Monday, 31 May 2010

There's digging and there's Digging

We hired a digger driver to come and level a spoil heap on Milkweed Farm. I contemplated hiring a 1.5 tonne digger and doing the work myself but I know that my digger driving skills are well below average. With a small machine and a semi-skilled driver, the job could take a week. With Aaron and his ability to use a digger that borders on artistry, and an 8.5 tonne machine, it would take a day. It was an easy decision to make.

Our acre of spoil with a tremendous crop of nettles

Aaron had polio as a child and walks with the aid of sticks, but it doesn't stop him driving his tractor towing this monstrous digger down tiny back lanes, getting it loaded and unloaded, and manoeuvring it like the choreographer of a ballet. He's very good at what he does and he just gets on with it - that's my highest praise for anyone. I watched him, trying to pick up tips that could improve my own driving, watched how he started the task, how he separated the top soil and sub soil. It's not a skill you can pick up by watching. It takes hours of practice. You really do have to BE the machine. Zen and the Art of the Swing Shovel.

Separating top soil and subsoil

Aaron gamely offered to let me take her for a spin (quite literally as the machine can pivot 360 degrees on top of its tracks). I moved some of the silt out of the pond. He was right that the larger machine is easier to manoeuvre than the smaller ones, but I still need a lot more practice.

Where's the cup holder in this thing?

I should take this opportunity to thank my dad who is the reason I even know how to drive the digger. Even before I was legally allowed to drive, Dad drummed it into me that I should learn to drive as many different vehicles as possible. He said you never know when you'll need to drive a stick shift, or tow a trailer, but you can be damn sure the skill will come in handy. Dad was right.

Only last Tuesday when we needed to drive all those pheasant chickens to the game farmer, no one else felt comfortable driving the large rental van. I knew I could do it. When underkeeper Pete and I picked up the van, the man at the rental place looked surprised when I took the keys from him. Pete told me afterwards that the man whispered to him "Are you sure she can drive a big van like that?" Yes I can, thanks to Dad.

While Aaron worked on the field, I went home and worked on my vegetable patch. I can drive a spade like a pro. I still had one small patch to turn over. At least Aaron doesn't have to contend with chickens investigating every shovelful of turned earth. If you've ever dug with free range chickens around, you know what I mean.

"Hey lady - Are you gonna eat that?"

They are in real danger of being decapitated, but they're fearless. Maybe they don't get enough of an adrenaline rush dodging cars in the road. Maybe it's all part of the Extreme Chicken Biathalon.

I've packed up my crow trapping now, but I'm still running fen traps on squirrels. But it's not just squirrels I'm catching -

Rats. In the mornings there is usually a rat in the trap. During the day it's squirrels. The farmer will be happy as I'm catching them near his animal feed bins.

We only have a few more days of collecting eggs in the pheasant pens. The pheasant hens can't wait either. Some of them are hyper-maternal and have started attacking us when we collect their eggs.

Check out the posture - head down, wings out, tail splayed to look as big and menacing as possible. They also hiss and charge at you. I always explain that we're going to take good care of their eggs, in case they understand on some level. That one doesn't seem to.

Eggs are out this week, which means it's on to bitting pheasant chicks. That's for the next post. From my window, I can see Mike putting the straining wire and netting on my Keep Out Chickens! cage, so I'd better go and give him a hand.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Results of the Sweater Challenge

Today was the final day. The bet was that I couldn't finish knitting my cardigan by midnight on 30 May -

Ta Daa! . Even though my husband tried to sabotage my efforts with extra pheasant duties, I finished it with 9 hours to spare. This included having to spin the rest of the fleece to have enough yarn to finish the job and learning a new technique out of a book to make the neckline.

It is the very definition of "homespun" and not exactly a complicated pattern. It's unintentionally more complicated when you use hand spun wool that has a lot of variation in thickness. The front of one sleeve was a good 4 inches shorter than the back, but I worked out how to add some stitches. When the sleeves are rolled up you can hardly tell. A blind man galloping by on a horse would never notice it.

In hindsight, I might have reversed it before sewing it together (the inside seems to be the better side!) but it fits and it's warm. I gave it a trial run picking up eggs this evening. Not too itchy, comfortable, and the sleeves stay rolled up. And the silver colour matches my hair - well, my roots anyway.

I win the princely sum of nothing, as it was a "double or quits" bet. But I do get the satisfaction of meeting a goal I set for myself, in spite of extra work and some gentle ribbing from Mike. In future I might not race to finish knitting projects as it means I'm more likely to drop a stitch or lose count on a row as my competitive streak kicks in.

Each time I knit a new project I gain more knitting skills in the process. That's the best part. And knitting is the only thing that encourages me to build up my feeble math skills. If you really want to geek out on the knitting/maths combo, there are a selection of resources to choose from. Unfortunately our local knitting group has folded (if it were an origami group, that would be a great joke). It's back to knitting from books and You Tube videos. I've got some fleeces to prepare first.

Friday, 28 May 2010

More foxes

Underkeeper Pete organised a fox drive last night. The concept is a few people with guns stand in a field on the edge of a woodland while others walk through the wood. The fox is disturbed by the walkers and breaks cover in front of the waiting guns. It's a more common practice on the continent. In France, I often saw a line of men dressed in country clothes, guns ready, almost vibrating with excitement on a roadside, while others walked through crops of corn disturbing wild pigs or foxes in their direction.

We only had one fox for our evening's work - a vixen. Her milk was dried up so her cubs were old enough to fend for themselves. Mike saw her leave her earth and run in the opposite direction, no doubt to draw our attention from her cubs. I called her and Dave shot her. She's still moulting her winter coat, and she's thin from feeding her young.

Fox driving doesn't seem the most efficient way to clear up foxes. Unless you get lucky and move quite a few through at once. But there is a social aspect, and this time of year when outdoor folk are busy cutting hay or lambing, this in an excuse to get together and catch up. When all the grass is cut, we'll go back to calling foxes to us, instead of chasing them. Fox calling is a solitary pursuit - one hunter and her rifle. And maybe her husband to call the fox because she's pretty rubbish at making the noise.

Besides the camaraderie, the views are great. I can see my house from the first drive -

 It's right in the middle of the picture. It looks very small from here.

I can see the sea from the second drive. I often forget how close we are to the ocean.

I have been practicing my squirrel trapping too. Here's my barrel -

It's a standard pheasant feeder. Our feeders are upcycled from a shipping container used by a local leather factory. We cut mailbox feeder slots into two sides -

For trapping squirrels, just enough wheat is put in to cover the bottom of the feeder (so pheasants can't reach) and a fen trap is placed on top -

I've left too much wheat in the bin and it's jamming the plate from beneath, stopping the trap from snapping shut. I would stop and check my trap, just to find a squirrel pouring out of the letterbox slot like quicksilver and making for the nearest tree. I've taken some more wheat out and set a second fen, so I'm hoping to find two full traps in the morning.

The springs are strong. I can attest to this as I caught the tip of my middle finger in one a week ago and it still hurts. I was lucky it was only the very end. It's perfectly capable of breaking bone. It needs to be, to ensure a quick death. I make sure the springs are strong, and I check my traps more often than is required, just to be sure nothing's trapped awkwardly or going to suffer. I have recipes for squirrel but so far I've been feeding them to the crows as an excuse not to eat one myself.

Some of the dogs came out with me to check traps today -

They almost look well-behaved here. Don't be fooled. When I took this picture they'd already been running, flat out through the woods, for nearly an hour. That's why all the lolling tongues. Pip, the yellow lab was full of energy this morning but skipped the evening walk, as she found a better proposition -


That's what I get for forgetting to make the bed. The chickens were more helpful -

I've moved a few chicken houses and decided to turn their nitrogen-rich earth into a couple of vegetable beds. The chickens are clearing any tasty pests and refining the tilth for me. (All that and eggs too -  chickens are great!) It won't be a pretty veg patch, but it might keep us in lettuces over summer, if I can chicken-proof it. Well, at least I know one of us will eat anyway.

Mike's gone to do his final check of the incubators, and I'm off to bed. If I can convince Pip to go halves with me on that side.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Fox vs. chickens

I think the fox cub in the trap was a portent of things to come.

These warm evenings mean we can sleep with the window open. Besides a pleasant night breeze, I can hear any chicken stirrings or unwanted predators. One is usually caused by the other. At 1.30am I jumped out of bed - I could hear chickens being attacked. I looked out the window and all was calm in our garden. It was Simon the gardener's chickens. He's only a couple doors down from us (door number four in a village with six doors in total).

I took the shepherd and a flashlight, and jogged down the road. Dakota will see off any predator and I hoped we could help if Simon and his brood were in trouble. No fox. All the chickens were fine. Theories are that a rat got in or the neighbor's cat had been the culprit. They were just a bit spooked.

Simon's lucky that I sleep in pyjamas. I got back home and found Mike standing in the garden in his birthday suit (which I told him needs ironing).

Other chickens were not so lucky last night. Ronnie, another underkeeper, shot a fox in his chicken run while it feasted on one of his hens. And down the Big House, a hen brooding on eggs was taken off her nest. It's always the hens. I think we might go out tonight with a rifle and a lamp and see if we can stop any foxes before they drop by for another visit.

My crow traps have gone quiet again. I sometimes think when I'm "controlling" the crows and magpies if, in future years, we will be working to protect them. I was looking at a book from a century ago about large sparrow hunts. House sparrows were considered a pest and hunted in great numbers. Something to do with thatched roofs (rooves?) on houses which were the norm then (they are not uncommon now). Whether they nested in there or ate it, I have no idea.

In the past few years, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds decreed that house sparrows, along with starlings (also previously a pest species), are on the decline. I feed the birds in my garden to help re-establish the numbers. One century's pest is another's protected species.

The common buzzard (Buteo buteo) courtesy

Buzzards, a sort of hawk, are increasing in numbers so much that there has been a push to take away their protected status. Gamekeepers traditionally loathe buzzards because of their taste for young pheasants, but aren't allowed to shoot or trap them. I found a dead buzzard this morning while walking the dogs. It hadn't been shot, and there was no outward sign of trauma (see, what did I tell you, there should be an CSI: Woodlands). Overpopulation can result in the death of weaker members of a species. Maybe dead buzzards will become a more common sight.

Gamekeeping students have been here today helping with jobs on the shoot. This has freed me to catch up with paperwork and make dinner, not just tonight's but tomorrow's too (Lamb lasagne in case you're desperate to know). For the first time in days we're eating dinner before 10pm. I'm eating mine while I write this. My multitasking is improving.

As a woman I'm supposed to excel at multitasking, but as I get older I've reached the point where my multitasking skills are being hindered by my ageing brain. I've adapted by making sure that one of the two tasks being done simultaneously is a no-brainer task. For example:

I can catch up on my reading while filling all the hatcher trays with water, and keep the door propped open with my foot. Here, I am the embodiment of multitasking. And if you are coveting my fashionable footwear, you too can get the same look if you start buying your clothes at the same place you buy your animal feeds and drill bits.

I wished I could have brought my knitting instead. I bet Mike £10 ($15) that I could finish the cardigan I'm knitting by the end of April. When I realised I couldn't make the date, I proposed double or nothing for the end of May. I have half a side to finish, and the sewing up, and only 4 days left. I'm already trying to argue for extra time in lieu of the fact that I've been helping to put up pheasant pens, deliver chicks for the shoot, and fill hatcher trays out of the kindness of my heart. Mike's not budging. I may have to start my day at 5am tomorrow. Unless my need for sleep is more stubbornly unyielding than my need to win. Both are pretty strong.

Finally, a chicken update: my two offenders have been dealt with. Leniency prevailed. I put the game hen in the pheasant pen in the woods. She immediately took up with a bantam cockerel in there from last year, so they now have each other. Myfanwy is going to live with a local family who just like having chickens but aren't worried about eggs. The perfect home for an egg-eating chicken. And I don't have to take anything for a walk to the log pile.

Well, that's not exactly true. The last remaining meat chicken has decided to start eating eggs. She was given a reprieve because she was laying. She has sealed her own fate. Now she will be sealed in her own juices. When the weather cools down, we will be visiting the log pile together. 

Monday, 24 May 2010

Coming up short

Everything's growing. The chicken babies are getting bigger; some are foraging without their mothers now. Others are big enough to go to roost at night. Pheasant and partridge chicks are spending the warmer days and even nights now in their outdoor runs. Their adult feathers begin to grow and make their wings hang down which give them a slouchy teenager walk. The lambs are so fat it's almost obscene. And the horses have round spring bellies.

The only thing that's not growing well is the grass.

It doesn't matter what you farm: sheep, cattle, even alpacas. You are only ever a grass farmer. Everything depends on grass. Lactating ewes need it to make milk to feed this year's crop of lambs. Lambs and calves need it to graze. Even deer need the long grass as cover to hide their young.

A cold winter and a dry spring mean the grass has been slow to grow. Most of my time at the moment is spent moving grazing animals to any available patch of grass, even if I have to stand there with them as they eat it. Sometimes I'm patching fences with whatever I can find in the back of the truck: wire, baling twine. I had to tie two gates closed on a paddock this morning with the horses' bridles so they could graze the best of the grass in there.

The permanent pony paddock is left of the fence. It's horse sick and needs fertilizer and time to grow without being pestered by two gluttonous horses. I have let them onto the track the other side of their paddock, to let them eat what they can from that small piece of field, and for emergency fencing purposes ---

I blocked them in with the truck. The ingenious part of the plan was that I brought my knitting and a flask of coffee and was able to sit there and have an hour to myself.

The local farmers have a saying "Fog in March, Frost in May, isn't any good for hay". Which is exactly what we had. This means that hay is going to be short again this year. We need to get bales made, or bought and stored, before the end of summer.

We've just about come to the end of crow trapping season. I will pack up my traps by 1 June. I was surprised to see what was waiting for me in a crow trap this morning -

It's a fox cub. He climbed into the trap and got himself caught.

He might look like he's being cute in this picture, but he's actually hissing and snarling at me. This cub is the sign that it's time to trade in my crow traps for a gun, and do some fox control in the evenings. They get bigger alongside the pheasant poults. The foxes will have their share of the pheasants before pheasant shooting season.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Chicks - continued

The chicks keep coming. We had our third hatch yesterday, pheasant and partridge - 3 down, 6 to go. We had students from the local gamekeeping college participate in yesterday's hatch as part of their training. Not all gamekeepers hatch their own stock as it's a specialised task, so students don't get many opportunities to get involved in the production of the birds. They guys did a great job and were a big help.
A tray of chicks ready to be sorted and counted

Giving a hand to a late partridge chick

And a late pheasant chick - they're so strong you can simply tip them out of their shell

This is how they look when they're dried off and ready to go into a warm shed -

Pheasant (L) and Partridge (R)

Partridge chicks are especially cute -

I drove our pheasant hatch - all 5,507 of them - to a game farmer who will raise them for us and return them when they're around 10 weeks old. We can't physically raise them all on the estate as we're short on staff this year. Hence why I'm loaded to the gunwales to drive the 1 1/2 hours to Exmoor with a truckful.

There's just enough room to see out the side mirror and shift gears. 5,507 chicks also make a considerable amount of noise which wears somewhat on a long trip. I had to take an exam and get a special license to transport poultry. They never mentioned the noise. 

Mike now tells me I'm supposed to deliver 7000 next week. Where are we going to put them?

We've had more chicken chicks at home too, like these lavender Pekins -

A third one hatched the next day and all 3 are doing fine under the other Barbu D'Uccle hen (who really deserves a name...)

Susan's chicks have just started getting big enough and bold enough to come out from under her and explore -

But they're still too small to get up and down that ledge between the house and the run, so mom's staying put for now. They're 2 japanese bantam chicks. I'm praying that at least one is a hen so Sam the cockerel will have a mate, and I can have more chicks next year just like these.

There's only one more chicken hatch in the incubators at home; I can hear the machine ticking behind me while I write. I have one broody left and I hope she'll still be inclined to take whatever hatches out. She's been sat a long time already.

My crow traps are still catching on average one per day. I'm running 4 traps, and I've just started feeding a bin in order to start trapping some grey squirrels. I still have a magpie trap in the garden which hasn't caught anything in over a week but I'm loathe to move it as the chickens seem to find the magpie fascinating -

That old brown hen is there all the time. She watches the magpie jump up and down, from ground to perch and back, like she was watching a tennis match. I wonder if it's like TV and she'll ruin her eyes sitting that close.

Checking the traps is also a good excuse to walk in the woods with the dogs. It's bluebell season and the woods are a carpet of flowers -

Spud is helping me check traps (sort of)-

I'm 13 months old as of yesterday (mom finally got around to looking at my birth certificate)

The bluebells come up so fast that it's a good opportunity to check where the deer are moving; their paths are really obvious and you can be sure they're still using them if the bluebells have been too disturbed to grow -

I found a dead mole on this morning's walk -

I took a picture in case you've never seen a mole up close before. Something killed it by biting it and crushing its ribs (CSI: Woodlands). Look at the size of its front feet. The disturbing thing is that this is a burrowing animal that digs tunnels in the dirt and its nails are still cleaner than mine.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Hig Tech and Low Tech

My practical skills are improving all the time. So are my improvisation skills - think 'MacGyver' improvising, not 'standing in front of a brick wall telling jokes' improvising. I can fix pretty much anything around here with a leatherman, which is like a pair of pliers married to a swiss army knife. I have to improvise because stuff breaks all the time and we haven't got much of a tool kit. But there is such a feeling of success when it works, which is surprisingly more often than you would think.

I would like to say that this is because I'm technically gifted. It's not. It's because our life is, for the most part, low-tech. Relatively speaking. We have electricity and central heating. I have a car, a mobile phone, a refrigerator. I have a computer and the interweb. We're not exactly living off the grid here.

But we are trying to keep it simple. Old machines, reconditioned appliances, basic technology (is that an oxymoron?) that can be repaired. I think it's an appropriate choice for our lifestyle because we haven't got time to be fiddling with complex things. There's only two of us. So much time is lost when machines break down. Complicated machines have more parts to break down and are less easy to fix with, say, baler twine or a limited knowledge of electronics.

Mike acquired an old microscope from a lab at Cambridge University (I didn't ask how). It needed a domestic plug fitted so we could use it at home, for looking at microorganisms causing diseases in the pheasants. I googled a wiring diagram, cannabalised a plug from a broken lamp, and used my leatherman to strip the wires and put on the new plug:

Caution: Genius at Work

I couldn't have felt more MacGyver-y if I was fixing it with a ballpoint pen, a chewing gum wrapper and a piece of string (Actually I think he used that combo to effect a jailbreak, not fix a microscope). I plugged it in and there was a godawful BANG which blew the bulb and tripped the fuse.

That never happens to MacGyver.

A neighbor who happens to design complex electrical systems for a living was happy to take a look at it for us. Seems my re-wiring was spot-on (WooHOO!) but there was only a 6 volt bulb in it. And I plugged it into a 240 volt socket (D'OH!). Lesson learned.

On a daily basis I depend on the very low-tech. For example, the weather pinecone -

Along with the outdoor min/max thermometer, the pinecone makes up my "weather station". When the pinecone is open, as in the picture, we can expect dry weather. When the scales on the pinecone are shut tight, rain is coming. It doesn't matter what the TV says, or BBC weather on-line, my pinecone is never wrong. They've been predicting rain for the last two days. My pinecone stayed open so I planned outdoor chores. Not a drop of rain.

The secret of the pinecone was taught to me by Gilbert, the octagenarian farmer I lived next door to in rural France. Neither of us spoke the other's language, but between the ten French words I knew and some elaborate mime (wasn't Marcel Marceau French?), Gilbert explained the concept of the pinecone.

He also taught me to cut rose branches to a point and put them in mole holes. The point would 'pique le taupe' - poke the mole in his sensitive nose - and deter him from making mounds in my already pathetic looking vegetable patch. I figured you don't get to 80 without learning a few things so I took his word on both weather prediction and mole control. Gilbert was also missing some fingers on both hands, so he likely learned some things himself the hard way. Though he never could learn my name and called me Janette for as long as I knew him. It sounded so much more glamorous than Jennifer that I prefered it anyway.

So we have the technical and the low-tech, but we also have just pure ignorance. We've owned our truck for nearly two years now. Mike had a puncture and the guys down at the garage chaged it for him. When they put the back seat down to get the tire iron Mike took the opportunity to ask them what that silver box was behind the seat. "Mike, That's your CD player. You can put 6 CDs in it and play it through your radio. Didn't you know you had that?"

Neither of us did. Neither of us had ever seen a CD car changer box thing before. Between us we don't even own 6 CDs. I have exactly one CD: John Denver's Greatest Hits (Thanks Seester!). That's the upgrade from the eight-track tape version we listened to as kids.

But I did get one of those cassette tapes that you can plug your iPod into so it plays in the car. I bought Mike one too, for his work truck. He gives me his iPod shuffle when it "stops working" (ie needs recharging) or with the request "Can you put AC/DC songs on it for me?". Of course I can, I totally know how to do that. If only I could do that with just a ballpoint pen, a chewing gum wrapper and a piece of string - THAT would be something!

Friday, 14 May 2010

Marriage and Children

"Since we finished early, I might go out with my rifle and see if I can get those deer in the pen. But I have to be back in time for the vicar. Do you want to come?"

Underkeeper Pete's due to get married in a month's time and even a visit from the vicar to plan nuptials doesn't interfere with gamekeeping duties. This was a culling mission to deal with maurading deer so two rifles are better than one, and I might help get him home on time. There's plenty of time to make your wife mad at you after you're married.

The deer were in their regular spot on the side of hill. I picked one up in the scope: a roe doe. She was an easy shot, 50 yards away. I couldn't pull the trigger.

Roe does are out of season as they are starting to give birth to their fawns now. Under special license we can legally shoot any maurading deer causing damage to a commercial enterprise - in this case the pheasant shoot. But it's an emotive issue. I could see she wasn't heavily pregnant, but that doesn't mean she didn't have a young fawn nearby. It was unlikely but not impossible. I simply didn't want to kill her, so I left her to her maurading ways.

I think all the hatching has put me in a birth frame of mind, not a death one. I feel sympathetic for all mothers in springtime.

The buck was another story - a small two-year-old, perfect for culling even if he wasn't doing damage. Roe bucks are in season now. I couldn't get a shot at him, but Pete did.

He'll go in Pete's freezer, and I took the liver home and cooked it up for the dogs' breakfast.

I took the pan out of the oven and thought about how the liver was only doing its job just half an hour ago.

We've just been around and checked our traps - one magpie, no crows, one squirrel tonight. I fed the crows with the squirrel and the magpie with cracked pheasant eggs. The dogs had the leftover eggs for dinner. Feeding time is more like a game of musical chairs. Tonight we're the ones left without a seat and we're forced to make a trip into town to the grocery store for basics like butter and rice, things that we can't fish or trap ourselves.

When I got in from checking traps, this little surprise was waiting for me in the incubator -

She's drying off and warming up under Susan now.

Yes, I'm definitely all about the babies this time of year.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Maternity Unit

Apologies for not updating the blog in over a week. We're ankle deep in chicks now. I mean that literally, standing in sheds with hundreds of pheasant chicks running over your feet while topping up feeders and waters. We hatched 4,833 partridge and 3,617 pheasants on Tuesday. I haven't had a chance to take many pictures because there's no chance of stopping before the next task: picking eggs, cleaning eggs, incubating eggs, transferring eggs, hatching eggs, putting chicks in sheds. Or in my case driving 3,117 chicks to a game farm for someone else to raise them. We're already pretty tired and there's still 7 more hatches to go.

And it's not just game birds. I thought I would give you a quick update on the new chicken moms and their bundles of joy here at home:

Simon the gardener lent us his broody hen to hatch a few mixed bantams. She's a Buff Orpington which are excellent mothers but very broody. Tamar at Starving Off the Land can regale you with tales of Henzilla, her own Buff Orpington. And she's much funnier than I am.

She didn't know how right she was when she nicknamed her bird Henzilla. I've since learned that using a very big hen to hatch very small chicks results in a certain amount of carnage: she stands on her chicks and crushes them to death. As of this post, we've had one casualty. Four chicks remain. I think downtown Tokyo is safe but those chicks are taking their chances.

Here's our newest mom Gertie -

Gertie is a little Pekin hen, and a seasoned professional foster mum. 5 chicks hatched in my incubator and I tucked them under her warm and waiting bottom yesterday morning. Mom and babies are doing well, but she gets crochety when I interfere to check on the chicks. She knows best and who am I to disturb her when she's working. You can just see one of her chicks peeking out from her bosom. It's actually one of her own eggs I hatched for her. Hopefully her chick will inherit her maternal instincts.

Susan's brood is due to start hatching tomorrow -

Susan is Gertie's only daughter from last year, and she's a first-time mom. All through her sitting she's shown very defensive broodiness (we nicknamed her Henzuke a la Tamar) so hopefully she'll demonstrate the same good mothering skills her mom has shown. I'll move her to a special coop when her chicks have hatched and she's had a chance to bond with them.

This year's first hatch of chicks is doing great with the Barbu D'Uccle hen -
They'll be big enough to free range in the garden soon under mom's supervision. It's her first brood too. She's been a caring mother and so placid. Motherhood suits her. That handsome cockerel is her other half Bob. He's at a loose end in the garden as all his ladies are either sitting on eggs or tending offspring. Family life has really cut into his social life. 

There are also two hens on standby, waiting to take on the contents of two more hatchers: another Barbu D'uccle -

and a young Phoenix hen -

There will be plenty of chicks for everybody.

I started setting eggs earlier than usual this year, partly fooled by a bout of warm weather and partly because my husband nags me. Mike loves to see chicks trailing after hens in the garden. He's got stronger maternal instincts than some of our hens.

The downside of early eggs is lower fertility so only about half the eggs hatch. This wastes space in the incubators and under broody hens. As selling some of the chicks contributes to our income, it cuts into our profits too. Next year I'll leave the eggs a bit later to maximise fertility and output.

It's all a learning curve, for the hens and for me.

Friday, 7 May 2010

What do you do with a recidivist and a sociopath?

I finally caught my first crow -

Good news for me and the local fledglings, but the crow seems less than impressed -

It's his turn to go in a trap and catch another.

It went quiet on the crow and magpie trapping front for the past couple of weeks. Whether it's the cold snap we had, or whether there's been enough territory freed up by our trapping efforts to prevent fighting, we're not sure. This crow was number 25 caught this spring.

Underkeeper Pete has had great success trapping grey squirrels, a foreign invader here in the UK that threatens the native red squirrel population. Pete had 6 squirrels in one trap today. I'm pretty far behind Mike's and Pete's trapping skills, but I'm learning.

Looking out the kitchen window this morning while making coffee, I saw Mike walking across the garden carrying Myfanwy, the spectacled chicken. This could only mean that the specs weren't working to prevent egg eating. Mike caught her in the act and sent her to Eggsile again while we decide her fate.

She had a friend join her mid-morning. Our last lone game hen. She's an unspecified breed of a fighting-type chicken (don't ask - it doesn't bear thinking about and thankfully it's illegal). Seven game pullets were just dumped here one day. She's the last of her group.

The game hens go broody but with a vengeance. Their natural maternal instincts combined with their tendency towards aggression turned them into sociopaths. They would fight each other, kill the other game hens' broods and trample their own in the process. Nothing survived their mothering. As soon as a game hen went down on a clutch of eggs, all the other hens in the garden gave her a wide birth.

We felt sorry for the game hens, a victim of their breeding and unwanted by their breeders. We kept them, but never let them hatch another clutch of eggs ever again. Frustrated, some game hens would find quiet spots in the hedgerow to lay a sneaky clutch. Although we could never find them, the fox always did and one by one a game hen would disappear in summer.

Mike has a soft spot for this one hardened survivor. I did too, until I found she's been turfing other chickens off their nests and sitting on their eggs as her own. Not content with just one hen, she's madly defending at least two clutches that aren't hers and preventing them from hatching because she can't sit on both at the same time. She had to be stopped. I risked a good kicking to catch her, take her off the nest and put her in Eggsile. 

Both wayward chickens await a verdict now. Until then, at least they have each other. Unless one of them lays an egg, and then it will be war.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Boundary Issues

My intensive fencing apprenticeship is complete as of 8.30am this morning. Ted and Terry tolerated my help which came mostly in the form of a constant stream of questions. And I was the "left a bit, no, right a bit" person in charge of determining whether the post was straight before the big post rammer knocked it in. A trainee position granted, but a girl has to start somewhere.

I did learn enough to feel semi-confident about putting the next leg of fencing up by myself, which is necessary due to cash flow. Or lack of it in our case. I will have to knock the posts in by hand with a post banger, but I can do a few at a time in the evenings and even if it takes a couple of months to get the posts in, so be it. I can't put any stock on it until the hay crop has been cut and baled, which is at least another month. Getting the posts up is the hard part. Putting the stock netting on, and the top wire takes a bit of time and care, but not so many back muscles to achieve.

The biggest fencing lesson I learned yesterday was acceptance. When I first envisioned putting up the boundary fence by the road, I saw the pristine post and rail fences of a Virginia stud farm:

image courtesy

I never pictured the mundane, workaday livestock fence that I was actually erecting:

Where's the elegance? Where's the mathematical regularity of man overcoming nature? I don't know why I was suffering from delusions of fencing grandeur as I personally picked out all the component parts and knew how they fit together. I could have easily, with very little creative thought, worked out exactly what my fence was going to look like before I put it up. How come I was so overwhelmed with disappointment? It just looked so pedestrian.

Ted and Terry knew what the fence was supposed to be, what it was going to be. They were very neat and professional assembling the fence. The posts were straight - at least as straight as one can get a rustic bendy post. But why weren't they measuring the exact distance between posts? Why weren't they putting a spirit level between posts to make sure they were the exact height relative to each other? Why didn't they pull a straight line from corner to corner to keep the posts in line?

Because they knew what they were doing and I didn't.

They were building a neat, stockproof fence to fit in with the natural curves and gradations of the landscape. They could see the overall picture of how the fence fit the field. I could only only see the stud farm in Virginia. I fretted during the whole process because I couldn't see what was actually happening in front of me, at my hands, with these tools.

Once it was up, my visions of stud farms faded and I could appreciate what I was left with - not only the right kind of fence for my needs, but also a basic understanding of how to repeat the process. This in spite of all my fretting.

Their other gift to me was two great oak "posts" to hang the gate. I saw what I thought were four tree trunks in the back of Ted's truck. But once Ted selected a trunk, carved a point on it with his chainsaw, and we lifted it into place, I realised what a post it. It's just a tree, or at least part of a tree, that once cut, takes on the properties of whatever its intended use, in this case a gate post. Sometimes it's firewood (heat), sometimes it's planks (building material). And so on.  As a post its tight grain will support the 15'gate better than softwood, and its natural tannins will prevent it rotting.

They look right there, don't you think? Once in place, Ted offered to cut them level to neaten them up. I asked him to leave them as they are, not quite even, maybe a little bit rough. Now when I look at them they will remind me of the lessons I learned as an apprentice fencer: sometimes the right thing is a stock fence, the fence has to fit the field, and a lot of the time your materials are all around you if you'd just open your eyes and see their potential.