Monday, 25 April 2011

Shear hard work

All the talk in the feed store is weather-related. Stop a farmer on his quad bike or her tractor and it's "Hello. Lovely weather. We're going to pay for it later, mind." I haven't figured out if they think that uninterrupted sunshine is running up some karmic meteorological debt, and forces of nature are waiting to punish us by raining on our summer barbecues from now until September to restore the balance.

Perhaps it's a more practical cost; no rain means the grass or maize won't grow and we'll be short of winter fodder again. All I know is that, for the first time ever, the wild stampede that is spring gardening is already corralled and under control. At least for now.

I'll probably pay for that hubris later, mind.

The early warmth has been less pleasant for the sheep, who are still wearing their winter clothes. I don't usually shear them until May but they looked so uncomfortable, and the ram is coming in the next fortnight. It's not good husbandry to stress the sheep when they're trying to conceive, and as a general rule rolling them about on the shearing board isn't relaxing. For either of us.

I don't loathe shearing, but it's hot, heavy work. To say I'm an inexperienced shearer is an understatement. Steve, the farmer who came to shear with me today, has sheared a thousand sheep in his time, and he claims to be an amateur. I couldn't do it without guidance yet.

Learning is made more difficult by my choice of sheep. Polled Dorsets are notorious fidgets. Five minutes on its back and the sheep is thrashing wildly. If you've ever been kicked by a sheep you'll know they're stronger than they look, with the precision aim of a crotch-seeking missile. A skilled shearer can get the wool off in five minutes; a trainee is still figuring out the complicated positions - a foot here, a knee there - vital to holding on to your sheep long enough to get the clippers over it. I didn't loose a sheep this time, though at one point I was pinned under one, laying flat to avoid kicking back legs, and holding one of its ears in each hand, in a desperate bid to prevent its escape.

That may explain why I have sheep shit on the back of my head.

It was bone-tiring, but it was a good learning process. I learned that ewe lambs are less patient than older sheep. I learned that it saves your back if you pen them close to where you plan to shear them, rather than catching and dragging each sheep from the far end of the barn, where it's trying to hide from you. I learned wearing sneakers gives you better grip and contact than hiking boots. I learned that if you pen the sheep overnight away from grass, they get rid of all their poo before you shear them, and less ends up in your hair.

I managed to shear Eunice by myself

I've also learned that the local agricultural college runs a three-day sheep shearing course, so I've put my name on the list. And I'm going to practice on a few of Steve and Peggy's sheep, a quiet and less woolly variety.

The fleeces, ready to be cleaned and spun.

All the ewes have been sheared. The ram lambs will go on shortly, in their wool.

I loaded all the lambs in the sheep trailer, and moved them to the paddock across the road. It's the same paddock where they were born, only six months ago. They have each other for company and don't seem distressed by the weaning process. I can see them from my bedroom window, which makes checking on them a breeze. I can also hear them through the bedroom window calling for their dinner.

Which reminds me, I have a small lamb roast in the oven. No relation.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Human training

As the days get longer, so does my list of chores. I've just put the last of the chickens to bed (the ones that think they're night owls), and I've come inside to have a well-deserved cup of tea, and to finish the book I've been reading about dog training.

The dogs have all eaten their dinners and Pip the early bird heads off to bed - my bed - as she's chewing her last mouthful. I've just got the last four pages to read, and I'm about to settle down in my chair. Then I hear Pip slide off the bed, and her claws click on the wood floor.

She comes back down the stairs and puts her head around the door. She doesn't come those last few steps into the room, as she's an energy conservationist (her own, that is). Her head is moving back and forth, a ripple effect caused by a gently wagging tail as the motion moves up her body. And she stares at me.

Oh yeah. I forgot to put the electric blanket on. Pip won't go to bed if it's not pre-warmed first, by blanket or a human body.

So I get up and go put the blanket on for her. A dog with a perfectly serviceable fur coat. A dog who has just given me a slightly disappointed look because of my careless oversight regarding her comfort.

I hope the last four pages of this book cover what to do when your dog knows you're a sucker.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Spring chickens. And quail.

Spring is nearly here, the signs are everywhere. The blossom is falling off the blackthorn trees, and the bluebells are flowering. Vixens have gone to ground to have their cubs. I saw my first swallow this morning, picking insects out of the air. I picked my own insects: the first tick of the season off of Quincy.

Well, technically a tick is an arachnid, but why split hairs.

The weather has been so favorable, from a gardener's perspective, that for the first time ever I'm caught up with my sowing and planting. That's my slapdash comprehensive garden plan for this year, scrawled on the back of an envelope -

And you can put your seed packets and notes inside the envelope so you don't lose them. Genius.

I'm using a four-plot rotation system, and companion planting. The garden is dug, manured, fed, and sown with everything but the late-season and tender plants. I've even remembered to put down enviromesh to prevent a repeat of last year's carrot root fly problem -

I was so on top of things, that I broke out the lawn chairs and cooked dinner in the chiminea - grilled mackerel and pheasant burgers, the gamekeeper version of surf & turf.

You'll have to allow me this moment of almost-smug success. It didn't last long, as you'll see.

Spring sap's not just rising in the plants. The cockerels - pheasant, chicken, and quail - have colored up and are beginning to vie for female attention. And fight. Cockerels love to fight. Even our heavyweight Buff Orpington cockerel was sporting a bruised eye, closed and puffy from a fight with featherweight Lloyd the pekin cockerel, a third the Buff's size. I'm not even sure how Lloyd reached that high.

But the quail seem to be the pugilists of the poultry world. The aviary has turned into Madison Square Garden. The weaker males have bloodied heads, and the females are missing the feathers from the back of their necks from frequent male attention. I knew it was time to put some quail in the freezer.

The sad truth of farm life is fewer males are needed than females. One ram can serve fifty ewes, a pheasant cockerel can easily hold ten hens. If a male isn't good enough for breeding stock, then he's only good enough for the freezer. If you're a male born on a farm, it's either the stud or the abbatoir for you: heaven or hell, so to speak.

When I sexed the quail, I had three hens and eight cocks, which explains all the fighting. I kept one cock for breeding and the rest I've started to process.

In case any reader is interesting in vent sexing quail - and who wouldn't be? - it's very easy to do. Start by turning your quail on its back, and gently push the tail up to expose the vent. If a small ball of foam comes out, it's a boy -

Once plucked, you can see that, just above the vent, the male has a swollen bottom -

It only swells during breeding season, and the foam is only produced at this time too. However, I find that vent sexing is a more definitive method for sexing quail than colour.

I processed three quail this morning, saving the feathers for a local fly fisherman. Apparently they make good fly-tying material. Spud and Lily kept me company through the laborious task of plucking. The skin on quail is very thin and tears easily when plucking. The finished birds couldn't have looked worse if I'd let the dogs chew the feathers off.

Well, I processed two birds and all was going well. I hung them on the back of the truck where they would be out of reach of dogs playing in the garden. I had just dispatched the third when my spidey senses started tingling. Where was Quincy?

Behind the shed eating a bag of rat poison she excavated from a hole, that's where.

She came out with the empty bag on her head.

I didn't waste any time. I removed the bag from her head, bundled her into the truck, and drove straight to the vets, which is thankfully only ten minutes away.

I forgot the dead, plucked quail were still hanging from the rear of the truck until I was halfway through the centre of town and looked in my rearview mirror. There they were - swinging left, then right as I navigated the turns to the vets - completely naked except for their feathered heads.

(I'd put the just-dispatched bird I was holding when I caught Quincy into the nearest recepticle, which happened to be the metal bin we use as a mail box. I came home and found the mail left on top of the dead bird. Thank goodness for country post men, nothing phases them.)

Quincy got the same treatment that Spud got when she ate the poisoned rat. All signs for recovery look good as we got the poison out quickly. With some gentle persuasion from his wife (i.e. I showed him the vet's bill), Mike has agreed to go back to trapping the rats, at least until Quincy gets older.

Quincy found the bag because of her exceptional gun dog nose. I know her scenting ability is already well-developed, even if her judgement isn't.

  Finished quail

Quincy - on the couch and on the mend

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Mooo-vie Night

We have a cup that sits on our bookshelf, and we fill it with any loose change from our pockets or money from selling eggs. It's our 'entertainment fund'. Our entertainment consists of two things: 1) buying bird seed so we can attract little birds into our garden and watch them while we do the dishes, and 2) going to the movies.

I'm not a great movie-goer, mainly because sitting in a dark, warm theatre immediately causes me to fall asleep. I rarely make it through a whole movie, and Mike has to tell me how it ends. I've seen 3/4ths of lots of films.

After we bought a bag of birdseed, there was enough money left over for me to go see a movie with some ladies from the village - Helen the dairy farmer, and Jilly and Lynn my riding partners. We went to see Tamara Drewe because it had been filmed around here. The director used some farms and houses of people we knew. Tamara's cottage is our friend Colin the gamekeeper's house.

Yes, we paid to watch a film of places we see every day.

In my defense, if I fell asleep, I figured I wouldn't be missing out. And I knew how it ended, as I had followed the original serialised comic when it first appeared in The Guardian newspaper. In the end, I managed to stay awake for the whole film.

The highlight of the film, for me, was sitting next to Helen. In the final scene, a herd of black and white cows came stampeding down a hill. Helen whispered to me, "I recognise those cows. Those are Bernard's cows!" Bernard is a farmer a few villages away who keeps Holstein-Friesian dairy cattle, the same type of cattle kept by every commercial dairy in this area.  Helen actually recognised individual cattle in someone else's herd. In a film. Running down a hill.

It amazes me what people know.

image from

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Oh, deer...

It's a busy time of year for us. I probably say that a lot, but it's true this time, honest. The weather is warming up and the mud is drying up. Milkweed has been harrowed to flatten out hoof prints. Early vegetables seeds are sprouting in the greenhouse, and the magnolia is in bloom -


The chickens love eating the fallen blossoms when I first let them out in the morning. It seems an odd choice for breakfast. I would like to think that the chickens know what they need to eat to lay the best eggs, but I've seen them eating Styrofoam so the jury's out on chicken logic.

I've finished netting over my expanded vegetable patch -

I'm nearly finished manuring and digging the two new beds now. A continuous fortnight of good weather has helped. I had to stop digging after I went to a Zumba class. The class looked like fun and I figured I could use the cardio to balance out my muscle bulk from activities like flipping sheep and digging. My sciatic nerve didn't agree and now I can't sit down without causing a shooting pain up my leg. I'm writing this post standing up at the kitchen counter, and my onions are definitely going to get planted late this year.

The upside of not sitting down is that lots of little jobs are getting done, where I would normally flop down in front of the television and squander that time watching re-runs of 'Columbo'. The dogs get extra long walks, and I even found time to slap a coat of fresh paint on the cupboards in the kitchen, which is also my temporary study until I get better.

The quail have started laying and I have to hunt for their well-camouflaged eggs hidden in the deep straw bedding -

quail egg compared to chicken egg

Susan is broody. I replaced her clutch with five Buff Orpington eggs -

I don't mind hatching a few more dual purpose chickens. A few days ago my neighbor Simon asked me to dispatch Trevor, his Buff Orpington cockerel.  He brought round a bit of the cooked bird for us to try last night. There wasn't a huge amount of breast meat but the legs were large and the bird was very tasty. A bit gamey even. Simon says that was probably a reflection of Trevor's personality. I won't mind so much now if a few boys hatch out in Susan's brood.

The pheasants have started laying in their pens, and we began collecting the eggs this week. There are 32 pens, each pen holds 65 hens and 8 cocks. I'll save you the math: 2,080 laying hen, 256 breeding cocks. The pens stretch the length of the field -

My sheep are currently grazing the grass on the laying field, and they follow me from pen to pen, watching me put eggs in a basket.

I think that the egg basket resembles a feed bucket, if you're a sheep.

Quincy is growing like a spring weed. Lily the chocolate lab has been an energetic and tolerant playmate for Quincy. The more they play together, the more Quincy learns and, more importantly, the less she chews my shoes.

Lily has started spending weekdays at her new home, with her new owner. We all look forward to seeing her back on the weekends. No one more than Spud, who gets stuck with puppy duties when Lily's not here. Spud spends most of her weekends recuperating -

On top of vegetable plots, egg picking, and dog wrestling matches, there are still deer to harvest. Thursday was the end of doe season, and Friday was the start of roe buck season. I still had one more doe to account for, and I went out every night this past week to try and bag her.

A deer ride through the woods - a good starting place
I don't think I've ever had such a dry spell. The first night I saw the back end of one disappear into the covert. The second night out, I saw nothing. Third night, I decided to take the dogs for a walk and didn't carry a gun. Of course, I saw two decent cull animals in range. The fourth night, I found this -

A fresh pile of deer scat, still warm (yes I touched it...) I walked on and hoped to run into the beast, but saw nothing. In desperation, I sat above a deer trail with good views and a good back stop (for the rifle bullet, should I miss). I sat until it got dark and the pain from sitting got the better of me -

You can just make out the path - look through the top centre square

Nothing. No does before the end of the season. I will have to tack that one onto next season's cull plan. I hope I have better luck with roe bucks this week.

I did find something else, something disturbing and unwelcome -

It's a home made ball bearing. I found it under a tree where pheasants roost. Poachers shine a light into treetops, to spot pheasants roosting. They use catapults to fire heavy ball bearings at the pheasants, knocking them off their perch, dead or close to it. No gun shot to give yourself away, and minimal disturbance to all the pheasants which can be noisy when alarmed. Poachers can develop frightening accuracy with a catapult.

We've found other ball bearings in the same area, so we'll be extra vigilant now. I'm happy to stand watch. Anything to avoid sitting down.