Monday, 28 June 2010

A Productive Day (the Reader's Digest version)

I collected some hatching eggs, including Barbu D'Uccles, from my friend Jane -

I sheared the lambs, under the Nigel's expert (and patient) tutelage -

Nigel tells me mules (hybrid sheep) are the easiest to shear, temperament-wise. No prizes for guessing which breed he tells me are the worst.

It's a sweaty old job, but very rewarding.

Remind me I said that when I have to shear a whole flock.

I saved the shearling wool and put it in a pillowcase. I popped it in thewashing machine (twice) and have some pretty clean wool -

It's no good for spinning, but I can use it to make pillows, to stuff the cushion covers embroidered by my mother and grandmother.

I gave the guys a hand to run in a few sheds of pheasant chicks, as some rain is on the way. Between us we caught a few escapees and put them back inside to warm up -

While I was dealing with the lambs and the pheasants, the chickens in the incubator hatched -

They're Orpington crosses, for Simon the Gardener. He's had two chicks to placate his broody hen, and I've had three to raise under Barbara the Silkie. She's already tucked them in for the night under her feathery bottom.

She was sitting on three eggs I thought were addled but two seemed like they might potentially hatch. Grandma Brown went broody a few days ago so I've just moved them to her care. We'll wait and see.

On the other end of the chicken spectrum, we processed another couple of meat birds. We could only do two, before the sun set on us -

Tomorrow is our last hatch of pheasant chicks for this year. After hatching, I hope it will be a quiet afternoon.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Making hay (and chickens, lambs, and strawberry pie) while the sun shines

Our meat chickens arrived plucked and gutted at 8am yesterday morning -

I must be getting a "farmer's stomach" as the sight of eight flaccid, raw birds on my breakfast table didn't put me off my morning coffee. I drank my coffee while I wrapped the chickens ready for the freezer.

Strawberry season is here and I headed off to the local Pick-Your-Own, on the grounds of an 800 year old Cistercian Monastery. I've stocked the freezer, and had enough to make a strawberry and rhubarb pie. The English don't have a culinary history of fruit pies. If you say "pie" to an Englishman, he thinks steak and some kind of offal or stinking cheese. I'm trying to right that wrong. This pie is guaranteed offal-free and I'm teaching Mike to eat it for breakfast. After tasting the pie, he claims he's converted. Well, monks once lived where the strawberries grew, so I guess a religious experience was inevitable.

The cooking kept me occupied until it was time to collect my new ewes. I wrestled the sheep trailer onto the truck (it's all about leverage) and drove to Mr. Baker's Farm.

This is Mr. Baker -

Mr. Baker farms cattle and sheep. He's always got a smile, and a sensible answer to my never ending questions. And infinite patience for my never ending questions. He was late getting back for his supper because we were "talking sheep". Sheep talk is very serious stuff. You can tell how serious by the look of concentration on my face. We're checking his notes to calculate when my ewes are due to lamb - 

And looking over the three rams, discussing their conformation and reproductive prowess -

Here we are examining a lame ewe's foot  -

Mr. Baker gave me a quick sheep anatomy lesson using his willing victim. Did you know that sheep have sweat glands on the front of their ankles? And by their teats? I guess I'd sweat too if I had to wear a wool body stocking all year round.

Mr. Baker had my ewes in a box on the back of his tractor, which he just backed up to my trailer-

The ewes simply stepped from one into the other. I wondered if it would be so easy when we unloaded them at the other end. After all, we didn't have a canine back-up plan -

Mike's helpful but he's not as well trained as this pair.

The ewes were sheared last week. Mr. Baker saved me their fleece, which is soaking in the bath as I write this.

Look at these beauties, ready for their ride back to Dorset -

Just before we left, I noticed a collection of old horseshoes on a nearby wall. Mr. Baker says his plough is forever turning them up in the soil. I know from experience horses lose shoes for a past time, but this collection was a visual reminder of the history inherent in his land and the days before tractors. When horsepower meant horse power.

From my museum days, I recognised the age of some of the examples. At least one was over 300 years old. On the way home, I asked Mike how long Mr. Baker had been farming there.

"Oh, it's a new farm. He's only been there 40 years" Mike said.

"How is 40 years not a long time?" I said

"I mean it's not been farmed by his family for generations." Mike said

British people have a difference concept of what constitutes history than Americans do. At least we agreed that the Cistercians monks were pretty damn historical.

We got our new ewes home and I eventually backed the trailer into the narrow lane leading to their paddock (thank god for the "Learn to Reverse your Trailer" course at the local agric college.) There was still 10 feet between the back of the trailer and the paddock gate. That's a lot of room for a sheep to misbehave. I crossed my fingers and dropped the ramp on the trailer. The ewes walked right in with only a little arm waving on our parts.

My orphans ran at the newcomers, and bleated a group welcome. A bit of sniffing and they all walked off in a gang -

When I'm not playing sheep rodeo or jabbing myself with vaccine, this shepherding gig isn't as hard as I thought. According to my Old Farmer's Almanac, the gestation period for a ewe is about 150 days. My two new arrivals are already a month or so into their pregnancies. This gives me four months to figure out where I'm going to build a temporary lambing shed in my backyard.

At least I know we'll be able to feed them. We just had Milkweed Farm baled and we harvested 478 bales-

That's about average for this hot and dry summer. In a good year we can expect 900 bales. If we'd only collected ten bales, I would have been excited. We kept the hay we needed and sold the rest to the contractor to pay for the work. He will store our bales as well. This crop saves us the cost of our biggest winter feed bill. More importantly, this winter our own home bred lambs will be eating our own home grown organic hay. It's a good start.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Continuing Adventures of Myfanwy the Chicken

I have been reporting a lot of bad news on the chicken front, so I thought I would catch you all up on the good news stories.

Do you remember Myfanwy the egg-eating hen? As Charles's last remaining heir (I let a friend have her two sisters and a fox got them both...sorry, a bit more bad news I forgot to tell you about) I was very fond of her. As a egg-eater, I was very annoyed with her. My attempts to reform her failed. I found her a home but it fell through. This turned out to be a bonus as the home was with her two (recently departed) sisters and their vulpine visitor.

We finally made the hard choice to put her in the pheasant pen in the woods. I was sat with her on my lap in the front seat of Mike's truck. As we left our driveway I had a great idea. The Manor house flock was down to only a few cockerels after repeated fox attacks (I think we have taken care of the culprits now). No hens. No eggs. What did we have to lose by making Myfanwy a "gift" to Lord and Lady S? At worst she would wander down the drive and back home to us, and we'd have to go back to plan A. At best, the Manor house cockerels would have company, and maybe even the odd egg.

It has been a complete success. Myfanwy immediately took up with a little Cochin cockerel. The housekeeper tells me they are inseparable. As a bossy hen, she's leading him rather than the other way around, but they both seem content with the arrangement.

Doesn't she look happy, more purposeful? Do you remember the hen with the rolling pin from the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons? That's Myfanwy. She just needs the straw hat with the flower to complete the picture.

I just walked down to the house to deliver some fresh eggs, and Myfanwy was having her picture taken by tourists-

Myfanwy now lives in this garden -

It's a step up from our front yard. No wonder she decided to stay. All the men to herself, a fancy garden and the adoration of tourists all summer. She's must feel like a celebrity (or is that a celebirdy?)

And to top it off, she's stopped eating eggs. Can you believe it? The housekeeper says she picks up an egg most days.

The ducklings I hatched for Lady S are happily reunited with their parents. The family group spends most of their day waddling around the churchyard attached to the manor, adding ambiance to the place. The ducklings are splashed black and white, a mix of their parents -

I have a small hatch due out on Sunday, so maybe there will be more good news - the start of a small flock of Buff Orpingtons. I have sourced a handful of Barbu D'Uccle eggs and I will set them next week.

The last bit of good news is a 'blowing my own trumpet' announcement: I administered the last dose of injectable wormer to the sheep last week All.By.Myself. No accidents, no jabbing my own hand. I penned them, caught them, rolled them and jabbed them. And they're still alive. Later my husband surprised me with a gift he had made for me -

My very own shepherd's crook. We still have quite a few working blacksmiths in England and Mike found an old pattern and had the smith make it for me. It's used to hook the back leg of a sheep and hold it. The girls are going to have to endure me practising yet another technique on them.

I've just registered my flock with the AHO (Animal Health) as required by our government. Once I receive my flock number I will be an official sheep keeper. I'm about to register with the Polled Dorset Sheep Breeder's Association and I have to pick a prefix, as a name for my flock. I've chosen Yankee. The Yankee Flock of Polled Dorset. I think it suits us both.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Spring Harvest

We harvested half of the meat chickens yesterday. They just couldn't go on any longer. Their bulk - i.e. all the tasty bits - were too much pressure on their joints and internal organs. The biggest ones had to go. I would have harvested them all if Paul had room in his chiller, and time to pluck them. I may end up doing the last 6 by hand over the next week.

We're still here, it wasn't our turn yet..

I never thought I would believe that a chicken was better off in an indoor rearing unit than as a free range bird, but this breed is. When I collected the chicks, I visited the unit. It was a high-tech chicken palace. I've had apartments in college that weren't as nice.

The temperature and humidity are regulated by computer and it was pleasant, not too hot or stuffy. There are skylights to let natural light filter in. Food and water is ad lib, measured out by computer so drinkers never ran dry, and bigger birds didn't push smaller ones off the feed. The shavings on the floor were spotlessly clean and dry. The chicks weren't cramped, and as they grew half were taken away to double the floorspace and accommodate the remaining birds. In fact it was the perfect environment for a lazy, quiet, fast-growing chicken with no desire to range about exploring.

Forcing a healthy outdoor lifestyle on this bird was a mistake. One had a heart attack. Most of the others we killed had corns, or bumble foot, from carrying its own weight. One had feathers missing from the back of its neck where it looks like a buzzard attempted to harvest it first, but was defeated by the size of its potential meal. The meat chicken was too big to have taken any evasive manoeuvres, if it even noticed it was being attacked.

They didn't show any curiosity in kitchen scraps, so they only ate pellets which is less efficient economically speaking. When I drove them back into their hen house at night, they needed a rest stop to complete the whole 5 foot trip.

Even if the end result is exceptionally tasty, I think we're putting this breed in the 'no' pile as a future table bird for Milkweed Farm.

I put 20 buff orpington eggs (and some hybrids) in the incubator as our next test case, but the fertility has been poor - only 25%. We used our neighbor's stock and he has a new cockerel. We will see if we can figure out what's gone wrong and try to set another batch.

The wild birds in the hedgerows are having a bumper year of chicks. I have to re-home a fledgling on a near daily basis that's fallen out of its nest onto the road. Usually it's easy to find the nest and tuck the chick back in to it. I found a swallow fledgling on its back in the road, exhausted from whatever endeavours a swallow gets up to. I put it in an empty hen house overnight and it recovered enough to take flight when put back in a tree. Success!

We also have a few new additions - quail. They were a gift from a local breeder. I just keep them for quail's eggs and for the sweet chirruping noises they make.

All mothers are out with their chicks now. Susan has already started laying again even with a chick still dependent on her -

The dogs can have them for tea. The pheasants have stopped laying so the dogs are back on chicken eggs.

Gertie has done a stellar job with her mixed brood -

The morning I let her out to range with her chicks for the first time, Gertie stood at the entrance of the house clucking and pruupping to her chicks. It sounded like a lecture - "Stay close, don't go running off, if I call you I expect you to come right back. Don't sass me, don't fight with your sister, and stay away from the dogs.". Kids and moms are the same regardless of species. The chicks are behaving impeccably, to her credit.

So that's the start of the spring harvest. I'm just off to meet with the contractor who's cutting our first batch of hay from Milkweed Farm. Our first hay harvest, to feed our own animals. I'm really excited about it.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Red in tooth and claw

We had a chicken tragedy overnight. I woke up to the sound of a distressed chicken, ran outside and wrenched the side off the hen house, and came face-to-snout with a badger. Eating my chickens! Bob and Harriet the Barbu D'Uccles, and Sam the Japanese bantam live in this house.

The badger maimed Harriet, pulled her off her nest and was eating her from the leg up. She was so injured I had to put her out of her misery. Her nest is abandoned now.

Bob and Sam were both alive, but Bob is sporting a serious limp. They survived overnight but both could still succumb to stress. I've put them on a course of antibiotics and multi-vitamins to prevent secondary infections, a common response to stress.

Dakota chased the badger despite my calling her off - badgers can do a lot of harm to dogs - and she's sore this morning but I can't find any bite wounds. I hope she's just sore from the exertion. I've given her some dog aspirin too.

I'm so heart-broken about my little pair. Carol, the other Barbu D'Uccle hen, was in a maternity pen with her foster chicks and was thankfully spared. If Bob heals enough to fertilise eggs, that will be some comfort. I've already put out a call for some Barbu D'Uccle hatching eggs from other breeders. I hope to rebuild my stock one way or another. It would be sad to have a garden without those sweet little birds scratching around.

Sometimes nature is just so mean.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Layers, Shutters, and Cleavers

Now that we have all the pheasant eggs we need to produce this year's stock, we can let the laying hens (and their boyfriends) out of the pens. Half the birds are being crated and moved to the woods. There's an electric fence around the woods to protect them from the foxes, plus trees for roosting, and dense cover for laying a sneaky clutch of eggs. All the amenities a pheasant could need. We will continue to feed them in the woods so they stay put until shooting season.

Catching pheasants is hot, tiring work. There is no easy way to do it. You just need enough people to herd the pheasants into a corner -

and a couple of netters to scoop as many as possible -

The herders also catch a few each by hand before they scatter. Then we gather them into a corner and start the process again until all the birds are caught. Pip waits in the back of the truck if she's needed to retrieve any stragglers.

She has such a gentle mouth she returns them to hand unharmed. I don't know how people get things done without working dogs to help them.

We crate the birds and some of the helpers take them straight down to the woods -

It is not a job for anyone with a bird phobia as they explode upwards, flapping and kicking up dust. Feathers and toenails and spurs take their toll on us. We're all sporting straight-line cuts on our face and hands. One even managed to slit the inside of my bottom lip. There's blood on our clothes - a mixture of ours and theirs.
But we all make it through the experience.

Considering the opportunity for bacteria and other nasty organisms to get into our systems (hey, I just had a bird's dirty toenail cut the inside of my mouth!) I'm surprised how rarely we get ill. I think we have immunity to pretty much everything avian-related. But I still really look forward to washing the poop out of my hair at the end of this job.

The other half of the laying birds are being released straight onto the field. The pen doors are left open and the birds can come out at their leisure. We still put food in the pens to keep them around the field and any stragglers who go back to the pens at night instead of roosting in nearby trees are still protected by the electric fence around the pens. Eventually they will settle themselves into the adjoining woods, and we'll start putting their food in there.

On the other side of the field, the young stock is growing on well. Sixteen sheds are full and five more will be filled over the next fortnight. The bigger birds are out on grass in protected pens. They still seek out the warmth of the heaters inside their sheds at night.

Today we're fitting more nets on top of outdoor runs. This keeps the growing birds in and the buzzards and sparrowhawks out. I'm patching holes while Mike and Pete attach the nets to the runs with tiny hooks -

There's lots of natural cover in there to make the birds feel safe and provide some shade and wild food.

Our local town of Bridport is famous for net, rope, and twine making throughout history.  Rigging for famous war ships was made here. So were the ropes that made the nooses used to hang criminals in London (hanging was known as "being stabbed with the Bridport dagger"). The tennis nets for Wimbledon are still made here. So are all the nets we use in the gamekeeping industry.

Our dear friend Nicola has worked in Bridport making nets for at least 30 years. This time of year her books are filled by orders for gamekeepers. She and her two female colleagues "shut" (i.e. stitch together) the nets to order. I don't know if it was traditionally a female job but it seems that the good shutters now are all women.

Nets come in a big bale and Nicola cuts them and shuts them to order. They use special net-making needles and a series of movements and knots to make invisible joins. When the busy season for net-making is over, Nicola is going to teach me to shut nets so I can repair our own pheasant nets properly, instead of bodging the gaps with baling twine. During the shooting season when chores and daylight are less, I can do a bit of mending while I catch up on my TV watching.

At home, the cows have moved into the back field behind the house. My usual dog walking routes have to be altered this time of year, to take into account where livestock is grazing. Sheep aren't a problem as they keep away from the dogs, but cattle can be confrontational. I make a mental note of where the overly inquisitive young steers are, and where the bulls are. One bull is in the field behind the house, which is our regular dog walking route so I'm giving him a wide berth for now.

That's him lying down just the other side of our fence. He's very placid, as beef bulls tend to be. But as a farmer once told me, you can never wholly trust the male of any species. Amen to that.

The dogs and I have been walking in the woods instead. The bluebells are over but the rhododendrons are flowering -

Unfortunately some of the pernicious weeds are also romping away. Stinging nettles are extra potent in this dry weather, and cleavers are trying to spread their seed. Apparently Podge is their chosen seed dispersal method -

And that's why they call them cleavers I guess. Picking seeds off of the dogs at least makes a chance from picking ticks off of them. Mike tells me a change is as good as a rest. I'm not convinced.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

And sometimes it is about the sheep shit

Caring for livestock isn't rocket science. Animals need food, water, space to act out behaviors genetically programed into their species. They need protection from the elements, and sometimes from themselves: lambs get their heads stuck through fences, horses scratch an itch and in the process get their blankets tangled around their feet. Generally speaking, if an animal is not stiff, on its back with its legs stuck up in the air, you're doing OK.

I was told when I started keeping sheep that they have two aims in life: to escape and to die. We succeeded in keeping our first orphan ram lambs alive and well (until they went into the freezer anyway) so I was feeling marginally confident that I was ready to start with a small breeding flock of ewes. And so far they haven't escaped or died either.

But, part of the 'not dying' program involves a semi-complex vaccination and deworming cycle. And this can feel like rocket science. There are SO many drugs available to accomplish this.

Six weeks ago, I started their course of injections. If you remember, I accidentally injected both myself and the lambs that first time.

Well, it's not just a one shot deal, so to speak. A second course of vaccine has to be given within 4-6 weeks of the first, or you need to start the whole process over. And injectable wormers need to be given once, then again 7 days later, and repeated on a bimonthly cycle, plus extras 4-6 weeks before lambing to ensure the immunisation is passed onto lambs.

And then there are flukicides to administer. And pour-on treatments to prevent flies from laying their eggs on a sheep's arse. Sheep are to be pitied for sure, with all of god's other creatures out for a free meal at the sheep's expense. I'd run away or die too, if I were being plagued by flies, worms, parasites, and snails that ate my liver.

Anyway, there was some confusion at the vets and I ended up with 3 syringes of vaccine and a window of 8 hours to administer them to the sheep. I jumped in the truck with my meds, called underkeeper Pete to give me a hand sheep wrangling, and was ready to go. It all felt very "Mission Impossible".

The sheep are significantly larger than they were when I gave them their first injection 6 weeks ago. We tied some sheep hurdles to the fence like a kind of makeshift crush. I lured a sheep in with food and squashed her between the hurdle and the fence - like a sheep sandwich.

The picture in the book showed a relaxed sheep being easily injected. Just pinch a bit of skin on the neck and insert the needle it said. It's never like it is in the book, is it?

Syringes, bailing twine to tie the hurdle, and a scoop of feed - all the necessary tools according to the book

Sheep are quite weedy when it comes to even mild pain and they thrash about and bleat pathetically. I had my knee in the sheep's side, and Pete was trying to sit on her but it was like a woolly rodeo. I never managed to get the vaccine needle into the sheep, but I did manage to stick it in my hand yet again. I pulled it out of my hand, aimed for the neck, missed, and squirted the entire vaccine onto her wool. Crap.

I tried with the wormer. I got half of that injected into her and the needle out just in time, as she lunged over the hurdle and made for the other end of the paddock. I thought that there must be an easier way. I had 6 more injections to give and I didn't know if the sheep could take it, let alone my immune system as I was guaranteed to jab myself at least another three times.

On the up side, I wiped the blood where I'd stabbed myself onto the sheep's back, for easy identification of which sheep only needed a half dose. Just a handy tip for you.

I called the vet to see if a vet or vet nurse could come out and inject my lambs, and show me how to do it properly for next time. No one was free. I now had 6 hours to get the meds into the sheep, and I had to drive back to the vets for another dose of vaccine to replace the one that was now drying and crusty on the sheep's wool.

In desperation, I went to Tuss, the farmer who gave me the lambs. He and his three brothers are tenant farmers on the estate. They raise cattle, sheep, and crops. The farm is hidden in the woods. I found the farm and the youngest brother (in charge of milking). He directed me to Tuss's house. I got lost but ran into the oldest brother (in charge of beef cattle) and eventually found Tuss. I apologised for showing up unannounced and promised I could do it myself next time if he just showed me what I'm doing wrong, and anywaythevetcan'tcomeoutandI'mworriedthatI'llmissthewindow missionimpossibleandallthat...I was in a bit of a flap by now. And I was down to 5 hours.

Tuss is a sheep guru and unflappable. Bless him, he came right over and showed me how to hold a sheep more effectively, so there was no rodeo this time. I was able to easily inject a calm sheep, just like in the book. And he talked me down off the ledge with regards to vaccines and wormer and timings. Most importantly he looked over the sheep and said I've done a good job raising them.

No worse for wear

So, for all my complaining in the last post about the worst in people's nature, Tuss redressed the balance for me. I don't want to rely on favors from my neighbors, that's not fair to them. But when I'm stuck - really stuck - I found someone kind enough to help get me unstuck.

Now that the lambs are settled (until their second dose of wormer next week) and my weather pinecone tells me to expect rain soon, I will start my indoor chores and read up on the agricultural guidelines and principles I've been avoiding for the more rewarding work of digging, planting and hatching. It's not so bad as I've set up an outdoor office -

We had another good pheasant hatch yesterday. The percentages have surpassed our targets, so we now have some surplus chicks to sell to other shoots. The meat chickens are growing into their semi-free range lifestyle. They're starting to display more normal chicken behaviors like scratching and dusting and fighting over the best spot in the sun.  

They sure do poop a lot.

Monday, 7 June 2010

It's Not All Sunshine and Sheep Shit

As well as Milkweed Farm, we have Teasel Farm. Neither are really farms, just large fields, but we're working on making both more productive. Milkweed is small enough that I can manage it myself. Teasel is four times the size. It's a permanent grass pasture and we rent it for animal fodder. For the past few years we have rented it to a friend in the village, someone Mike's known for 20 years. Their youngest son is named after Mike. Their oldest son is at college studying to be a gamekeeper.

We had rented the field to him at "mate's rates", about half the market value. I was under the impression that I was building up social capital in the community, working in partnership with the local farmers so everyone could get a break. It turns out he's been subletting Teasel farm and earning money on it without our knowledge. And other farming friends of ours knew it was going on and no one told us. We only found out by accident.

I put a huge amount of stock in fairness, and the whole situation completely floored me. I didn't know how to process it. I thought we were part of the community. Now I feel I've been relegated to the "outsider" position, new to the area and new to farming. I'm the stooge, the mark for a grift.

I having been stewing on it for over a week, trying to understand how I misperceived the situation. Anthropology was my major at university; I tried to examine the situation using the theories I learned in those four years. No answer is wholly satisfactory.

I've baked, and spun wool, and sat watching the meat chickens settle into their new surrounds to mitigate the hurt and revive my flagging spirits. I've listened to podcasts from NPR, and talk radio from home to remind me that there are other perspectives and that I do fit in somewhere, even if it's miles from here. I've read other people's blogs and cheered for their successes. Thank you guys for being so positive.

On the plus side, the situation made confront some misplaced idealism on my part. I thought working for myself and working with animals would buffer me from social ills and the worst parts of human nature. No dice. People are everywhere and I have to find a way to manage my interactions with them. I can never be wholly self-sufficient while I need people to cut my hay, bang in a fence post or level a lumpy field edge. Since I don't have social capital, I will have to use money. Pay and be paid. For now, that will have to do.

I also realised that as much as I like learning to care for the land and livestock, I hate trying to navigate the government bureaucracy that goes with agriculture in Britain (and probably elsewhere). Well that's just tough. There are compliances, environmental standards, subsidy requirements, and I'm going to have to spend time to learn them if I want to make my farm my living.

I spoke to another neighbor farmer, one I respect as a stockman and producer. I sat down in his kitchen to ask about organic control of docks over a quick cup of tea. I ended up leaving nearly two hours later with more information and a better understanding of Milkweed Farm's bigger picture. He also recommended a reputable land agent, someone who's paid a fee to help you manage your tenants and farm bureaucracy to get the most return for your efforts. I've called to set up a meeting. I hope with a bit of time and guidance I will learn to be my own land agent. I can chalk this episode up to experience.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

What's Happening in the Garden

I've finally finished my small but perfectly chicken-proofed vegetable garden. Actually I think the term "garden" is a bit grand for two small squares of denuded soil where the chickens houses once sat. I think I go with "patch" instead.

There are a few tomatoes in the greenhouse, and some potatoes and peas in pots as well. It's the first proper gardening I've done in two years, since I was made redundant post-accident. I always had surplus vegetables from the estate's kitchen garden and had no reason (or time) to grow my own outside of my job. I've found this little patch immensely more satisfying. I had lost my enthusiasm for gardening, but now that I can experiment with techniques and vegetable varieties of my choosing, it's no longer a job but just another happy part of our life. The "two veg" to go with our meat.

Speaking of which, I collected my share of the meat chicks today from underkeeper Pete. They are off heat but still need shelter and food. LOTS of food. You've never seen anything eat the quantities these 'bred for meat' chickens do.

We're trying a range of birds for the table, to see which we prefer. The winner will be the bird we produce for ourselves and possibly a small local market. This bird comes from a friend who supplies KFC, so it's the same breed that fast food outlets use in their products. The difference will be in their diet, and access to pasture and greens. I hope this is enough difference to put a tasty bird on the table.

They've only been here a few hours and already I can't envision a farmyard of these dullards. They loll about hanging a head in the food trough to eat, clump together in random corners and don't want to walk the two feet from house to the grass area. I still think a slower-growing dual purpose heritage breed will be the way forward.

I also re-homed my first brood of mixed bantams - I swapped them for two great sides of smoked trout. The chickens have a fancy new A-frame and doting owner to care for them. There are only 4 more chicks to sell this year. It hasn't been fruitful on the chicken breeding front. Barbara the Silkie hen is broody again - like Old Faithful she is - so I think there will be a late hatch of something pretty.

Some of the lavender Pekin chicks are frizzles!

This is what he/she will look like when grown (only lavender instead of white) -

Courtesy of

It might be an acquired taste, but I think they look comical tottering around the garden. My chickens are for eggs and my amusement. I admire the little pekins, and they're great mothers. I wonder if they can trap more heat in their permed plumage to keep chicks warm?

We have officially finished pheasant egg collecting today and plan to celebrate with a bottle of cider and leftovers for dinner. I wondered what I was going to do with the extra free time but I expect tending the garden and the meat chickens will fill it quickly. As it's tick season again I can use the time to go over the dogs and pick ticks off them. (Are you envying me my glamorous lifestyle yet?) We're up to 9 dogs this week as we have a visitor to stay -

Old Bracken. She belongs to one of the local landowners who shoots here. She was a spectacular working dog and even in her dotage comes out to pick up a bird or two. Mike trained Bracken for her owner, so she still shares a special bond with him. And with my dirty green sock apparently. She's been snoring away on the old sheepskin since she arrived, and the house dogs are respectful and don't disturb her. She's deaf as a stump, which is common in old gun dogs (and some of the owners) from all the gunshot I suppose. She'll get some old lady pampering - bath, nails done, tick check - before she goes home. Then Pip can have her sheepskin back. Pip's making do with my bed, so don't go feeling too sorry for her.

Note to self: tick check BEFORE bed tonight...