Friday, 28 January 2011

Almost there

There are three more days left of the shooting season. We have 53 shoot days under our belt. I think we are going to make it. Just.

As with every harvest, we're at the mercy of that which we're harvesting. And the weather. And our need for sleep. And of course there are setbacks, illnesses and injuries and such.

Harvest first: the pheasants and partridge have been staying put so we can find them on shoot days. They have flown well, but by the end of January they're canny. If they have avoided being em...harvested, it's because they've found a back door. This month I've watched as many pheasants sneak out of a drive as fly over the gun line, and I've cheered those resourceful little birds. Pretty soon we'll be picking up those hens' eggs and smiling at the cock birds fighting in the middle of the road, oblivious to my oncoming truck.

The weather is more bearable when it's cold, because the mud freezes and the house stays marginally cleaner. There are no rubber trousers hanging from doors waiting to ambush you when you get up at the crack of stupid o'clock to make a cup of tea. However, we confine ourselves to two rooms: the tiny galley kitchen and just slightly-less-tiny front room. The floors are wipeable and the wood stove keeps both rooms warm enough that I only need to wear two layers and long socks indoors. And the stove dries our clothes and keeps the labs up to temperature -

By this time of year we're so tired that we've slipped into a near feral state. The house smells of labrador, and the bathtub has a permanent layer of scum from the spaniels' after-work hosedowns. We just throw dry towels on the couch and let the dogs have the run of the place. Pip has taken my work shirt and a pillow and made a "nest" in her favorite chair -

I just wear what's clean, or whatever a dog isn't sleeping on. I peel off my camo overalls and hang them from the china cupboard in the kitchen, until next time I head out into the cold to hunt or check livestock -

Eudora's still doing great by the way.

The kitchen table is buried under reference books, clean dog towels, cartridges, ear defenders, and clothes that the dogs haven't stolen yet -


We don't need it to eat dinner on. We haven't been shopping for a while and this is pretty much all that's in the fridge -

Condiments, a dessicated lime from Christmas, some questionable eggs I found in the hedge, and animal medication. We've been eating at our local pub, run by Rich and Mary who are two of the nicest people you could ever meet. It's kind of like eating local as we supply them with meat, and even holly to garnish their customers' puddings. And it's far more hygienic than our house. They supply the good cooking and the great conversation. It's a great way to unwind after a shoot day, with the bonus of no dishes to wash up, and they don't mind if we show up in our tweeds, blood spatters, trailing feathers, and all.

Before the shooting season ends, we wanted to make sure that our own freezers were well-stocked. Eventually we would have to go back to cooking our own food. The past three nights, after shoot days, Underkeeper Pete and I have been walking up the hedgerows and copses, looking for game birds.

The first night I shot my first ever teal and Pete shot a woodcock. The second night we missed everything. The third evening we started out earlier (and I remembered my camera) and we shot straight. Well, Pete did anyway. We had 8 pheasants, only one of which was mine -

What I lacked in volume I made up for in variety, bagging a woodcock and a pigeon on a walk through some boggy woodland -

They're hanging now, and will be ready to turn into a game pie (with my one pheasant) by the end of shoot season. I did manage a bit of home curing too, and used the rest of the bacon cure to corn a venison loin -

It turned out better than I expected considering I didn't have a recipe and I wasn't sure if the chemistry would work. It's a bit salty on the ends. I've fried it with eggs for breakfast and used small pieces as rewards for the dogs on shoot days.

Lily the chocolate lab has earned her share of the venison. I brought her along on the past two days' shoots, to accompany the other dogs and see what she made of the noises and smells. Lily has excelled herself. She hunts and retrieves already, with nothing more than instinct to drive her. I think she's happier being a working dog than a pet. I think everything is happier when it has a purpose, people and dogs topping that list.

And I needed her. Jazz is tired, Podge is struggling to hold her weight, Spud has come into season, Pip can only work twice a week max due to her weak hips, and Dulcie is still recovering from her operation. If only I could teach sheep to retrieve.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Comings and Goings

Eudora has come through her recent illness with remarkable vigour. Although she was loathe to give up the special molasses feed on offer in the Sheep Intensive Care cum Kennel unit, she was missing her flock. Well, I assumed this was the case because of her near constant bleating, a different bleat from her pestering "Is it dinnertime yet?" bleat. This was a louder "Is anybody out there?" bleat. It was time to move her to the Recovery Field with her friends. They could give her the comfort a flock animal needs. So last Sunday, Underkeeper Pete and I wrestled her into the back of the truck, ready to rejoin her group.

Country Roooaaad.....Take me Hoooome...

The last time she made this short trip, she was too ill to stand up, or even open her eyes. Now she could enjoy the ride and the view, which must be interesting compared to the view of the kennel wall she's had for the past fortnight.

I was still nervous about leaving her to her own sheepy competence. I wasn't sure how much sight she had regained and I couldn't exactly ask her "How many fingers am I holding up?" to assess it. Like so much in life, I had to wing it and hope for the best. The other sheep seemed happy to see her again, and brought her back into the fold.

 I'm so glad humans just shake hands...

As long as she could see enough to follow the other whitish lumps, and would put her head down and graze, her chances looked pretty good. It was nice to have all ten together in one place. And my sleep-challenged brain was glad to be off the hook for the 2 a.m. feeds.

 That's Eudora, front and left

Our friends happened to stop by for a visit with their 2 children, Erin and Aston, just as we were moving Eudora. Never one to miss the opportunity for free child labor, I immediately recruited the kids to act as sheepdogs. They did a great job.

Hey kid....You got any molasses?

It's now Friday, and Eudora has managed well. She's still earning her Queen of Sheepa title. It's I who must walk over to her, and hand feed her a few choice morsels picked out of the flock's feed bucket before the others get a look in. I also give her a kiss on her nose, which she accepts with as much dignity as a sheep being kissed in public can manage. I don't care what the other farmers think, even if she does.

From lamb to pork. After we moved Eudora, I had my home cured bacon to finish. It hung overnight in the fridge to dry, suspended from the most jury-rigged contraption I've ever made: a cooling rack wedged in a groove on one side and held up by a tower of bean tins and margarine tubs.

Blue Peter, eat your heart out.

I don't have a bacon slicer so I sliced the belly by hand. The slices were thick - rustic and hand-hewn if you please - but they looked like bacon.

Home made bacon is nothing like commercially produced bacon. It's hammy, slightly salty, with just enough fat, and the rind crisps up like crackling in the pan. I gave it a trial run in bacon sandwiches - an English tradition - for Mike and Pete, and it was a unanimous thumbs up.

I was riding high from my success with Eudora and my homemade bacon, and excited about the prospect of unbroken sleep. Then I woke up to these -

I forgot that Spence our chicken guy was dropping off some black Cobb chicks for me. Because of their black feather tips they were being bullied in his large commercial unit. He dropped them in as I was getting ready for another shoot day, and I had to find them somewhere warm with food and water, and get them settled before I left for work.

More jury-rigging, this time with a fish box, horse hay for bedding, a desk lamp, and a bread tray tied over the top with baling twine -

I stuck them in the pantry and pushed the couch in front of the door to deter Dakota and her murderous intent while I was out at work. After work, I moved the chicks to safer digs in the whelping kennel behind the house. The chicks are growing well and should be ready for the freezer in about 7 weeks' time. I'll be glad of a break from pheasant by then.

I forgot to mention the dog. And I haven't even got a clever segue into the topic, which is akin to how Lily arrived; it all happened at once, in the middle of all these coming and goings and a very busy week. We had so many commitments that poor Lily has had to settle herself in.

Lily is a 3 year old chocolate labrador. She's been well cared for but made homeless because of a relationship break-up. Lily has a great temperament, and she's made friends with the whole pack, even the old, grumpy ones. She's already enjoying "chase me" games with Spud and Pip.

We're only her foster home and she will be going to her permanent home when I've had a chance to give her a bit of gun dog training. I expect she will be with us for six months or so. Any more than that and I'll get too attached.

Lily has made it known that she prefers the house to the kennel, and has already taken over the prime spot on the sheepskin in front of the wood burner.

That looks pretty settled to me. Of course, that's Pip's favorite sleeping spot but, being a generous soul, Pip has conceded and made other arrangements -

Looks like I'm going to have to sleep in the kennel.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A bit of background

For those of you reading the blog who aren't members of my family (and I still can't believe you find this engaging enough to come back, but I'm so grateful you do) I think I need to give you a back story. The only reason I'm doing this is because Mike is about to embark on another series of operations, and it seems so crypic to refer to "The Accident" without any explanation. I don't write about it in my blog because 1) we don't want it to define us just because it affects us and 2) I don't really feel much like talking about it. Not with strangers. But you guys are either my family or my friends now, so it seems relevant.

Anyhoo, this short piece was written in September 2009 for a podcast on the theme of 'Make Do and Mend'. I've simply copied it here for the information (and added a few more details about the accident). Please don't feel obligated to comment, I know you know it was horrible and that you're glad we're better now. We are. And I promise, after this recap post, I will get back to stories about the daily lives of countryfolk, working dogs, and our ineptitude learning experiences.

In June 2008, my husband and I were caught in a terrible explosion. A shed full of pheasant chicks filled with gas from a faulty heater. We were airlifted to Swansea Burns Unit in Wales where we spent a horrible year (coincidentally, also our first year of marriage). Though my injuries healed in a few months, my husband was in a coma having taken the full force of the blast. He had suffered over 80% burns - a huge injury. Doctors carried out skin graft operations every few days; as often as his body could cope with the trauma of surgery.  I lost count after 11 trips to the OR.

When the worst of the wounds were covered, Mike still had weeks of fighting off life-threatening infections with drugs and even dialysis to support his immune system. Mike was thankfully kept comatose through it all, to spare him the pain of his injuries. Even if he survived the surgeries and the infections, he would have much rehabilitation to do. But the doctors' prognosis was pessimistic to say the least. They use a calculation adding the patient's age with the percentage of burns to give the likelihood against survival. 43 years + 80% burns meant Mike had "over 100% chance of mortality" as it was described to me.

Mike continued to survive in spite of the numbers. He went from surviving hour-to-hour, to day-to-day. Mike was brought out of his coma in September. We lived in the Burns Unit until October, then commuted back and forth from Dorset to Wales which we still do now, though our visits are getting less frequent as he gets better.

The injury called his job into jeopardy. He's a gamekeeper and his job is a very physical one. We weren't sure if he would walk again. He persevered and pushed himself so he was back to work only 2 months after coming out of the coma, only one month after re-learning to walk. His hand movements were still limited and I was his constant helper. A few months later, perhaps after too many sick days, I was made redundant from my job. We were facing the worst recession in decades, I was jobless and Mike was in a weakened state. On top of that, our home is tied to his job.

'Making do' became our only option. We cut back on everything - turning the heat off and wearing extra jumpers. I logged wood for our woodburner to keep one room warm enough for Mike for his daily dressing changes. Our horses has their shoes taken off and they were turned away to overwinter pasture, to save on food. We ate wild game which clients or I shot from the estate. We ate our own chickens and eggs. We were still too shellshocked to concentrate on reading, or to talk about what just happened, or the future. I knit Christmas presents, the knitting being my own therapy and the gifts just a small token.

'Making do' started us down a road which has become a major part of our daily life, and which has helped to heal us inside. Being self-sufficient gives you a feeling of independence and control. If you can look after yourself, you will be safe. I needed to feel safe.

I began to remember the skills my mother taught us when we were growing up. She came from a rural home in upstate New York where making do and mending was a necessity and a fact of life. Even after she married and moved and had children of her own, she continued to can tomatoes she grew in the garden, and to make preserves. When our neighbor got too old, she pruned his grape vines for him, in exchange for the grapes. She made grape jelly for us and for him. She sewed all our clothes, taking us to pattern stores to pick out patterns we liked. She helped us adapt them to suit our own sense of style, even into our late teen years. She made every Christmas ornament for our tree including the full set of the 12 days of Christmas and the Nutcracker Suite. She re-upholstered our furniture when it got threadbare, and wallpapered the rooms herself to match.

I was surprised how many skills I remembered. I must have picked them up just by standing with her stirring fruit or sitting with her doing my own needlework, like the simple tapestry apple that took me months to finish. I remembered stitches for hemming, blanket stitches, how to sterilise jars, the recipe for sugar cookies. I remembered that I still wear the same apron now that she wore then - a plain white full apron, with a permanent record of stains. The pots and pans I cook with were hers, and part of my childhood. Spoons, a garlic press, a hand-held can opener. A wooden serving bowl carved by her father is the centrepiece of our table, filled with pinecones and rocks and things I collect on my walks. It is my most prized possession. All of these things have followed me across the Atlantic ocean.

I don't just make do with these objects. They have never outlived their purpose. And they connect me to the knowledge of my past, passed down from my mother. From her mother. They make me feel rooted, they give me a history and bring back pleasant memories. They make me feel safe. When I put on my mother's apron, I can make anything. This year I have made dozens of jars of jam and chutney already, from the hedgerow bounty. I wear it when I'm jointing rabbits for the freezer, or cooking meals for friends.

Being more self-sufficient has helped us both to mend. As Mike gets better, I find my creativity returning. I've made a wreath for the front door from seed heads and plants in the hedges. I've re-made his old hospital bathrobe into a coat for the dog, to keep her warm on shoot days. This has cleansed the item of its old negative associations and given it a new happier use. I've been making do with fleeces from the Jacob sheep not wanted by the estate, to practice my spinning and increase my stash. I have enough for an aran weight 2-ply for a new jumper now.

And there's a lot we do without because we don't have a choice. But actually - we don't really miss it. We have been given perspective, and a reminder of what's more important to us. Mike and I pick blackberries, which gives us time together (an excellent 'date night' activity!) and fruit for more jelly. We notice more around us. We forget more about what happened, or maybe we can talk a little bit about it and share our fears a little because we're distracted by fruit, or a pair of nesting hobbys, or a prolific and wild tomato harvest in the greenhouse. Every year I promise to grow the tomatoes on neat cordons but when it comes time to prune, I can't bear the thought of losing even one fruiting truss.

Mom sadly died 20 years ago, at the premature age of 42. The same age I'll be this birthday. I'm still unemployed for now but I think it's going to be OK. And Mike is going to be OK. Though he will never be the same, he is making do. He uses a leatherman because his fingers are too stiff for small work. But he thinks maybe he will start tying flies again, he feels like he wants to. He finds it relaxing, like I find knitting. I will start saving the hairs from my rabbits for tying his flies.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Sheep and Deer and Fox and Dogs

I got up this morning in anticipation of catching the partial solar eclipse, but instead I was treated to the flat grey fog that England is famous for. I missed the lunar eclipse last week for the same reason. All the grandeur of astronomically significant events scuppered by a low front. I sulked for a bit, until the clouds dropped fat snowflakes. Nothing accumulated, but it made a lovely wintry backdrop for my morning chores.

One of my chores is still handfeeding Eudora. Her sight, or perhaps her neurological impairment, is preventing her feeding properly without help. I'm still hoping this is a temporary set-back, and I've called the vet yet again. To tempt her appetite back, I feed her all her favorites: molasses-flavored water, sugar beet, and barley. Ivy is a good tonic for sheep so on shoot days while I'm supposed to be watching birds overhead, I'm picking young ivy leaves and stuffing my pockets full, to bring back for Eudora.

Even I know I'm a bit of a sucker for spoiling her with treats. Eudora can't be that impaired as she's already learned that if she bleats she gets fed. You could argue that I'm the impaired one, handfeeding a sheep on demand. I'm thinking of re-naming her "Eudora, Queen of Sheepa". I draw the line at building her a throne.

From sheep to pigs: we took delivery of half a pig from Peggy, my butchery teacher. She kindly saved me the belly in one piece, so I could try curing my own bacon.

A side-view of the pork belly in cure

I've used her recipe, and the pork is now submerged in its curing solution, salt, and water. I need to leave it soaking for the next 5 days. It will be ready to hang in the chiller for drying on Sunday, just as the two deer hanging in the chiller now will be ready for me to take out and butcher.

I didn't shoot these two; Dave the stalker shot them for me so I could have a bit of time off over Christmas with Mike. I still need to cull three more roe does from that area by the end of March because I culled a buck there last summer. The roe deer management ratio for our area of England is 2.5 does per buck. I will aim to take an older buck out of the area this coming summer.

Nearly all keepers' wives help on shoot days working the dogs or cooking, and in the off-season we help raise the chicks, but only a few of us stalk deer or help with vermin control. We're a large shoot but have a small staff, so we need all the help we can get: outside stalkers, ferretters to control the rabbits, contractors with tractors to put in crops for the pheasant. And willing wives of course.

To add to the workload this time of year, it's mating season for foxes. Vixens call up dog foxes, who flood in looking for a good time. Underkeeper Pete and Stalker Dave have shot a few, but I'm taking the lazy option:

A fox cage, baited with cat food. It's on duty all night protecting my chickens (I already have to get up at 2 a.m. to feed Eudora). I set it this evening, and almost immediate caught Podge in it. She knows a cage trap means tasty treats, and that we'll eventually come and let her out. Gun dogs are too smart for their own good.

And Mike's just this minute told me we're about to adopt a chocolate labrador! It's a temporary arrangement. One of our clients has been looking for another chocolate lab, and we've been offered a 3 year old bitch that needs a new home. I will settle it in with us, and make sure it has all its basic gun dog training before it goes to its new home.

I'm glad it's a labrador, as they're pretty easy going. Spaniels have more energy than I do. However, between 6 dogs and a self-important ewe taking up all the kennel space, I will have to make room for the new dog in the house.

Thankfully, one of the perks of shoot season is that the shoot guests never finish their wine and kindly give the keeper the extra bottles from their well-stocked cellars. The availability of good wine helps me to cope when my husband tells me he's bringing home another dog.

We've been so busy I've not really had time to think about the New Year or relevent resolutions. We celebrate slightly different holidays, based around the rural calendar. Our holiday period starts Christmas eve and officially ends on Distaff Day, which is this Friday. Traditionally Distaff Day is when women resume their work, picking up the distaff and starting to spin wool I suppose. Typically, men's work doesn't start until Plough Monday, two days later than women's work starts. Read into that what you will.

Anyway, it's only 352 more days til Christmas eve.