Friday, 30 July 2010

Knitting with Meat

Peggy my butchery teacher is still recovering from her cleaved thumb. But life goes on around her which means pigs are ready for the chop, and customers want chops at the ready - so to speak. She had a small pig hung in her chiller to fill an order for a wedding next week. There are always unskilled tasks to do, so I offered my help again and spent 5 hours butchering and making sausages with Peggy today.

No wonder Peggy has so many loyal customers. Her sausages are made of the best pork cuts, plus rusk, seasonings, and a bit of water just to bind the mix. That's it. She gave me sections to de-bone and break down so she could mince them. My job was to remove bones, rind (skin), any veins, glands, excess fat, or bruised meat. Peggy won't have any of that nonsense in her sausages.

It sounds a horrible job, but it really isn't. If you've ever had any interest in anatomy it's fascinating from that angle alone. While I cut, she gives me tips on how to hold my knife better (and safer), or where I can seam a joint to make it easier to remove fat. As I get more comfortable with the knife, I can break down the joints quicker. I'm still miles off Peggy's speed though, even with her thumb in traction.

Peggy asked had I ever made sausages before. I had not. I had seen sausages hanging in a butcher's window before and that was the sum total of my experience, besides eating them of course.

Sausages are linked in groups of three, strung together like Christmas lights-

This looked like skilled labor to me. We had over 50 pounds of sausages to make for the wedding and for customers' orders so I needed to get skilled - fast.

I rinsed the natural casings out, which are preserved in brine. Washing them removes the excess salt. Peggy filled them, then demonstrated the technique: pinch and twist, make another, twist and push through the first two, pull up, pinch in half, twist that pair and start again. Easy, right?

Yeah. It made that much sense to me too.

But as I watched her, I realised it was no different than making a basic chain stitch, a common stitch used in knitting and embroidery. It's the basic stitch on your sewing machine -

Apparently it's also a great way to link your sausages.

Here's a case where a skill learned in one discipline translates directly to another. Who'd have thought there would be an obvious link between knitting and butchery. (Hey, maybe that's where the term "link sausages" derives from?). Of course you don't need needles to knit sausages, and my knitting wool doesn't burst out of its casing when I'm making a sweater, but you can see where I'm going with the comparison.

Once I got the hang of chain stitching sausages, I made 100 chipolata sausages (little ones) and too many big sausages to count. Customers were buying them as quickly as Peggy and I could make them. Peggy sold them with the caveat "They haven't had 24 hours to dry in the chiller, so don't eat them right away. Leave them in your fridge overnight. And don't put anything heavy on them in the car!" She puts a lot of care into her meat and a split, wet sausage is unacceptable. It doesn't do justice to her work or the pig's.

I must have passed the test (she didn't see me re-twist and titivate a few that loosened in the chiller) as she's asked me to come on a more regular basis to help in the butchery. For money. An actual job! Supplementary to my gamekeeper's wife job working dogs, cooking for the staff, and vermin control. But like knitting and butchery, the two jobs have shared skill sets. Though I'm not sure the words "unskilled" and "butchery" sound good in a job title .

I know where I will be spending my first paycheck. If Peggy hasn't run out of sausages by then.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Half-Assed and How Not to Do It

If I was ever qualified to write a book on a subject, it would be doing a job with only half the knowledge and a limited box of tools. That or finding novel ways of almost killing yourself.

Because of our way of life, I know that I'm going to have to do things I'm not completely prepared for, which are inherently dangerous. Farming has just come top of the league table as the most dangerous profession in England (we don't have Alaskan crab fishing industry to compete with).

Some things are always best left to a professional - electrical wiring for example - when tools and knowhow will save your life. With some jobs you can gain a modicum of proficiency if you know your limits. Like chainsawing.

I have passed my basic chainsaw qualifications and I feel comfortable using my chainsaw for straightforward jobs like logging and felling small trees that aren't under power lines. Contractors are coming to finish the fence on Milkweed so I needed to clear 300 metres of overhanging trees to speed up the fencing process and save some of the cost. We decided to let the contractors put in the rest of the fence because they have the hydraulic post-rammer. The posts will stay up longer than if I pounded them in by hand (see? - better tools.)

We had to improvise a mobile platform to reach the branches and the truck was our best option. It has the tailgate for lower stuff, and the top of the tilt for the 'up high' branches -

I admit this picture isn't the best representation of safe working, but we assessed the risks and did our best. That doesn't mean accidents don't happen. I stood on the tailgate and leaned to reach a branch, just as Mike let the truck roll forward slightly. The truck and I parted company and I chucked the saw away from me, as I was taught to do in case of a fall. I only sustained a bruise, but I managed to hit the truck with the saw -

Completely minor. But in hindsight, I know better than to reach too far and I know I should stop when my muscles are getting tired. But the fence line is clear now and the fence guys are coming mid-August.

While my muscles and my pride recover, I thought I would get on with some more sedate work: processing fleece. My crafty friend Colette managed to borrow a couple of drum carders for us to try. Neither of us knew how to use them, but we were unlikely to cause ourselves major injury by trial and error. A few scraped knuckles at worst. 

Until now I have hand carded all my fleece. A laborious task. It can take up to a year of picking and carding to get enough fleece to spin enough wool to make a jumper.
picture courtesy

The drum carder is a technological leap forward. It was invented in the late 18th century. It can process fleece in less than half the time of hand carding. This takes the process from unbearable to just tedious.

You can read a synopsis of carding wool and its development here.

Colette had the foresight to look up a couple of YouTube videos, so she talked me through the basics. It goes something like this:

Take pile of clean(ish) fleece -

Pick out a handful and tease it into a loose bunch -

Feed bunch into drum carder by cranking handle -

Pull carded fleece from drum -

Now you have a batt of fibre. You can leave it as is, or roll it into a little cupcake-shaped ball for easy storage -

They're ready to spin. Colette lent me one of the carders to take home. I reckon I can now process both of my Polled Dorset fleeces in a couple of months. God bless the industrial revolution.

Something else I get a lot of practice with?-

Washing fox shit off of the dogs. It's not dangerous - it just smells that way.

We have had another chick appear from a sneaky clutch of eggs -

It's a Phoenix chick. The mother is flighty and distracted, so the chick is constantly peeping for attention. I tried fostering the chick on Susan but the chick rejected her new mother, fell out of the nest box and peeped furiously until I returned it to the original haphazard hen. The chick is just going to have to take its chances now.

This breed is pretty but not one I would recommend. Although the cockerel is lovely natured, the hens are highly-strung during breeding season. I'm tempted to take the whole family to the specialist poultry auction once the chick is big enough.  Someone with more fancy chicken know-how than I have would love to own them. I'll stick to breeds that thrive under my improvised trial-and-error efforts.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Critter Catch-up

I apologise that my posts have been sparse recently and perhaps not my best work. Gamekeepers (and their dutiful wives) are too tired to see straight by this time of year. We are in the long grass. The pheasant crop is under attack from disease, which we are just managing to get on top of now.
The young birds have also been plagued by sparrowhawks, feral ferrets, buzzards and, by the look of a few in the woods with their throats ripped out this morning, possibly a stoat. We can counter the disease, we can't combat protected predators. We're tired and a bit disheartened, which is normal for this time of year.  I promise I will be more philosophical and witty when I'm not falling asleep in my cereal bowl.

I can at least muster a quick critter update:

Grandma Brown is the proud (and very grouchy) mother of 4 chicks -

We have two Japanese bantams and two Buff Orpingtons. Fingers crossed for a breeding pair of each.

Barbara's chicks are now big enough to range around the garden without being food for crows. Barbara is tidbit-ing them a piece of bread -

There are two more chicks lurking under the hedge. Barbara is a relaxed mother.

Gertie's chicks are now bigger than she is -

Chick (L) and Mom (R)

They still loosely trail around with her, and she hasn't kicked them out of the nest yet. Gertie also raised this silver Silkie chick, who already has a standout personality -

I really hope it's a little hen because she'll be a cracker. She's curious and friendly, and was the first to venture out without mom. Even if she's a boy, she's staying.

I took Spud to puppy agility class last night, just for some new experiences, and she did great. Dakota came along as nursemaid so I stuck her in the next class up for fun. She ran the course, including both tunnels, without any training. I don't think she found it as much fun as looking for deer or chasing rabbits.

We're dogging in now, i.e. pushing wandering pheasants back home with dogs. Sometimes three times a day. Pip wants you to know that she's sustained the first injury of this season -

It was Pip vs. barbed wire fence. Pip lost. She tore a flap of skin from her leg but it appears superficial and she's not lame. I cleaned and reassembled the wound, and dressed it. I've given her some antibiotics just in case. She has taken to her bed to recuperate, which looks suspiciously like my bed. That woeful expression on her face should win her a best actress award.

The best news is that the horses are back in work!

I have found two wonderful ladies in the next village who are always ready to ride around the country lanes on horseback. Kitty and Alan are enjoying the change of scenery. When we get the fence finished at Milkweed, they will be enjoying some fresh grass as well.

The sheep are growing so big I needed to get them a bigger trough -

The orphans are catching up with the in-lamb ewes, size wise. I hang over the fence wasting too much time watching them convert grass to sheep shit. I still can't believe they're mine. But what really makes me feel like a farmer? -

The bureaucracy.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010


The good weather has broken. Mist has come in as thick as a fisherman's sock. The weather pine cone is closed tight which tells me that the rain is in, at least for a few days. Barbara the weather chicken is starting to look damp and threadbare, as she takes her brood out to explore the garden. I'm inside catching up on paperwork and knitting today. And of course there are more pheasant chicks to bit.
Not much of a view over the hedge this morning

Mist and rain doesn't stop morning chores; it just means that you're soggy and your glasses are steamed up by the time you've finished. All the animals need feeding, walking, and letting in or out as required. I've been getting up by 6am so I can finish the basics by 8.30. It makes me feel more productive.

Grandma Brown and Susan are still sat tight on their respective clutches. Grandma Brown went broody in an old wine case in the tool shed -

Grandma B

A few days ago I swapped the two dummy eggs she sat on with two fertile ones from the incubator. Both her eggs and the others in the incubator are due tomorrow. Grandma Brown's ass is the size of a dinner plate so she's going to foster them all. Susan is incubating her second clutch of the year, though she's only ever managed to rear one chick per hatch. She's not due for a fortnight yet.


One of the brown laying hens is limping, and has adopted the 'tail down' position of an ailing bird. Perhaps she had a run-in with a dog or a car, I don't know. But she's foraging and generally soldiering on with being a chicken. I'll just observe her for now.

A second brown hen has split her beak down the middle. I think I'll have to catch her and trim it up, to keep the split from getting any worse. We have a special tool that trims and cauterises beaks, though I've never had reason to use it before. That can be my new skill for next week.

And my new skill for this week? Sexing quail. I was given four little Coturnix quail and shown how to sex them. It's surprisingly straightforward. At 6 weeks of age (or sexual maturity), the males produce what look like little balls of foam. Pick up a quail, turn it over and expose the vent. If you can see one of these foam balls, it's a boy.

Boy quail (L) and girl quail (R)

It turns out we have two boys and two girls, though the dark hen has a joint deformity that causes her to walk on her elbows. I don't think it will correct itself as her joints are noticeably large, probably damaged. I will watch and make sure that she doesn't develop any sores or wounds on her elbows where they touch the ground. As long as she stays healthy, there's no harm in keeping her. We're only eating the eggs, not hatching them.

This "give everything a chance" attitude means that, between us, Mike and I have had our fair share of gimpy pets.

This same attitude was present last night, on our ride back from Milkweed field. Mike was driving when he swerved the truck, hit the brakes and opened his door.

"What the hell are you doing?" I said.

"There's a moth in the truck" Mike said.


"And I wanted to let it out so it didn't die in here. Lepidoptera are suffering this year after such a hard winter. It needs to get out and breed."

It's true, I thought. I haven't seen many moths or butterflies this summer.

" Oh honey, that's really sweet of you!" I said.

"Well, there's not a lot to eat on a moth so it wasn't worth keeping anyway." Mike said

A gamekeeper with a heart, but still a gamekeeper. I just hope he doesn't realise how much meat is on a lame quail.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Thumbs, lambs, AWOL quail, and chicken tales

Poor Peggy.

Peggy is our local butcher, and my sometimes butchery mentor. She raises all the sheep and pigs that she butchers and sells them from her small farm shop. Peggy was preparing half a pig for us and she fell foul of her cleaver. Well, the top of her thumb did anyway. She should be laid up but she's soldiering on in spite of the pain and doctor's orders. In her opinion, her customers' orders are more important.

I heard the story from her husband Steve when I arrived to pick up our pig. As I'm always looking for an excuse to avoid the pheasant pens in this heat, I offered to give Peggy a hand (!) as unskilled laborer in the butchery room. I was surprised, but glad, that Peggy called and accepted the help.

On Wednesday I spent 4 hours helping her process lamb carcases to fill orders, and we were just finishing each one as the customers came to collect them, one after the other. My work earned us huge beef joint for Sunday lunch, though I was happy to do it just to help. It certainly gave me more experience, and I know how much we appreciated help when Mike was first out of hospital.

It feels nice just to be nice sometimes.

We've had some unexpected house guests -

Unexpected but quite welcome.

It's a pair of swallows. I never even noticed them building a mud nest over the front door. (I know, my powers of observation are astounding.) We're only using the back door now, so we won't disturb them. She appears to be sitting on eggs. I hope we'll see three or four frowning fledglings peering over the top soon.

I noticed we were one quail short this morning when I fed their pen. I disturbed a small rat which darted out from a hole it had dug, probably to get to the quail's food. This hole was not only rat-sized but quail-sized too, at least for the smallest of the three birds. In the afternoon, I heard the lost quail calling and Pip helped me to find him. He had crossed the road and was hanging out with the sheep. He's back with his own kind now.

Barbara is still being a great mom -

She has five chicks now. The two that went to our neighbor's to placate their broody hen were rejected. Simon brought them back a couple of days later and I just stuffed them under Barbara. She didn't bat an eye. Silkies are the most dependable and adaptable broody I've ever known. I suspect if you crammed a newborn puppy under her ass, she'd give it a go.

'Stuffed' and 'crammed' are technical terms by the way.

I can see Barbara from my kitchen window and I watched her while I was baking a cake. She's been pulling the feathers out from her chest and between her legs. You can see the result in her run, which I only moved this morning. We're having a heat wave and I wondered if it was to regulate temperature for the chicks - i.e. less feathers equals less heat equals cooler chicks. Does anyone else know what this behavior is about? She certainly doesn't seem stressed.

As if we didn't already have enough chickens, I'm off to a poultry auction tomorrow morning, There is a pair of Barbu D'Uccles listed in the catalogue which I'd like to bring home.  I'm using the money I've earned selling eggs to bid on the breeding pair, which gives me a limit. And seems apropos. Eggs for chickens. The Barbu D'Uccle eggs in the incubator are infertile so it's auction or bust, at least for this year.

Monday, 5 July 2010

What does a working dog do when it's not shooting season?

I'm glad you asked.

Working dogs are compelled to work. It's in their genes. The springers - Jazz, Dulcie, Hazel - are purely shoot day dogs. They work hard in the winter. Some dogs, like Podge, work hard in the summer months and help out in shoot season. Dakota works year round on guard duty. And of course there are young dogs like Spud who are still finding out what they're best at, and retired dogs like Nell, who do as they please.

Then there's Pip. Pip's main job is in the shoot season with the springers. Out of season, she finds other jobs to keep her busy. She's wants you to know how versatile she is.

Besides retrieving pheasants, she helps me by retrieving my ball of wool when I'm knitting and it gets away from me --
I'll get it!

Here you go...

Pip is also a footwarmer --

And when moved onto the floor doubles as a throw rug / speed bump --

Don't disturb me, I'm working...

Pip has a recycling function --

mmmm...pea pods and asparagus stalks...

Pip works not just at home, but 'on the go' too --

--as truck ballast. And maybe a wheel arch decoration.

Pip is also the self-appointed bathroom monitor --

I need a hand towel and a tip cup...

When you have a labrador, you're never alone. Even when you want to be.

Pip also does impressions --

Very scary indeed, Pip.

All these skills and talents, and all the dogs ask in return is a pat on the head and some of this --

Boiled lamb offal, collected from Peggy my butchery teacher.

How do I know when the offal is ready? I have an official taster on standby --

These dogs love their work.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Bitting Pheasants and Going to Wood

This year's hatch is officially complete - don't ask me the final tally as it's a keeper's secret how many birds are hatched, but overall it was a good season and we had surplus to sell. A shoot can only make money in two ways: young birds sold to other shoots, or birds sold over guns (i.e. shoot days).

The value of a pheasant as food is minimal, and a partridge only slightly more than minimal: a couple of pounds ($3-4) a brace. Feathered game is sold as a brace, that is two birds tied together at the neck, traditionally one of each sex.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. At the moment, the oldest birds are just going out to wood. The younger birds are being bitted. Both have been our jobs this week.

Bitting is the practice of fitting small, clip-on rings into the bird's nasal passage. Pete's using a bit gun to insert the bit -

This is a bitted bird. The bit prevents the bird closing his mouth all the way -

She can still eat and drink without problem. But, young pheasants have some unpleasant behaviors including pulling each other's tail feathers out, causing their victims bleed to death. If they can't shut their mouths tight, they can't grab hold of the feather to pull it out. It's for their own, and each other's, protection.

We try and keep stocking rates low, to prevent stress which exacerbates the situation. Some sheds of birds don't pull feathers and we don't have to bit them. When the weather is as good as it's been this summer, we can get the birds out on fresh grass quickly, and this also cuts the rate of feather pulling. So far we've only bitted 3 sheds, and have 2 more that need doing tomorrow, which is less than a quarter of the sheds.

Bitting can be a loathsome task. It's hot and dusty, and the birds are skittish.

It takes 4 of us about an hour to complete a shed. We each sit in a corner, and then it's simply picking up each bird, fitting the bit, putting it down and picking up the next bird. Repeat ad nauseum.

The mask helps to prevent us inhaling the dust, but I can tell you from experience choose your lunch carefully. Cheese and onion pie burps in a mask are intolerable. Almost worse than the dried bird poop you will shortly be picking out of your eyebrows and hairline. The pheasant food is made with fish meal and it smells bad enough before it's been through the pheasant.

Sadly, I've had worse jobs.

When the birds are old enough, they "go to wood". That is, they are put into release pens which are large areas of wood that have a perimeter fence with ankle-high electric fencing to keep foxes out. There's no top on the pens so the birds can fly in and out as they please, and roost in the trees. They view where they roost as home. We feed them here, to encourage them to hang around and want to roost in the pens. This will be vital later, during shoot season.

To put a bird to wood, we catch them in their sheds, remove their bits (if bitted), crate them -

This is one technique for catching and holding young pheasants. You catch them by the legs - both legs - from behind. And you must hold them above the knee joint, by the meat on their thighs. Otherwise you could dislocate or break their leg. By holding 5 birds like this, it frees up my other hand to simply flick the bits out of their beaks.

Once we've filled the crates, they're loaded on the back of the trucks for the mile or so journey to a pen. These birds are going to Hankmoor pen. The truck is backed up to the pen gate -

The crates are unloaded and set in the wooded pen -

The doors are open and the pheasants come out and explore their surroundings at their leisure -

Then the crates are collected and stacked on the truck and the whole process starts all over again until, over a period of weeks, all the birds are put out to wood.

With birds in the woods, we have to keep on top of predator control. This year's fox cubs will be old enough to hunt for themselves now, and young pheasants are an easy meal. Buzzards and sparrowhawks (both protected) will have the odd poult, but foxes can annihilate a hundred or more in one evening.