Monday, 25 July 2011

And now for something completely different

If last week was all about death, then this week is all about sex. Sex and birth. I suppose you can't have one without the other.

Most of my recent conversations with Mike involve which animals are pregnant, and which animals ought to be pregnant. The ewes are looking like they swallowed a football sideways and the pointy ends are lodged in their midsections. Eudora in particular. (Who else, right?) Their due dates start less than two months from now.

The 'which animals ought to be pregnant' discussion centres around the spaniels. Dulcie, Jazzie, and most especially Podge are in season. Podge is ready N.O.W. When I fed her this morning all she wanted was a cuddle, then she cocked her tail over her back and fixed me with a mad, hormonal stare. Poor thing. She's not made the cut for motherhood, at least not now, because she's our main 'dogging in' dog - chasing young pheasants home every morning and night until they remember where they live. Podge has got a heavy work load until mid-September. We can't afford to have her sidelined.

We have wanted a pup from Dulcie, a dog Mike bred from his own 30 year-old line of springers. She's getting older but after missing last year's shoot season recovering from a ligament repair, I worried it wouldn't be fair for her to miss another season of what she loves best. However, if the dog visits her next week, she could have pups and still be fit for November 1st, and the majority of the winter. It will be Dulcie's first litter, and mine. I've never bred a litter, I've only had secondhand dogs up to now.

Until then I have the orphan lambs still to care for, and a few hens guarding clutches of eggs. I've tried putting quail eggs under a bantam hen, but I'm not sure if they'll hatch. The hen's had some commitment issues and she seems to lose track of the eggs when she gets off the nest, remembering to cover only a few or half when she sits down to brood after a wander over to the feeder.

I came home from work to find this baby in a Tupperware pot, in hay, in my sink-

I think it's a baby bullfinch chick. It's got a worm stuck to it so I think Mike tried unsuccessfully to feed it. My mother taught me the hamburger trick for feeding found fledglings. I must have brought home dozens as a child, though few survived the trauma and my own inept but well-meaning childish love.

I have ground venison in the fridge and the chick eagerly choked down a few good-sized strands. I've put it in a basket with a light for warmth. Its best chance for survival is if I can find a nest with similar sized chicks in it and add it to the brood. Mike claims birds can't count and a gaping mouth is enough of a trigger to get fed, no matter who your real momma is. It works on me too, not just with birds, but with the boys who work with Mike. I can't resist a hungry creature whether it's got feathers or camo trousers.

If I can't find a nest, I'll keep feeding it and hope it survives in spite of my inept but well-meaning childish love.

Saturday, 23 July 2011


Mike and I managed to take half a day off yesterday. A whole six hours. We squandered it watching the last in the Harry Potter series of films. In the middle of the day. I even had a glass of wine at lunch, which felt very badass. OK, it was Pizza Hut's house wine, but it was the best (and absolute worst) glass of wine I've had in forever. The food just tasted manufactured and unsophisticated, but a waitress brought it to me and no one interrupted our lunch. At home, the phone and the door would be going at the same time. We both left our mobile phones at home. There was a lot of giggling.

Before we set off for the big town and multiplex cinema, I made an effort to tidy myself up. I slapped on some cover-the-grey dye, and while that was working its magic (Griseum Obscura!) I had time to mix up cement and patch the holes in the kennels where Quincy has excavated loose concrete. Mike built more release pens for his pheasants, but found clean jeans - no holes, no blood - for trip to town. Our rare trips to town are the only time that there isn't a dog in the truck with us, either curled up on the floor, spaniel-style or sprawled out on the seats, lab-style.

We're not so rural that mixing with crowds should be unnerving, but it is. There is so much noise from people and traffic that I feel disoriented. There are TV screens everywhere, and music and sound. In the movie theatre, the sound was turned up so loud, even with my impaired hearing it hurt my ears. I think it was to drown out the sounds of other patrons eating popcorn and rustling wrappers.

At home I can hear a flock of house sparrows noisily invade a shrub near the bird feeder. I can hear a green woodpecker call. I can hear wind rustling leaves, which is altogether more comforting that candy wrappers. I can hear the dog snoring. When the cockerels start crowing I know it's after 5pm. There's so much going on, so why is it less of an assault on my nerves than sound and light in town?

I got home with enough light to spare that I went deer stalking. Maurading deer are still eating the cider orchard. A couple of hours sitting quietly yielded a yearling for the larder -

Mike talked me through a better gralloching technique too -

It's going to be a short cold summer and I'm taking stock of my vegetable harvest. The carrots are going to be plentiful -

And the apple crop too -

However, my tomatoes and sweetcorn could really use an Engorgio spell.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011


It's mid-summer in England according to the calendar, if not the weather outside. The apple tree has finished its June drop, letting go of some of its fruits early, for the good of the many still left to feed and ripen. The hard green sacrifical apples carpet the lawn, and the living room. The retrievers pick one up on every trip out the the garden, and bring it in to play with later. I find them under chairs, on chairs, I step on them rolling around the tile floor in the kitchen.

The rest of the garden is combatting cold and windy weather, for another week at least. I'm wearing wool and fleece instead of t-shirts and shorts. We're eating stews and stodgy puddings, so many that I'm now forced to combat my middle-aged spread.

My sister suggested a diet she found successful, a sort of Atkins 2.0. I'm halfway through it already. The only problem is I don't own a set of scales so I could weigh myself to see if the diet was working. Well, I haven't got a set of human scales, but I do have a weigh crate for sheep.

Usually when I weigh the lambs I'm looking for the dial to move up. In this case I'm hoping it goes the other way. It works fine, though I learned two things about myself: I'm already cull ewe weight, and if I had worms, I require a 12ml drench.

If I had worms I probably wouldn't be so well-covered in the first place.

Speaking of well-covered, I've butchered the ram lambs. They were obviously converting their grass diet well and there was a lot of excess fat which I cooked up for the dogs. I'm supposed to eat a lot of fat and meat on this diet. I don't think that's going to be a problem.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Mystery of Barbara - Revealed!

This week has been all about death and poop - not mine, I assure you. I warn you now that there is no happy ending, so feel free to skip the visuals, or ignore this post altogether and make up your own happy ending.

I posted recently about Barbara, our missing (presumed dead) silkie hen. She hasn't been home in over a week. Because of all the fox activity and her propensity to go broody in fox-accessible places, I assumed she had simply been a late-night vulpine snack. But, I hadn't found any feathers which was unusual - considering she was a white chicken - as any traces of her would stand out.

This week we found Barbara. She went broody just behind the house, tucked up in a bale of straw. The same bale of straw which the lambs used as a day bed. The lambs must have piled on top of her to have a nap, and either crushed or suffocated her while she sat on her nest.

Poor Barbara - you can just see her head

I suppose chicken smothered in Lamb could be a recipe. Chicken smothered by lamb is only a recipe for disaster. Barbara went to the Big Sleep because of some small sheep.

Wanted for crimes against poultry

My murderous lambs have now graduated from their bijou back garden pen to the acre-sized paddock at the bottom of the driveway. They have been weaned at the same time, and they are objecting about it loudly and at all hours of the day and night. Between a kennelful of dogs, crowing cockerels and now protesting lambs, we are officially the worst neighbours ever. I will try and atone with gifts - a joint of lamb or venison for each household (eggs and jam for the vegetarians), and ten Hail Marys for good measure.

The paddock was vacant after a trip with the boys to the abattoir, or "Summer Camp" as I've renamed it. I loaded them into the trailer easily and we were on the road by 6.30am. I'm only the driver now, Mike unloads and gets them settled in. I don't get out of the truck. There were no tears this time, but that could have just been the Valium I took before we set off, as extra insurance. Don't tell Mike, he thinks I'm a stouthearted farmer now.

Actually, the carcases look really good this time. Not so much excess fat, but still well-covered, and each killed out at 33kgs -

Now I just have to find time to butcher one hundred kilos of lamb by Saturday.

Eunice didn't go the Summer Camp with her brothers. She's rejoined the Ewe's co-operative on the laying field, turning grass into new lambs and sheep shit. Eunice is only producing the latter this year, as she won't see the ram until next spring. But there was a problem with the poop: scours. The ram lambs were fine but three of the ewes, including Eunice, had very messy bottoms.

Being newly stouthearted and immune to poop, I collected samples for the vets then scrubbed their wool clean to prevent flies laying their eggs on the dirty wool. I've spared you (and my pride) photos of the undertaking.

The vet sent the sample to their labs and the worm count was horrifying. My worming program hasn't been working. The lab made a special call to the vets rather than wait for the results to arrive by post, that's how bad it is. The sheep - or more specifically, their worms - are resistant to the wormers I used. I had to crate each sheep and give her an injection. Fly maggots are trying to eat them from the outside, and worms are trying to devour them from the inside. And I'm trying to save them so at some point I can devour their offspring.

In comparison, being squashed in straw doesn't seem like such a bad way to go.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Lucky Escape

I shot this in a hen house at 2.30 this morning -

It's only one of this year's cubs, but already old enough to be out by itself doing a bit of opportunistic hunting, honing its skills.

The house it broke into had a Buff Orpington hen and her brood of chicks inside - my flock replacements for next year. I heard the hen screaming, which is enough to wake me out of a sound sleep.

My heart sank when I saw the edge of the chicken wire lifted away, and a pile up of chicks in the corner. The hen was still screaming. She sounded frightened and angry at the same time. At least she was alive, as were some of the chicks.

The fox saw me and panicked. By this time Mike had handed me a .17 rifle and I dispatched the cub while it tried to dig its way back out. I had to wait until morning to see which birds had been injured.

I'm thrilled to report that, so far, there are no broken wings or legs, and all the chicks look alert if a little ruffled by their ordeal. There is a light dusting of feathers on the house floor, but most of them come from the mother who's sporting a rather bare neck.

The cub tried to supersize his meal and it backfired on him. It's a lesson he won't get a second chance to learn.