased to say that Gertie was taking charge of her little one, calling it to eat and dropping tidbits for it. There's a good chance for that chick. The eggs we removed all appear to be addled or infertile so it looks like we did the right thing.

As it was raining again this morning, I thought I would get on with chutney and preserve making. As I checked the cupboards for ingredients, I realised I had LOTS of out of date stuff in my pantry, but all things the birds like, so I figured I'd cook for them first. After all, they're going to need the extra energy now that the weather's turning. Here's a simple recipe for your wild birds:
Clean out your cupboards! Nuts, dried fruits, seeds, stale crackers and bread or cake crumbs.

Take some lard (UK) or empty that coffee can of grease (US) from your fridge. Warm it in a pan and add the dry matter.

Make sure it's pretty soupy - the fat holds it together. If it's too soupy you can always add more dry stuff later.

Save a few paper cups from your Starbucks. (I had these still in the cup holders in my car!)

Fill it with the mix and put it in the freezer overnight.

When it's set hard, cut off the paper cup

Pop it in your fat ball holder and hang it in a tree, sheltered from the rain if possible. If you haven't got a holder, just put a long piece of string doubled to make a loop into the mix before freezing it. Hey presto! -

After chores, Mike and I did a little fishing this evening at the pond by 'The Hill' pen. I picked some more blackberries and elderberries while he cast a spinner. He lost 2 trout, released 3 trout, and kept 1 trout for Mr & Mrs Puzey, our neighbors who raise organic beef. I guess fish is a nice change for them. We dropped off the fish, and sat on their stone wall as the sun set, exchanging fishcake recipes and discussing rabbit damage to Mr Puzey's crops.

You can guess by the look on my face that I'm not crazy about touching fish. I'll gut any mammal you like but fish freak me out. Look inside a trout's mouth - all those rows of backward-facing teeth. It's not quite 'Jaws' but it's still not somewhere I want to put my hand.

I never did make any chutney. Maybe tomorrow.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Great British Summer

I know it's hard to make anything out in this picture but that's the point. Granted it is late afternoon so it's getting dark, but what's the excuse for having to wear a deerstalker, full length oilskin coat, scarf and wellie boots on the last summer bank holiday of the year?

It's been a mizzly dank Sunday. And the week's weather looks to be more of the same until Friday. The animals got the basics done today and were left alone to find a warm dry bed without any more disturbance. Between rain showers, the mother hens took their chicks out for a 'constitutional' around the garden, and darted back indoors when the rain started again. Gertie's chick is still an only child, but we'll leave the other eggs under her a few more days yet.

I spun the Gotland sheep fleece I bought at the Fibrefest a fortnight ago. It spun beautifully once I got the hang of it. It's so soft I could make a baby sweater from it. And there's just enough of it, so I'll earmark it for that purpose. First come, first serve - if anyone's expecting, call dibs on it now.

I will leave you with this image of the gamekeeper and his working dog in repose. What else is there to do on a wet Sunday when your chores are done but have a decadent afternoon nap?

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Hunting and Gathering, and an Unexpected Arrival

As I finished my blog post yesterday, I got a phone call from our chef friend Gordy in a panic, desperate for rabbits by that evening. He had a catering function and the menu said 'rabbit and foie gras terrine' and he was short the 'rabbit' part. Could I pop out and shoot him a few? I can't resist the pleadings of a mate in need (and it was a good excuse to put off mowing the lawn yet again) but it was mid morning on a windy day. This was not good rabbiting time or weather.

I tried all the hot spots which are usually carpeted in rabbits but after an hour driving around and stalking some burrows on a hillside, this was the sum total of my mid morning hunt:

I gave him my one fresh rabbit and my last frozen rabbit meat. I hope it was enough for the terrine.

It's been a quiet Saturday and after the animals were seen to, we thought we had better start gathering some of the wild hedgerow fruits before the birds beat us to it. The back of Mike's work truck makes an excellent mobile picking platform.

We picked sloes today, for sloe gin of course. Last year's batch has been drunk already (..ahem...) and there's another batch ageing in the pantry. Both were from sloes frozen two years ago. Last year was a terrible year for wild fruit and it was nearly impossible to find some in any reasonable quantity. Plus, in the bad years I think of the birds and animals that need it more than we do. Hence, we will make hay while the sun shines - or gin while the sloes are ripe and abundant, as the case may be. And we will pick a few extra pounds for the freezer, just in case.

We picked until it was time to feed the horses and check the birds at The Hill again. We stopped home for a quick cup of tea (gamekeeper fuel) and heard the recognisable cries of a lost chick. We checked both mother hens, then I remembered Gertie. Gertie is the little pekin who went broody on a dummy egg left in a nest to encourage the chickens to lay eggs there. She was so doggedly broody, I took pity on her and popped a few bantam eggs I'd found in a hidden nest (obviously nobody told that chicken about the whole dummy egg principle). I didn't even know if they were viable .

Turns out at least one was. And it has a terrible sense of direction. We found it wandering outside the chicken house, headed for the dog kennels. It's been reunited with its inattentive mother, and I knocked together a makeshift broody coop around the pair. We will keep our fingers crossed for the 2 or 3 siblings that may yet hatch.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Love is in the air...if you're a slug

I woke up this morning and there was that noticeable chill in the air, the one you know if you sleep with your windows open, the one that reminds you autumn is fast approaching. I knew it was coming as the chickens are nearing the end of their moult and egg production is down, and the sloes in the hedgerows are ripe now.

When I lived in New England, it heralded the start of the tourist season -"leaf peepers" - when people travelled to the New England states to watch the leaves turn the most magnificent colours. It's the one time of year I get homesick.

In England, it signifies the end of summer and the end of the tourist season here in the south west, which is a huge relief for locals. Our roads are those picturesque lanes that wind languorously through the countryside but are only wide enough for one and a half cars (what engineering genius came up with that concept?)and littered with dips and blind spots which effectively hide from view walkers, horse riders, and other cars that have stopped to admire the scenery.

The speed limits on these roads are 50mph - the national speed limit - which is crazy. And just the sheer volume of traffic clogs up the roads. Just getting milk from the store requires military- like timing and a thorough knowledge of back roads - which includes field margins and tracks. Anything to avoid the traffic created by "grockles", a local nickname for tourists.

We have 'rush hour' in our own village of Mapperton, when Joe and Piat herd their sheep to new grazing, or Mr Puzey walks his bull down the road to another field of heifers so it can set to work producing next year's calves. Only in this rush hour, you are sometimes asked to participate - closing gates ahead, driving a old ewe who's decided to stop and sample the hedgerow offerings back to the flock. Livestock still have right of way on the roads. And so it should be.

Autumn's chill reminder made me remember that our log pile is still only pitifully knee-high and it should be covering the side of the shed, 2 rows deep. I must go and get a new bar and chain for the chainsaw today. The old one needed replacing anyway but I finished it off the other day helping Simon take out a stump from his garden which had soil lodged in its lower branches. It's also time to mow the lawn again, a job I always put off. It's so long now if I wait another day I might as well cut it and bale it for hay.

Anyway - today's post is on slug reproduction. When I went out to check the meat chickens this morning, I stumbled across this very private moment between two consenting slugs:

Although slugs are hermaphroditic, they will choose sexual reproduction when possible preferring new genetic material to a clone of their own. I knew slugs laid eggs, and I was pretty sure I knew what the white jelly was, but I wasn't exactly sure how the whole process worked. It was more fascinating than I thought. Wikipedia says:

Once a slug has located a mate, they encircle each other and sperm is exchanged through their protruded genitalia. A few days later around 30 eggs are laid into a hole in the ground, or beneath the cover of objects such as fallen log.
A commonly seen practice among many slugs is
apophallation. The penis of these species is curled like a cork-screw and often becomes entangled in their mate's genitalia in the process of exchanging sperm. When all else fails, apophallation allows the slugs to separate themselves by one or both of the slugs chewing off the other's penis. Once its penis has been removed, a slug is still able to mate subsequently, but using only the female parts of its reproductive system.

I bet you didn't know THAT!

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Big Day Out

Mike and I had a 'day out' together today, our first in many months. Most of the young pheasants are out "to wood" (i.e. in sheltered pens) and settling in so they can be left longer without checking - long enough to go off the estate for half a day.

Today was the Melplash Show. You may remember my recent foray into village shows with my victoria sponge and loaf of bread? This is the next level. But still a real local farmers' show. And definitely an experience. I will take you through some of the high points

There is a class called 'Lambs for the Meat Trade' where the live sheep is exhibited in the ring on Tuesday, butchered on Wednesday, and shown as a carcase at the show Thursday (today). The main body is hung and a cross section of the ribs is also displayed. Caution - not for the squeamish or vegans among you:

Thankfully, all the other participants in the livestock classes had their skins still on. There were sheep:

Here's the judge (in tall leather boots) feeling along the backbone for the right amount of covering. Points off for a sheep that's too fat or too thin.

And our neighbors Bernie & Sadie in the ring with their rare breed Grey Faced Dartmoors (the back view!) which took ribbons in the class, but lost first prize to the bigger Costwold sheep

Some sheep were just striking to look at and the huge variety between the different breeds was surprising.

The owner of this ram told me his horns are more valuable than the whole beast. Walking stick makers prize this sheep horn to top their sticks.
There were pigs in the show ring ...
and goats waiting to go in the show ring...

And very tired calves at their first show...

There were also traditional farming categories such as 'Four stalks of Maize', 'Bag of this year's Hay', 'Best fleece - shown rolled'

And of course - the vegetable growers categories including our favorite 'The longest runner bean' which was won by our neighbor Mrs Busk! (of the sweet pea fame, in an earlier post). There was also the famous 'giant vegetable' categories. Check out these leeks and onions:

Our friend Joy Michaud did well with her tomatoes and vegetable tableaus. There was also terrier racing, tractors for sale, and lots of homemade cider and preserves to sample and take home. It is an English tradition that I hope carries on for a long time to come.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Death, Plague, and Pestilence...and it's only Wednesday

I redeemed myself last night. We went lamping for foxes (see post titled 'A Comedy of Errors' for explanation and background on lamping) and I killed 3 foxes with 3 shots. Two of the foxes were at 'The Hill' pen where we've had tremendous losses over the last week. Those two were cubs, and we know there's at least one more fox still up there - 4 more dead pheasants this morning confirm it. So my job isn't over yet.

We got home late and got to bed around midnight. Just as I started to fall asleep I heard an explosion of panicked chicks in the shed under our window. It was the meat chickens and something was in there with them, plaguing them. A rat. I got outside and crawled into the shed (it's really a whelping shed for dogs so it's only 3ft high inside) and found 29 chicks cowering in a corner, in danger of smothering each other. I untangled the chick "bait ball" and counted all 29 were still there and unharmed. Mike came out, handed me some bricks, and we did our best to block off the hole and keep the chicks safe, at least for the night.

I got up earlier than normal this morning to check on them - all OK - and to do Mike's chores and give him a chance to get a bit more rest. I walked the dogs and let the chickens out as per usual. One young cockerel flopped out of his run and looked unsteady on his feet. When I picked him up he was very thin and his legs were splayed one out front, one out back - an indicator of Marek's disease.

Although it usually affects hens, he's the right age and showed a number of symptoms. Marek's is a virus and, though our parent stock and meat chicks are vaccinated against it, the homebreds are not. It's not cost effective. And the vaccine is not 100% effective. Some of the ornamental breeds such as this poor cockerel are more susceptible. And there's no cure, only prevention through good husbandry. So it was a trip to the log pile again. I hate that trip.

A pestilence has beset the garden. I will disinfect their homes (should I mark an 'X' over the doors?) and watch our other chickens for signs of disease, and keep my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009


Resuming my 'keeper's wife' role means DOGS: feeding, exercising, training, cleaning, kennel work, and sundries like vet visits and administering meds. Times 8.

I LOVE our dogs and growing up we had a family dog. One. singular. And it was a lap dog. It's been a big leap from pet to working dog. The outside may look the same - big smile, waggy tail - but DO NOT be fooled. These are bred to work tirelessly, in all weathers, day after day. It's like they are wired into the mains electric.

And they are smart. I mean SMART smart. They are expected to find not only dead birds but wounded ones; uncooperative birds which ensure they use their final breath to crawl to the most inaccessible place to die: in the forks of trees, in holes under the bank of a flowing river, in rabbit burrows, or smack in the middle of a bramble patch. Pheasants are not going gently into that good night - you want me, come and get me.

The spaniels and labs have to work out how to get at these birds. And get them back to us. They might cross through rivers, over fallen trees, under fences or over fences - all with a couple pounds of pheasant in their mouth. They need to work independent of directions from their handlers. We might be out of sight in dense cover, hundreds of yards away. But they work it out. They find us, deliver the bird, and turn around to do it again. Over and over. And they love it.

See?! That's the dogs exiting the back of the truck ready for the next drive. And this is the end of the day.

So we have 8 writhing bundles of smarts and energy, managed by a keeper's wife learning as she goes. Last night I took all 8 out together for the first time for their evening walk.

I don't know about dog whispering, there was a lot of dog hollering: "Don't eat that!" "Leave it!" "TSsst...LEAVE!" " Here..come HERE!" "Good girl..NO..good gi..NO i said!!". Dulcie worked the hedge so far away she was like a dot on the horizon. Podge disappeared, then reappeared having rolled in fox poo. Jazzie was being accosted by an invisible nemesis which made her scream and stick by my leg. Nellie refused to come out of the garden because there was a cow in the field so she serenaded us with a plaintive howl our whole walk. Dakota randomly duffed up the others to remind them who's boss. And Pip and Spud were bringing up the rear, mooching along eating dried cow pats. All in all, not a raging success. I was frustrated and completely wound up by the time we got back.

It's even more frustrating because Mike takes them all out (minus puppy), and he comes sauntering back into the garden, relaxed, with a pack of dogs mulling obediently around his ankles.

The first shoot day is less than a month away. On their own or in selected pairs, they're great. Not perfect, but fine. Directable. And everyone's dog gets a bit overexcited the first week. I'm just hoping I can learn to train them quicker than they're learning to train me.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Labor (and how to save it)

The underkeeper is back to work today, so I can resume my role as 'Head Keeper's wife' which comes with a surprising amount of work and responsibility. The most surprising part for me is that most of it is unpaid. Even if only one of you is officially employed by the estate, all of your family are expected to contribute to it. The degree to which that is expected depends on the estate.

A rule of thumb seems to be that the amount of free labour rises in accordance with the number of titles associated with the family and estate. The longer the ancestral history and more aristocratic the family, the more is expected of you to help carry out the 'history of tradition' that has developed over time on the estate. It may mean organising a harvest supper, or being expected to beat (walk and shoo pheasants over guns) on shoot days. On one estate up North, there is a race that's been held annually for 500 years. The winner is awarded a pair of red socks to be knitted by the gamekeeper's wife. (If that were my job, the award would be the wonkiest pair of ill-fitting socks ever seen in half a century.)

I work the dogs on a shoot day picking up shot game, and I cook lunch for the about 40 workers on shoot days. Both are paid; not princely sums but enough to contribute to the household. I act as unpaid underkeeper, occasionally work in the village cafe, tend our cottage garden and hedges, cut and stack logs for the fire, train dogs, care for any sick and injured animals Mike brings home, dispatch vermin, produce meat for the freezer both livestock or wild, and of course perform the duties that have always been traditionally associated with being a wife which are numerous and seemingly unending.

That's when I'm glad we live in the modern age of labor-saving appliances. At least when they work. In the last 48 hours our heating system has broken (again), the dishwasher has stopped working (again) and the refrigerator no longer gets cold which explained why all our milk was becoming cheese. I'm already nursing an ancient and temperamental clothes dryer. As long as our big chest freezer doesn't give up - we would lose our pretty substantial food reserves.

It's stressful yes, but not life or death as it could have been only a century ago. If the worst happened and all our perishables spoiled, we can go to the grocery store. We're not wholly reliant on successful crops of vegetables or youngstock or fruit harvests. I can look on ebay or freecycle and try to find a replacement fridge (which is today's priority). It's nothing like the experiences my predecessors must have had. I try not to forget that, even when the house is a bit cold, the food is a bit warm and the clothes are drip drying over the wood stove.

Saturday, 22 August 2009


I had a day out today with my knitting friend Collette at the Fibrefest in Devon. It was like a petting zoo, but with coffee and yarn for sale. Collette is the creative one and knows how to spot a bargain so she came home with lots of goodies. I was restrained (i.e. a tightwad) and only bought some buttons shaped like chickens (wouldn't you?!?!) and a little hand held tool for making rag rugs. We feed the wild birds peanuts through the winter which come in hessian sacks, the basis for making these rugs. And as I wear my clothes until they're threadbare anyway, I though what a great way to recycle them and get that last bit of use out of them (again, a tightwad). I also bought Mike a pair of alpaca/wool gloves with really long cuffs to cover his forearms on shoot days. They're big enough to fit over the special anti-scar gloves he still needs to wear awhile longer.

There were some really talented people there, and some characters in homemade outfits like Mrs Eaves here. I had a long chat with some keepers of different sheep breeds. After our orphan lamb experiment, Mike has convinced me to invest in a small breeding flock, but I want it to be 1) multi-purpose: good fleece and good meat and 2) idiot-proof: need I say more? I was swayed by the Shetland sheep. A bonus with the Shetlands is they're a smaller breed so I won't do my back in wrangling them at shearing time. And, I can say from experience that their meat is VERY tasty. You might as well have quality.

My big day out means I escaped doing most of the chores, though I sold 4 more chickens this morning before I left. Mike did all things pheasant related by himself today (AND bought me flowers, love him). And he uncovered the mystery of the disappearing pheasants at The Hill Pen: someone had cut a large hole in the corner of the wire.

Country sports such as shooting and fox hunting are very contentious. There are even professional saboteurs who interrupt hunts and shoot days in protest of killing animals. Everyone has a view on the subject. I don't guess this was a 'professional job' but it could be a protest against shooting pheasants, though a misdirected one since the saboteur caused the needless death of 200+ young poults by letting them out and leaving them vulnerable to predation. They will still be replaced so we have enough for shoot days.

The countryside, particularly access to it, is also grounds for many disagreements. Much of the British countryside is privately owned but locals and some of the more extreme hikers feel they should have right of way over it. Recently due to an increase in thefts and lambs killed by dogs, the landowner has been forced to padlock the gates, though he's always been very generous with access over his land. Many more aren't. This may have inadvertently upset walkers and hikers who mistakenly took it out on our pen of birds. We might just be 'collateral damage'.

Whatever the reason, we have patched the hole and will increase our vigilance against unwelcome visitors, whether vulpine or human. I think I'll offer to take up the evening watch, as I can knit while I sit in the truck waiting for the birds to go to roost. Definitely the cushier option - no wait, I've made THAT mistake before...

Friday, 21 August 2009

A Comedy of Errors

After our dreadful hit from a fox yesterday, the day just got worse. The farrier came to shoe our horses, both of which behaved appallingly. Kitty and Alan both pulled out of their bridles and legged it down the field in turn, each with one shoe on. The rattle of a bucket with a few apples in it brings them running back - they're nothing if not predictable, and constantly hungry. Alan topped off his 'one man show' by rearing up backwards, and throwing himself half over / half through the electric fence, which was turned off at the time thankfully. Cost of the visit: £85 for horseshoes, £13 for new reins, £4 for a new fence handle, embarrassment in front of the farrier - priceless.

The weather must be turning and, as the old farmers say 'They just got the wind up em'. And not just Kitty and Alan. I stopped in the village cafe for a chat and both Sarah and Nicki were sporting some fine cuts and bruises from that morning - dragged through a hedge, and fell off and trodden on respectively.

The day was just hellish busy trying to feed and check birds. I gave up collecting carcases at The Hill pen after I bagged 50 of the poor little things. We guess that we lost up to 250 birds in that first night. Even the spaniel was getting fed up - rather than deliver the birds to hand, she got to me and spat the bird at my feet as she turned to go get more. Bless her for picking up cold game that stank of fox (which often 'mark' their kills by peeing on them - another good way to tell if it was a fox kill). The smell really clings to you; nothing gets rid of it except time.

And Ted with the curled under toes died. That evening, Mike brought me another Ted (Ted the second), the survivor of a sparrowhawk attack. Ted the second didn't make it either. I think the name is cursed - it rhymes with 'dead'. I'm going to start calling them all Clive from now on.

We did what we could until it got too dark to see. At 10pm, we went back out to lamp the fox that was causing us problems. 'Lamping' is when one person carries a big flashlight and the other person has a rifle. You shine the flashlight around the fields and if there's a fox, its eyes light up a bright bluish colour (a reflection off the tapidum lucidum of the fox's eye). The person with the rifle takes aim following the beam of light. Mike 'calls' the fox by making an eerie high pitched whistling sound, intended to imitate a dying rabbit. Keen for a free meal or out of curiosity, a fox will follow the sound. That's the basics anyway - whole books are written on lamping.

Put it down to being tired or a breakdown of communication, but for some reason I only took 4 bullets, just enough to fill the magazine. I could have put another in the chamber. But I didn't. I could have brought the box of ammo and put some in my pocket. But I didn't. Mike could have done the same. But he didn't. And I really should have checked the rifle to see if it was firing straight. But I didn't.

And we saw 2 foxes. And I really shouldn't have taken the pot shots at the long distance fox. But I did. And when we saw the 2nd fox near the pen, I only had 2 bullets left. I shouldn't have fired until it was closer. But I did. Twice. When I was out of ammo, the fox presented itself side on - the proverbial 'broad side of a barn' shot - only 25 feet away. Did I mention I was out of ammo?

Sometimes cutting corners doesn't pay. For want of a bullet (and more importantly common sense), a dozen more poults were lost this morning.

So, I'm now off to the gun shop for more ammo and to spend an hour putting a few dozen bullets through the gun before we try again tonight.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Gamekeeping 101 - How to Spot a Fox Kill

Both the birds in this picture are typical of a fox kill. Use these tips for identification:

1.) Missing its head (image on left)
- A fox commonly bites the head completely off a bird to dispatch it, before going on to kill the next bird.
- If the fox had begun to eat the carcase, the feathers will be chewed off (i.e. quills will be partial and have rough ends) not plucked, and the feathers will be stuck together with saliva.

n.b. Sparrowhawks will also take the head off a bird but there will be a pile of plucked out breast feathers, with quill still intact, around the carcass and, strangely, you will usually find the lower mandible left.

2) In this peculiar position (image on right)
- The fox grabs a bird by the middle of its back and crushes the ribs - you can feel this when you handle the carcase. Often feathers in that area will be missing or sticky with saliva.
- When the fox crunches down he causes huge internal damage: the injury seems to cause the bird's head to drop back and arch, as in the photo. The head position is a primary indicator.

n.b. A dog may also kill a bird this way.

Taking a Hit

We moved 2,500 young pheasants into 'The Hill' pen yesterday, after spending this previous week checking the fencing, patching holes, putting in the equivalent of pheasant 'doggie doors' so the birds can come and go, putting up an electric perimeter, etc. They were a bit jumpy going in so we left them to settle into their new surroundings. It must take their tiny brains time to process going from a shed with a small run attached to an essentially limitless woodland with 2,499 friends.

It fell on me to check 'The Hill' pen last night. I was assured it was a formality and perhaps a few birds would need shooing home, and I only needed to sit in the truck until it got dark to ensure everything settled alright and weren't being bothered by predators. I didn't even bother changing out of my pyjamas and a pair of crocs. I had my travel mug of coffee to sip while I sat and watched the sun set. It definitely sounded like the cushy option.

It never turns out like you plan, does it? No birds were moving at the front so I thought I would just have a look around the back, at the top of the hill. My heart sank. I have never seen so many free ranging poults outside one pen. They weren't supposed to venture out yet, they were supposed to settle and think about going for a wander in 3-4 days' time. Not yet.

The good news: I had the labrador in the truck with me to work the pheasants back home. The bad news: I didn't have my mobile phone to call for 'backup'. I couldn't afford to drive home, find Mike and get back - I'd lose too much time and daylight.

Herding pheasants is only marginally less difficult than herding cats (I imagine, never tried it). I threw Pip into the maize crop to push the birds towards the pen, then spent the next hour until it got dark walking back and forth along the wire pressuring the birds to use their doggie doors. For every one I got in, two more appeared from behind me, in the field, from the woods, hiding in the crop. I was losing the light and in danger of disturbing birds in the pen going to roost. I had to call time and leave what I knew to be a significant amount of birds still outside the pen and vulnerable.

Mike was up before sunrise to check on the inevitable losses and possibly deter the later predators. I heard his truck pull into the drive and came out to look. Confirmation. A pile of dead poults carpeting the flatbed of his truck. All had by a fox. Some still warm. And more yet to pick up. Mike didn't bother to count them, I think it's more upsetting when you can put a number to it. I'm about to take some spaniels back to The Hill pen to retrieve the rest of the dead poults; there's enough bodies that I'll need at least two spaniels to do it. And the rain started about an hour ago. Wet dead poults stinking of fox. It's the worst hit he's ever known at that pen. And it's only their first 24 hours.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009


I finished mowing the lawn today - a job I loathe - and as a reward sat on the bench under the apple tree and drank a glass of beer. The tree isn't any great age. Its branches were so overgrown that I've been pruning it on a 3 year programme so as not to shock it into producing watershoots or too much growth at the expense of fruit. It doesn't get sprayed so the apples get scab and canker, but it doesn't affect their value to me in the kitchen. And the other animals that eat them certainly don't care about a few blemishes.

I was looking at the windfall apples that had dropped where I mowed and I started counting all the benefits we get from this lone bramley apple tree:

1) the best of the windfall apples for crumble - Mike's favorite - and for blackberry and apple jelly (the pectin in the apples is necessary to get the jelly to set)

2) the 2nd class windfalls I save in a bucket as a treat for a local farmer's pigs

3) The chickens take advantage of the flesh of any apples I accidentally mow over

4) Spud and Pip pick up any little or overlooked windfalls as toys to play with, a vital component to the 'Chase me' game they both love

5) When the Pomona travelling cider press comes to the village, I can pick the rest to press into apple juice and apple cider vinegar

And it's not just the fruit that's useful. Our young niece and nephew visited last weekend, and the tree is just the right size for climbing games. The bird seed feeders hang in its branches conveniently close to the hedge so the nervous little birds can feed near safety and any youngsters. I have a long string of white lights hung in the canopy and on the 1st of December I turn on the lights for Christmas and they look so beautiful highlighting the shape of the tree. And last but not least, I can sit on the bench under the tree enjoying a beer after mowing the lawn.

You don't have to give up your day job, move to the country, and buy a farm to feel self sufficient. You can get so much out of even a single tree. A windfall indeed.

Simple Apple & Blackberry Jelly recipe

Pick as many blackberries, or any sweet hedgerow berry, as you like. I fill an old cookie tin.

Pick 1/3 as much apple to go with the blackberries.

Wash both. Peel the apple and cut into chunks. Put it in a big heavy-bottomed pan and add water til it's just below the top layer of fruit (about 1/2")

Cook gently over low heat until all the fruit is soft (about 15min)

Put a big bowl under a jelly bag or muslin tied to the legs of an upside-down chair (elastic hairbands work great for attaching muslin to chairlegs). Pour cooked fruit into bag or muslin and let juice drip into the bowl beneath, about 2 hours. DON'T be tempted to squeeze fruit to extract last bits of juice (makes jelly cloudy).

Put extracted juice back into (cleaned) heavy-bottomed pan. Add 1 cup sugar for every cup of juice in the pan. Heat to a rolling boil. Skim off any schmutz that rises to the surface and discard.

Heat until jelly reaches setting point. I test this by putting a few drops on a plate and putting the plate in the freezer momentarily. Take it out, tip the plate and if the drops ball up and begin to gel then your jelly is ready to go into sterilised jars (If you're not sure how to sterilise jars, check the internet - there are SO many ways, so chose one that's convenient for you)

Pour jam into jars. Cool. Label. Store. Enjoy

n.b. - if your jam doesn't set hard enough, don't sweat it. It's still great warmed up on pancakes, crepes filled with vanilla ice cream, etc. Just tell people it's a blackberry coulis.

Monday, 17 August 2009


I've been looking after my pen of pheasants - I have 4,750 young charges to feed and water and ensure their general health & well-being, at least for another week until the real keeper comes back from his paternity leave.

I admit I've lost a few to buzzards and bad weather. Hard rain for too long can cause some of the less sturdy birds to just give up and die. I know of 7 at least that won't be flying over the guns this season.

Even with this many pheasants - this is only one pen, there are 10 or so other pens on the estate, some with more birds, some with less birds -this is not poultry fancying; this is farming on a pretty large scale. Birds are hatched, grown, flown, and harvested every year. And the whole process starts all over again come February.

But that doesn't mean you don't care about every bird. It may seem contradictory to consider a single individual' needs in the scheme of thousands but you do. Take Ted for example.

I go around with Mike every night checking that the electric fences are working and the birds are going to roost. In one pen, there's been a cock pheasant with curled under toes, probably from his position in the shell when hatching. I think he's found it harder than most to get around walking on his knuckles and after a few days of warm dry weather, Ted was dehydrated and going downhill rapidly. He's been sat by the gate into the pen for 2 nights. So last night I took him home with me, and syringed some water into him and put him in an empty chicken house with some high energy food and water. It didn't look hopeful but this morning he was much brighter. I check on him regularly and refill his water which he tips over trying to move about. But at least he's moving about now.

If Ted makes it a few more days and looks strong enough, I will see if I can splint at least one foot straight to give him better movement. If it works, he can go back in the pen ready to fly with the rest of them on a shoot day.

I know I'm saving him to be shot at, which sounds absurd. But we nurture all the pheasants - by feeding them, giving them medication if they're sick, building shelters to protect them from predators. Some birds just need a bit more input than others. After a shoot season, only an average of 30-40% of the birds are shot, i.e. harvested. The other 60-70% go on to live and breed. If Ted is strong and makes it through the harvest then he can pass his genes on. I'm just giving him an extra chance.

About the naming - Ted is not a 'pet' name, it's for convenience. We may have any number of wild birds at home getting a bit of extra support. By giving them each a name, it's easier when Mike and I are talking about treatments, etc. If I say 'Can you check Ted's water at lunch?' Mike knows which bird I mean and it's easier to remember the treatment history of a particular animal by association. Plus, this little guy just looks like a 'Ted' - hey, I never said I didn't feel an affection for them! If I didn't like the birds, I wouldn't enjoy the work and I wouldn't be good stockman. Or temporary stockman. I've still got a lot to learn.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Village Show

The Beaminster Horticultural Society Show was yesterday. I entered my Victoria Sponge with coffee buttercream filling and received a respectable 'Highly Commended' award. My bread did not fare as well and won no prizes or accolades, but we took it home with us and had it for tea and our visitors pronounced it 'excellent'. So I'm pleased on both counts. Now I've dipped my culinary toe in the water, I will try again next year. I'm told the categories change so I will have to wait and see what opportunities present themselves.

We met lots of people from the village there with their own entries or supporting spouses with the competitive spirit. Mr. Busk the sheep farmer was there with Mrs. Busk who entered the "4 stems of sweet peas " category. He told us that she grew 123 sweet pea plants in order to select her four perfect blooms - I call that commitment (and the luxury of a large garden without ravenous chickens). I'm still waiting to hear if she won, but she's got my admiration for her extreme efforts!

I shall leave you with a few pictures from the day. I'm off now to check fences around pens and 'put the pheasants to bed'.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

A fox got into one of the rearing sheds early this morning and killed over 100 young pheasant poults. We're lucky in England that we haven't got the big predators like in the US, but fox, badger, stoats, weasels, and even rats do their fair share, not to mention sparrowhawks and buzzards. I found 6 buzzard kills in my own pen this morning.

Even though it's frustrating, you have to admire the predators. A buzzard is the master of the lazy kill: it will sit in a tree just worrying the pheasants who are too frightened to come out to feed or drink. This weakens the birds until the buzzard can just pick off the dead and dying at its leisure.

The sparrowhawk uses humans to its own benefit. This evening down at Hankmoor pen, the pheasants were whistling an alarm, and as we drove on we startled a sparrowhawk that was feeding on a fresh kill - it panicked a poult and drove it into the wire pen which ironically we put up to protect it.

I keep feeders full in the garden for the little birds that inhabit the hedgerows surrounding our house. The little birds do well and produce lots of chicks on this steady food source, but the activity and burgeoning community attracts the sparrowhawks which drop by everyday for a quick meal - the raptor equivalent of 'in & out burger'. It's sad to see a puff of feathers under the feeders but I guess everything has to eat.

Our friend Dave the diver dropped off some fresh sea scallops he harvested by hand on today's dive. As a child when it was my birthday, my mother would always make me my favorite meal which was the same every year: scallops in garlic butter and bread crumbs. I've shucked them all tonight and put them in the freezer. My 40th birthday is next month so I think, in keeping with tradition, that I shall save them for a special birthday dinner.

They were so fresh when I was shucking them, they were opening and snapping closed in the bowl. I was sorry to have to kill the little bivalves but everything has to eat, including me.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Charles 2004-2009

The sad news is that Charles the cockerel died today. He looked on the brink of improvement and I was syringing meds and fluids into him 3x a day. He started to go rapidly downhill yesterday and was struggling to breathe today (pulmonary oedema I think) so I had to make the heartbreaking decision to intervene. I'd like to write that it was touching or poetic but it's not; I got a log from the woodpile and did what needed to be done. And I held onto him til he stopped breathing, cuddling him (the emotional part) and to check it was an effective fatal blow (the pragmatic part).

We buried him at the bottom of Beeches pen right by the river and put a little stone cairn to make the spot. The dogs and I can visit him when we're walking or working birds back to the pen. He won't be lonely and he's got a nice view.

In hindsight, I wish I hadn't made a chicken for dinner (no relation) and decided I only felt like eating the potatoes tonight.

Now the dogs have finished their dinner, I must give them their evening run before it's too late. There's barely time to mourn the loss of one, then you're back to being concerned with the welfare and survival of all the others.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Feeding the Animals

I've been given my first beat to look after, temporarily, as Mike's underkeeper is on paternity leave. A beat is a huge pen full of pheasants. Looking after them involves keeping them in and fed, and predators out (and hungry).

There was a fox in my own garden around midnight last night, worrying my chickens. The chickens give a distress call which will wake me up from even a sound sleep, though I tend to keep an ear and the window open to make sure I can hear them if they need me. I will go to bed with the flashlight and a .22 rifle tonight.

Playing gamekeeper took up most of the day, but I found just enough time to prepare some hanks of wool for washing, and to make sure we were fed at least as well as the animals. I've got to find time to practice my breakmaking skills before Saturday when I will be entering a loaf of bread and a sponge cake in the 'Homecrafts' section of the Beaminster Summer Show. Summer shows and country fairs are a big part of the rural calendar. There are categories for everything from a carcase of your own home raised lamb to a jar of homemade honey to 'The Longest Runner Bean' - the latter being a prestigious and much sought after accolade. A lot of competitors take their entries very seriously, but some are like me and just participate to be a part of village life. Entering a cake is one thing; I wouldn't have the bravery (or secret fertiliser recipe) to compete against the hardcore bean-growing mafia.
This is what we had for dessert tonight, and it's one of Mike's favorites. Easier than pie, and you can make the crumble topping in big batches ahead of time and put it in the freezer. Great for dealing with September's glut of apples!
Apple Crumble Recipe

Peel 4-5 good sized apples and chop into rough cubes. Mix in a tsp of vanilla essence. Sprinkle with 1/3 c sugar if tart (cooking apples), less if sweet (dessert apples). Tip the apples into an oven ready pan and pat down.

In a separate bowl, mash together with your hands:
1 c flour
3/4 c light brown sugar
handful of Quaker oats
1/4 lb cold butter
until you have a crumbly mix. Throw in a big handful of chopped pecans to finish. Sprinkle this mix over the apples and bake at 325F about 40 minutes, or until crumbly topping is browned. Serve with ice cream or cream

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Fleeces & Jams

This weekend, I finished spinning and plying 2 hanks of Jacob wool from the estate's flock. I spun the wool semi-worsted so it will be light and fluffy, and trap air for warmth.
The fleece on the left is being prepared for spinning - any debris is combed out and the fibers straightened. I then card it into rolags (little fleece sausages) and spin those into a single ply yarn, then ply the 2 singles together for strength and structure.
When I've spun enough of the white and chocolate colored fleeces to go with this grey, I will knit a pullover which I hope will be warm and very water resistant - perfect for British winters. At the speed I knit, it won't be ready until next winter (or maybe the next ice age).
To give you an idea of how stylish(!) it will look, my lovely assistants Dakota and Pip are modelling it for you:

I also went to check on my supply of crabapples today - not my most eco-friendly harvest as my supply is one tree 19 miles away. These crabapples Malus sp. 'Dartmouth' make the MOST amazing hot pink jelly and it's just so tasty that I make an annual pilgrimage. For the first time ever I was late for the harvest. I have a measly half a bucket full, less than a quarter of my usual haul.
It will be sacrilegious, but I will have to mix my little ruby jewels with another fruit, blackberries or cooking apples, if I want quantity over quality. But you know what? I don't. I'd rather have one jar of that perfect jelly and savour every spoonful, and just see it on the kitchen table. Everyone is entitled to a little beauty and luxury in their lives. Pink jam and a warm sweater is enough for me.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

From the Garden Today

'Pink Fir Apple' potatoes & 'Gardener's Delight' tomatoes.

And the Bramley apple tree is setting a bumper crop. I've made an Apple Crumble from the best of the windfalls already; the rest of the windfalls have gone to Nicola's saddleback pigs.

The free ranging birds restrict my growing to the protected (greenhouse) and the unpalatable (for chickens). Thankfully we have a barter system with Oz & Janet in the village, who are devoted veg growers. Fresh caught trout or prepared venison = a very generous box of organically grown vegetables. I think we'd be in danger of getting scurvy if our only vegetable source was our own meagre garden.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Chickens In - Chickens Out

42 chicks arrived today. Most are "meat" chickens; hybrids developed for use by commercial producers. In artificial conditions they can be pushed to make a big chicken quickly; here they are allowed to range, eat sensibly & live as active a life as a meat chicken can, being the couch potato of the poultry world. All these chickens will be harvested by Christmas and put in our freezer to see us through until this time next year. I can get 3 meals out of each chicken, including the stock for soup. I know - they're really cute now....

There are a few hybrid layer chicks too. They will boost our egg production when they're all grown up. The "egg" layers will live a totally free-range existence and eventually take up with one of the cockerels (or not - ladies choice). They will be unlikely to hatch their own broods: they have been bred not to go broody and therefore are a better bet for year round egg production. One day if all goes well they will simply die of old age.

It's these chickens, the ones who lay for you year in and year out, who form not only the bulk but the personality of the garden flock. Everyone gets a name. And a mother. I fostered the 12 "egg" chicks under 2 broody hens: Barbara the Silkie hen & Grandma Brown, the old matriarch. Both happily accepted their small charges. As these chicks will have to learn to wander and scratch and come home at night to roost, it's good for them to have guidance as they grow up in the finer points of being a chicken. And the moms are happy too. Everyone needs a purpose - even chickens.

But, as Mike often says to me - "Where's there's livestock, there's deadstock". And although I spare a thought for the meat chickens come harvest, their death is expected and needful. It's when I lose an old friend that I feel melancholy.

Charles the gentleman cockerel is old and tired now. He's not been able to fight off this recent insult, most likely a tumor or infection that's reached his brain. He's eating & drinking, but unsteady on his feet. I will help him to go to roost tonight with his wives & daughters, but I won't be surprised if he's died in the night. If he shows any signs of suffering I will "put him out of his misery" though I don't relish the idea.

He's King of the Garden even now in his weakened state. His progeny are numerous. He's walked miles patrolling his borders, seen off cats and upstart puppies, and recently gave me a spur to the hand which resulted in an infection & month's course of antibiotics. This because I had hold of one of his ladies, treating her for scaly leg and she called out in distress. Charles to the rescue.

I was there for his hatching. He was hatched by his adopted mums, a pair of silver appleyard ducks. Although they tried to get him to swim as a youngster, nature overrode nurture and he simply waited patiently at the edge of their makeshift pond. He grew up and took up with my 4 old ex-battery hens who taught him many painful (for him) lessons about being a poultry patriarch. His daughters are the result: Emmeline, Mafynwy, Mrs Black. Now they have children of their own.

So I guess a part of Charles will always be here. But I will still miss him.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Milkweed and teasel both grew in the back yard of my childhood home in Western Massachusetts. Every year I waited for the milkweed pods to ripen in order to extract their silk & seeds. The pods inevitably had googly-eyes glued to them in a childish attempt to craft a mouse or owl - favorite animals of 70s kids. Teasels were ALWAYS mice. Our neighbour Mrs Beals was my idol as she produced teasel mice in padded calico dresses, for me the pinnacle of creativity (nevermind my own mother handsewing all our clothes and embroidering every ornament on our christmas tree)

I'm still obsessed with nature now - the architecture of dried seed heads, the companionship of woodland plants while each occupying its own niche, the overnight appearance of fungus & animal tracks. I've changed my whole life's direction in order to spend it being a part of what I love: the animals & plants I rely on - not just for food but for company, inspiration, and overall contentment.

I suppose this is as good a place to start as any.