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.


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 -


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.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Cogknitive Therapy

Occasionally all the death gets to me. I'm not complaining. The result is one nearly-full freezer, including a deer, one and a half lambs, and bunnies collected on various evenings spent in the back of the truck with a shotgun. But I know when I pick up a gun with a sigh and a heavy heart that it's time to change tack. Thankfully there's always something around here that needs attention, and I'm easily distracted.

I sheared our sheep at Easter and still hadn't done anything with the fleece. I was never going to spin all of it, but the British Wool Board buys fleece from farmers. I'm kind of a farmer, so I called and registered my flock. "How many?" the lady on the phone asked me. "Uh, Eight. No Twelve. I mean 12 sheep, 8 fleeces." She let out a little cough-like laugh. Whether that was because of my tiny flock or because I can't seem to count, I'm not sure.

The fleeces were decent quality, but fleeces live on sheep, and sheep live outside. My sheep have been scratching themselves on painted sheds and living in a hay field. I gathered up my creosote-stained fleeces, gummed up with grass seed, and put them - along with a groveling note promising to buck up my act next year - in the bag supplied. I sewed it up with bailing twine as instructed and dropped it in to our local feed merchant. I'm not waiting for a cheque, I'll just be glad if they don't call and scold me.

I've spun one of my Dorset fleeces together with one of the Romney fleeces from my shearing course, and the yarn is soft. And you can have it in the colour of your choice, as long as it's white.

Hanging wet with a weight, to set the twist

I also knitted a tea cozy.

I can't explain that one. I didn't need a tea cozy. I drink copious amounts of tea, but quickly. My tea never has time to get uncomfortable. I did read a clinical psychology dissertation from Antioch University arguing that knitting reduces stress. I'm going with that. There's a Facebook page called 'I knit so I won't kill people'. Maybe I should start one called 'I knit as a salve to my animal-killing day job.'

Besides knitting, it's the start of preserving season. Also therapeutic. So far, only some carrots have died to make relish. Preserving coincides with the Agricultural Show season. This year I’m eschewing the local village show and moving up a league. I’ve entered the Melplash Show. A slightly-larger-village village show. I'm entering the bread making and the brownie making competitions. I've already been practicing both.

Grandma Gould's Carrot Relish and two loaves of wholemeal bread, proofing

I've entered my elderflower cordial, and sloe gin too. Both are tasty, but perhaps a bit more homemade than the judges would like. I mean, how much sediment and cloudiness is permitted? The rules aren't clear. Neither is my sloe gin.

I couldn't enter any chutney as we've eaten it all. I hope to have enough eggs to enter in the Farm Produce class, but the chickens have decided to moult en masse which means egg production will be way down. Those hens not moulting are broody, or laying in the hedgerow. If I follow the dogs and I'm quick I can sometimes find a nest, but the quality of those eggs could be dubious. They don't lay them with a date stamp.

The show and five classes has cost me the princely sum of £3.50 to enter. The only thing I have to lose is my dignity and some self-esteem (what's left after my call to the Wool Board anyway). If that happens, I always have my knitting.

Does anyone need their tea cozied?