Monday, 28 November 2011

Zen and the Art of Park Deer

Ian, our work experience lad, has been practicing the art of gralloching deer as part of his college course, just down the road from us at a large deer park.  I need practice too so, being a pushy foreigner, I called the deer manager and asked if I could come along with the college course for a day. He said show up and ask the tutor. So this morning I was stood in the yard of the deer park at 8 a.m. in my rubber overalls, waiting to beg the tutor to let me stay and learn. He kindly agreed.

This deer park has herds of fallow, sika, and red deer, and a few rare Père David's deer, so I got the opportunity to handle different animals, a change from my regular (smaller) roe deer. Park deer are akin to livestock: well-fed and well-managed to create big animals. Compared to the wild deer I've shot, the deer that rely on foraging and fighting to survive, there was monstrous amount of subcutaneous fat and cavity fat on the park deer. And some impressive antlers.

Deer in parks are treated as a walking larder, and appropriate animals are culled to order. Today Richard the deer manager shot twenty deer in total for us to prepare. Richard shot them in groups of up to seven animals, and we took it in turns to pick them up from where they fell. Working in pairs, we wrestled them into a box on the back of a tractor and the driver took us all back to the larder.

Once at the larder, we unloaded each deer and took the legs off below the knees, then cut a slit in the back legs to fit a gambrel - a metal rod that spreads the legs and creates a central point for hanging the deer so its head is pointing downwards. The deer has to have its innards removed quickly, within about half an hour, or the gas build-up in the stomach starts to expand and would eventually rupture, contaminating the carcase and rendering it inedible. Compare the deer in the foreground to the two behind -

Serious trapped wind.

I gralloched a fallow (above), a sika, and a large red - all females - over the course of the morning, alongside other students and their deer. It was a grisly, greasy mess, and I had to breathe through my mouth to stomach so many gut smells in a confined room -

In the field when you shoot a single animal, there's a puddle of congealed blood and a small package of guts, and lots of fresh air. When finished, you clean your hands and knife on wet grass. This was a venison abattoir, with antiseptic wash and separate buckets for kidneys and hearts. The deer carcases kept coming in from the field, and were lining up on the rail as fast as we could attend to them.

The worst part was cleaning the tripe - the deer stomach. Richard feeds them to his dogs. Once removed from the deer we had to cut the stomachs open and empty out their partially digested, grassy contents. The smell was unholy, like bad compost and bile. I turned them inside out, and pressure-washed them off. I did quite a few for the students who couldn't, well, stomach the job.

I also took my turn emptying the 'gralloch' (it's both a verb and a noun - the process of removing the guts, and the guts proper) into the dead pit on the far edge of the estate. It gave me a chance to tour the deer park from the back of the tractor, and take a few photos of the deer that escaped the cull -

That's a small herd of sika deer. I'm afraid that's the best picture I could manage while hanging on in a box on the back of a tractor bouncing over fields, trying not to fall out backwards, or worse - fall forwards into 90 gallons of deer guts.

We finished all the deer by 1pm and, after pressure-washing myself, I stopped for a cup of thermos coffee and a peanut butter sandwich. Masticating always makes me thoughtful (maybe cows are philosophers too?) and I remembered a passage in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about analysis being like a knife that cuts all experience, and kills in the process. Once something is known, he says, its value as art or its beauty is diminished.

But Pirsig claims that something new, with potential to be art, is created in the process. Gralloching the deer, my knife was both literal and metaphorical, dissecting a natural, beautiful creature that I saw from the back of that tractor into its no-longer-functioning organs and muscles. I didn't feel like I'd created anything beautiful out of the gore and death until I looked in the chiller and saw the potential -

And then the art -

This rebirth took the form of dry cured bacon, parma hams, and salamis. Believe me it is an artform, not wrought only by a skilled butcher but by the helpful bacterias and environmental conditions that have to be in harmony to create the charcuterie.

I left feeling more peaceful about what I'd unmade - then helped to make - today.

I came home to a hot meal, which thankfully didn't include venison or innards of any kind, and Mike offered to help me with the final post-deer gralloching job: checking me over for ticks. We get Lyme's Disease in England too.

The romance of being married to a gamekeeper never stops.

Tomorrow it's back to the pheasants - we're aiming (no pun intended) to shoot 125 birds with our guests. The working dogs will get a special breakfast, what I earned today: a tripe and a kidney each. They love it, but I'll stick to the salami, thanks all the same.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Easy Sunday Morning

It's perfect Sunday morning weather: grey, foggy, a bit of drizzle on the windows. I don't need much of an excuse to drink a pot of coffee and read. The weather is a sign.

Still, livestock has no respect for my lazy tendencies. Eudora is limping so after coffee and a few chapters, I checked the sheep and caught her up to trim her feet and jab her with an anti-inflammatory. I'm not sure what god has against sheep, but he's cursed them with every disease going, and the propensity for having only three working limbs at one time. The lambs have stopped dying - for now - though Matilda had a bad case of bloat that kept me up one night on lamb watch. She pulled though but I weaned her the next day. She's got to make her own way in the field now, with an evening meal of lamb nuts and barley of course.

The weather hasn't turned cold yet; in fact it's been so mild that I'm still finding ticks on the dogs, a week before Thanksgiving. Most of the dogs were still in their beds this morning, with their noses poked up their bottoms, when I brought them breakfast. We've been shooting most days, though it's illegal to shoot on a Sunday so all are guaranteed a day of rest. On the last drive yesterday, I watched Spud excavate a little sleeping nest for herself and lay down to nap, while waiting for the action to start. She's getting experienced enough to know to take a rest when she can get it.

I'm also learning to maximise my time. On shoot days, there's a lot of time stood waiting for guns to get ready and birds to move, so I now keep a small knitting project in my coat pocket. I'm knitting Mike's Christmas present: a hat knit from our own sheeps' wool -

Still life with 3/4ths of a hat and footrot spray

Living in my coat pocket means there are a few feathers that have accidentally been knitted in with the wool, but I can extract those later, or leave them in and tell him they're part of the design. Poultry chic. I'm working on a pair of socks too, but those are my evening project, as they take more concentration than a knit 2, purl 2 hat.

Shooting season means means a glut of meat. The dogs are eating so much now to hold their weight that I ran out of dog food. So did underkeeper Pete. I'll breast off a load of pheasants from yesterday and cook them up with rice and oil - that can double as our dinner, as well as the dogs'. I know it's shooting season when I open up the fridge and find pairs of legs poking out between the butter and the bacon -

Giving Quincy her breakfast this morning, I noticed spots of blood in her bed. Quincy is having her first season, which means she's no longer a puppy. It also means all the loose, male dogs in the neighborhood will be pining outside our kennels for the next fortnight. I'll have to protect her maidenhood during our training sessions in the field. Quincy is doing so well. She's passed her Gun dog Puppy certificate and is moving up a grade.

Quincy and her partridge dummy

She's just shy of a year old now, born Christmas week 2010. She is going to be a happy, talented little worker. She'll take Pip's place next year. Pip was always going to have an early retirement with her dodgy hips. I'll take Pip and Quincy out together, so Quincy can gain a bit of confidence following a more experienced dog. So far, all Pip has taught Quincy is how to make a dent in the couch.

Speaking of making a dent in the couch, Christmas movies have started on TV and I have a crop of dried beans to shell for next year's spring planting. I don't feel guilty watching TV if my hands are busy shelling beans or knitting. I love schmaltzy Christmas films because of the themes of hope and redemption. It's the same thing I feel when I think about the vegetable garden. I can visualise a whole crop in a tiny seed. I plant all my hopes that a successful harvest will come to fruition, even though I know there are bound to be some failures.

I hope your Sunday is equally as restful - accompanied by the sound of snoring dogs, and next year's seeds.

6pm last night, two tired workers.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

A bird in the hand

November is a prime sport shooting month. We're shooting pheasant and partridge three times a week on the estate. I work three dogs per day, in rotation, so each one gets enough exercise balanced out with enough down-time to recoup physically and mentally. On non-shooting days, the dogs nap in their kennels or enjoy a knuckle bone each from the butcher's.

I'm equal parts proud and amazed at the stamina and drive of working dogs, most of which is bred into them. Training simply directs their natural instinct towards something that, hopefully, benefits both dog and handler. I thought a short video might show this better than a wordy description from me.

Here, Spud, Dulcie, and Pip are searching for a wounded partridge. I know it came down in these woods, but I can't see where. However, their noses are perfect for finding lost birds in thick cover. The 'Get On' command means go forward. The 'Get in!' command means hit the cover and have a look - something none of these dogs need much encouragement to do. Spaniels especially are happiest rootling around in the bushes.

Spud's delivery isn't perfect but she makes up for it with her work ethic. She never leaves anything un-picked and always returns to me with every treasure. And that's a red-legged partridge for the bag.

Lest you think we're into shooting and completely over the sheep dramas - how does a maggot-infested scrotum sound? The lamb didn't like it much either. The foster ram was laying down too often and starting to walk with a stiff-legged gait. I caught him up and when I turned him over, saw that the castration ring wasn't doing its job properly, and there was a hole in his groin teeming with maggots and infection.

As an aside, I think it goes without saying that you should never read this blog when you are eating.

My recent failures experiences in lambing left me well-prepared. I removed the maggots one at a time with a pair of pliers, worked surgical scrub into the wound, and gave a heavy dose of strep antibiotic injected into the lamb's breast muscle (IM works faster than under the skin). I phoned our friend Terry the vet who happened to be on call that night. I drove the lamb to his house and, while I held the lamb on the workbench in his shed, he surgically severed the spermatic cords to finish the job, gave lamb a shot of painkiller, and praised my administered dose and method of antibiotics. A small but much-needed salve to my ego.

Two days on and foster lamb looks great. He's getting more nimble and therefore harder for me to catch him to finish his course of injections. That's where I'm headed now, right after I put our partridges in the oven for dinner.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

From baaaad to worse

There's a chalkboard in my kitchen where I make notes to remind myself of things that I tell myself I will remember, but never do. Which is everything. I limit this board to notes about the farm: outputs like eggs sold per month, and bales of hay used, and also inputs such as medications given. One look at the board reveals the state of things. A full board is a bad sign -

Less Blackberry, More blackboard-y

Another wave of disease has ripped through this year's crop of lambs: coccidiosis. It's a parasite that attacks the intestinal tract. The first you know about it is a weak animal usually with diarrhea. Megalamb was the first lamb to show symptoms and the only one to succumb to its effects. Because I have a great vet, and I happened to recognise the distinct smell associated with coccidiosis from dealing with infected pheasants, we identified the wretched single-celled culprits immediately (he used a microscope - more scientific than my sense of smell). We treated all the lambs and 72 hours later, they're still alive. Except Megalamb, who is now Megadeath.

Now we are seven. That's a lambing percentage about 85%. This is an appalling result. Last year was a 200%. (True, there were only two ewes lambing then.)

With lambs, our total flock numbers 19. I moved mothers and lambs from the maternity paddock to fresh grazing. The ewes walked quietly into their trailer. The lambs had to travel separately from ewes, in the back of the Land Rover, to prevent being inadvertently squashed in transit.  The lambs are now fast-moving and very wriggly, and I had to catch and load them one at a time. I have no photos of the process because I had no help, either to take pictures or manhandle sheep. Shoot season is in full swing so Mike, who I usually press-gang into helping, has problems of his own to manage. I fear lambing will be a tiring, lonely time of year.

I made a little video yesterday when I did my morning check and feed of the sheep, so you can see how the flock is getting on. I have a few more ear tags to put in, and the lambs need a course of vaccine soon, but now my focus must shift to game: pheasant and partridge shoots on the estate, and culling deer. There is staff to feed, and dogs to work, and deer to put in the larder (or money in the bank). The blog topics will shift accordingly, and I promise to update more regularly, with photos.