Friday, 18 February 2011

Reach for the Stairs

Spud our little flat-coated retriever earned her stripes this season. Only 18 months old and still a baby, she worked as a full member of the dog team. In fact, the work seemed to suit her, giving her a constructive outlet for her considerable energy. I needed her when Dulcie got sidelined with the torn ligament, so Spud got an instant promotion. We had to skip a few training steps, so we're going back to basics now.

You might not think that you need to teach a dog to climb stairs. But sometimes you do.

Spud was crate trained and house-trained until she was a year old, but she never went upstairs. I've started bringing Spud into the house during the day, when I'm at home, to get her used to everyday domestic life. She follows me, or lays down and watches me, or brings me a sock from the laundry basket. But she was vexed by the stairs.

Training a food-oriented dog means you're already half way there. I sacrificed Mike's corned beef (he was saving it for lunch) and placed cut up pieces on stairs, each time encouraging Spud to climb another step.

It took a little time to master turning the corner -

Then it was just the final climb to the top -

I can totally do this..don't think about it...just run at it...eyes on the prize


Where I was waiting with more corned beef, and a huge pat for being so clever and brave.

Of course coming down the stairs was an entirely different concept. I worried if I put treats on the stairs, she would stop to eat them, trip over her own feet and end up in a heap at the bottom.

Mike's trousers were hanging on the bannister, so I borrowed the belt and looped it over her head - partly to encourage her forward and partly to stop her doing a superhero leap to clear all the stairs in a single bound.. After some hesitant straddling, a foot in each corner, she lunged for the bottom. Not the definition of a controlled descent, but she did it.

We did two more trips up and down the stairs, with copious praise and tidbits. The last trip down the stairs she did all by herself without breaking any bones or speed records -

Other things that I have learned from experience to teach a dog early on: having its toe nails clipped, riding in a car, a command to stop barking, no chasing cats or chickens (even if you don't have them yourself), and the vacuum cleaner is nothing to be afraid of. I've added climbing stairs to my list.

Spud was such a quick learner that I still had time to whip up a bowl of soup, and some cheese on toast, before Mike got home for lunch. He agreed that his corned beef went to a good cause.

There are just as many dog stories I could tell you, where we didn't get it quite right. Hazel has been our biggest failure. Smart and well-bred, but reeling from some hard and inconsistent training before we adopted her at four years old. As a pet, she great - obedient, fun-loving, kid-friendly, and very affectionate. As a working dog, she had some very bad habits. And a full day's work invariably ended with Hazel limping on a sore shoulder.

Friends of ours just happen to be looking for an older spaniel, to keep as a pet and take on walks. Their children are growing up and want a dog the kids can cuddle and play fetch with. And they live on a big estate too. They may take her home with them this weekend.

Hazel - always ready for a game of fetch

I will miss Hazel. I've never given up a dog before. She deserves a pet home.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Hay ewe guys...

I now know that ten sheep can decimate half a small bale of hay per day-

I'll keep this figure in mind when we cut and store next year's bales.

Haying the sheep is fast becoming my favorite morning chore, despite being knocked about by the flock desperate for their breakfast. I can't get it into their makeshift feeder fast enough.

A twice daily feed means I can get an up-close look at each individual animal, and hopefully catch any nasty sheep ailments early. Secretly, I just think they're cute when they chew the hay. They seem to eat half and wear half.

I think we will have just enough to make it through winter.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Tunnels of Love

It's Sunday night. Mike and I are spending a romantic pre-Valentine's evening together in front of the fire...making tunnels for pheasant catchers.

I'm using chicken wire to form cone shapes. The tunnels are wide at the entrance and narrow at the exit. They allow the birds into the catcher but prevent them from getting out again.

The dogs soon got bored of watching me, but were happy to stick around and share the heat from the wood burner.

One down, another 19 to go.

The oven is still broken so no cooking for another week at least. Mike's providing Valentine's Day dinner: take away curry for two, and probably another night of making tunnels (No, that's not a euphemism).

It's apropos in a way; the catchers bring together the hens and cock pheasants so, in spring, they can mate and lay eggs which we will hatch and raise as next season's birds. Maybe that's less romance than reproduction. As the hens can't escape, maybe it's more like abduction.

The more I learn about gamekeeping, the more I realise the romance of the rural idyll exists only in books, like romance only exists in books. Real life is tough, but far more rich and rewarding, like real love. The kind that is contented to make tunnels on Valentine's Day and to share one's poppadoms with a labrador.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Getting Vetted

I don't have kids, but I'm told a large proportion of a mother's (or father's) day is spent driving them places. For small people without jobs, kids need to be a lot of places: school, piano lessons, swim club, doctor's appointments for jabs and check-ups. I guess they're kind of like animals in that last respect.

I was up early yesterday morning driving a couple of our fur kids to their vet appointment. Dakota needed her boosters, and Dulcie needed the vet's OK to get back to work, post-ligament repair. It was all fine until I returned home. I pulled into our drive to find Mike standing there, with Spud on a leash. Mike took her for a walk and Spud managed to eat a rat, which may or may not have been poisoned. I dumped the two dogs off, and stuck Spud in the truck and drove back to the vets. The vet nurses took Spud in the back room to purge her of her prize.

Spud coughed up a huge rat, completely intact, which she must have swallowed whole. The nurses called me and the rest of the staff in to have a look (it was a slow day). Spud got a jab of vitamin K, two boxes of pills to take home, and a dose of antibiotics for the now angry looking bites, possibly rat-related, on her snout. I got a bill and some teasing from the vets. So much for my 'No Vets this Month' plan.

And do you think I managed to keep away from the vets today? If you said Yes, then you're forgetting about these -

No, it's not Eudora this time. That's her on the left and she's back to normal.

Alright, nearly normal. If you don't count the bucket on her head.

This time the poorly sick sheep is Eunice, the little ewe lamb born in October. I noticed her ears were hanging a bit heavy.Weird thing to notice, I know.

Eunice (middle row, right)

I assigned fault to myself, thinking I must have put her ear tags in wrong. I got a closer look last night at feeding time, and noticed her ears and nose were crusty. Really scabby and exuding something undesirable. In fact the only desirable crust on a lamb is when it's coming out of the oven, and she's not destined for that. She needs to remain crust-free at all times. The vet came this morning to administer more jabs.

You're probably thinking surely all the other animals are well. Think again. One of the meat chickens died from pulmonary infection, there's been an outbreak of scaly leg in the big hen house, and my old barbu d'uccle is decidedly peaky. It's Crittergeddon. I'm expecting a plague of locusts to descend. That's fine - as long as they don't want me to take them to the vets.

I almost forgot about Tom/Tomasina, our transsexual Silkie chicken -

Perhaps I should have named her Victor/Victoria

I'm not sure if she's a hen with male characteristics, or a hermaphrodite. I'm not even sure I need to know. S/he's spunky and I like her. And we're an accepting household. If Tom is a hermaphrodite, genetics may condemn him/her to a shorter than normal life. Hermaphrodite pheasants die upon reaching sexual maturity.

It's not just a pox on our animals. It's our major appliances too. The oven died Monday night. Of course, we had invited guests for dinner the following night and defrosted a roast already. I worked out a way to cook it under the grill which was still working, and everyone got fed. The new oven won't arrive for 7-10 days, but there's plenty of gin and coconut macaroons. That's like two of the four food groups, right? Our friendly local pub will feed us too. The worst part is the expense. It's going to cost me ten deer to the game dealers to pay for it. Or two lambs and two deer. Or 500 half dozen eggs. It's a good thing the hens have started laying again.

In fact, I used that lot of eggs to barter a soil test from our agronomist. It's time to spread farmyard manure and I need to know if Milkweed is short of nutrients. I also need to find a farmer wanting to get rid of it, and a contractor to spread it. Contractors don't work for eggs unfortunately.

Otherwise, this time of year I'm enjoying the first snowdrops flowering in the woods - 

The dogs are with me. Their job is to clean up any wounded pheasants resulting from the last week of shooting -

We only found a few. I dispatched them and put the breasts in the freezer, ready for when we have a working oven again.

The few hours a day when I'm not at the vets, I'm trying to finish painting the kennels. I can enjoy a gin while slapping on the wood treatment so it's not the worst job. I got news from the estate office that we're expecting a visiting dignitary next month. That means security checks, and a rush to tidy up the garden in case of a drive-by viewing. At least the kennels will look nice.

I hope Spud won't do her party trick with the rat.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


I've started my "last day of shooting season" rituals. Consigning the blood-spattered tweeds to the dry cleaning pile, putting the walkie-talkies away in a drawer, and the worn but comfortable shooting socks in the darning pile. It was cleansing, in all senses of the word, to hoover up all stray feathers that have followed the dogs or Mike through the back door (I found one in a kitchen drawer), as well as taking all the towels off of the sofa. The house smells better already.

The end of Spud's first working season. I hope it will be the first of many.

The dogs know it's over. Each got a big knuckle bone from the butcher shop as a thank you for their hard work. I'm writing this post to the accompanying sound of scraping and crunching.

Is that a bone or a lip plate, Pip?

I'm just as happy (if less noisy) drinking my pot of Green Mountain Pumpkin Spice coffee which I've been saving as a reward for this last day of the season. Laurie from Dog Hair in my Coffee sent it to me in a care package, along with The Bucolic Plague (a book, not a disease). Just out of the kindness of her heart. Laurie provided me a damn fine cup of coffee, and I supplied the dog hair.

The woodcock are for a Moroccan Pie, the partridge will be plucked for roasting later.

I'm also processing some of the game hurriedly procured before the season ended. Usually it could hang a day or two longer but the weather's warming up and I don't want to risk it spoiling.

I didn't shoot any of what I'm butchering now. I walked up the hedgerows yesterday with the cocker spaniel and the flat coat. The pair did a bang up job putting the birds over me, and I did a crap job bringing any down, missing 3 pheasants and a woodcock. Mike brought home 2 partridge and another woodcock from his day's shooting, so no one's going to go hungry. The way I was missing everything, I thought we were going to have to eat the flat coat.

One of the young lads who comes beating is completing his Gamekeeping qualification at college. Having been brought up on a dairy farm, he's already used to hard work. His father lets him run a duck shoot on the farm, and he brought me two oven-ready mallards for my larder this morning.
The ducks - I'm making confit with the legs, and crowns are for roasting late

He's only 16 and can't drive a car yet (the driving age being 17 in the UK) but because of arcane agricultural laws he can drive a tractor. So he drives ten miles to our shoot every Saturday in their farm's brand new 3-ton tractor. It makes me smile to see this teenage boy, thinner than a pencil with the wood shaved off, climb out of the cab in his too-big tweeds ready for work. It's funny moments like that I'll miss, now that this season's over.

There's a dinner tonight in the village cafe for all the shoot workers, venison stew washed down with port, homemade sloe gin, and more port. It's rarely a sober affair. Let's just say we're not surprised when we find a Land Rover abandoned in the hedge in our garden, or an underkeeper wrapped in a horse blanket asleep under another vehicle. I have to stay compos mentis so I can prevent our revellers from dying of exposure, or suffering a severe near death-by-pecking experience from the chickens.

Tomorrow it will be the start of the new season, and a new set of worries. Mike won't take the day off, and he'll be up before dawn ready to start building his catchers, to catch up the next season's laying stock. My thoughts will also change from harvesting, to sowing and growing: vegetables and a good crop of grass on Milkweed. I need to improve my soil fertility programme, get contractors to put down a base for the stables/lambing shed at Milkweed, and find a ram to put to my flock of ewes.

Our Cobb meat chickens are growing on well. I like this breed so far.

It's the start of making our smallholding pay and there are some serious obstacles. Our sales tax in England has gone up to 20%. The cost of feed has doubled and is still rising. There's a shortage of hay, and if we have a long winter I'm in danger of running out. I dread another month where the Recently Called list on my mobile reads VET - VET - HORSE VET.

Worst of all diesel is now the equivalent of $9.70 a gallon. I need to pursue a path less dependent on fuel and chemical fertilisers. I will have plenty of time to ponder growing systems while I'm painting the kennels, which is the first job on tomorrow's list.

Feet up time, at least until the morning