Friday, 23 December 2011

The 'Post' Post

Disparate worlds collide in my mailbox.

I say 'mailbox' (or post box as it's called in England) but it's really just a recycled metal bread bin sat outside our back door. (Its replacement - the bin without the rust holes - is full of bread flour in my kitchen.) The bin is big enough to hold lots of post and keep it dry, useful in an unpredictably wet climate. The postman drops everything in the old bread bin, except when Dakota is laid in the back porch with the door open blocking his path. Then he knows my sitting room window is usually open, and he puts it through the window, straight onto my my kitchen table conveniently located beneath.

Post box with hungry chickens

Kind of twee, isn't it? Often the post is too. There are letters from seed merchants bragging about great new developments in crops for pheasants, crops with names like 'Hold-em' and 'Easy Keep'. There are invites to clay pigeon competitions for charity, and small packages of vaccine and ear tags from the vets. All in a day's post for the country-dwelling small farmer.

That's why I look forward to my weekly delivery of The New Yorker. It looks mis-placed and aloof, sitting on top of Mike's subscription to Modern Gamekeeping (an oxymoron). What is that kind of magazine doing in the bread bin post box of a non-New Yorker? Mike calls the magazine my "secret shame" and no visitor to our house has ever leafed through it out of interest. The Shooting Times is well-thumbed by our guests though.

This week's New Yorker came with our local fox hunting supporters' club magazine. We're not technically supporters, but when we bought Teasel Farm it came with a legal stipulation that the local hunt be allowed to ride across the land during the hunt season. I think we got off lightly; friends of mine bought a house that came with an historic right allowing anyone in the village to pick asparagus from their garden, if they chose to grow it. By law. Again, kind of twee, in an inconvenient sort of way for the homeowners.

So, because we legally graciously host some of a day's fox hunting, we get the magazine. It's not a magazine like the New Yorker is a magazine. There's no on-line version. It's not available to download on your iPad. There are no staff writers, only local farmers and fox hunters who probably got tipsy at the local pub and when their defenses were down foolishly agreed to write a small piece. That's how most things get negotiated around here, at the pub after a few pints. The trick is picking your moment: drunk enough to be amenable, not so drunk they forget what they've agreed to. It's a fine line.

I read both magazines back to back. Now I'm up to date with what's on at Tanglewood and the dates of the next horse trials. I know what to have if I ever find myself at The Dutch restaurant in SoHo (order the smoked chicken, skip the eggplant dip) and how to make fruitcake that will stand up to the rigours of being in your pocket and bounced about by a horse all day. (It involves boiling dried fruit and spices with sugar, and binding the gruesome-sounding result with 5 eggs.) Even the "mayo-heavy" eggplant dip at the Dutch sounded pretty good in comparison.

There was an excellent article in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik, whose reputation I know well, contrasted with an equally excellent article in the hunt magazine by Dan, who used to be my next door neighbour. I know Dan and his lovely family well, though not as well as I know their old pony Gem. Gem was getting a bit strong and mischievous for their young daughter, and I offered my help. Not because I am a gifted rider, but in the hopes that my 140lbs would slow down his smallish 12hh frame, or at least tire him out. It worked for the most part, that exception being the time he bucked me off, face first, into a pile of logs. I only have to look at the prominent red scar on the left side of my face where he broke my cheekbone to remember that pony. I rode him anyway, even with blood trickling down onto my jodhpurs.

So far Adam Gopnik hasn't contacted me about re-training any of his animals.

As opposite as the world of a major metropolitan city seems from that of a local rural county, I'm surprised at the occasional crossover that happens between the two. A local filmmaker had her short film shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. A couple months ago I read a story on the 'Talk of the Town' section of the New Yorker about the opening of a sandwich shop, and the discussion was between Lord S - our boss - and his youngest son.

I don't know much anything about jazz music, but I have been to some performances. Most of it sounded discordant, arrhythmic. At first. After getting accustomed to the music, a song or three into the show I could hear the harmony, or at least discern patterns. It wasn't as random as it initially sounded. There are the odd joins, the connections between notes.

I often suffer from 'A Foot In Each Camp' syndrome. I'm not English, though I've lived here 16 years. I'm American, though I've missed out on our shared culture for the past decade-and-a-half. (This was very evident to me with the recent 9/11 anniversary. I was living in France at the time of the attack and my connection to the attack was filtered through the French media, and week-old papers from the UK. I never shared the visceral experience of being terrorised.)

I suffer from the syndrome on those days when I can't hear the harmony, or ally things that seem so opposite. When I can't have a conversation with someone about Simon Johnson's proposal to regulate banks, or the new David Sedaris book, or make joking references to well-known SNL skits because it's not part of the cultural dialogue in my neighbourhood.

Other days I can find the connection and recognise a pattern, almost always through humour. Contradictory moments and activities put in relationship to each other make me smile: sitting on the tailgate of the truck reading a book on my Kindle while swatting away a chicken which keeps trying to drink the tea out of my cup. Turning up to our favourite French restaurant in a fancy frock and a filthy Land Rover. Writing this blog post while keeping one eye out the window at the pheasants stealing wheat from our chicken feeders.

I either embrace the contradictions and find the common thread that weaves it all together, or I struggle with internal contradictions and fight the differences, and hear only dissonance.

Or maybe I just need to stop over-thinking it all and let Mike get the mail from now on.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Pheasant shooting continues apace. Our regular schedule is Friday - Saturday - Monday, with the odd Tuesday thrown in to keep us off the streets. With Christmas approaching like an oncoming train, I could use some time on the streets to do a bit of shopping. Instead, I headed into the woods to collect greenery for decorating. I hoped that arranging a few swags and putting up a tree would inspire me, girding my loins with holiday spirit enough to brave the shops.

Quincy accompanied me to collect ivy and holly with bright red berries, and pine cones which she indeed helped to collect, retrieving a few to add to the bucket.


The long vines of ivy leaves now adorn the banister and the deer antlers in our hall.



I had lots of ivy leftover, so I took it to the sheep this morning as a treat. I also wanted to show them the hat I'd finished knitting for myself, from their own wool, with my own hands. Sheep don't show the requisite amount of enthusiasm for my skills, but they appreciated the ivy breakfast.

I stopped at the chiller on my way from the sheep field. The game dealer hasn't been yet and there were lots of pheasants with long tail feathers.


I plucked a few handfuls and used them to decorate a wreath, and in a display over the wood stove.




The pheasant haul is a result of two big days' shooting this past weekend. On the Friday shoot, I got to meet the singer Bryan Ferry. I happened to be stood in a river when Mike introduced us. Mike said I blushed like a school girl. On Saturday, I got a burly kiss from the Crown Prince of Somewhereorother for finding his favourite alpine hat which he'd left behind on a log.

I cut our Christmas tree yesterday, from the plantation of trees Mike uses as pheasant cover. Pip came along for the ride. She's recovering from Tuesday's shoot day where she worked hard in the beating line, finding pheasants and shooing them over the waiting gun line. Pip filled in for Spud, who is out of action for another ten days after tearing open her chest on barbed wire. Spud has a three inch line of Frankenstein-like stitches to show off to her mates.

I've got the tree up and decorated -


Tree cutting and trimming is less festive when you fit it in between trips to the abattoir to collect cow stomachs. The dogs don't care about the tree but they're Joy to the World about tripe for dinner -


That's me, modelling my new hat while cutting up tripe. I'm wearing long animal examination gloves, to keep the smell off my hands and sleeves. Folks, I don't think it gets any more festive than this.

So I foraged, and decorated, and finished knitting my hat, and dyed the hat I knit for Mike's present, and cut up tripe, and fed our neighbour's chickens, and treated some of our own chickens for scaly leg, and got fires lit in both wood stoves. Our own dinner of lamb stew is simmering in a crock pot, and later I'll make a venison stew for tomorrow's shoot day lunch. Seems I haven't found time to get to the shops after all.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Zen and the Art of Park Deer

Ian, our work experience lad, has been practicing the art of gralloching deer as part of his college course, just down the road from us at a large deer park.  I need practice too so, being a pushy foreigner, I called the deer manager and asked if I could come along with the college course for a day. He said show up and ask the tutor. So this morning I was stood in the yard of the deer park at 8 a.m. in my rubber overalls, waiting to beg the tutor to let me stay and learn. He kindly agreed.

This deer park has herds of fallow, sika, and red deer, and a few rare Père David's deer, so I got the opportunity to handle different animals, a change from my regular (smaller) roe deer. Park deer are akin to livestock: well-fed and well-managed to create big animals. Compared to the wild deer I've shot, the deer that rely on foraging and fighting to survive, there was monstrous amount of subcutaneous fat and cavity fat on the park deer. And some impressive antlers.

Deer in parks are treated as a walking larder, and appropriate animals are culled to order. Today Richard the deer manager shot twenty deer in total for us to prepare. Richard shot them in groups of up to seven animals, and we took it in turns to pick them up from where they fell. Working in pairs, we wrestled them into a box on the back of a tractor and the driver took us all back to the larder.

Once at the larder, we unloaded each deer and took the legs off below the knees, then cut a slit in the back legs to fit a gambrel - a metal rod that spreads the legs and creates a central point for hanging the deer so its head is pointing downwards. The deer has to have its innards removed quickly, within about half an hour, or the gas build-up in the stomach starts to expand and would eventually rupture, contaminating the carcase and rendering it inedible. Compare the deer in the foreground to the two behind -


Serious trapped wind.

I gralloched a fallow (above), a sika, and a large red - all females - over the course of the morning, alongside other students and their deer. It was a grisly, greasy mess, and I had to breathe through my mouth to stomach so many gut smells in a confined room -


In the field when you shoot a single animal, there's a puddle of congealed blood and a small package of guts, and lots of fresh air. When finished, you clean your hands and knife on wet grass. This was a venison abattoir, with antiseptic wash and separate buckets for kidneys and hearts. The deer carcases kept coming in from the field, and were lining up on the rail as fast as we could attend to them.

The worst part was cleaning the tripe - the deer stomach. Richard feeds them to his dogs. Once removed from the deer we had to cut the stomachs open and empty out their partially digested, grassy contents. The smell was unholy, like bad compost and bile. I turned them inside out, and pressure-washed them off. I did quite a few for the students who couldn't, well, stomach the job.

I also took my turn emptying the 'gralloch' (it's both a verb and a noun - the process of removing the guts, and the guts proper) into the dead pit on the far edge of the estate. It gave me a chance to tour the deer park from the back of the tractor, and take a few photos of the deer that escaped the cull -


That's a small herd of sika deer. I'm afraid that's the best picture I could manage while hanging on in a box on the back of a tractor bouncing over fields, trying not to fall out backwards, or worse - fall forwards into 90 gallons of deer guts.

We finished all the deer by 1pm and, after pressure-washing myself, I stopped for a cup of thermos coffee and a peanut butter sandwich. Masticating always makes me thoughtful (maybe cows are philosophers too?) and I remembered a passage in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about analysis being like a knife that cuts all experience, and kills in the process. Once something is known, he says, its value as art or its beauty is diminished.

But Pirsig claims that something new, with potential to be art, is created in the process. Gralloching the deer, my knife was both literal and metaphorical, dissecting a natural, beautiful creature that I saw from the back of that tractor into its no-longer-functioning organs and muscles. I didn't feel like I'd created anything beautiful out of the gore and death until I looked in the chiller and saw the potential -


And then the art -


This rebirth took the form of dry cured bacon, parma hams, and salamis. Believe me it is an artform, not wrought only by a skilled butcher but by the helpful bacterias and environmental conditions that have to be in harmony to create the charcuterie.

I left feeling more peaceful about what I'd unmade - then helped to make - today.

I came home to a hot meal, which thankfully didn't include venison or innards of any kind, and Mike offered to help me with the final post-deer gralloching job: checking me over for ticks. We get Lyme's Disease in England too.

The romance of being married to a gamekeeper never stops.

Tomorrow it's back to the pheasants - we're aiming (no pun intended) to shoot 125 birds with our guests. The working dogs will get a special breakfast, what I earned today: a tripe and a kidney each. They love it, but I'll stick to the salami, thanks all the same.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Easy Sunday Morning

It's perfect Sunday morning weather: grey, foggy, a bit of drizzle on the windows. I don't need much of an excuse to drink a pot of coffee and read. The weather is a sign.

Still, livestock has no respect for my lazy tendencies. Eudora is limping so after coffee and a few chapters, I checked the sheep and caught her up to trim her feet and jab her with an anti-inflammatory. I'm not sure what god has against sheep, but he's cursed them with every disease going, and the propensity for having only three working limbs at one time. The lambs have stopped dying - for now - though Matilda had a bad case of bloat that kept me up one night on lamb watch. She pulled though but I weaned her the next day. She's got to make her own way in the field now, with an evening meal of lamb nuts and barley of course.

The weather hasn't turned cold yet; in fact it's been so mild that I'm still finding ticks on the dogs, a week before Thanksgiving. Most of the dogs were still in their beds this morning, with their noses poked up their bottoms, when I brought them breakfast. We've been shooting most days, though it's illegal to shoot on a Sunday so all are guaranteed a day of rest. On the last drive yesterday, I watched Spud excavate a little sleeping nest for herself and lay down to nap, while waiting for the action to start. She's getting experienced enough to know to take a rest when she can get it.

I'm also learning to maximise my time. On shoot days, there's a lot of time stood waiting for guns to get ready and birds to move, so I now keep a small knitting project in my coat pocket. I'm knitting Mike's Christmas present: a hat knit from our own sheeps' wool -

Still life with 3/4ths of a hat and footrot spray

Living in my coat pocket means there are a few feathers that have accidentally been knitted in with the wool, but I can extract those later, or leave them in and tell him they're part of the design. Poultry chic. I'm working on a pair of socks too, but those are my evening project, as they take more concentration than a knit 2, purl 2 hat.

Shooting season means means a glut of meat. The dogs are eating so much now to hold their weight that I ran out of dog food. So did underkeeper Pete. I'll breast off a load of pheasants from yesterday and cook them up with rice and oil - that can double as our dinner, as well as the dogs'. I know it's shooting season when I open up the fridge and find pairs of legs poking out between the butter and the bacon -


Giving Quincy her breakfast this morning, I noticed spots of blood in her bed. Quincy is having her first season, which means she's no longer a puppy. It also means all the loose, male dogs in the neighborhood will be pining outside our kennels for the next fortnight. I'll have to protect her maidenhood during our training sessions in the field. Quincy is doing so well. She's passed her Gun dog Puppy certificate and is moving up a grade.

Quincy and her partridge dummy

She's just shy of a year old now, born Christmas week 2010. She is going to be a happy, talented little worker. She'll take Pip's place next year. Pip was always going to have an early retirement with her dodgy hips. I'll take Pip and Quincy out together, so Quincy can gain a bit of confidence following a more experienced dog. So far, all Pip has taught Quincy is how to make a dent in the couch.

Speaking of making a dent in the couch, Christmas movies have started on TV and I have a crop of dried beans to shell for next year's spring planting. I don't feel guilty watching TV if my hands are busy shelling beans or knitting. I love schmaltzy Christmas films because of the themes of hope and redemption. It's the same thing I feel when I think about the vegetable garden. I can visualise a whole crop in a tiny seed. I plant all my hopes that a successful harvest will come to fruition, even though I know there are bound to be some failures.

I hope your Sunday is equally as restful - accompanied by the sound of snoring dogs, and next year's seeds.

6pm last night, two tired workers.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

A bird in the hand

November is a prime sport shooting month. We're shooting pheasant and partridge three times a week on the estate. I work three dogs per day, in rotation, so each one gets enough exercise balanced out with enough down-time to recoup physically and mentally. On non-shooting days, the dogs nap in their kennels or enjoy a knuckle bone each from the butcher's.

I'm equal parts proud and amazed at the stamina and drive of working dogs, most of which is bred into them. Training simply directs their natural instinct towards something that, hopefully, benefits both dog and handler. I thought a short video might show this better than a wordy description from me.

Here, Spud, Dulcie, and Pip are searching for a wounded partridge. I know it came down in these woods, but I can't see where. However, their noses are perfect for finding lost birds in thick cover. The 'Get On' command means go forward. The 'Get in!' command means hit the cover and have a look - something none of these dogs need much encouragement to do. Spaniels especially are happiest rootling around in the bushes.


Spud's delivery isn't perfect but she makes up for it with her work ethic. She never leaves anything un-picked and always returns to me with every treasure. And that's a red-legged partridge for the bag.

Lest you think we're into shooting and completely over the sheep dramas - how does a maggot-infested scrotum sound? The lamb didn't like it much either. The foster ram was laying down too often and starting to walk with a stiff-legged gait. I caught him up and when I turned him over, saw that the castration ring wasn't doing its job properly, and there was a hole in his groin teeming with maggots and infection.

As an aside, I think it goes without saying that you should never read this blog when you are eating.

My recent failures experiences in lambing left me well-prepared. I removed the maggots one at a time with a pair of pliers, worked surgical scrub into the wound, and gave a heavy dose of strep antibiotic injected into the lamb's breast muscle (IM works faster than under the skin). I phoned our friend Terry the vet who happened to be on call that night. I drove the lamb to his house and, while I held the lamb on the workbench in his shed, he surgically severed the spermatic cords to finish the job, gave lamb a shot of painkiller, and praised my administered dose and method of antibiotics. A small but much-needed salve to my ego.

Two days on and foster lamb looks great. He's getting more nimble and therefore harder for me to catch him to finish his course of injections. That's where I'm headed now, right after I put our partridges in the oven for dinner.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

From baaaad to worse

There's a chalkboard in my kitchen where I make notes to remind myself of things that I tell myself I will remember, but never do. Which is everything. I limit this board to notes about the farm: outputs like eggs sold per month, and bales of hay used, and also inputs such as medications given. One look at the board reveals the state of things. A full board is a bad sign -

Less Blackberry, More blackboard-y

Another wave of disease has ripped through this year's crop of lambs: coccidiosis. It's a parasite that attacks the intestinal tract. The first you know about it is a weak animal usually with diarrhea. Megalamb was the first lamb to show symptoms and the only one to succumb to its effects. Because I have a great vet, and I happened to recognise the distinct smell associated with coccidiosis from dealing with infected pheasants, we identified the wretched single-celled culprits immediately (he used a microscope - more scientific than my sense of smell). We treated all the lambs and 72 hours later, they're still alive. Except Megalamb, who is now Megadeath.

Now we are seven. That's a lambing percentage about 85%. This is an appalling result. Last year was a 200%. (True, there were only two ewes lambing then.)

With lambs, our total flock numbers 19. I moved mothers and lambs from the maternity paddock to fresh grazing. The ewes walked quietly into their trailer. The lambs had to travel separately from ewes, in the back of the Land Rover, to prevent being inadvertently squashed in transit.  The lambs are now fast-moving and very wriggly, and I had to catch and load them one at a time. I have no photos of the process because I had no help, either to take pictures or manhandle sheep. Shoot season is in full swing so Mike, who I usually press-gang into helping, has problems of his own to manage. I fear lambing will be a tiring, lonely time of year.

I made a little video yesterday when I did my morning check and feed of the sheep, so you can see how the flock is getting on. I have a few more ear tags to put in, and the lambs need a course of vaccine soon, but now my focus must shift to game: pheasant and partridge shoots on the estate, and culling deer. There is staff to feed, and dogs to work, and deer to put in the larder (or money in the bank). The blog topics will shift accordingly, and I promise to update more regularly, with photos.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Very 'Silence of the Lambs' indeed

Lambing season finished, not with a bang but with a whimper. Between last night's checks, L845 gave birth but struggled with her single large ram lamb. When we found them, the lamb had died and the poor ewe was spent. She couldn't stand, though she was trying desperately with her remaining energy to reach the lamb to clean it. It was heart-breaking.

We left her with her dead lamb in the paddock overnight. It sounds macabre but we were hoping to find a orphan this morning for her to foster, and we needed to keep up the maternal bond. The closest spare day-old lamb was in the next county, about half an hour away. It was a small triplet ram, which would do better if it didn't have two siblings to compete with. Perfect.

By the time I got back with the foster lamb, Mike and our local shepherd had carried out the grizzly task of removing the dead lamb's hide, and we fit it over the foster lamb. The extra layer is making the lamb walk stiff-legged and I expect it's heavy on its tiny body. L845 accepted it with very little encouragement on our part. In fact she looked relieved. The foster lamb suckled right away, no questions asked. They're penned together and it's going as well as we could have hoped, for now anyway.

Foster lamb in its 'cloaking device'

As the foster lamb is accepted, I can cut away part of its extra coat every day, starting with the tail end, then the flanks, and finally the rest can go. Then I need to worry about fly strike again. A lamb in a carrion suit must be irresistible to flies.

Even though lambing is finished now, I'll still have night checks to do: making sure mum and adopted lamb are bonding, and ensuring that Matilda is coping on her own as a member of the flock. I put her in the paddock yesterday and she's playing happily with the other lambs.

I gained a lot of experience lambing this year. Fingers crossed that I don't have to put it into practice again next year. Now I'm off to pursue more genteel activities: taking Quincy for a walk to collect this year's sweet chestnut harvest. Skinning a chestnut is much less traumatic.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Socktoberfest

I've just finished knitting my very first sock!


It's a knee-length shooting sock in Superba wool (colour: 'Santa Fe'), for you yarn nerds. Pip is thoroughly underwhelmed by my achievement, but I'm proud. Socks are an advanced knitting project and I am not an advanced knitter. Yet, it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. In fact, it was kind of addictive - which is good because I have to start all over again and knit one exactly like this one before I can wear them.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Souped-up chickens for chicken soup

I'll get to the chickens in a minute, but first a lambing update. Ewe 2844 gave birth to a single ewe last Thursday -


It was as big as the week-old twins and so earned the unfortunate name 'Megalamb'. This does allow me to make Transformers jokes like "Hey, we could name the next ram lamb 'Optimus Prime Cuts'!"  I mean, that's funny, right? Mike just stares blankly at me.

According to my diary, yesterday was the end of lambing and the start of my good night's sleep. The sheep didn't get the memo, and there were two ewes still to lamb: L845 and L817.

At sunrise this morning, I found L817 cleaning a newly laid ram lamb -


Shortly followed by its twin, a little ewe lamb.

They are so gooey when they're born

I had to help a bit as the ewe lamb was trying to come out all four feet at the same time. Once the baby's nose and front feet were readjusted, she slid out like water from a hose. I went back to drinking my cup of coffee and left mum to clean up. Just one more ewe to lamb - hurry up L845!

Matilda is doing very well, if her milk belly is any indication. She's looks like she's going to make it now, so she's been given her sheep bling, the ear tags with my flock number and her unique number. Matilda is Ewe 0008. Typically, I wasn't paying attention when I was tagging and I put hers in upside down and the weight has pulled her ears downward. Now she's pot-bellied and lop-eared.

But this is supposed to be about meat chickens, half of which went into the chiller today. 12 down, 14 to go. Mike wouldn't let me kill 13, as he thought it was unlucky. I couldn't think of anything less lucky than being killed so I'm not sure about his logic.

Anyway, a post by Kate at Living the Frugal Life made me think about chickens' place in a mixed farm. Here we have two kinds of meat chickens: fast-growing hybrids and Buff Orpington cockerels. We buy in the hybrids as day-old chicks twice a year, and the Buffs are a by-product of hatching replacement hens.

We calculated that the hybrids eat nearly a kilo of pellet per day per bird, at a cost of £1 per week each. They metabolise the food effectively and grow quickly. Hybrids produce lots of breast meat. We killed the cockerels today, averaging around 9 lbs of meat each. Essentially the hybrid is a chicken crop which we feed processed, high protein food, and harvest at 14 weeks.

A big hybrid meat chicken. Their brothers went to KFC.

The buff cockerels are completely free-range, and make good use of it. They consume wheat which is grown on the estate, at about one quarter of the rate the hybrids consume pellet. Buffs scavenge and eat table scraps, windfall fruits, insects and wild food; they are more adventurous eaters than the hybrids. A buff cockerel puts on meat in his legs and he won't be killed before at least 28 weeks old, though can be left longer. These cockerels only kill out about 4 lbs each.

A selection of our free range poultry - the Buffs are, well, the buff-coloured ones

With the cost of pellet food doubled in the past 12 months, each hybrid cost us £10 to produce, £5 more than last year. In fact, Farming Today ran a programme on a similar topic, claiming that it will be difficult to buy organic chickens because the cost of the food to raise them has meant tiny profit margins, putting growers out of business.

A hybrid would be no use as part of an integrated mixed farm. It won't turn over soil, eat pests, or grow big on food it finds for itself. When a farmer's wife kept a few chickens outside the back door, she wouldn't have wanted the hybrid. A dual purpose would mean a regular supply of eggs and the occasional roast chicken.This may be why chicken was once a special meat for the holiday table.

There is no such thing as cheap meat. It seems you have two choices: grow slow at low cost or grow fast like a crop on expensive inputs. The slow bird isn't going to ensure a vast supply, not like people consume chicken nowadays. But a good dual-purpose bird still has its place on the farm eating pest insects, spreading manure by scratching, and fertilising as it goes with its own nitrogen-rich droppings.

We eat a hybrid chicken a week, and it makes three meals plus stock. But, we save the buff cockerel roasts for special occasions.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Eating humble tarte

The only compliment I can give myself in the kitchen is that I'm a competent, if plain, home cook. By that I mean that I can open the refrigerator and look at a random selection of unpromising ingredients, usually a few days' worth of leftovers, and assemble them into a somewhat more promising pie or stew. On a good night the result is delicious enough that it all gets eaten, and the remainder doesn't go back into the fridge and get re-entered into the dinner lottery.

I admire chefs, those food alchemists-cum-artists who seem single-minded in their pursuit for the lightest sauces, or flakiest pastry, or (what I really admire) an unexpected presentation. I read cookbooks knowing that I'll never make most of the recipes, although I would love to eat them. We've tried for a year to get reservations at Heston Blumenthal's restaurant, and Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons . Unfortunately, we have no social clout to procure a table, and we can't dial the 'phone fast enough when the last spots are thrown open to the dining proletariat.

Mike loves good food, but is content with a regular diet of toast and roast dinners. He never reads cookbooks, and the only meal he can make aside from browning bread or meat is spaghetti. His portion size reflects the size of whatever pan he can lay his hands on first, so sometimes it's an appetizer portion, other times it's enough to feed whatever small country is currently in food crisis.

Mike has a bad history with chefs. When Marco Pierre White shot here, Mike asked Marco when he cooks, how does he keep the beans from sliding off the toast and into the toaster. "Oh F*%k off, Mike" was Marco's response. I told Mike that not everyone appreciates his offhand humour. (In Marco's defense, he was a charming and generous guest, and a champion shot.)

The next time Mike ran into another TV chef was out fishing. Terry, our vet and Mike share the same passion for fishing and practical jokes. Let's just say that somehow the chef got the impression that Mike was judging the prestigious international dog show class that the chef's clumber spaniel was entered in. Technically that gaff was Terry's fault, but I know Mike's hoping the chef doesn't come as a guest one day and recognise him.

So, when I read the guest list for Monday and saw Michel Roux, renowned patissier and Michelin-starred chef was coming, I felt excitement, then dread. I begged Mike to rein in his sense of humour. The Le Gavroche cookbook is a staple in my kitchen. If Mike irritated Monsieur Roux I would never be able to crack that book's spine again without feeling humiliation. I would be doomed to a life of dry toast and roast.

Mike behaved impeccably. He introduced me to Mr. Roux who was almost painfully charming in that way that older Frenchmen are. We had a conversation about cooking (how he can, and I can't) and I could feel myself blushing, trying not to sound sycophantic. Mike stood me behind Mr. Roux to pick up on the last drive. I had Spud the flatcoat picking up for me.

Have I ever mentioned that, as a breed, flatcoats have a propensity for burping? Really loudly?

BRUUUPPP! Before the drive started so Mr Roux didn't have his ear defenders in yet (not that I'm sure those would have saved us). He said nothing, but I saw him sneak a look out of the corner of his eye back to me. Oh God. Do I tell him it was the dog? And who's going to believe that, when 90% of the wind passed in this world gets blamed on the family dog. I just looked at Spud, sighed, and accepted the meal that the universe dished out to me.

Even after that, Michel Roux took my address and promised to send me a copy of his new pastry cookbook, so I could work on my technique. Such a gentleman. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I'd had such a long day in the field, I would be dishing up dinner from our local takeaway. And we'd probably be eating it straight from the plastic container it came in.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Lambing updates

We had another delivery this morning -


Ewe 2836 gave birth to a ram lamb and a ewe lamb. It was my first "assist" as the ram lamb's head was blocking the way out. I helped because I could see he was cyanotic, his little blue tongue poking out the side of his mouth and his front feet tucked under his chin. His sister popped out behind a few minutes later, no complications.

Phew.

The newly named Matilda (Thank you, Hazel!) is doing much better. Eudora eventually rejected her (the smell of the fly strike chemical masked Matilda's smell and Eudora didn't recognise her) but she is adapting to life as an orphan lamb. It's just one more hardship for her to endure. I spent yesterday teaching Matilda to take a bottle. I'm not sure there was much instruction on my part, just perseverance and begging. She's starting to get the hang of it and at 12 midnight last night, for the first time in her life, she finally had a full belly of milk.

I had to wait til she peed so she'd stand still for a photo. Excuse thumbs.
Double phew.

Even Ewe 0004 with pneumonia is on the mend. I know this because she was hard to catch this morning, especially as I forgot my sheep bait - a bucket with a few handfuls of barley in it, to lure them in and distract them while I jab, prod, or shear.

And that squab? I let him out of his coop four days later, rested from whatever illness or trauma befell him.

Like the spell of warm weather that's arrived, I'm going to enjoy the respite while it lasts. At dinner recently, I asked my friend Annette how long she's been keeping sheep. "Twenty-seven years", she said. I asked her if she ever had a really bad year. "Oh God yes! Many. But I remember we had one year when everything went to plan, no complications." So, according to her experience, the odds of having a carefree lambing season are in the region of 26 to 1. Against.

I know already this isn't going to be my year, but that just means I have that one to look forward to, someday.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

6.57 AM

I've only been up for an hour and so far I've been peed on (sheep), spattered the floor with milk replacement, stood in a wet cow pat wearing only croc sandals (the holes only filter out the big chunks) and a patch of stinging nettles, but...little lamb is now back with her mother and sister!

The lamb recovered slowly overnight, through nothing I've done I assure you. That lamb is determined to live. I really wanted her to get a chance to see that, once you make it past the cold weather and blow fly attacks, life can be a pleasant experience grazing pasture and sitting in the sun.

She's in no way out of the woods. She's small and everything bad will try and take advantage of her weakened state. I'll stay vigilant and keep you posted. There's indian summer weather headed for us this week, which will benefit her and the other newborn lambs - if they ever hurry up and come out.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

6.01 am

It's not quite daylight yet, though I can hear the roosters in the village doing their round robin - uh, chicken - crows. I'm relieved to report that both lambs are well.

Eudora laid up in the middle of the field with the babies pressed tight into her. She was there when I checked at 11pm and seemingly every hour after that. All the other ewes were scattered about, as if on sentry duty. In fact during one check I saw two older ewes stood up and watching the perimeter. Maybe sheep have their own security system in-built by nature. Just in case, I slept with the window open so I could hear any problems, and the gun was near me so I could deal with a problem swiftly. Everyone needs backup.

Everyone also needs sleep, though I was happy to give up mine to ensure the day-old lambs got theirs. I'm going to have a cup of tea and knit while the sun comes up, and wait to see what other deliveries the stork might have in store today.

I will leave you with one more video, some cute to go with your morning tea or coffee - lamb taking her first steps yesterday.

video

Eudora's first lambs

Eudora gave birth to two ewe lambs late this morning -

video


video

I would like to say it went smoothly but this is Eudora. She mothered the first lamb easily, but the second, slightly smaller, lamb couldn't keep up with Mother and big sister. I spotted the first signs of hypothermia which quickly went downhill.

I rushed to the vets for a drenching tube and more colostrum, and of course instructions for how to tube a tiny lamb only a few hours old. There's only one hole for the feeding tube to go into but the road splits, so to speak. If I got it wrong, I would be pumping her lungs full of thick, sticky colostrum. By a miraculous fluke I managed to give the lamb a tummyful.

I rigged up a lamb warming box by putting a hot water bottle on the bottom of my recycling bin, covering that with straw, inserting lamb, topping with more straw, and placing her in front of the wood burner. I stoked the wood burner, and stripped down to my t-shirt while the lamb got up to room temperature. She recovered quickly.

A neighbor said if I removed her for treatment the mother wouldn't take her back. I ignored his sage advice, preferring to give it a try rather than face the prospect of another orphan lamb to bottle feed. Eudora happily took the now warm and full lamb back into the fold.

I've been obsessively watching them, looking for signs of relapse or rejection. I was so worried about constantly disturbing them that I sat at the bottom of my drive with a pair of binoculars to observe from a distance. This was fine, until a school bus full of children drove by. Now I'm the crazy sheep lady with binoculars.

I'm still concerned the little lamb isn't getting enough food so I'll mix her up a bottle of sheep formula before bed as a supplement feed. I can see her suckling but she looks smaller than her sister. This could be normal but I'm not used to looking at lambs and I can't recognise what normal is yet. The extra feed is insurance.

I tried to pen Eudora and lambs in for the night behind an electric wire to deter foxes, but Eudora was having none of it. This is not ideal. Mike and I will be getting up a lot in the night, and my rifle is by my bed. I hope that both Eudora and I still have two lambs by morning.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Squab!

The oak trees have had bumper crops of acorns this year, which means one thing: dopey woodpigeons.

Green acorns contain high levels of pyrogallol. Don't ask me what that is, I'm not a chemist. What I do know is that the pyrogallol is poisonous to pigeons (as well as horses, and probably a variety of other birds and mammals.) Young pigeons seem most susceptible, possibly because they're small and still developing. They have less body mass relative to an adult. And young pigeons are still learning the 'food' vs. 'not food' life lesson. Too many acorns is definitely 'not food' for pigeons.

I found this young squab in the middle of the road, staggering about, and too disoriented to escape my slow, lumbering approach.


He still has baby fluff, and you can see all the feather casings he's shedding onto my plaid shirt. He's not yet grown into his beak so he's quite young. I've put him in a spare broody coop overnight to protect him from hungry foxes and village cats. He may live, he may not (my record for rehabilitating baby birds has been 0 for 3 this year). If he doesn't, we'll do a post-mortem and see if, in fact, he has a cropful of acorn shells.

I hope he's simply recovered enough to fly away, and smart enough to head for the barley fields instead of the woods for his breakfast.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

What you sow


Do you remember the story of the Little Red Hen? Apparently it's a Russian morality tale, but I'm only acquainted with the illustrated Golden Book version from my childhood. You know the story: hen finds a grain of wheat and asks the other animals in the farmyard if they would like to help her plant and tend the wheat, harvest the grains and bake them into bread. The other animals, all being workshy, decline until it comes to eating the bread. The hen tells them they didn't help so no bread for them.

Even as a child I found the hen a bit sanctimonious. As an adult with my own seeds to tend, I find out that I'm both hen and lazy farm animals. Now that it's harvest time, I'm reaping the rewards where I put in the work, and suffering deficiencies where I put in hours in front of the TV.

We've started harvesting our game. Our first partridge shoot was last Thursday and we put 219 birds in the game dealer's larder. None of the dogs are fit enough to work a whole day in Indian summer temperatures. Dulcie, who was sidelined last year with a ligament repair, is back on good form. Determined to prove her worth, she overheated and had to be revived with a sugary treat but I'm glad to report no other injuries.

More roe deer need to find their way into my freezer - or 'Ice Camp' as Kate calls it, a term we've taken to our hearts. Feeding the horses on dark one night, I saw two bucks in the orchard. They were in range and standing side on, in front of a perfect backstop. Had I brought the rifle we wouldn't be having this conversation, and the shoot staff wouldn't be having carrot and coriander soup for lunch Monday instead of venison casserole.

I am harvesting a bumper crop of carrots. And beans. I've pickled both. They make nearly healthy accompaniments on nights when I'm too lazy to cook extra vegetable side dishes. In England, 'Meat and Two Veg' is the national meal. Sometimes in our house it's just meat, leftover fried potato, and pickled vegetables.

I was overjoyed with my onions, and I spent yesterday engrossed in my favorite harvest activity: plaiting the storage onions. Space is limited so they're going to be stored in the same place they dried: the spare bedroom. It isn't really a bedroom. as there's no bed in it, and in spring I use the room for incubating and hatching chickens. Onions are hygienic by comparison. But heavy. I hung the plaits on the curtain pole, eyeing up the ever-increasing bend, wondering if the pole would hold up.


It didn't. The pole pulled out of the wall sometime around 2a.m. but it's come to rest on top of the bookshelf, so my onions are still hanging in there. The whole balancing act can stay that way until we've eaten enough to lighten the load, then I'll screw it back in the wall.

A lot of the onions have already found their way into some batches of apple chutney. Apples are a big part of the harvest right now. I can't take credit for the bounty, I just try and make good use of it. We go through chutney like drinking water and however much I make it's never enough.

Pickled beans and six jars of chutney

It's the same with jam, although I had some trouble with mould in last year's supply. Instead of re-using jars, as is tradition in England, I ordered some Ball jars with the sealable lids to see if that would solve the problem. I just put up two jars of blackberry-apple-elderberry jelly, and heard the satisfying plink of the vacuum seal. I hope to reap the rewards of good canning practice.

I feel somewhat less rewarded that the sum total of my morning's work picking blackberries resulted in two meagre jars' worth of jelly. Even after I bulked it out with apples. I can't resist the lure of free, ripe, (did I mention free?) berries in the hedgerows - I collected buckets of elderberries, a basket of sloes, Tupperware tubs full of blackberries. My fingers are permanently stained during the month of September. Also a good time not to lend me any books unless you want them returned with purple fingerprints on the pages (My sincere apologies, Colette - only page 210, I promise).

Quincy came with me for her first blackberry picking outing. It's strange to think that she's only been on this earth for ten months. She's learned so much in that short space of time. Having paid the price for training shortcuts with other dogs, I am putting the hours into her. The commands I plant now, I will harvest when Quincy starts her first season in the shooting field.

Quincy doesn't worry about personal space

Oh! I just heard the second jar go plink. If it sets midway between liquid ooze and ballistic gel, it's a winner.

Since my lamentable start to the lambing season, I have been checking the ewes regularly enough to be a nuisance to them. I make up for it by picking a few apples which are out of their reach, and tossing them each a treat.

Sharing the fruits of the harvest


Like they need to be fatter, I know. Looking at their bellies, I have a terrible feeling that there are going to be more singles than twins this year. Had I made sure their nutrition was right before I put them to the ram, I would be cropping twins. I will add that to my ever-growing list of lessons learned. A big single lamb can mean a difficult birth, so now I have to be extra-vigilant.

It's not a huge harvest but I have enough to keep all of us, including our little red hens, fed through the winter.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Poor little lamb

The first lamb of the year came today - a week early and stillborn. A little ewe lamb.


This is not an auspicious start.

Mike has gone to see a neighboring farmer who's lambing out of season, like us, to see if he has any orphans I can foster on the mother. It's a grisly process that involves skinning the dead lamb and wrapping the orphan in the skin. The mother recognises the scent of her own lamb, and adopts the imposter. Like so many things, it sounds simple when you read about it in a book. But when Nature (with a capital 'N') and maternal hormones are involved, it's never so straightforward.

Worse, I'm not sure what's caused it. There are all sorts of bacterias that can cause late-term abortion in sheep. Or it could have just been a weak lamb, one of those things. I hope it's the latter as that's not contagious, and likely to affect an otherwise healthy flock.

I hope I have better news to report in the next post. I'll start my night checks from now on, in case I'm in for more troubled deliveries.

Damn.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Autumn bounty-ish

The season is changing. BBC news tells me that September 1st is the official start of autumn, but I have more reliable sources. The horses are shedding their summer coats. Plums and apples are ripe; the dessert menu in our house now features crumbles, a stodgy autumn pudding. I’ve harvested sloes, elderberries, and field mushrooms from the hedgerows.

I've dug up my onion crop from the garden and moved the haul to the spare bedroom to dry, a la Tom and Barbara Good. It works great but it's making the house smell like feet for some reason. I’ve dug up the small potato crop to store, but that just goes into a wicker potato hopper in the pantry.


Outside I can hear the clunk-clunk rhythm of a baler, baling up barley straw. I’ve split and stored half of our winter wood. Small talk with neighbors turns to who’s already put their wood stoves or Rayburns on this season.

The washing machine filter logs the changing season too. In summer it catches plastic S-hooks, the kind that are integral to holding nets over the pens that protect young pheasant poults. In autumn, the filter is full of spent .22 and .17 rounds from rifles now protecting more mature pheasant poults from predators.

September 1st is also the start of partridge and duck hunting season. I was invited on opening night to shoot ducks on a flight pond. I missed all five that I fired at, a poor showing even by my low standards. My companions brought down 5 between them.

Pete, Ian, and a selection of happy dogs

One mallard was ringed as part of the British Trust for Ornithology scheme. I reported the number to their website, and I’m looking forward to reading the migration report they promised to send me. When asked, I admitted that the bird was alive and well, until we interfered, and that said subject was going to be eaten. I’m not sure how the BTO will use that bit of data.

Spud the flat-coated retriever opened the season for me as my peg dog on the duck shoot. It was her first time as a peg dog, and retrieving duck. She was patient and interested and, though I gave her nothing to retrieve, she recovered a wounded duck for one of the other guns that we wouldn’t have found without her.


Autumn means a change to working rations for the dogs, which need to start building up reserves for a long season. A once-over from the vets is useful too. Our friend and trusted vet was supposed to stop by on his way to the office to give all of shoot’s dogs their kennel cough treatment (A house call is easier than having 15 rowdy dogs in his waiting room.) It was fortunate that he had to cancel as Brandy - one of underkeeper Pete's spaniels - went off on a personal hunt, and only just returned home for a late lunch. We'll try again tomorrow, and hope all dogs are present and accounted for.

I've moved the sheep to their maternity paddock across the street, where I can see them from my bedroom window. Man alive, are they pregnant. They're huge.


The first one is due as early as the 18th September; Eudora is bagging up already (i.e. her teats are filling with milk). I hope the ewes will all have easy births. If not I'll have to put my hands in the mothers, and move heads and legs around so babies can come out noses and front feet first. The ewes can get on with the business of pushing then.

I had to vaccinate all the sheep again, their annual top-up. And mine as, of course, I jabbed myself by accident. Again. This time I only caught the empty needle before I jabbed a sheep with it, so I'm not counting this one.

As I was cleaning up the spent needles I must have dropped one. Out of the corner of my eye I could see one of the chickens running, with its head poked out in front, the way a chicken does when it's found a worm or mouse and the other chickens are in hot pursuit to rob it. Instead of a worm, it was a needle. The chicken must have seen me drop it and assumed it was more of the delicious stuff I usually drop for them (Sometimes, I throw toast crusts out of my bedroom window and shout 'Manna from Heaven!' at them.) I got it back, but only by exchanging it for the last digestive biscuit in my cookie jar.

I came home from picking blackberries with Mike and found a letter had arrived from the British Wool Marketing Board. They bought my wool and enclosed a cheque for the princely sum of:


63p. And to think, it only cost me £30 to shear them. At this rate I could be bankrupt by next Tuesday. We might be living on what we can hunt and gather. Oh wait, I missed all those ducks. Blackberry jam on toast, anyone?

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Eaters and Layers

We've had a big chicken delivery: 14 ex-caged layers (our rescues) and 30 plump white meat chicks.

We'll keep five of the layers for ourselves and have found willing pet chicken homes for the rest. They will live out a free-range retirement with our horse vet, a local biker, and Mike's former home help nurse (we owe her a lot more than a few chickens, believe me.)


The brown hens show chicken behaviours after only a few hours, preening, scratching and sunning themselves; they're robust and adaptable. And they still have a couple years' worth of eggs to lay. Homes are easy to come by when we hear of farms exchanging their stock for fresh, commercially-viable birds.

The meat chicks came from our friend the KFC supplier. He dropped them off for us at our local gun shop / clay shooting ground. Where else can you get ammo and livestock all in the same place?

The meat chicks are physically stout, but emotionally and constitutionally feeble. They need coddling and delicate handling. They're the Laura Fairlies of the poultry world (apologies - I just finished listening to The Woman in White)


Yet, while I stood watching them, one or two have laid out in the sun, pecked the grass and half-heartedly scratched up some soil. Perhaps I'm too disparaging.

We're pushed for space, chicken-wise. I was going to use the sheep trailer as a mobile chicken house until I realised that the vent at the top was more than wide enough to let a fox in. The quail have downsized for a few days into a small pen, and the meat chickens have their ample aviary.

And we'll have chicken in the freezer again!

Friday, 19 August 2011

First Casualty of the Season

It was Lily versus wasp nest. And it was bad.

Mike has been taking Lily and Pip to chase the youngest pheasants back home every morning. The pheasants wander from their wooded safety to chase the sun and warm their backs, which is fine, except they forget to stop wandering. Being disturbed by the dogs helps the birds define the edge of their boundary; they don't like to be bothered any more than we do when we're enjoying good weather.

The dogs were working away when Pip appeared from a bracken-covered hillside being chased by a few wasps. I guess they were dogging the dogs, reminding them where their boundaries should be. Mike heard Lily screaming and said she emerged blanketed in wasps. He met her halfway and wiped as many wasps off her as he could, getting stung himself.

When they returned home, Mike was carrying Lily. They were both already swollen and lumpy. Mike called the vets while I proceeded to remove yet more wasps from Lily, and check her over. Inside her mouth was stung and swelling. I was worried her airway would close.

We got her to the vets, and they put her on a drip of antibiotics, painkillers, and fluid. Poor dog - when she heard the clippers start up to shave her leg for the drip, she thought she was under attack again and tried to do a flying dismount from the examination table.

The vets kept her for observation this morning, but the triage was in time. I picked her up and she was well enough to hop into the Land Rover to accompany me on my now well-behind morning chore round, checking lambs, pregnant ewes, horses. She mooched about while I collected more field mushrooms.

I'm not saying she's not milking it for attention and maybe an egg in her breakfast bowl -


But I'm sure glad she's alright. And I'll put dog antihistamine in both trucks, just in case.

Phew.

Oh, and Mike's fine too.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

But I'm told that bird sh*t is lucky

It's buck season now, the Glorious Twelfth has marked the opening of grouse season, and our own shoot team has had its annual barbecue and clay shoot. We get together before the season starts to talk dog, guns, and disappointment in our respective vegetable gardens (there have been tragic losses during this cold summer). We exchange cakes, jams, and even homemade hooch.

This is how my voyage of self-discovery started. With a gift bottle of alcohol.

One (OK, three) glasses that evening and my inhibitions yielded. I got straight on the Internet to fulfil my apparent heart's desire. Do you know what I did?

I booked myself on a welding course.

I did the equivalent of drunk-dialling an adult education centre. Who knew my yearning to weld was so strong? I'm not sure if I think this is sad, or a sign that my life is so replete that all I crave are some skills to stick two pieces of metal together.

The course was full, probably with sober participants, so there was no room for me. However, it seems that our work experience student Ian is competent welder. He stays with us most weekends and gains 'keepering experience working alongside Mike. On hearing my story (after he stopped laughing), he offered to bring over his arc welder and teach me the basics.

Have I mentioned that Ian is 17 years old? These farm-raised kids have serious skill sets.


We found a spot in the yard away from anything we could burn down or blow up. Ian gave me a quick demo - rod goes in here, tighten, touch rod to metal, weld. And it is that easy when you get the hang of it. Which I didn't. At least not right away.

I started by making what Ian called 'bird shit' welds -


It's a result of moving the rod too fast and too far away to properly heat the two bits of metal until they 'weld' together - a rookie mistake. It's a weak weld and wouldn't hold up to the kind of abuse it would get on a farm or pheasant shoot.

Besides technique, there are safety tips to learn. Firstly, assume everything is hot. Inner core, centre of the earth hot. Secondly, sparks. Nothing to panic about, unless one happens to go down your boot. Then you'll be dancing the funky chicken and the running man at the same time, trying to get your boot off.

Occasionally I could smell burning and later noticed tiny holes in my sweatshirt. Wear old clothes. And safety glasses. I forgot to put them on when I cleaned the slag from my weld, and a small piece landed on my left eyelid. It was hot enough to blister the skin. It's scabbed over now, but sore. It would have been serious if it went in my eye. I'll take that as a shot across my bows from karma.

That's a lot to learn in a first lesson.

With more practice I got used to looking through the dark screen of the welding helmet and a better feel for the materials. In moments of clarity, I produced an inch or two of good strong weld -


Ian gave me 'the nod', which around here means 'It's acceptable'. It's the closest thing to praise in Dorset. It means I'm ready to take on a simple project. And I have just the thing -

courtesy www.dpi.nsw.gov.au

A wool packing frame. It holds the bag so I can pack my newly shorn fleeces ready for sale to the Wool Board. Even if my newbie welds aren't perfect, they will be strong enough to hold up a bag of wool.

We've been busy with other projects that I'm equally inexperienced with. Our hay has been cut and baled -



It was nearly two months later than last year but it's a reasonable crop. The grass benefited from a dose of fertiliser in the Spring.

We also managed to dig out a yard at the entrance of our hay field, lay a hardcore base, and crane the horse shelters into place -


The shelters can double as lambing sheds for the next few years, until the flock outgrows two small buildings. The sheep and their lambs can graze fresh shoots following on behind the cut hay, and overwinter in the field.

The horses are still living in their summer residence, which they share with a nest of swallow chicks. I know the chicks are still there by looking at Alan's back -


Bird shit. Those baby swallows wouldn't be any good at welding either.