Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A Bit of Give and Take

Bartering is still an accepted form of trade in the countryside. In fact I'd go as far as to say that bartering is the preferred currency around here. And it's tax-free. Just a simple trade.

Everyone has a specialty to bargain with: Oz & Janet have their homegrown vegetables, Ron has his honey, Higgins has his lamb, Paul has his venison, Ted has logs, and this time of year, we have partridge and pheasants. Dollars and cents respectively (or pounds and pence if you prefer). Partridge are of higher value trade-wise than pheasants.

Besides consumables people trade time and skills. These things have value but it tends to accrue over time. That is, a favour is done and put on account. Enough favours translate into 'consumables'. Favours and 'lending a neighborly hand' are important because they signify to the rest of the village that you are one of them and open for business.

It doesn't even have to be an intentional trade. Sometimes these things just happen, and those are the best kind. For example, Mrs Ted (the woodsman's wife) has been unwell and stuck at home. Mike and I sent her some flowers to wish her well. It turns out no one had ever done that for her before (I need to have a word with Ted!) and she was very touched. So was Ted, who dropped by this morning with a load of logs for us by way of thanks. And we were grateful, even though Ted starts his day at 4am, and I woke up to the sound of thudding logs and truck hydraulics. Mike got up to make Ted a cup of tea - another important social bonding ritual. Always with the tea.

Not much later (but at least I was conscious by now), Paul dropped by with some oven-ready pheasant and partridge from Monday's shoot. The boys down at the local garage have been kind to Mike. He's not been able to change a tire yet since the accident, so the garage boys have been looking after him through his recent spate of punctures. Mike was going to drop off the birds to say thanks. Paul added his services of 'preparing oven ready game' to his account. A few more favors and I will shoot another deer or pig for him. And so it goes.

The drawback is that it only works on a small scale. I really notice the difference when I have to drive to town for non-barter items and services. Particularly in England where people have made keeping to themselves an artform, and even a smile is too much to muster.

I also notice it when someone new - especially a 'townie' - moves into the village; in our case next door. On her first night in the house, Mike dropped by with some logs. There had been a cold snap and we guessed the house wouldn't be warm yet. She said thanks, but has yet to say much more even when we're both in the front garden separated only by a low fence. Mike bumped into her again today and offered her some pheasants, if she'd like. She said no. Maybe she doesn't know about country living or maybe she does and she's not interested in doing business. It's not mandatory after all.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Fall Back

The clocks went back last night. In my old life, that gave me an extra hour in bed which I used to fixate on with an unhealthy obsession - a whole hour I planned to dedicate to strong coffee and the New Yorker magazine. I tried explaining daylight savings to the animals, the importance of keeping abreast of world events, and of course the pithy wit of the cartoonists. It fell on deaf ears and I had to get up and tend to them on their schedule, even though my clock said it was 6.15am.

If it wasn't for having to go to the bathroom, I'd never get through an issue of the New Yorker. As my friend Sara says "The bathroom is 'me' time". Amen sister.

My reward for getting up was a perfect autumn day, crisp and sunny. After all the rain of the past couple of days it almost made up for everything. Then I remembered the pheasants. Just like us, they want to get out and make the most of sunny days after a rainy spell. They were everywhere. I enjoyed a walk with two busy spaniels and we chased doses of them home. It's a shoot day tomorrow so they need to be where we can find them, not on some long distance hike and halfway to the next county.

I wanted any excuse to be outside today so there was more training for Spud and more chestnuts to squirrel away (pardon the pun), earmarked for a Christmas stuffing. It was Pip's turn to teach the young'un. Today's lesson: water. Beginning with synchronised pairs -

Ending with 'Doing it by myself like a big girl' -

There was also 'hunting for stuff that smells good' -

And even some lessons in sitting (under duress as it interrupts the smelling of stuff) -

And I got a bagful of chestnuts which I have toasted and put in the freezer.

I also learned the answer to the question "How free range is a free range chicken":

A: Very. I don't know if you can see those brown dots in the distance, but that's Grandma Brown and her chicks. She is working this field behind our house. No wonder her meat chicks are so lean. I'm going to have to start chasing them home with the pheasants.

The other downside to daylight savings is the shorter day. It's 5pm and the chickens are going to bed already. It does give me a good excuse to get on with knitting and spinning wool, a productive and respectable way of making the most of the longer evenings. I only have a few more months to finish baby sweaters for Liser's bump, and have been plying more handspun to finish the heavy weight one-

Pip is helping, mostly by contributing dog hair to the finished product. As I've said before, everyone knows dog hair has healing properties.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Well We're Moving on Uh-up...

We are the proud owners of a new tumble dryer AND a new chest freezer. Both are brand new, though not for want of looking for a preloved dryer or freezer needing a new home. Maybe it's the credit crunch effect, but there were more buyers looking for chest freezers than sellers offering one in our local papers and on-line. Dryers were easier to find, but there was little difference in the cost of a new A rated energy-efficient model versus an older, energy-questionable model. I feel positively modern now.

Then, as suddenly, the feeling passed as I took possession of our recently dispatched meat chickens.

I'm worried that there are another 16 chickens to go in and possibly not enough freezer space to accommodate them. The problem is getting worse the longer I delay killing them as they just keep getting bigger and bigger. Plus it's pheasant season, and I need room for some pheasants which are free meat. A third freezer is out of the question. I think.

We shot yesterday and I took Podge who is working her first proper pheasant season. She was what you would call a 'late bloomer'. Most of her siblings were working at 18 months old, but Podge is 3 years now. Still, she's got the heart of a lion (and the jaws of a gin trap) and after a long hot day of picking up pheasants, she still carried this big bird up from the bottom of the valley:

It is nearly as big as she is, and heavy too. I don't know how she does it but she loves doing it - at least judging by the howling and barking I hear when she gets left behind on a shoot day.

Not all the dogs were as busy as Podge yesterday:

I only got up to make a cup of tea. I wonder if they'd jump in my grave as fast. Pip would - for any residual body heat. Dakota would just to check that I didn't have any biscuits still on me.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Chestnut

It was a shoot day today and, besides picking up lots of partridge for the bag, I picked up a few chestnuts for the larder. I found a productive tree with fat fallen chestnuts in one of the partridge shoots and came back at the end of the day to fill my pockets. It was not far from the house and a good place to take Spud for a walk.

I brought old Nell along to give her some special time and as a good example for Spud to follow: Nell stays close (she's too old to go as far and as fast as she used to!) and Nell works hard in cover. Nell leads Spud into the bushes and brambles, and she passes her excitement for hunting quarry onto the pup. It was sweet to see the old showing the young how it's done. Nellie has covered some miles in her time.

I forgot how cuddly Nellie is and when I squatted down to pick nuts, this is what I got:

A lapful of dog.

I managed to pick the nuts she wasn't sat on and came back with two tired dogs and a little haul of chestnuts. And the smug self satisfaction that I beat the squirrels to them this year.

I did a little research (thanks Wikipedia!) and found these interesting facts about the chestnut:

The European chestnut is the fruit of the Castanea sativa tree. Chestnuts were introduced into Europe from Asia minor and were successfully grown in mountainous regions of Turkey, Italy and Greece, where cereal crops wouldn't flourish. Chestnuts were a main source of carbohydrate there. They could be stored, dried, and turned into flour (which is gluten-free).

As trade and agriculture improved, and other crops like the potato were introduced, chestnuts fell out of favor, stigmatized as poor peoples' food. Chestnuts have twice as much starch as potatoes, and they are the only "nuts" that have vitamin C.

In early christianity, the chestnut was a symbol of chastity owing to the prickly burr that contains the sweet fruit. I find that image a bit creepy. Worse still, in Bach flower remedies, it's said to cure "extreme mental anguish, hopelessness and despair". I hope I only ever need it for culinary purposes!

The best varieties have burrs with a single large nut; they're sweet, peel easily and aren't too floury. The French make candied chestnuts - marrons glace. The Portuguese make a chestnut liquer. The English add chestnuts to brussel sprouts, which does nothing for either ingredient. I also have a recipe for chestnut soup, but no desire to try it. So far I've only ever roasted them, a la Nat King Cole's Christmas Song. And they are a pain to peel. Hedgewizard describes an easy way to peel chestnuts. I am definitely going to give this method a try.

I just looked in my cookbook which says chestnuts can be sweetened by letting them sit for a few days so some of their starch converts to sugar. This cookbook also has a recipe for a rich chocolate and chestnut pave. I think I know what this batch is destined for. Definitely better than the brussel sprouts option.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Coming Full Circle

A priest for giving 'last rites'

There's a saying about a plate of ham and eggs: a day's work for the chicken, a lifetime commitment for the pig. Well, that's not exactly true if you are a chicken raised for meat.

The day of reckoning has come for the meat cockerels who by their nature grow bigger and quicker than the hens. Particularly since, as they grow bigger, they take advantage of their size to command the best feeding places. Their greedy nature and tendency towards laziness makes them ready for the pot quicker than the others. I'm sure someone could find a morality tale in that.

Four of us dispatched the biggest birds which are hanging now as I write this post. Although 3 of us have our meat hygiene certificates and the fourth is a registered butcher, we are technically in violation of slaughter laws and could not sell our meat. But we are perfectly in our rights to slaughter for our own consumption. And I give the helpers a chicken each for their assistance.

We follow humane guidelines for dispatch and I go out of my way to reduce any stress on the chickens. We do it out of sight of other livestock, I cover their heads to keep them calm on our short walk to the log pile. They are stunned and bled, and hung covered with a clean horse blanket to keep cool and bug-free. And it stops any one or anything being upset by dispatched chickens hanging by their feet from a broomstick in the yard.

I'm sorry if the picture makes you a bit squeamish. The magazine publishers always leave these images out of Country Living and Martha Stewart. But it is part of the rural idyll, like it or not.

I don't like taking a life, even if I know from the outset that's what I'm raising these birds for. Every single bird I carry over to the log pile for 'processing' makes me feel a little sad, and I ask myself all the same questions: Did it have an acceptable life? Enough room to exercise, to dust bathe, to just be a chicken? Is this the most painless, stress-free death I can give it?

I buy these birds as day olds from the same farms that supply chicks to battery (housed) units, so I guess the chicks that come to me will have a better time eating grass and grains and watching the world go by, at least as much as it does in our little village.

I grow them as slowly as possible, so the birds don't grow too big too quickly and go off their legs. We inadvertently did an experiment with this batch. When I fostered the egg-laying chicks under broody hens, I accidentally put 2 meat chicks under Grandma Brown. These chicks have been completely free-range, raised under a good mother hen who takes them for long walks to forage in the clover fields behind the house. These chicks are only half the size of the cosseted chickens. They have exactly the same food and the same access to it. The only difference seems to be the amount of exercise that Grandma Brown insists they take. No laying about with your head in the feed trough kids, let's go catch flies and scratch for worms and seeds. Again with the morality tale. No wonder Aesop got some of his best material from chickens.

So this is the second batch of 'bred for meat' hybrid chicks we've raised, alongside our pretty bantams and 'bred for egg production' hybrids and I've made the following observations:
 1) It's nearly impossible to slow growth well in meat chicks, unless you raise them under a hen

2) Raising them under a hen is by far the most cost-effective in terms of your time and money (free range birds get 25% of their dietary from foraging, which is 25% less food you need to feed them)

3) Raising them under a hen is probably the best quality of life they can get and a most efficient use of natural resources. (I will let you know if the meat tastes better or different) .

4) Although bantams are pretty, nearly half of your birds will turn out to be cockerels and there's little or no return on feeding them up for the pot. They do not convert food into flesh very well and will always be small. At best they can live their lives in the woods with the pheasants, but offer no return to the farmer/smallholder.

From these observations I've come to the following conclusion: the old dual purpose breeds are the way forward, with a few brown layers for extra eggs in winter. Dual purpose breeds like Plymouth Rocks or Sussex lay well and the cockerels are big enough to eat. They forage and convert kitchen scraps into meat, and the hens go broody to do the job of growing next year's chicken crop for you.

I will keep my litle bantams until they die out, but I won't replace them. Instead I think we'll find a good breeding stock of Sussex and start again. It seems sometimes the old ways really are the best ways, and we end up where we started.

While we've had a fortnight's break from shooting, we have been adding to the log pile and a half day's work has resulted in this

It's untidy and there is still more splitting to do before I stack it, but it's comforting to see it there and the promise of warm drying fires to come. There is a romance that goes with firewood, but ask me a half hour into splitting it and I will be more likely to use swear words than poetic imagery.

And it's back to the shooting field tomorrow for Admiral B's day. The dogs will be glad of the work. I'm off to start of dinner for 40 workers and tackle some of the regular chores. With the meat chickens ready for the freezer in a few days, I'm on a deadline to find a second one. It will also have to accommodate 2 lamb carcases soon enough.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

A string of setbacks plus a fish

It's not gone well today. Hazel, the spaniel with the severest case of spanielitis, decided to do a runner this morning. Mike left it to me to retrieve her as he had pheasants with wanderlust to see to. I took the quad bike and headed in the direction she was last seen. I look for birds breaking cover and can usually find Hazel at the centre of that action. No birds breaking. No spaniel.

Then no quad bike. It just conked out. I checked all the obvious reasons - no gas, flooded engine, wet electrics. And of course I forgot a phone. And no one drove by who would stop to give us a tow. So I pushed it the mile or so home. Mike got home shortly after me, less sweaty and wheezing than I was. He pointed out the 'kill switch'. A safety device in case you roll it, you can turn the engine off and at least save the gas and the environment if not yourself. I must have hit it by accident. You can't start the bike if you don't put it in the neutral position. I learned something new and I got some much needed exercise.

And I was back out to look for Hazel, who by now was looking for me as she was tired and wanted a ride home on the bike. Bloody dog. It's not her fault really. Shooting season started and all the dogs got geared up for it and then....a two week break. They're frustrated and I don't blame them. We start up again next Saturday, solidly until Christmas break, then again til February 1st. They will be too tired to run off by then.

Since this morning I have noticed the chickens who sleep in the big hen house have had another outbreak of scaly leg. So I will be catching them as they go to roost and spraying them again. Not a fun job for any of us. Did I mention that all my carefully hatched Japanese bantams turned out to be cockerels? And they're scrappers. I've kept one back to live with the pekins, and need to re-home the other 3 into a pheasant pen tomorrow. No harm in them taking their chances out there. I know what their chances are if we have to go visit the log pile together.

Dakota got good and muddy assisting me on my Hazel reacquisition mission, then curled up on the upholstered chair I had just scrubbed clean from the last time she did that. Did I also mention she ate the butter first, and left the half-empty tub by the front door? She's a charmer. Almost as good as waking up last night to the sounds of a heaving labrador under the bed. Why do dogs always throw up where it's hardest to reach there to clean it?

I have to clean today as we have relatives coming to visit tomorrow, and I want to fool them into thinking we live in a marginally hygienic home without mud encrusted furniture and the whiff of dog vomit.

The vomit smell was fighting with the smell of decomposing kale in the veg basket. Both have been evicted from the house, then quickly replaced with the smell of burnt tomato sauce. So that's off tonight's menu. And the dryer is officially broken, so I have to keep the wood stove stoked up and dry clothes on the airer above it, and on any radiator that is working. I need to bleed some of them. And order oil, we're nearly out.

And now the fan part of the fan oven is making a strange noise. Sort of lumpy-sounding. It doesn't bode well. I am drawing the line at digging a pit in the front lawn and cooking over an open fire.

And the meat chickens are ready to go into the freezer, only I haven't got another freezer yet. I've had to expand their pen again.

And flies keep hatching in my bedroom. For a couple of weeks I've had to hoover the ceiling of these tiny black flies before going to bed. And every day there's another hatch or infiltration from outside. I will be glad when their life cycle is complete.

Mike sensibly went off fishing and left me to burn food, break appliances, fight flies, and generally be disorganised in peace. He caught a trout for Mr and Mrs Puzey as a 'thank you'. They shut our chickens in for us one night so we could go to the movies. Mike and I had never been out to a movie together until last Wednesday.

Lady S offered me the harvest from her crab apple trees for my jam, so I've quickly picked some fruit, and a bunch of flowers from the walled garden for our guests. I've run out of jam jars so I'll have to use some of our drinking glasses, which are french jelly glasses anyway.

I must tackle cleaning the downstairs. Mike wanted me to go shoot a fox for him tonight but he's going to have to put it on the list and I'll get to it when I can.

By tomorrow I'll be organised. Probably. Possibly.

Friday, 9 October 2009

The Big Six

Well, technically it's 7 if you include wild boar. But traditionally the 'Big 6' is a British sporting achievement where the aim is to shoot one of each species of deer found in Britain - red, fallow, sika, roe, muntjac, and chinese water deer - usually within one calendar year. It's a very tame version of the 'Big 7' African Game as, aside from aggravating a grumpy pig, you are unlikely to get mauled and eaten by a labrador-sized herbivore.

I've half-heartedly warmed to the idea when Mike suggested it. I think it's more a male way of thinking, to tick off each species from 'the list', like playing "I spy" or participating in a gory scavenger hunt. And of course, most sportsmen want a trophy specimen from each group to hang on their wall (if the wife says it's ok) or in their shed (if the wife says it isn't).

I'm not much for the trophies. In fact, aside from my medal-winning boar tusks and one good roe head that Mike shot long ago, we haven't got any trophies to display. Both of those are hidden away in corners. Our most useful head is from a poor specimen red deer which Mike 'liberated' from the village hall, and now hangs in our stairway as a hat rack -Trophy hunting aside, I did like the idea of learning more about the life cycle, habitat and social structures of different deer species. I knew a little bit about fallow and roe, as those are my 'bread and butter' deer, common on this estate.

But I didn't know the first thing about Sika, except that 1) they are called 'stags' (as opposed to 'bucks' - it relates to their latin name Cervus) and 2) they originate from Japan (Sika is the japanese word for deer). And 3) that I had been invited to shoot one by Keith Edwards, a friend and deerstalker who manages a large wild herd. (He's in the 'trophies in the shed' category). I did a bit of quick research, and put a few rounds through my .308 rifle to check for accuracy before setting off last night for a guided hunt.

The weather was cooperative, and I watched the orange autumn sunset from the highseat. If I never saw a deer it was still better than being at home doing laundry. But over a few hours as the sun set, we counted 36 deer. The sika are rutting so the stags are trying to round up a 'harem' of ladies. I heard my first sika stag call - a loud roaring whistle that rises in pitch, then falls and ends with a grunt. You can hear young stags, their whistles are higher, almost like their voices haven't dropped yet. I saw hinds (lady deer) with youngsters preparing to survive their first winter, young 'pricket' stags play-fighting with youthful enthusiasm, and seasoned stags sniffing the air to see if any hinds were receptive to their advances. One tried to mount a hind while she grazed but she scooted away to graze somewhere more peaceful, baby in tow.

Keith really wanted me to have a medal-winning stag and, though I was grateful for the generous offer, I would be happy with a cull animal. As it turned out, a heavy-bodied stag, certainly over a decade old with weakening antlers came out of the woods. He presented the best target. He'd sired his fair share of offspring for sure. It was time for him to come out. I dropped him cleanly with the first shot on the other side of the river. We dragging him back and gralloched him, and he came home with me in the back of my truck. I owed Paul ('trophies in the house' category) a deer, and Paul needed a good sized animal right away. There's a Food Fair coming up and Paul is making sausages to sell.
Well done, old man.

I won't keep the head as a trophy, but I will keep the antlers to make my own priest. A 'priest' is a heavy tool for dispatching wounded birds. It's called a priest for the macabre reason that it is delivering the bird's last rites. I have to drill out a section of antler and fill it with lead or shot to increase the weight. I've never made one before so two antlers gives me two chances to get it right.

The best part about getting my sika stag is: I'm now ahead of Mike in the race to finish the 'Big 6'. I still have to attempt the red, the muntjac, and the chinese water deer. I'd better get reading.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The End of the Harvest

Yesterday was the Harvest Service in our village church, and the Harvest Supper celebration. Church and state aren’t separate in England so the secular calendar is often reflected in the religious one - which was probably overlaid on pagan rituals originally. Harvest is a significant season; it starts with the Lammas (Loaf Mass) in the first week of August and ends with the Harvest Mass this first week of October.

After Harvest Mass, everyone in the village celebrates together with a potluck supper, each bringing something from their larder. Getting in the harvest is worth celebrating if your crops have been successful, or worth commiserating over if god or nature has been against you. Conversations were, on the whole, celebratory. Mr Puzey has got his wheat harvest in, and started planting winter wheat and oats already. This last spell of dry weather has been a blessing.

The village church is actually the private chapel attached to the Manor House. I don’t know if I’ve ever explained how tiny our village really is. The heart of the village is the Manor House belonging to Lord and Lady S, who are the patrons of the villagers, many of whom work for the estate. There are 6 houses on the Main Street – we’re no 6. Then there are a few farmhouses with parcels of land lived in and run by tenant farmers, i.e. farmers who work that bit of land on behalf of the Lord and Lady, and pay dues.

These are our local amenities:
A letterbox put in during Queen Victoria’s reign (between 1819-1901) and a Noticeboard.

We do have the village cafe but it's seasonal and closes through the winter months in order to serve shoot lunches to the paying guns.

And we have a Village Hall:
You can rent the hall for £7 a day. The workers meet here to eat their lunch on shoot days. A local music group uses the hall for practice. 18th birthday parties are held here, as well as wedding receptions and village meetings. I’m surprised Starbucks hasn’t opened a shop here yet. Did you know that there’s even a Starbucks in the Forbidden City in China? But not in Mapperton.

The Church is decorated for harvest by the Manor House gardeners with produce from the estate. Lady S gave us bagfuls of the produce after church, so I'm drowning in apples again. I think the horses can share in that bounty as I'm out of preserving jars and freezer space.

The village hall is decorated by Janet and Jo who live in the village. They do a great job with nuts, pinecones, dried flowers in baskets, and candles in jam jars. It makes the hall look festive and bountiful.
The food table was full with homemade dishes. Even the breads were homemade. Our lady vicar is sampling the offerings -

And Oz, our most musical villager, brought a friend and they played wonderful country tunes. Lal joined them to sing. Even Lord S was caught tapping his feet -

I dug into our larder and made a woodcock and venison terrine with woodcock which I technically poached from the estate. The rule is that all woodcock shot on the estate are supposed to be the property of the Lord and Lady and go directly into their larder, but this one found its way into mine. I hoped to reduce my crime to a misdemeanour by serving it at the village supper. Thankfully, Lady S didn’t ask me where it came from. Another blessing.

I also had a harvest of green tomatoes that I wasn’t sure what to do with. I asked for ideas and my Aunt Meg came through for me. Meg is the family cook and everyone goes to her house for home comforts and a good meal. Her Thanksgivings and Christmases are legendary. She sent me a recipe for a Green Tomato and Apple Pie which I thought would be fitting. I even made the crusts from scratch, and added my own decoration, although I forgot to add the raisins to the filling.
I’m amazed how many things you can make from flour-fat-salt. Add sugar-egg-yeast and you’ll never go hungry. Of course I had the little bit of leftover pastry. When I was a child my mother used to give me that bit to roll out and make into a jam pie. By the time I’d played with the dough it was tougher than cowhide, but I always ate the jam pie.

My pie making skills have improved but I filled this little scrap of pastry with my homemade jam and ate it, and it was delicious because of the memories.

And of course I brought a gallon of pressed cider! I’ve also checked on the cider I left to go hard and it’s foaming, which is a good sign. If it doesn’t work I will be looking for recipes that call for a quantity of cider vinegar.

But before the celebration were chores, even on a Sunday. Mike came home with a big net trap that needed mending so I looked up the right knots and used some fishing line to re-work the holes. Add that to my list of duties, and a new skill which will come in handy: bodging nets. Mike's duties include helping with the woodpile again. He split his first wheelbarrow load of wood since the accident, a major achievement. He even stacked it himself.

Now that Harvest is over my posts may become less food oriented and take on a new theme. I’m not sure what follows in the Liturgical year (being a lapsed catholic and all) but in the Agricultural year, the next celebration is Plough Sunday, 12 days after Christmas when the agricultural year begins again.

Between now and then there is still wood to be logged, fires to keep lit, fences needing repair, tools to mend and sharpen, pruning and putting plants to bed, animals to keep warm and fed, and lots to be hunted and hung in the larder. And hopefully some time to enjoy the fruits of our labours. I’ve have a lot of knitting and spinning to get on with now the days are getting noticeably shorter. This coming season will have its own charms.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Pheasant Season

CAUTION - Vegetarians & Vegans might want to skip this post.

Pheasant season opened yesterday. Pheasants are our 'main crop' and we shot our first pheasant day of the season today.

Most teams this early in the year will still concentrate on shooting partridge, and occasionally select a nice long-tailed cock pheasant to shoot, if it happens overhead. And dogs prefer to pick up partridge over pheasants. Perhaps they smell more appealing, or perhaps they're smaller and easier to carry. I don't know.

Jazz and Dulcie picked up these 3 brace on one drive -

It's still a bit warm and that tired them out more than the work.

The weather's on the change from the prolonged dry and sunny period, which I have been immensely grateful for, to cold and drizzly which Mike will appreciate as it makes the birds fly better, and therefore makes it harder for the guns to hit them. More sporting, you see. The guns buy a certain number of birds per day. This constitutes 'the bag'. E.g. a 200 bird day would mean 200 birds hung up on the back of the truck by the day's end, with a leeway of 10% either way. Today should have been 200 but we overdid it a bit and the final bag was 271. The guns pay for the extra, called 'overage'.

Not all teams make their bag. The team only get so many chances to shoot at the birds. If they fire an acceptable number of cartridges and can't hit the birds, then they're still considered to have shot their bag. It's a generous percentage - for every 1 bird you are allowed 6 cartridges. That means if, on the 200 bird day, your team fires 1,200 but doesn't kill all 200 birds, you have still reached your bag. It's uncommon not to kill your bag, but it does happen. But not today.

The keeper's job is to find the balance between giving the guns some sporting birds, but making them possible to hit. A pheasant can only fly in short bursts but can travel upwards of 30mph. With a good wind behind them, it can be a challenging target. The keeper can limit the guns 'window' for taking a shot by flying the pheasants over trees, or into a valley where the birds dip down as they fly. It's pretty good sport then. It's also why I can't take a decent picture of a pheasant flying over the guns - it simply looks like a speck in the sky. See?

Each gun wants to go home remembering that one impossibly high pheasant that they swung onto and killed stone dead in flight. The bird will gain 10 feet in altitude each time the story is re-told! There's a lot of precision and timing required by the keeper to show a good bird, and by the gun to hit it.

And by the dogs to retrieve it!

Pip and Hazel came out in the afternoon for a little practice. I hope they will be a team. So far it's going well and they work well together. You know, I never realised that dogs close their eyes when they drink, until I started taking pictures of them.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The first step is admitting you have a problem

I've noticed that the underlying theme of most of my posts is food - animal or vegetable, but always edible. I hope it's because this is harvest season, not because I am overly obsessed with eating. Or food. Or because I read and re-read cookbooks and our next meal is always on my mind. I'm wondering if I need to seek out a support group.

I might as well admit now that I went blackberry picking again, and made another 5 jars of jelly. I was doing some puppy training and it seemed efficient to multi-task as Spud needs less of my attention on walks. She used to look like this -

Just a fast moving blur. But she's beginning to look like this -

Although not usually that wet. But she's just worked out that she can fit her top half into the water bucket. I guess the tastiest water is at the bottom.

The weatherman has predicted a possible ground frost for tonight - our first - so I cleaned the greenhouse of the last of our tomato crop.

What a mess. Every year I promise to keep a tidy, disease-free crop of tomatoes and every year I let it run rampant. We had an excellent crop considering I failed to feed or water the plants regularly.

Once I stared pulling out plants I found examples of water staining, splitting, blossom end rot, blight, and a virus which was mutating the shape of the tomatoes. Oh, and a rat hole to round off the pest parade.

But no matter. There were plenty of tomatoes -

And the greenhouse is now clean for next year -

For the first time that I can remember, I enjoyed gardening again. They say never make your hobby your life's work and when I was head gardener, gardening was nothing but work. Growing my own tomatoes just for me, and tidying my own (albeit tiny) greenhouse felt really great. Different than gardening for a paycheck. It's revitalised my love of growing things.

Dakota agrees. She always keeps watch from somewhere where she can see if anyone is coming up the driveway, and it's comforting. She's excellent company as well as an effective 'early warning system'.

The greenhouse will get a final cleaning from the chickens. I left the door open and the chickens were already investigating, eating a few fallen tomatoes and hopefully any nasty bugs that may be in there. Chickens are both a blessing and a curse to the gardener. For all the good they do in the greenhouse now, they are also the reason I can't grow flowers in pots - once that was a Clematis, now it's their personal dustbath.

I also found a tub of potatoes that I forgot to dig up lurking behind the greenhouse , so I have another harvest of Pink Fir Apple potatoes to cook with. A good excuse for looking in the cookbooks again. I also have to find a recipe to use up my harvest of green tomatoes - anyone have any suggestions other than my 'fried' or 'chutney' options?