Thursday, 29 April 2010

As much use as spectacles on a chicken

Myfanwy the hen, daughter of Charles the cockerel, has become a chronic egg eater. I tried breaking her of this unforgiveable vice by shutting her in the aviary (which we've nicknamed Egg-xsile) for a fortnight. Time served, I let her out, and she proceeded to eat the 6 Silkie eggs I put under a broody hen. As a malefactor and repeat offender she was facing two options: a trip to the log pile or specs.

Yes, chicken spectacles.

They are little plastic blinders that clip into the nostrils (they don't pierce the septum). The specs block the bird's forward vision which prevents egg eating, feather pecking and cannibalism (ewww...) They're commonly used for pheasants although we don't use them here, preferring smaller stocking rates and access to outdoor pens to alleviate boredom - the main cause for such vices.

She has peripheral vision, so she's able to free range about. Spec'd birds forage less but can feed from feeders without a problem. And she can dustbathe, wander, visit with her friends. No more Eggs-xile, no logpiles.

If she mends her ways, or after peak egg laying season (whichever comes first), I'll remove her specs and we will see if she's a rehabilited bird. It's Raising Arizona, but with chickens:

Me: They've got a name for people like you Myfanwy That name is called "recidivism."

Mike: Repeat offender!

Me: Not a pretty name, is it Myfanwy?

Myfanwy: No, sir. That's one bonehead name, but that ain't me any more.

Me: You're not just telling us what we want to hear?

Myfanwy: No, sir, no way.

Mike: 'Cause we just want to hear the truth.

Myfanwy: Well, then I guess I am telling you what you want to hear.

Me: Boy, didn't we just tell you not to do that?

Myfanwy: Yes, sir.

Me: Okay, then.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Country Life

I'm just about through the sack of bread flour I bought from our village co-op. By lucky chance, we took delivery of 10 tons of wheat yesterday from a neighboring farm for pheasant food. And the previous evening I finished reading the chapter on breadmaking in John Seymour's book I'm a Stranger Here Myself . The forces of nature were aligning to tell me to get on and grind my own damn wheat for bread.

Here's the wheat in its "berry" form, which I took straight from our storage bin. It's as we feed it to the pheasants and chickens -
Get off chicken! This bowl's mine

It's already been separated from the chaff, so it's ready to be ground into flour. I haven't got a special machine for that, but I do have a coffee grinder and I figure it's the same principle.

 I set it on the coarsest grind and pressed the button, just like the farm wives of yore did -

wheat berries before grinding (L) and after grinding (R)

It looks like flour to me. I stuck it in the breadmaker on a basic wholemeal programme (again, like the farm wives of yore) and -
Ta Daa!!

Bread! And a very tasty loaf too. Next time I might add a bit of vitamin C powder to help with the rise, and maybe a few seeds for texture, but all in all a success. The wheat is grown within 3 miles of here, and it gets delivered by the ton. I don't think I'll need to re-order any flour from the co-op this month.

This also works on dried corn (maize) and produces a nice fine cornmeal. I assume it also works on coffee beans.

I also bought some more sheep yesterday - 3 Polled Dorset ewes to double my small flock. Buying sheep is starting to feel natural now, where it used to feel like a part of a farming dream that was out of my reach (I mean hey - what did I know about farming?!?). I stood in a field of lambs and ewes with the farmer. He was leaning on his crook and his sheepdog lay down at heel, waiting for instruction.

What a marvellous invention the sheepdog. We stood by the gate and with one whistle the dog was gone, out, behind the sheep, and bringing them back to us for inspection. None of this walking out to look at your flock nonsense.

I tried to picture some of our dogs in this sheepdog role: Jazz and Pip would be clinging to my leg in mortal fear of the sheep. Podge would try an initiate a doggie play game with them. Nellie would ignore the sheep as being obviously inferior. Dakota would look at the flock as a culling mission. Nope, the sheep may be a reality but the sheepdog is still very theoretical. You need a larger flock than mine to give a sheepdog enough to do. Looks like I'll be fetching my own sheep then, at least for now.

I chose three ewes of short, stocky confirmation with a decent wool length for spinning. I left them with the farmer to be shorn and serviced by the ram. I will pick the girls up in a few months time, hopefully in lamb and ready to deliver in the autumn. This gives me another year without the need for feeding and looking after my own ram, and a chance to get the fencing on Milkweed farm finished in the next couple of weeks.

I'm off to the agricultural merchants this morning for the posts and wire to fence the field, and for some timber to build broody coops for all the chicks that are about to hatch. They can only live in a bucket under a light for so long. I'm also picking up another batch of day-old meat chickens this Saturday, which will be ready for the freezer towards the end of July. Underkeeper Pete and I are sharing the batch. He's having them til they're off heat as I'm already inundated with chicks. I'll finish them outside on grass. All of us will be needed to process them.

Speaking of eggs and chicks (and the preservation of) - I have started setting my own Larson trap and learning the art of trapping crows. Here's how it works in principle: Once you've trapped a crow/magpie in a trap baited with an egg, you can use this bird to lure others into the trap. Crows and magpies are territorial and dislike interlopers on their patch. They will defend their territory by challenging the interloper which we've secured in a little cage with a drop box either side (this is the Larson trap)-

There's a spring-loaded door which I hold down with a wooden perch. But the perch is split -
Dakota is working out how to get in the trap and get the bird for herself
When the challenger lands on the perch, his weight causes the split perch to giveway. The crow falls to the bottom, and the trap door snaps shut. We can then use that trapped bird to bait another cage. A live bird used this way is called a Judas bird, for obvious reasons. The Judas bird is always given food, water and shelter while in the trap (you can see one of the rabbit carcases from our other night's bunny harvest in with this bird).

If you don't catch your bird within a day of putting out your trap, move it to a different location even within a small area (like our garden). As a Judas bird, magpies will lure both crows and magpies in. A crow Judas bird will only lure other crows, as crows have a pretty fearsome rep, even among other corvids. A magpie will rarely confront a crow.

Trapping is a touchy subject. My trap is in the garden, and I'd put it on top of my sheep trailer under a tree where it would be noticed by other crows, but have a bit of shade too. Unfortunately it was visible from the road. Two walkers yesterday stopped and said how lovely my "pet" crow was. I should have said "Thanks" and been done with it. Stupidly I said "Oh it's not a pet. This is a crow trap." That got a frosty reception. No reply, they just gave me a sour look and walked on.

What can I do? At least they enjoyed their "country experience" visiting my little lambs grazing in their verdant paddock amongst the daffodils. That view of country life is more broadly palatable. In my head I see the too many times I've found crows pecking out the eyes of a still-living sheep that's gone down in a field and can't get back up, can't fight off its attacker. I don't like those images, but that happens in the country too.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Sunday, 25 April 2010

After a drizzly Sunday

We're rewarded with a sublime sunset over the back field

The chickens have come back from foraging in the field and have put themselves to bed with full crops and the last of the day's warmth trapped in their feathers.

Thursday, 22 April 2010


I've been out deer stalking four nights in the last two weeks, and I've seen nothing. Well, nothing in season or nothing that I could get a safe shot at. There's some space in freezer again, so I took the soft option last night: a bit of bunny hunting.

Rabbits are not a taxing prey, as the fields are carpeted with rabbits of all ages and sizes at the moment. You could kick a stone and hit one. And it doesn't require any real fieldcraft - just warm clothes, a shotgun and good sea legs for standing in the back of a moving truck. A sense of humor helps too.

My dear old Dad gave me a new 12 bore semi-auto shotgun as a wedding present (Mike's tried not to read anything into this, though he's been on his best behavior since it arrived). It's my first semi-auto and it's taken some getting used to. It came with an extended mag so I can cram in 10 cartridges at a time.

This is the perfect back-of-the-truck rabbiting gun, when aiming becomes more of an aspiration than a likelihood. It's dark, the truck is bumping around in all directions. You see a bunny in the light and you try to follow it with the gun while trying to stay standing, and the spare tire keeps slamming into your ankles, your hip bones are banging into the metal bar that you're trying to lean against for support, and all the spilled wheat you're stood on makes it all a bit slippery underfoot. Hence, the sense of humor.

Pete the underkeeper and I did the shooting, while Mike drove and shone the light out on the fields looking for rabbits and foxes. Mike has a system for alerting us to rabbits he thinks we haven't seen: waving the light wildly and beeping the horn (what did I tell you about no fieldcraft needed?) Pete brought a rifle in case of a chance at a long-range fox, and I brought the semi-auto for bunny harvesting. As there we're no foxes and lots of bunnies, Pete and I took turns with the semi-auto. We managed 13 bunnies between us before we ran out of ammunition, about one rabbit per 3.5 shots. I don't think that's bad going when you take into account all the factors.

Pete and Mike gave me a refresher lesson in gutting rabbits. I am officially rubbish at it. By the time I'd opened one rabbit, Pete had opened the other twelve.

There is a simple technique for cleaning them, which is 'The Flick': grab the head and the back feet and flick the body away from you, like you were snapping a towel. Eveything but the liver / kidneys comes out in one clean package. Neat huh? It takes a bit of practice to master.

My first flick was more of a 'flump' - everything came out but plopped on my feet. I put some oomph into the next one, but swung instead of flicked, and covered Mike all up his left side in unmentionables. Seems I'm better at the butchering than the field dressing. Thankfully, I excel at getting blood stains out of Mike's shirts.

I took off all the prime, unshot rabbit loins and thigh meat this morning while I was waiting for Nigel the hedgelayer to meet me. He's going to clear the weeds and lay what's left of the thorn hedges on the road boundary of Milkweed farm. We checked all through the overgrown hedge to make sure there were no nesting birds, as it's getting late in the season. All clear, so we'll get on with that next week. Ted the woodsman cleared the willows out of the dew pond which gives us access to extract water for the livestock.

The cleared pond

While we were looking for nests, Nigel and I got to talking chickens, as usual. Nigel told me that he dowses all his hatching eggs to find out which are the hens and which are the cocks. He kindly showed me how it's done:

- Thread a needle on a piece of cotton (thread) and tie the ends so you've got a needle hanging on the end of a 7"ish loop.
- Lay your egg on its side and touch the egg with the point of your needle. Lift the needle so it hangs just above the egg a 1/2" or so
- Be patient. Soon the needle will start to move above the egg. If it moves back and forth in a straight line, it's a cock. If it does little circles either direction, it's a hen. If it doesn't do anything then it's infertile.

I had a half dozen bantam eggs in the pantry and under Nigel's guidance I dowsed the eggs. The needle tells me I have 3 hens, 2 cocks, and 1 infertile. I set some Silkie eggs in the incubator this morning and there was a little room left, so I put the 3 potential hen eggs in. In a few months, I will see if I have 'the touch', or if my dowsing skills are on par with my rabbit gutting skills.

Nigel took on the remains of my butchered rabbits to bait his fox traps and feed the magpies in his catchers. Have I not mentioned that it's crow and magpie trapping time? How we use a 'Judas' bird and a spring loaded trap door to catch maurading corvids? Stay tuned for the next post...

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

More chicks

Another batch, hatched for a neighbor - Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, and one lone bantam chick. They'll be moved under a broody hen tonight, the hatcher will be cleaned, and I'll set some Silkie eggs tomorrow. Our spare bedroom will be a chick nursery for a bit longer yet.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Nature adapts

Mike went to tray pheasant eggs this morning, ready to go into the incubator, and saw a hoopoe -
image from

I only ever saw one once, when I was living in France. They are an uncommon visitor to England. We wondered if the fallout of volcanic ash from Iceland played any part in his visit. He's been hanging around the incubator sheds all day (though not long enough for me to get a good picture!)

Our little hen continues to hatch out chicks. I should have stopped her sitting on so many eggs, or at least I should have stopped other chickens from adding to her clutch and causing a staggered hatch. With chicks and eggs she was struggling to keep both warm.

Against all advice in books, I helped a tired and cold chick out of its shell. An hour later when I checked on them, the chick was in distress and still very cold. It didn't have strength enough to move to a warmer spot under the hen. I took it away and stuck it in the warmest spot I could find - right on top of the hot water heater in the airing cupboard, tucked into a washcloth:
The little chick dried off and warmed up while we had our lunch. Once it was moving well enough, I tucked it back under its mom. I check on them every so often. So far, so good.

I had to take the rest of the unhatched eggs away, to save the five chicks. There is a setting of chicken eggs in my small incubator, due to hatch in the next couple days. Against all advice in books (again), I candled out the infertile eggs (which was about half) and put the rest in the incubator with the others. Our neighbor has a spare broody hen and offered to foster anything that comes out of the incubator. He has big Orpingtons so there's enough bottom to cover everyone.

I know I should be more hard-hearted but it's amazing what does survive when given half a chance.

The pheasant egg production is nearing maximum now. Each pheasant hen will lay about 44 eggs a year in the breeding pens, if the proper nutrition is kept up. The cock birds are doing their bit too, and it's easy to tell which ones are busiest. Here's a pheasant who's not covering many hens:

His red face patch isn't fully swollen yet. See his long tail? When they're treading lots of hens their tails get worn down and broken like this:

See how much redder his face is too, and more engorged. That's a real ladies man - at least in the pheasant world. But when he gets worn out and tired, the other pheasant will be ready to take over and fertilise those eggs. Nature thinks of everything.

It's the weekend and even though we're on egg duty, I'm hoping we will get a chance to ride the horses tomorrow. They've been turned out on fresh grass, I've harrowed their old paddock, repaired the broken fencer, given them a trim up with the clippers, and a good grooming to remove their winter coats. They are ready for a mosey and a look around. They seem to like the view from their temporary paddock:

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Just Arrived

I was beginning to wonder if this little hen was going to bring off any of her eggs. Her hopes were bigger than her bottom, but she insisted on trying to keep the whole big clutch of eggs warm. It looks like at least one egg has been successful. I'll check again in the morning. Fingers crossed, she will have added to her brood and in a few weeks' time, a string of energetic chicks will be trailing along behind their clucky hen mother sampling all the tasty bits our front garden has to offer.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Some signs of Spring at home

Flowers are making an appearance like this Muscari -

And this Magnolia about to bloom -

Cockerels displaying their wares -

A broody hen sat tight on her clutch of eggs -

A catch crop of salad leaves starting to grow -
 and seed potatoes in pots outside

Young lambs weaned on new grass and pellets-

Sleeping with the bedroom window open -

And hanging the laundry outside to dry -

Beef cattle grazing off the cover crops from shoot season -

And my highseat built and put up on Milkweed Farm -

What signs of spring are showing up where you are?

Friday, 9 April 2010

You win some, you lose some

I'm no dog training expert. That is not false modesty, believe me. When I married Mike, my new wifely duties included responsibility for our 8 dogs. I'm learning on my feet.

I read books, and get advice when I'm stuck, but I inherited a pack of full-grown, half-wild spaniels, many re-homed to Mike with behavioural "quirks". Jazz is afraid of people (unless it's a shoot day), Nellie simply walks home if she doesn't like something, or she feels she's done enough for the day. Pip smiles, Dakota likes to body check other dogs when she meets them, Podge had terrible recall. I could go on.

Most of my dog training has been behaviour modification and re-direction. Trying to fix problems rather than prevent them. A certain amount of acceptance goes along with this kind of training. Does the spaniel work in the field? Does she reliably bring back game? Does she come back when you call her? Good enough. Ok, so she pulls on the lead a bit, or she doesn't sit to the gunshot. Or she works a bit farther away than you'd like. The birds are found and counted, and the dogs are happy in their work.

Spud the flatcoat is my first puppy, bought and paid for new out of the showroom. She's 13 months old now and I've been working on just obedience training with her. Now she's ready for the next stage, and the start of her working training. So when I was invited to join the local Flatcoat Retriever Training Group (we have small specialist groups for everything in England) I jumped at the chance. Especially as the email said "all ages and levels welcome".

There were 10 participants plus dogs, and we met yesterday evening in a farmer's field. Having never trained a puppy from scratch I had no idea of what to expect. I was the least experienced, and Spud was the only puppy - it was the ignorant leading the young. With an audience.

A flatcoat party (with a few cocker crashers)

Well, Spud did wonderfully. A dummy was thrown, she marked it, retrieved it to hand and even held it until I took it from her. When I whistled, she came back and sat next to me. There were lots of ohs and ahs and well dones all around. She practiced this exercise a few times and seemed to enjoy herself. The group gave me some coaching and ideas for improvement, but Spud got an A for her first class. And, she didn't get car sick on the half hour drive - first time!

An experienced dog and handler show us how it's done

But it's never that easy. I woke up this morning and before I'd even had my first cup of tea, Mike came in to tell me Hazel had run off. Hazel only ever runs off when Mike walks her. So I had to pull on some clothes and get on the quad bike and head off in the direction of 'last seen running'. I bumped into neighbors walking dogs, driving tractors, and trimming sheep and asked them to keep an eye out.

Two hours later, farmer's son shows up at the back door with a happy, dirty, and tired Hazel on a piece of rope. I think some more behavior modification training is in order - fetching, recall, praise. But if I get an invite to the local Spaniel Training Group, I might have to decline for awhile. All ages and levels is fine, but only if you can find your spaniel.

If I had to write a dog training book, here are some appropriate titles:

"Bloody dog, would you come HERE!!" - Training the Montero Way

Coming Back from Your Walk with As Many Dogs as You Started With

"Seriously, I'm Going to Tie a Log to That Thing to Slow Her Down" and Other Hints to Get Your Dog to Listen

Number Your Dogs and Name Them All 'Oi!' - Top Tips for Organising Your Kennel

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

It all comes down to eggs

I thought this post was going to be an unconnected series of little events and updates. Then I realised most things I did today involved eggs - what comes out of them, what will come out, making them and eating them. If it's April then it must be eggs.

I wanted to post a picture of Barbara and her ducklings, but she's being such a good mother that she gets between me and her babes whenever I try to take a photo. This is my best one:

If you look hard, you can see them sandwiched between Mom and the drinker. I moved them to bigger premises and the family is doing well.

We collected pheasant eggs today. Here's our haul -

The weather's picked up so the eggs are cleaner, but they still need washing -

I can only reach to wash the eggs if I stand on a bucket. Or maybe I need high-heeled safety boots.

Podge has been keeping Mike company in his truck today. While I was cleaning eggs, she helped by clearing up any broken eggs she found laying around.

That's her dinner sorted then.

One of my regular Spring jobs is taking down the peanut feeders and replacing them with seed feeders. Maybe someone reading this knows for sure, but I was told that I shouldn't feed peanuts in Spring when baby birds are hatching. Mothers will feed whole peanuts to their young, which can then choke to death.  I err on the side of caution in case that's not an old wives' tale.

Just at the time when birds are building nests, Dakota sheds her thick undercoat of fur. I brushed her and collected all the fur, then hung it in the tree for them.

I have found more than one nest in the hedge where the inside is lined with Dakota's fur. That will be empty in the next week or two. I can see where birds have been picking at it already.

The egg stage is lots of work, but it's anticipatory. Wait until the chicks start coming!

Sunday, 4 April 2010

A Surprise

It was a gorgeous evening, so I decided to get togged up in my warm clothes and try my luck in the high seat again. I left two hours before dark, and saw nothing until it was nearly too dark to shoot. Then, as luck would have it, a young roe buck (a primo meat animal) came out of the woods and hung on the margin of the field. He was just out of my sight line for a good shot. When it got too dark to see, I gave up. We'll both be back for a rematch.

I came home, fed the lambs, stripped off to my long johns and sat down to dinner in front of the TV (if Easter candy and a cup of tea counts?). It's all about the glamour here.

Dulcie our self-appointed kennel guard started barking. Mike got up to see what stirred her up, and called me outside. We could hear a vixen fox yowling, which is usually a mating call though it's late in the season. And it sounded like it was coming from the back field.

Mike has a gift for calling foxes in by making a squealing noise meant to imitate an injured rabbit. A hungry fox can't resist the sound. My gun was still propped in the corner, so I grabbed it and Mike grabbed a flashlight, and we hung out the bedroom window trying to catch a reflection of the fox's eyes in the light. Mike started squeaking, and a fox appeared right on cue about 80 yards away. I hung the barrel of the gun out the bedroom window and dropped the fox in the field.

I probably should have put some trousers on before going to inspect the fox, but that's another plus side to living in a rural area: Pants are optional.

It wasn't the vixen, but a dog fox. And a small one at that. When I had a look underneath, I found it had underdeveloped testicles. I have no idea why this is, perhaps just another of nature's oddities like the hermaphrodite pheasants. He seemed healthy enough otherwise; no signs of mange (common in foxes) or external parasites.

So, two hours in a cold high seat produced less than two minutes kneeling on my bed in a warm house and taking a quick shot out the window. I grant you, the last option is less sporting but at least I know he won't be feasting on any of my chickens. Speaking of chickens, I think there might be some 'Peeps' left in the Easter basket...

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Fire and Water

We're having a few problems with both.

The winter was colder and more prolonged than expected and I grossly underestimated how much wood we would need. I often think I should go cut more wood, then I think I'll put it off til the weather clears up a bit. Which, this year, was never.

There's a small pile of applewood in the garden that just needs cutting and I'm trying to ration what's left. Because of the constant rain, the ground is so saturated that it's impossible to get to our log stashes in the woods, even with special all-terrain vehicles (though 2 out of 3 of those are in the repair shop - they get a tough life here). This is what's left for now:

Dakota is making the most of the heat while it lasts.

On the water side, we just had a note from the estate which told us that our water (which comes from a well) was tested and failed. Contamination from "bacteria". Coliforms probably, from the feces of cattle and sheep. Not very specific, but maybe I don't need to know exactly what I've been drinking. This is likely a result of all the rain too. Contaminated run-off is probably getting into our water supply. The note says in bold capital letters - BOIL ALL WATER BEFORE DRINKING.

I timed it right then, sticking myself with the sheep injections when I did. The course of antibiotics I'm taking should work on coliforms too. But I'm boiling water anyway,  in the red tin coffee pot on top of the wood stove. I'm getting as much out of our dwindling wood supply as possible.

But the worst side effect from the cold and rain is the lack of grazing. The grass will be slow to grow until the soil warms up sufficiently, which is at least 3 weeks later than usual this year. And the wet grass is easily churned up by animals' feet. We're in a cycle of moving the horses and the sheep around to make sure they have adequate food, and to protect the grass itself. I did get the sheep moved this morning, but the horses will have to wait until the rain stops and the ground dries up. Grazing is very limited, and I am almost out of hay which has doubled in price if you can get it. Everyone's in the same predicament as me.

Damn rain.

Friday, 2 April 2010

No pigs, just potholders

I was hoping to have some pictures of wild pigs or fallow deer, and a great hunting story for this post. Sorry - no luck. I sat in a high seat in a field where there are alot of pig workings (dug up turf, footprints). I sat there for a couple of hours and saw nothing. I gave up when my fingers were too cold to take the magazine out of the rifle, and my toes were numb.

I did get to test drive my new thermal overalls -
Fetching, no? They are warm and have good-sized pockets for all my gear. Probably because they are men's not women's. Look on Women's Hunting Journal for a more in-depth discussion of women's hunting clothes. While you're there, try and help me convince Terry to design a line of suitable clothing specifically for women hunters - we're an under-recognised niche market!

On the up side of buying men's clothes, we ladies tend to fit in the smaller sizes which are what's usually left in the sales. Hence these were a real bargain.

Though my hunt was unsuccessful, my attempt at learning crochet went better than I expected. My friend Colette brought her yarn and her infinite patience over yesterday, and under her tutelage I was able to make this before I ran out of yarn:

I don't need a new hobby, or an unlimited supply of potholders, but the actions of using a hook instead of knitting needles was incredibly relaxing. Compulsive, even. And cheaper than therapy. All you need is a hook, some scrap yarn, and a good teacher like Colette who exchanges her skills for cake.

If the weather improves this weekend, I'll be building a new high seat and moving the lambs and horses to fresh grass. If this rain keeps up, I plan to work on the jumper I'm knitting. (If I finish it before the end of April, I win £20 from the husband who bet me it would take til Christmas. Sucker!)

In the meantime, if anyone needs new potholders let me know. I can hook you up.