Sunday, 27 September 2009

Making Cider

The Pomona Travelling Cider press visited Mapperton today. They set up at the big house, along with a host of plant nurseries and sellers. I was so excited about making my own juice that I was first in line when he opened for business.

I scrumped a few buckets of choice cider apples (thank you Rupert!) from the orchard where the horses live -
Then we tipped them into the waterbath to remove debris, earwigs, and ladybugs -
Then I fed the clean(ish) apples through the chute where they were chopped up into a pulp, ready for pressing -
Then I tipped my bucket of pulp into a cheesecloth pressed between boards. This is called the "cheese" -
The "cheese" is made of quite a few layers of pulp -
Then I lowered the press on top of the cheese and squeezed all the juice out into a big container -
Then I bottled it -
And sat down to enjoy a fresh glass of my own sweet cider!
I have kept half the juice back to make hard cider which, if all goes well, should be ready by next summer. The rest has gone in the freezer so we can enjoy fresh juice even when our trees are bare. I have earmarked one bottle for the Thanksgiving table and one bottle for Christmas. The biggest bottle will go as part of our contribution to the village's Harvest Supper.

With all the visitors in the village today, I put my surplus chicken eggs at the bottom of the driveway and sold out in the first hour. I only charge 60p a half dozen which I'm told is cheap (no pun intended) but I never have any go unsold, and it pretty much pays for the chickens' feed so I'm happy. This morning's egg sale paid for the cider too. Just occasionally, things just seem to work out right.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

And the prize for the most antiquated work uniform goes to....

Thank you. Thank you. I accept this award on behalf of all my fellow serfs and servants. Yes we are wearing knee length trousers and knitted long socks with matching garters. The plaid is chosen by the estate and matching suits are made in London. The 'keepers get a new suit every other year, as stated in their contract of employment.

Mike and all the underkeepers have to wear the wool suit regardless of temperature, though yesterday the team allowed him to work without his jacket on. But he had to ask permission of the shoot captain. Etiquette, you know.

It's a bold fashion statement, but also functional. The wool is tough against the brambles and thorns encountered on shoot days. One of my wifely duties is to check his suit after every shoot day, and pull any threads back through that have caught on thorns, or darn any tears. It is a glamorous life.

The trousers are short so they don't chafe under long boots or, traditionally, leather gaiters worn to protect the lower leg. You may have heard the term 'plus twos' or 'plus fours'? It refers to the amount of overhang at the knee - 2 inches or 4 inches. The knee is cinched and the overhang directs water over the top of your boot or gaiters, not into it. The ones I'm wearing are actually riding trousers (too hot for wool, I don't have to ask permission) and have no overhang. On a rainy day the capillary action where the trouser meets the sock would mean I had wet feet by lunchtime. And because they're not as sturdy a material, I was patching a hole just the night before, on the inside thigh where I caught my backside going over a barbed wire fence.

But the day was beautiful, sunny and warm. Not the best weather for flying birds (has to do with position of the sun, barometric pressure, and the birds' tendencies to wander on nice days). But the team of guns were lovely, and keen on their first partridge day. Here's a picture of the guns lined out at a drive -
The birds will fly over their heads from right to left in this photo. Poor Lord M saw a bird late and by the time he raised his gun and pulled the trigger he was bent backwards; the recoil nearly sent him rolling down the hill. The same happened on the next drive and it did catch him out. I expect he's sore this morning.

The dogs are alert, watching birds and marking the ones that are hit -
Look at the concentration. We were posted in the woods, looking for stragglers. The woods were dappled and cooler, which both the dogs and I appreciated -
The dogs caught two birds - a pheasant and a partridge - both unharmed. And because these 2 spaniels have soft mouths, I could let them go again to fly another day. It's only good sportsmanship. I took a picture of the partridge as they are such attractive little birds up close -
I don't think she's impressed by the experience. The total bag for the day was 191 partridge, and the guns were happy. The partridge have already gone to the game dealer and are probably on their way to market in Belgium. A few went home with the beaters and pickers up for their suppers. More game is eaten on the continent than in England.

It was also my 40th birthday yesterday, and I had lots of cards and well wishing from friends and family. Mike bought me too many gifts as he always goes overboard, but it was thoughtful of him. I did get the sheep trailer of my dreams, and a jam funnel and thermometer. What more does any woman need?

He had to admit that he'd also bought me a flock of Shetland/Dorset cross sheep, but only after I'd surprised him with my news of the Gotlands that were arriving in Spring. So his sheep went back. But it was a nice thought. He has promised me he won't buy any more livestock as presents. I hope I can hold him to that!

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Jam Makers' Anonymous and the Tell-Tale Chicken

Shooting season is in full swing for us now. The first day stirred up the partridges and gave the dogs a chance to be disobedient in front of paying customers. Gamekeepers' dogs are different from pets or field trial dogs; ours are multi-purpose working beasts and as such tend to fall into the "jack of all trades, master of none" category. Not perfect but effective. It's hard to explain to a dog that, although I wanted you to work far away chasing pheasants for the last month, today I want you to sit patiently and wait until I send you for a bird, just ignore those others falling around you and hunt closer please. Don't forget to bring me back what you find and hold it until I take it from you. Jazz and Dulcie came and did an admirable job, and in hot weather. I never cease to be amazed by their drive to find lost and wounded birds.

We are 50% down on working dogs. Pip is still lame in her front foot from a thorn and Podge scratched her cornea chasing birds home from thick cover. Pip has had to go back on antibiotics and I will make her a boot tonight to stop her licking the pad of her foot. Podge's eye is much better and I will probably work her on Monday and give Jazz a rest. I usually work a pair.

Hazel, a 5 year old springer spaniel we adopted from my old employer, is also going to be given a chance this season. She came to us with the "useless" tag (as have 4 of our other dogs) after suffering training by electric collar. She hunts and retrieves like a demon but recall can be optional. She gets so focused on hunting she seems to go temporarily deaf. Mike says it's a common affliction known as "spanielitis". I hate the thought of losing her on a shoot day but if we can get her past this and working regularly, she will be a much happier more fulfilled little dog, and a real asset to the team. Everyone needs a purpose.

The weather has been so beautiful today I used it as an excuse to defer housework (again). I thought living in a small cottage would be easier - less space to keep clean - but it's quite the opposite. There is so little room to put anything, my small amount of stuff gets dizzy it's moved around that much. The dining room is doubling as a tack room, the office is under the stairs and there are sheep fleeces in spare bedroom. I seem to live in the kitchen. Mike lives in his truck.

Well, the pup needed training anyway and there are just so many blackberries still in the hedgerows. I couldn't resist collecting just one more tub. Just one more lot of jelly. This is the last time I swear. I'm going to need an intervention soon. But I picked and trained, and Spud went for her biggest walk yet, and brought me back 3 half eaten partridge carcases. One came out of the river and had been picked completely clean by crayfish except the wingtip feathers. Fascinating. I swapped her the skanky birds for a handful of biscuits, an amiable exchange. She has the desire to retrieve which bodes well for future training; retrieving is something that is incredibly difficult to teach if the natural inclination isn't there. When I ran out of biscuits, she was happy to eat some of my picked blackberries instead.

I've spent the rest of the afternoon in the kitchen cooking for tomorrow's shoot and for our dinner. I've made one venison meatloaf, a big pot of venison chili, gallons of potato, leek & pea soup, plus venison sausage rolls, and scones. I still have the blackberry & apple jelly to finish tonight after I feed and water the horses. I try and keep the dogs out of the kitchen when I'm cooking. Though I don't mind a few dog hairs in my jelly (all dog owners know it has healing properties), I don't suppose the workers will want it in their soup.

The dogs were sent out of the kitchen, but shortly after a chicken joined me. I looked down to see Mrs Sussex staring up at me with her head cocked and making a little noise at me. It almost sounded like a complaint. She certainly looked perturbed - if a chicken can look perturbed. I thought about the leftover food I just put out on the lawn and wondered if she wasn't getting her fair share and came in to complain. Then I remembered the dogs. This is what I found:
A very greedy shepherd. I took her picture then shooed her off the baked bean buffet. Who knew chickens were such tattle-tales?

I also promised to take a picture of the bathrobe-dog coat when I finished it:
The coat has been hemmed and velcro closures put on the front and the belt. The coat is modelled by its new owner Pip (does that make it a "lab coat"?) who obviously thinks this is loungewear. It needs the bootie on her front foot, to complete the ensemble.

Monday, 21 September 2009

I didn't even know robins could sew

It's the day before the start of our shoot season and there is more to do than there are people and daylight hours to do it. I'm about to get stuck into making dinner for the workers but an easy one - bacon and beans over mashed potatoes. Not inspired but easy and it tastes fine after being left for 4 hours in a slow cooker while we shoot. Plus I have jam to make, and our own dinner, and scones if I can find room in the oven.

Every time I start to cook, I get called to do an 'air strike' - that's what Mike and the guys call my throwing the spaniels in cover to chase the pheasant and partridge home. The birds must know the season starts tomorrow and they're all trying to leave home in droves! The weather is a bit warm for the dogs but we have conveniently placed troughs for a drink and a quick cool down. I will be packing the dog first aid kit tomorrow and ensure that there is lots of water for dogs and a few sachets of electrolyte solution, for those who overdo it on the first day.
Our chimney sweep - nicknamed Sooty - came today with his broom and cleaned both chimneys and wood stoves. He's just been interviewed for the TV program Coast. The series goes around the coast of Britain (hence the name) telling people's stories and family histories. Sooty found out that his father was an African-American soldier stationed over here during the war. The programme discusses the unsung role that these soldiers played not only in the war, but in British society at the time. Racism was never as formative a part of UK culture, but the Americans brought it with them and it affected British life.

Sooty took over his family's chimney sweep business and his sons, one of whom is also a fireman, are following on behind. He's nearing retirement age now but shows no signs of slowing down yet. We had a great discussion while he made sure we had clean and safe chimneys for the winter. Better yet we did an amiable trade - some of his freshly caught prawns and a sea bream, for a kilo of our minced venison and package of sausages.

On the subject of interesting facts: While I was rummaging in the hedgerow as I have been doing lately, I saw this strange parasitic growth on a dog rose stem -
It's called a Robin's Pin Cushion and it's the gall of a wasp, Diplolepsis rosae for you science nerds. It was oddly pretty. Nature is so cool.

We also dropped Boris at his new home last night. I parked him next to his new friends and gave him a hug goodbye.And took a picture of the farm where he's now going to live, just so you know he went to a good home.
I've taken some pictures of the cider apple harvest too, just because it's a fascinating process. I promise to explain more fully next time. But for now I must get on with the cooking. Wish us luck - and a few birds overhead - for tomorrow.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in

No, not the Sicilian mafia. The hedgerows. Miles of them, still heaving with fruit and foliage and possibilities. I gave in to my appetite and picked more blackberries (just this one last time...I swear...) as I had a new recipe idea - Blackberry, Apple & Winter Pimm's no 3 cup Jelly. Pimm's is an alcoholic mixer, in this case based on brandy infused with spices. Summer Pimm's (no 1 cup) is based on gin with spices and citrus. Of all the British gastronomic traditions, Pimm's and lemonade in summer is in the top 5.

I also gave into my creative urges and made a Fall wreath for the front door, using only what's in the hedgerow (and a bit of wire). I braided some teasel and formed it into a ring, then added rosehips, old man's beard (Clematis vitalba), and some Crocosmia seedheads. I think it looks seasonal.

I can remember my mother making Christmas wreaths for the doors and windows of our childhood home. Every year was a different style. One year she made outlandish wreaths out of white turkey feathers. Suburbia and taste be damned. As a child I thought they were pretty cool. As an adult I admire her for expressing her own creative vision.

I've been pretty productive today in general. It's the countdown to the start of our shooting season - only 2 days away now. Mike is dashing around with a pained expression on his face, and his usual mellow attitude has given way to a panic normally associated with DEFCON 2 or worse. I can just hear his truck pulling into the drive as I write this, at 8pm on Saturday evening. I've been preparing the village hall kitchen to feed the shoot workers, getting last minute supplies in and preparing the very basic menu, as all my food has to be done in a slow cooker [crockpot]. And chasing birds back home every morning. No weekends off.

We did have a few hours off the estate this afternoon to look at sheep. We've now decided on Gotlands as a good balance between fleece quality and meat. We went to White Hall Farm in Devon and met David and Lyn who breed Gotlands and run the breed society. They were so generous with their time and knowledge, and we will contact them in spring to buy 5 ewes and start our own flock. Those are some of their handsome breeding rams in the picture below. I confess I also brought home a bag of Gotland fleece to spin. It's so soft it's unreal. I'm knitting a secret project for my dear cousin Lisa who's expecting her first child. It's one of my "auntie duties". I swatched it last night and started it this morning at 6.30am - is that dedication or what!? And it's nice to have something on my needles again.

The meat chickens are growing so quickly, I've had to build them a makeshift extension, and give them some fresh grass. They showed their appreciation by doing a comical run while flapping their wings. With those breasts they have no hope of getting off the ground but it gives them a good stretch. Totally winded, they spent the rest of the morning laying in the sun and eating. Now that they're nearing their cull weight, it dawns on me that I'm not sure how I'm going to get 29 chickens in my already full freezer. Hmmmm.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

One old bathrobe = dog coat & training dummy

I put my back out splitting firewood this week. Thankfully the chiropractor righted it for me this morning, and now it's just sore muscles. My body is reminding me that I'm about to turn 40. Add that to my own poor judgement - using a heavy splitting maul when an axe would do - and hey presto, ice packs and no heavy work for a couple days.

So I've been doing odd jobs and making lists of things I need to do once my muscles stop yelling at me. With shoot season upon us, and the prospect of wet and cold weather, I thought about that old bathrobe I saved. I was about to recycle it when I thought, I bet you could make a simple dog coat out of that. Turns out you can, here's how:

1. Find a willing dog that will stand still long enough, and is the right size(ish)

2. Cut the arms off the robe. If you cut neatly just past the join, you won't have to hem. Put the dog's front legs through the armholes like so-

3. Check that you can pull each side of the robe closed over the front of the dog's chest, enough that you can put a good size piece of velcro there as a front fastener. Check when the dog is stood up and sat down that it's not too tight.

4. Get the dog to stand up and fold the bottom half of the robe up over the dog so it covers the kidneys but doesn't drag - 5. Now cut off all that material folded over the dog's back. Leave a little extra if you want to hem it and neaten it up.

6. Now cut along the sides so they aren't dragging on the ground. Again, leave a bit extra length if you want to hem it. Be careful you don't cut through the arm holes. It should look like this -

7. Take the belt that came with the bathrobe and feed it back though the belt loops. Wrap it once around the dog, quite loosely. Leave a 3-5 inch overlap and mark it with a pin. This is where you'll put another velcro fastener -

8. You can hem the edges if you wish. I used some iron-on hemming tape. Add the velcro strips to the front and to the belt. Done. Instant dog coat, and I saved myself £35.

I'm out of velcro so I can't show you the finished coat, but I will post a picture when it's done.

Besides terrycloth/towelling coats, you can by dry bags - essentially a towel bag you zip your dog into and only the head is poking out:

The bags keep your car clean, which I think is their main selling point. We have one and have tried it, but ended up with a writhing spaniel chewing its way out. I find the coats easier to use and I can put them on a dog while we're having lunch and let them walk around to help keep warm and limber.

While I had the iron-on hemming tape I remembered I needed a training dummy for the puppy. She's just starting to show interest in retrieving things. Mike has lots of tubifast leftover from his hospital visits. I used an arm-length section of tubifast and sealed one end with the tape. Then I rolled up one of the sleeves I cut from the bathrobe into a sausage shape and put it inside, and sealed up the other end. Puppy tried it out:Perfect! Just the right size, not too heavy, good mouth feel and it smells of her family. Later I can put some pheasant feathers and such in it to get her used to the smell of quarry.

It's especially cathartic to take objects associated with our difficult time in the hospital last year - Mike's robe and the tubifast he wore to protect his arms - and turn them into something life affirming like our relationship with our dogs.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

I feel like I've been chained to the kitchen for weeks, with occasional and brief forays outside to pick more fruit. Harvest is only a short period of time, so I shouldn't complain. I will be glad of the preserves and frozen vegetables come winter.

Yesterday, besides making a fish pie and apple crumble, I processed 4 containers' worth of apple puree and a big bowl of runner beans for the freezer. We sometimes give in to the 21st century (and our own laziness) and order a Chinese takeaway, and the meals come in these great reusable plastic containers with lids - exactly the right size for freezing a 2 people portion of soup, or a dose of stock, 4 pheasant breasts, or enough apple puree for a pie or batch of muffins. And the containers form a tidy, space-saving stack in the freezer, unlike bags which roll around and split. Well, that's my excuse for ordering out. Oh, and it's supporting a local business. I'm getting through our stash pretty quickly now, but we'll have enough. I'll run out of freezer space first, as I've just taken delivery of 10 packs of venison sausages from Paul the stalker, as payment for the wild pig.

Did you know in the middle ages, the term 'venison' referred to any animal killed in a hunt, from rabbit to deer to bear? That is your fact for the day.

I also made 2 gallons of sloe gin. The gin won't be ready until this time next year, when it has been thoroughly steeped in the sloe juice and sugar. That probably sounds like a lot of gin, but shared out with a team of pickers-up it just about lasts one shoot season. The dark purple bottle on the left was made some months ago and is just about ready for this season.

The mobile cider press is coming next Sunday, but my bramley apple tree is looking denuded, especially after last night's heavy winds. I will speak to Rupert the cider farmer and beg some of his fruit. He's always generous to us and I'm sure he'll spare me a bucket. I made the mistake of freezing the juice in a huge gallon container last year and once opened it only stays fresh for a day or two, faster than I can drink it. Then it turns to vinegar. Not a waste though - cider vinegar is reputed to have health-giving properties for horses, so I tip a cupful in Alan's and Kitty's buckets. Everyone gets a share.

Aside from making my daily loaf of bread - Mike's staple diet, he eats a loaf a day - I've been chained to the village cafe's sink today. It adds a few pennies to the coffers. In this case, it has paid for Spud's new indoor crate. She outgrew the old one -any longer in there and she would have been a bonsai pet.

But it's Pip who's in the 'doghouse' today. As I was getting in the shower, she came in proud to show off what she'd just rolled in. It was all over her face and behind her ears, and she had a nice racing stripe down her left side. So I had to shower her before I could shower myself and go to work. Dogs: if they're not eating something disgusting, they're rolling in it.

And on that thought, I'd better get on and feed the horses, make dinner, and maybe even mow the lawn. Thankfully, there's nothing I can make from grass clippings except compost, and that doesn't take up freezer space.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Is it supposed to look like that?

I started the day with a lot of good intentions and an unrealistic view of how much I could get done in a day. I think when you try and cram too much in, you're likely to cut corners and lose concentration and things don't go as planned.

Ronnie the bee guy who I do swaps with - eggs for his honey - saved me the wax capping from his last honey harvest. It seemed a shame to throw it away when beeswax is a great raw ingredient: lip balms, furniture polish, candles. All great things, right? And of course with the interweb, all the information I needed on refining beeswax is right there in seconds (well minutes). I got the general idea and printed off some simple instructions and started my stove-top beeswax refinery.

This is what it started as:

Then I melted it:

And filtered it - 3 times:

And I ended up with this:

Does that look right to you? I know I filtered out a lot of schmutz but I expected more wax than that. If anyone has made beeswax before and you can point what I did wrong, I would be grateful. Still, I have enough to make a little pot of polish. And with the money I've saved I can hire a housekeeper to use it, because I cannot remember the last time I dusted. I leave the windows open on a nice day and hope it kind of blows away.

My homemade custard had a funny turn too. Though I was careful not to boil it, it curdled. I added arrowroot powder to thicken it. Could that be the cause? Nothing goes to waste and I fed it back to the chickens. Grandma Brown and her chicks were most impressed with my culinary skill. You just have to know your audience.

I also made a few more suet balls for the birds (I was cleaning the coffee cups out of Boris). Those seem to be today's big success. Sad, isn't it?

Collette allowed me to raid her eating apple tree, two buckets' worth. Tomorrow I'll do some stewed apples for the freezer. I will appreciate those in winter. I love it just warmed through and served with vanilla ice cream. Even I can't screw that up. My new jam pan is getting some mileage.

My other main job at the moment is dogs. They will be back to work next Tuesday and start with a pretty hard 4-day week. I can split them into groups so they can share the workload. Dogging in (chasing pheasants home) has upped their fitness, though I do my best to keep them mentally and physically well by running them behind the quad bike 3 times a week in the off season. But they know the 'real deal' is coming and nothing gets them more excited (and worse behaved) than warm game to hunt and retrieve.

Spud the puppy is taking well to her training. Neither of us have had a flat-coated retriever before. They are described as the 'Peter Pan' of the dog world and it seems to be true. She has the attention span of a butterfly and the energy of a charged particle. But we have totally mastered the 'sit' command, so we can build on that. We are working on sitting and staying at a distance, in short bursts of course. And Spud is food oriented, which makes it a lot easier. She won't even see the shooting field this year, there's no sense pushing her. And if this picture is anything to go by, she may be a little slower than the rest -

Sunday, 13 September 2009

The weather's been so beautiful this weekend we've been making the most of our outdoor time. Dakota and I went to pick more blackberries - I left the labrador at home this time. Dakota happily rides in the box on the back of the quad bike so we set off up the lanes to collect the harvest the American way - on a vehicle, with a travel mug of coffee while listening to my ipod.

I came home and found a gift from my DH (darling husband) waiting for me - a huge jam pot. I christened it by making hedgerow jelly. It went fine until I tried to spoon hot jelly into a jar while holding it. As expected, I poured the molten fruit over my hand. I threw the nearly full jar down, spraying everything with sticky jelly (Pip still has some on the side of her head) and ran to the sink to rinse it under the cold tap. When Mike came home he said "Should I take you to A&E [the emergency room]?" The irony of a man recovering from 80% burns bringing his wife who burned her thumb a little bit to the hospital made us both laugh. I declined, and put some ice on it. I still love my pan, but I'll use a little more common sense next time I use it.

Mike reminded me that some of these jellies and chutneys are supposed to accompany meat - such as our little lambs. I confess that having bottle fed them and making time everyday to give them a quick scratch behind the ear has made me reticent about making space for them in the freezer.

Sheep in a flock tend to be dullards with no distinguishable personalities, hence the term 'herd mentality'. But kept as individuals and closely allied with their human keepers, they seem to develop more, not intelligence per se but behaviors at least, which they use to influence us to do things they like feed them, scratch them, interact with them. It certainly demonstrates basic associative learning when they recognise trucks, people, dogs, and ascribe those things meaning: Mike arriving with food, a pat or rub, visual stimulation and new smells.

Harvesting wild animals is so much easier. You distance yourself though the scope and pull the trigger. You didn't know the animal, or directly care for the animal. And you're aiding the overall health of the herd or population by selective culling. If I bottle fed a fawn, I'm sure I wouldn't select that one later for the cull. I kill things to eat; I never like killing anything. I just accept that it's part of the trade-off of being a carnivore.

We had further bad news. Boris my old truck did not pass the MOT [inspection] and I have to let him go. He's been the best truck I've ever had and he's done me proud for quite a few years. It will be like saying goodbye to a dear friend. On the up side, he's going to live on a farm! Truly. Farmer Higgins down the road wants to buy him to do farm work. (He still runs he's just not road legal). Boris will enjoy his retirement there, so it's not so sad after all.

So today we took Tony, our new truck, for a ride through the Somerset countryside. We stopped at the cider makers and bought a half gallon of home brewed cider - delicious but lethal in large doses, at least to your motivation and ability to remain conscious. We may have a glass each later when all the chores are done. Speaking of which, I have some hungry horses to feed and a young pup due a training session before I put dinner on. And some more Portland sheep fleece to spin - I've been spinning a 100g sample of as many different sheep fleeces as I can find, in order to help me decide on a breed of sheep to keep as a small flock. Shetlands and Gotlands are at the top of the list so far - very soft and naturally colored.

I hope you've had an enjoyable weekend too, and your pantries are looking full!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Bad behavior

I'm trying to keep up with the abundance of free fruit in the hedgerow. The season is short, and the birds are sure to spot the ripest fruits before you do. In the early summer I lost all the cherries on our tree in the garden to a family of starlings. Today I lost all my blackberries to a hungry labrador. I picked enough to make a batch of hedgerow jelly - my own recipe of wild plums, blackberries and apples. On my way home from picking I stopped in the farmyard for some quick car maintenance and while I was under the car Pip ate every last blackberry in the bucket. I guess she lives by the old adage "Life's too short - eat dessert first".

Dakota is just as bad. She sampled Tuesday night's tea before we had a chance to eat it- both the spaghetti and meat sauce as well as my apple crumble. Since she was a pup and could reach the counter, she's been a horrible thief. I dread to think how many pounds of butter that dog has consumed in her life. Being the 'make do' kind of people we are, I just scooped around where the dog had been, topped up the sauce with a can of tomatoes and we had the rest for our tea. Anybody reading this who has a dog will not be freaked out by that.

Saying that, they do a good job when they're working. This morning the dogs "ran out" Muddicombe pen; that is, I open the gate and they work the whole pen through to make sure no foxes or deer are in there before we put the pheasants in. Deer don't harm pheasants but they make holes in the fences, letting the pheasants out and the vermin in. Another batch of poults went in behind the dogs, hopefully our last for this season.

Look at those happy faces - I can forgive them anything (nearly).

Back to the preserves. I have done one lot of experimental 'wild plum jelly'. I say 'experimental' meaning I screwed it up but we'll eat it anyway. Turns out there's not alot of pectin in wild plums. Halfway through I decided to turn my jam into jelly and tried to strain the sugary syrup through muslin. It will never set, but it will be nice warmed up and poured on pancakes, though the wild plums have a strange dry aftertaste. I'm going to mix the next batch with apples for pectin and sweetness. There would have been blackberries too, but.. you know..

I dropped off the last meagre windfall apples to Nicola for her pigs, which have also been up to mischief. They found their way onto the main road yesterday and had great fun creating a traffic jam. It least it's not just my animals that are badly behaved.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

All Creatures Great and Small (and Pavlov's Lambs)

I've been plagued over the past few days by pests. I took the laundry out to the dryer in the shed behind the house and surprised a rat, which made a panicked dash face first into my boot. Rats don't worry me - except from a disease point of view, and a 'killing small chicks' habit some have. Living between two farms it isn't surprising that we're a rest stop for them, especially considering the lovely nibbles that I leave lying around like corn and chick crumb.

I made the decision to put down wheat laced with blood thinner, a common rat poison here. Unfortunately, the antidote to the blood thinner is vitamin K, commonly found in cattle food and chick crumb. They've happily eaten all the poisoned wheat and continue to scurry about the chicken feeders like it's a brunch spread. My only hope now is that they die of obesity.

I also noticed a boom in the spider population, right after I stood on one barefooted. I take a 'live and let live' attitude to spiders. Crawly yes, but not carriers of Weil's disease. And they fall in the "beneficial" category; theoretically they should be reducing the fly population which, since the muggy mild weather, has also been multiplying.

Mike and I pruned some wild plums and sloe branches and brought them home to pick the berries off at our leisure. We sat at the picnic table at lunch today and as we picked, we counted a variety of insect species in between the clusters: labybugs, earwigs, aphid-looking nymphs, small spiders, and a caterpillar or worm that was trying to hibernate around the edge of the leaves -

It's a bit blurry, but maybe one of my learned readers can tell me exactly what they are (c'mon Sara, I'm counting on you!).

Mike and I started thinking about all the pests, parasites, and vermin we have to deal with on a daily basis. Then we wondered how much worse it must have been for Victorians, or people in the Middle Ages, or Iron Age. Lice in your hair, weevils in your flour, rats in your well. We decided that we're pretty well off, considering. Although it is my dream to have a day where I take a shower and stay clean for the WHOLE day and I don't have to kill something/put something out of its misery/pick up something that's died.

Today is not that day however. Besides being called to help the boys pull their ATV out of the mud - where I got stuck and a Land Rover had to pull me out - Mike brought home a baby pigeon. He found Lady S's cat torturing it and gave it to me with his usual "Here - see what you can do with this". The answer was not much. It had a punctured lung guessing by the wheezing sound it was making. Normally pigeons are considered pests - unless you're a pigeon, then it's the cat that's the pest. I suppose it comes down to personal perspective. We did our best by the little bird but it ended in a trip to the log pile again.

Dakota is sat by me while I type this and she's just eaten a spider.

And another. Pip is helping now.

Underkeeper Dave (our scarecrow) is working to keep the buzzards at bay - a pest from the pheasants' point of view and ours. The pheasants seem to be picking up and feeding well again. And speaking of doing well - Gertie's chick continues to thrive and Gertie is getting the hang of motherhood. I've been calling the chick Chicken Little, but I'm open to suggestions for a permanent name.

We also found out that we've been tricked by the lambs into feeding them double rations in the morning. Mike leaves the house just before daylight to check on his pheasants. He usually returns around 7.30am and feeds the lambs straight away. The lambs caught on to the fact that when his truck pulled into the driveway, they got fed. As they were both bottle-fed orphans (never again...) they are demanding about mealtimes, bleating with some vigour until they get their food. They are loud enough to wake me - I've been using them as an alarm clock. The 'OFF' button is a scoop of barley and sugar beet in their trough. So I just pad across the road in my bathrobe and slippers, and drop it in. I'm up, they're fed, no problems. I neglected to tell Mike. So did they. They see the truck, bleat wildly, get more food. Win win in their opinion. Well, we're on to their little game. It's regular rations from now on.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009


No one's exempt from chores; everyone has to do their bit. As you can see, some of us enjoy our chores more than others: the dogs love chasing the young pheasants home. I never look this happy when I'm cleaning the bathroom.

The weather is dictating chores at the moment, pushing some to the forefront and moving others back. It's muggy, foggy, and drizzling - I expect to see Sherlock Holmes walk out of the mist or hear the Hound of the Baskervilles howling. It might be romantic or ethereal as a setting in a novel, but in reality it's very wearing.

I've had to do a chicken re-shuffle, pairing some and re-housing others in appropriate groups. We have limited chicken housing and need to make optimum use of it. It's taken a week to get everyone re-arranged. Our meat chickens grow so fast you can nearly hear their joints creak. Subsequently, they outgrow their housing and require clean ground regularly. The boys pitched in this morning and we carried 27 meat chickens to their new home in the aviary. In the next few days I will put some poultry netting around it and let them onto grass. They should all be in the freezer by Christmas.

It could be chicken for Christmas dinner now as the wild pig I shot went to London. The stalker offered the pig to Lady S who sent it to her butcher in London, where it will fetch top dollar (pound). It's complicated on an estate. Although Paul buys the right to the stalking, a certain amount of meat is 'expected' by Lord and Lady to go back to the house. Like a tax.

This highlights a issue with eating locally in England. We live in the south west, where a lot of England's food is produced. We have weekly Farmer's Markets where we can buy what local meat and produce. However, luxury items such as buffalo cheese, sheep's milk/cheese, and certain wild meats fetch much better money if sold in London. Farmers (and estate owners) want to maximise their profits. That means a lot of local foods go to London to sate fads and fashion. When it's fallen out of favour, it will show up in local markets again.

But I'll try and focus on what we have, not what we've lost. I'll concede to the weather and be glad of the the produce I do have, which is still abundant and varied at this time of the year. I started some wild plum jam this morning, and I will go harvest more today between showers. Making jam is certainly one of the more pleasurable chores.

Speaking of varied and abundant harvests, I found this website. The author moved to Cape Cod with her husband to live a self-sufficient life, and she has challenged herself to eat something they've grown, hunted, or harvested themselves at least once a day for a whole year. In the spirit of camaraderie (or commiseration, I'm not sure) I'll try and keep up with her. Check out "What's for Tea then?" in the sidebar of this blog to see how we do. And definitely check our her progress, it's very inspiring.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Dave the Scarecrow & the Pigs Return

If it's not one pest, it's another. We're getting on top of the fox problem at 'The Hill' but now buzzards are giving the little pheasant poults a hard time. I think I explained in an earlier post that buzzards will sit in trees above the poults and worry them so much that they won't come out to eat or drink. Once they're weak enough, the buzzards picks them off at their leisure. In this case, it's probably this year's young buzzards learning to hunt on a pretty abundant food source.

It's illegal to shoot or trap buzzards so we made 'Underkeeper Dave' here:

I love making scarecrows - it reminds me of Fall in New England and seeing scarecrows with pumpkin heads sitting on porch benches. Sadly, this is my sole artistic endeavour for the week. And I had to lend Dave my best hi-vis waterproof coat. Neither of us know (or will admit) where the size 8 flowered wellies came from, but it lends Dave's outfit a bit of flair.

Here's Dave in his new home in the pen. The big eyes are supposed to be an additional deterrent for the birds of prey. Dave's job is to stop this from happening:
There were 20 or so little kills like this. I hate losing birds.

We also rode the horses yesterday to try and keep them fit. The winds and storms have passed through so they are more settled again. It was a quiet amble (our horses' favorite speed) through the cider orchards. Chris the orchard man has already started harvesting, and there are lots of apples on the ground waiting to be hoovered up and sent for making hard cider. It looks like a record crop this year - they're expecting to process 800 tons!

After our ride Mike went back to "check on the pheasants" (and sneak in a little fishing!) before dark. I was still thinking of those wild pigs we saw yesterday, and thought I would go sit in the high seat and see if they return to the field. It was a sunny evening and at worst, I could enjoy a few hours with the late afternoon sun and a beautiful view. I often bring my ipod and listen to books or the Craftlit podcast. I had been doing this for an hour when they appeared in the field, nearly under my feet - too close to get a shot and close enough that they winded me or heard me and trotted back into the woods. No matter, they may be back.

And they were, half an hour later, this time at a reasonable distance 100m or so away. I had a good look at Moby Pig - a sow as big as my quadbike. A half-bred for certain. She is the leader of this clan. Following on behind her were two ginger colored pigs, most likely sows as boars that size would have been pushed out of the group by the matriarch. And Moby Pig's 9 or 10 mini stripers maybe 6-8 weeks old.

At this point I saw Pete walking up the far hedge - he obviously had the same idea as me. He couldn't see me but I could see he was safely out of shot. I picked a barren ginger sow and dropped her in the field. Pete heard the shot and saw where I was. Now he might have a chance at the other ginger sow - he had a shotgun with rifled slug so needed to get much closer to be in range. I stayed loaded to back him up; he was on the ground and pigs, especially a big mom with youngsters, is likely to charge. Though not ideal, I could drop her if necessary, so I stayed on her.
The pigs were staying with their fallen friend. It's hard to watch, I'm never sure how much they are aware of. Research on elephants acknowledges that they grieve for their dead. Pigs are so smart, I don't think we should be quick to underestimate them.

But it's a trade-off. They're escaped domestic crosses which dilute the 'native' boar and do a tremendous amount of damage to crops. And it's meat, and I'm not a vegetarian.

Pete never got close enough. They winded him and ran back to the safety of the woods.

We bled and gralloched the pig, and loaded her into my quadbike and I drove home. Hunters on the continent often put a leafed branch in the pig's mouth as a sign of respect, like offering a last meal. I always try and show my quarry the utmost respect, and ensure the kill is quick and clean, to prevent suffering and ensure the most amount of meat is usable. This carcase will go to our estate stalker Paul for processing. Paul pays me in meat for the freezer.

Dakota always has to check out the trucks and quadbike when we return from a trip without her. Most dogs are afraid of pigs, and rightly so - a wounded pig that size could easily kill Dakota. It is one animal I hunt without the backup of a dog.

It looks like we'll be having wild pig for Christmas dinner then.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Partridge & Pigs & Plums

Our partridges were delivered at 8.30 yesterday morning, and it was "all hands to the pump" to finish the pens. I ran ahead to secure the pens, tying up nets and blocking any partridge-sized escape holes. The boys followed behind filling them with partridges. We were done pretty quickly, and it was back to ours for some well earned fried egg sandwiches (thank you chickens!)

We left the new arrivals to settle in with minimal disturbance and used the 'free time' (what a blessed phrase that is...) to do some reconnaissance work. My 40th birthday is coming up this month (what a horrible phrase that it...) and I wanted to start the decade as I mean to go on, with a spirit of adventure. So Mike and I are planning to ride our horses from their stable to a little field we own about 10 miles away, camp overnight with dogs & horses, and ride them back to their stables the next day. It'll be the longest ride Mike's done since his accident but he assures me he's feeling up to it. I don't doubt it - he's as tough as they come.

We drove out the back roads and checked the map to get our bearings and make sure that bridle paths and rights of way were in usable shape.

We came across a little local traffic.

And just in case you didn't believe me that our roads were a little 'rustic' -

The horses are fit, the route is mapped; it all looks good for our trip. Now we just need a whole weekend of good weather between now and the end of the month, which is not as likely as it sounds. I suppose if I really had a spirit of adventure I would ride regardless of the rain.

On the way back we decided to pick some wild plums, which are in shorter supply than the sloes. We only know of one tree on the estate. While picking, Pete the underkeeper came by on his quad. He'd just seen a group of wild pigs on Slights Field (all the estate fields seem to have a name), and he was off home to get his gun. We couldn't resist the opportunity for wild pig meat meat, so I got my big rifle and joined him.

I say 'wild pig' instead of 'wild boar' because in this case it is domestic pigs that have broken free from a pig farm and become feral. You can tell the difference by color: pigs are usually a solid color and boar are striped. Wild boar and domestic pigs can breed and produce viable offspring, and the smell of a female domestic pig in oestrus will attract wild boar. The male (boar) will break through fences to get to her, then it's a free for all.

This little group had a great white sow (Moby Pig?) as its matriarch, and some slightly smaller ginger and dark pigs with her, and a litter of very small stripy boar piglets. Wild pigs or boar are jumpy and very difficult to stalk. They are on the move all the time; you have to shoot them when you see them or they're gone. It took us less than 10 minutes to get our guns and get to the field and they were already heading for the woods. We tried to split them and run them to where one of us could take a shot. No luck. That's pig shooting for you.

Here's a sign of pigs working a field. Small patches of the sward are turned over where they root for worms and small invertebrates with their snouts. Badgers will do this too, but on a much smaller scale.

Pete needed to feed his pheasant pens so I offered to stay behind in the high seat, in case they came through and I could get a shot.

I waited for an hour but saw nothing; I caught a lift back with Pete on the quad. On the way home we did see a beautiful roe doe. She probably had a youngster somewhere nearby. Had that been a buck, I would have had something for the freezer, but I have the memory of that graceful deer silhouetted against the hill. And a bucketful of wild plums for jam.