Saturday, 26 March 2011

Flesh and Bones

This time last week I dedicated a whole day to all things horse. The farrier came and put on new shoes, the vet came and gave Kitty and Alan their boosters against horse flu, and the dentist came to file their teeth. I gave them a big grooming session as their winter coats are coming out, which is an indisputable sign that spring is here. Kitty's winter coat is never wrong.

I put all the horse sheddings in a bird feeder and the blackbirds plunder it to build their nests. The birds know when it's spring too.

Today it was the sheeps' turn. Their winter grazing on Milkweed is looking tired, and Tractor Dave is coming to roll and feed the grass so it was time to move the sheep. While they're gathered up, it's a good time to worm them and trim their feet, and generally give them a good once over.

With no outbuilding and ten acres for loose sheep to cavort about avoiding capture, I had to fashion a pen and entice them into it. A bucket of barley was enough to get them to ignore the open horse trailer and walk into the pen

I just picked up the trailer from its service, and I was worried that the truck wouldn't pull it when it was full of sheep. The clutch is so bad on the truck that every night I have to reverse up our sloping driveway, because it won't hold in first gear.

After digging the garden yesterday, and wrestling the trailer this morning, fetching all the metal hurdles was tiring. I can feel my wrists and elbows complaining. I worry that my joints are getting worn out. I try to carry more than my upper body strength allows and I think of those bodies from Pompeii. Archaeologists were able to discern slaves' bones from the scarring at the insertions of the muscles. These scars were most prominent on the arms of young girls. And I've got twenty years on them.

God, even my bones are lower class.

By the time I'd caught and treated the first two lambs, I had to surrender. I called Mike and Underkeeper Pete for assistance, and maybe some moral support. My gloves were ripped, I'd broken my makeshift worming syringe, and my hands were shaking from muscle fatigue. When the work gets physically hard, just some company, someone to hand you the can of antibacterial foot spray, takes the pressure off.

With help, I finished the sheep ablutions in an hour. Their feet were desperately overgrown so I've made a note to trim feet more often, my joints be damned.

The truck pulled the loaded trailer. I began to relax a bit and enjoy the few miles between Milkweed and their new field.

No gloves = purple hands. That will take a few days to wear off

I used what was left of my clutch to pull the trailer up the dirt track to the field. The sheep dribbled out and sampled their new forage. My bones are due a day's rest now, or until the sheep shearer comes.

Hayley (our farrier) and I were discussing joints and bones when she visited. Hayley trained for years, and worked as an apprentice blacksmith. Now she has her own business and a mobile forge in the back of her truck. She "hot shoes" horses, heating a basic horseshoe in a forge and shaping it on an anvil to fit the horse's foot exactly.

She's a good fifteen years younger than me but she's already doing her best to conserve her joints. If clients want their horses shod, but the horse doesn't actually need shoes, Hayley tells them she's not prepared to do it. "I only have a certain number of shoes in me. Every pair I fit takes its toll on my body, and I need to work for as long as possible. If they only need a trim, that's what they're going to get."

Outdoor physical work has long been undervalued. There should be a premium paid if you are earning a living at the expense of your body. In most cases, these are jobs that someone else is paying you to do because they are not strong enough to do it, or the work is too hard for them to even contemplate. But there's a stigma associated with people who labor, outside laborers particularly.  Hayley labors, but she is a business woman and an artisan. I use my back to grow plants and raise chickens, but I also use my knowledge of soil science, plant biology, and animal husbandry. My brain isn't wearing out, at least not as fast as my skeleton.

Mike is also wearing out, though the accident caused a great leap in his demise, and some side effects. Quincy the puppy is teething and tries to use anything or anyone as a chew toy. I saw the puppy playing on Mike's lap, writhing about and chewing his shirt sleeve. Then I saw blood. Mike doesn't have much feeling in his right arm and he didn't notice the puppy had chewed a hole in his skin. I cleaned it up and it's healing fine. Wearing out on the inside is one thing, being devoured from the outside is another.

Monday, 21 March 2011

US vs UK

My husband and I enjoy a good debate, about anything really. From whether to butter toast when it's still hot (I'm for, he's against) to the validity of GM food as a solution to world hunger (he's for, I'm against).

The debates can get quite heated because we are diametrically opposed, politically speaking, and it often ends in a draw, with both of us agreeing to disagree. We're respectful of each other's views. For example, I would describe myself as a feminist; Mike is respectful of my feminism because, as he says, he doesn't know what it's like to be a woman. Mike describes himself as a Royalist. I'm respectful of that because I don't know what it's like to be British.

It's not that I'm against British royalty per se. It's just that I don't have a category to fully understand what it is. Not quite celebrity, not quite government. A GMO - Glamorous Monarchic Organisation. In fact, before I moved to England some 15 years ago I only had two images in my head of the British royal family: Charles and Diana on their wedding day and the cartoon image of King George III from the Schoolhouse Rock series.

Fair to say, it wasn't a well-rounded political view point.

I was thinking about this last night while I ironed Mike's good shirt and dug out his clean shooting tweeds. As part of the Estate team, he will be meeting HRH Princess Anne this morning. Her Royal Highness is our visiting dignitary.

If you're reading this and you are an American, you are probably thinking 'Which one is that?' Princess Anne is the Queen's daughter. You might know her as an Olympic Event rider. She wears her hair in a bun. Her daughter Zara is the other British royal wedding scheduled this year. That's all I knew about the Princess Royal. I had to look her up on Wikipedia.

Mike is quietly looking forward to meeting Princess Anne. I'm not a royalist. I think more like Justin Halpern's dad, that it's just one more day I can't wear sweatpants. I can't let the chickens free range either, and I can't go stalking. Secret service don't like to hear rifle shots in the nearby woods.

I shouldn't be so flippant. It's an honor for Mike. Last July, we received an invitation to attend HM The Queen's Garden Party at Buckingham Palace, and we were two of a handful of people presented to Her Majesty. I stood in the middle of Buckingham Palace lawn, in a borrowed hat, having a discussion about grey partridge and labradors with the Queen of England. It was a huge honor though, let's face it, Mike was the welcome guest, I was totally the 'plus one' on that invitation.

The experience reformed my view of royalty. The Queen was the most dignified person I have ever met. She was also educated and witty - she even made a gamekeeping joke. She is obviously really good at her job. That is not a job I would like to do. I'm not a people person, and the thought of spending every day of my life fulfilling social obligations with no hope of retirement would give me apoplexy. I have a lot of respect for the Queen.

So, as I was writing this post, I heard Princess Anne's helicopter coming in to land, in the field just across from our cottage. I put on a clean(ish) coat, went out, and stood to wave to her alongside my neighbors (all six of us). The Princess Royal was just a tiny figure in a white coat.

Don't get me wrong, it's a lovely bit of cultural theatre to watch but I'm not a convert to Monarchy and the associated class system.

I was reading the itinerary for today's visit (I found the puppy chewing on it) and saw that the Princess and her lady-in-waiting were scheduled to have lunch in one room, Lord and Lady were having lunch in a different room, and the Lord Lieutenant (a monarch's personal representative when visiting a county) was having her lunch in a third room. All at the same time. I asked Mike why they weren't all having lunch together. "Protocol I suppose", said Mike. Is the class system so strict that royals can't share a meal with aristocrats, who in turn won't deign to share their table with a civil servant?

Lady S stopped by our cottage yesterday. She wanted Mike to find her some new hens for her garden. On her way out, she took three boxes of eggs and said 'Oh Mike, I haven't got any money for these.' and left. Mike accepts this as a tithe levied by the estate. I see it as taxation without representation. I think we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one, too.

I won't see Mike until after he's met the Princess Royal. I hope it goes well. I have to get on and dig the new vegetable patch now. As the princess flies over the house, she may catch a glimpse of a lone peasant working the soil, but thinking revolutionary thoughts.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Don't bother visiting us

There's nowhere for you to sit.


The Dogs

Monday, 14 March 2011


Thank you to everyone for all the great and funny name suggestions. I will be referring to your list to name our future dogs for years to come. Feeling a bit homesick for New England, I settled on a good Bostonian name: Quincy. I can shorten it to Quince and, with her tiny head and fat puppy bottom, she's the same lumpy shape (as the fruit, not Jack Klugman) -

Quincy is growing by the day and she's already showing working dog tendencies. Beside carrying around a little stuffed pheasant toy, she helps me with the dishes -

Quincy has already worked out that if she climbs in the dishwasher while I'm loading it that she can lick the bowls and mugs on the top shelf above her head. Someone once told me that a labrador only has legs so that it can move its stomach about. I agree that they are easy to feed. Quincy eats everything from leftover oatmeal to daffodil flowers, if I don't keep a close eye on her.

However, Quincy's main job seems to be as a trip hazard. She's ankle high and tries to chew my shoes while I'm still wearing them. I've already got a fat lip from being headbutted by a lamb today (it objected to its injections) but I could do without a concussion to go with it. It's animal abuse, but in reverse. And the animals are winning.

Unless you're a chicken.

The next batch of meat chickens was ready for harvesting. The last batch had a lot of bruising around the breast which we decided was from flapping its wings during the killing process. A poultry killing cone holds the wings into the body, as well as holding the chicken up while it drains of blood. A proper poultry cone is made of stainless steel and costs lots of money, so we decided to make our own.

We upcycled a road cone (pinched from a skip, not the road) which we cut to fit. We banged 3 wooden posts on the ground and the cone sat nicely on top. It didn't even need securing. If you build one, make sure to leave enough room that you can reach in to stun your bird, and that you can fit a bucket underneath to catch what comes out. As always, the rubber dungarees are optional.

I've plucked 8 of the 10 birds already and no sign of bruising. I give the cone a big thumbs up.

It will be hard not to post lots of cute puppy pictures, but I promise that for every picture of Quincy in the dishwasher I will address the balance with pictures of all the less savoury aspects of our life. And if that doesn't put you off, just think of the rubber dungarees.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Pup update

Mike surprised me with a labrador puppy. I wondered why he kept going on about "wouldn't it be nice to have a little puppy again!" and pointing out all the spring babies - calves, tiny pairs of lambs, baby bunnies, even badger cubs waking us up in the middle of the night with their noisy wrestling matches. I think Mike gets broody.

And, sure, it seems like 8 dogs would be enough already, to fill our lives with love (to paraphrase a TV show theme tune). But it's also a matter of filling our kennels with workers. I rely on Jazz and Dulcie, my hardcore spaniel team, but both girls are middle aged. In a couple of year's time, they won't be able to work 50 days a season. Pip the lab will probably have to slow down around the same time because of her weak hips. Podge the cocker spaniel and Spud will be the main team by then. Replacements always need to be following on behind.

It takes anywhere from 18 months to 3 years to train a dog, depending on its individual levels of maturity and ability. Keepers' dogs have to be the Jack of all Trades dogs, doing every job on the shoot: they hunt up any wounded birds after shoot season, 'dog' birds (i.e. chase them) back home when the birds are first released and begin to wander, then put birds over guns or find and retrieve shot birds for 5 straight months of winter. On days we're not shooting, we often help local shoots that are short handed, so 50 days is a minimum.

Of course, the retirees have a home for life, even after wear and tear means they can't work at all. We owe them that. Nellie is our only completely retired dog, but she likes riding in the truck and pottering around the garden. Pretty much what I will probably like when I'm an old lady. I even give her a cup of tea sometimes, if I'm making one for myself and we're taking a break from the weeding and whatnot.

This new pup probably won't be our only one this year. We will look out for a springer spaniel - the monkey wrench of shooting dogs, capable of every job - by summer. After the chocolate lab goes to her new home. The magic number hovers around 8 dogs.

Of course another puppy following on behind this one means I'm not going to get a night's unbroken sleep until next winter.

I picked out our so-far-still-nameless lab pup from the litter yesterday. I had 3 bitches to pick from and this one was by far the ugliest, made worse by a huge bruise on the bridge of its nose (from putting its face in another dog's food bowl). I wanted to pick one of the others but nameless pup was quieter, sat and looked at me, and kept picking up lengths of straw and carrying them over to me. She was definitely a little work bee...uh, lab. Looks don't count on a shoot day.

I took her straight to the vets for a check over and a jab of anti-inflammatory / antibiotics for her nose. Like most puppies, she was car sick and, on the way to the vets, vomited. Right onto the handbrake. Like a labrador, she proceeded to eat what didn't fall through the gap around the handbrake. So goes it sharing your life with an eight-week old puppy.

She's being crate trained in the house, and her crate is tucked the other side of our kitchen table cum office desk. This is usually Dakota's sleeping spot and she's slightly put out. None of the house dogs are thrilled by the new arrival. They're all upstairs in bed with Mike who was on 4am puppy duties. I raided Mike's old hospital supplies and found absorbent pads which make great puppy bedding.

I will try and think of a name, but I could use suggestions. Anything I can easily shout across a field with minimal embarassment will be considered. I keep calling her Bug, but I should have learned my lesson with the flatcoat. Nicknames end up being recognised by smart dogs, by which time it's too late to fix it. Hence Spud with forever be Spud. Help me save Bug from the same fate!

The Newest Member of the Team

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Chicken and the Egg

The 2011 Egg Season is officially open -

I repurposed a broody coop, adding legs and painting a blackboard sign on its front, to make an 'honesty box' for selling eggs at the bottom of our driveway.

The hens are laying with enthusiasm now that the days are getting longer. The don't always cooperate with me by laying them somewhere I can find them before the dogs do. The sheep trailer - currently acting as our hay storage - is their new favorite nest -

Even after the dogs take their cut and I bake a week's worth of cakes, I have a few dozen eggs left to sell. And that's not counting the bantam eggs which I reserve for hatching new stock.

Well, I used to anyway.

The cost of feed has risen significantly, and I can't justify keeping fancy hens for my...well...fancy. Hence, the leftover, un-purposed broody coop. I'll keep my current stock but I won't be raising any more. 

I should say that I will attempt to keep my stock. Another deciding factor in giving up the bantams is loose dogs. Not ours, but visitors' dogs. The estate has many walking trails and weekends bring an influx of "townies" (as they're disparagingly known). Most have very well-behaved dogs and, as usual, it's only an handful of miscreants that wreak havoc: killing lambs, chasing deer into fences and mauling them, and of course chickens.

Ours are free-range and sometimes cross the road to scratch in the paddock across the way, or turn over leaf litter on the side of the road. That must be a terrible temptation for even the best behaved dog. But it's the dogs that come tearing into our garden trying to catch the chickens, with no sign of an owner, that are exasperating. In the past few months we've caught 3 separate dogs - all bull terriers, oddly - running around the garden in hot pursuit of their prey, which I've explained to the owners is also our livestock.

I shut the gate to the garden, but short of building more pens and keeping the chickens in permanently I am unable to protect them. One dog attack can decimate the breeding stock for a whole year, by the time you source replacement eggs, hatch them, raise them, and wait for them to reach sexual maturity. Then it's another cycle to produce their offspring for sale.

I'm going to streamline the poultry operation, and keep only meat chickens and hybrid layers. Both are easy to source and replace. Meat chickens are ready to harvest in three months. Generic brown hens start laying earlier and lay for longer, and they seem to be more successful escaping the rogue dogs. Neither succumbs to diseases that readily take down my fancier breeds. Between disease and dogs, it breaks my heart to watch the little bantams die.

I wonder if it's practical reasons like these which cause some of these rare breeds to become rare in the first place.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Communication Breakdown

I'm sorry that I've been incommunicado for a few weeks. It's not because I've run out of rambling stories to share with you all (heaven forfend!) but rather a complete technological failure this end. Only days after the oven blew, my ancient laptop refused to run the Internet any longer, something about virtual memory being too low. Then Mike accidentally knocked the (equally aged) digital camera onto the floor and it stopped working. I retired them both, but had to find funds to acquire new equipment, and the skills to use them.

The funds were easy. My father felt, after his last visit spent slumming it in front of our 20" TV without a working remote, that we needed a new one. He kindly sent me the money to purchase one with the stipulation that we do so before his next visit. I'm not sure how to break the news to him that I've redistributed those funds. As a small concession, I bought a working remote control for the existing TV. And the new oven has a glass door, so he can always sit and watch the morning's loaf of bread rise.

The skills were harder to find. I stuck with the old machines even though they were limited because I knew the real limitation lay with their user. Aside from a few emails and a blog post now and then, I don't live much of my life online. I haven't got the requisite skills, evidenced by the fact it took me an entire day to set up my new laptop. And it came with the software on it and all my old files already transferred.

The camera was easier. I bought a newer version of the old model figuring I could intuit most of the buttons. What I didn't know is that memory cards are sold separately, like batteries in Christmas toys. Until a card comes via the good folks at Amazon, I can only take and store 3 pictures at a time. I have to download them to the blog post, delete them from the camera, and pop outside to take 3 more.

And it's damn cold here. Winter is holding fast. The wood burner is stoked up and there's soup on the stove. My toes haven't warmed up since we rode the horses from Milkweed to their summer paddock a few days ago. They're not even starting to shed their winter coats yet.

I just finished another cardigan, the first one spun from my own flock's wool -

The grey wool is my left over handspun Jacob from the estate's sheep, but the white wool is pure Dorset. I appreciate that, fashion-wise, pairing it with the rubber dungarees is more akin to Bj√∂rk dressing for the Oscars. But until spring comes, I'm all about the warmth. The dungarees are windproof and the cardigan is so insulating, I know why the sheep still have frost on their backs when I check them in the morning.

I'm running out of time to get the greenhouse and the garden ready for spring. I pulled down the old panels from around the greenhouse, and put in a rail fence -

It lets more light in, but prevents dogs from accidentally running through a pane of glass when they come bursting out of their kennels for a walk. And I still have somewhere to hang the horse rugs out to dry.

I've harvested the last of the overwintered vegetables, and begun to dig over the soil. I borrowed the RTV and filled the flatbed with horse manure. All the hay and feed bills are a little easier to accept when I consider that I get a crop out of the horses - black gold for the garden. The chickens help me by removing the weed seeds and worms, and spreading the dung -

Technically, that's another crop from the dung: chicken snacks. We just took on another half dozen laying hens, ex-battery chickens from a commercial egg farmer. They're already scavenging like free-range pros. 
I still have to find time to double the vegetable patch and to extend the net cover. I only just sent off my seed order yesterday. I need at least another two loads of manure. And half of the meat chickens need dispatching in the next day or two, before they run to fat.
I almost forgot the Hazel update. She's settled in with our friends Matt and Julie who are absolutely thrilled to have her. Hazel has the undivided attention of two young boys, loves being a house pet and gets on well with their old shepherd.  In summer, Matt plays cricket for his local team. Players' dogs act as fielders, retrieving the long balls. Hazel was born for that job. She's so well placed now that it's hard to miss her, though of course we do.
With so much to relay after a few weeks away, I'm in danger of my own communication breakdown. I'll save the pheasant update for another time. We're pigeon shooting tonight, taking them as they come in to roost. Armed with my new camera, I can promise you at least 3 photos of that activity for the next blog post.