Thursday, 19 April 2012


This must be the start of my egg pun series. Feel free to contribute your own in the comments section.

Mike and I are both so tired that we've entered the hysteria phase - you know after denial, sadness, anger, eating too many cookies, washing cookies down with wine, and talking to your animals (doing both voices).

One of the incubators is faulty, and it's tripping out the circuits so all the hatchers and incubators go off. That's 20,000 chicks on the line. There is only one person in the UK who repairs these machines and he can't get here for a few days. Mike's only choice is to sleep in the stone barn with the machines, on a cot in my L.L. Bean sleeping bag, and make sure the machines keep running and the eggs stay warm.

What we do for our livestock...

It's not just Mike who has to suffer for his animals; Our flock of sheep is too large to lamb in the small paddock outside our house this year. They will have to lamb at Milkweed. I'm trying to source a small caravan on Ebay that I can sleep in, for pretty much the whole of October. I'll need to borrow that sleeping bag back from Mike.

I'm keeping the home fires burning - both of them, as north winds have brought winter back to England - and managing the non-pheasant related jobs. The tired hysteria has extended to my cooking, and meals appear to be a random amalgam of leftovers: beef stew over nettle pasta last night, fish with wilted spinach and macaroni cheese tonight. I think Mike is afraid to come home because of the food.

Be extra concerned because my job at the cafe started this week. In fact I was late for my first day of work because I had to break up a cock fight between Patches and our newest cockerel, and four hens tried to follow me to work. I had to bribe them back by throwing part of my lunch (a peanut butter, honey, and cinnamon sandwich...) up the driveway and shutting the gate. Chickens appreciate my culinary talents.

There is some good news on the animal front: Alan got a new foot today from the farrier. His infection is gone but it took the outside of his front hoof with it. The farrier used essentially acrylic nails for horses and built up the missing hoof. As a horse carries most of its weight on its front feet, conformation and stability is paramount; badly-shaped feet can lead to leg injuries and back problems. We're going out riding tomorrow morning (weather permitting) to try out Alan's newly fitted saddle and newly made foot.

We'll ride by the hatching barn and give Mike a wake-up call.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Weaning Day

The new handling yard at Milkweed is working. All but my grumpy ewe went into the enclosure this morning. I soon changed her mind, by chasing her down with the Land Rover until she relented and joined the rest of the flock.

The lambs and the half breeds have stayed at Milkweed. I moved the ewes to graze some better grass, as part of their pre-natal care regime. A few weeks of ovine binge-eating is supposed to produce a metabolic response in their reproductive system: food is abundant so release extra eggs. I hope the end result will be more twins and even triplets in autumn. This year, after the ram's visit, I'm going to have the ewes scanned so I know - in theory - what I can expect.

Enjoying a break from motherhood

Unfortunately, this year is turning into a sinister crap shoot for all farmers with sheep, goats, or cattle. We've been hit in the UK with a new disease called the Schmallenberg Virus (SBV). It's spread by midges from Europe. Infected animals show almost no clinical signs of infection, and the farmer only knows she's got it when the lambs and calves are born with terrible deformities. As yet, there is no vaccine available. We're all just holding our breath and hoping that our own crops of babies will be spared. Maybe they should have named it the King Herod Virus.

My 4 p.m. pheasant egg collecting job is looming, but after the eggs are all washed and trayed, I'll drive over to Milkweed and check on the now-weaned lambs. It can be a distressing process for mums and offspring, but neither group was complaining, even when they were initially separated into trailer and shed, respectively. The lambs were way past due for weaning. I expect the mothers closed the milk bar weeks ago, when their now sizeable offspring lifted them off the ground while trying to suckle.

If all's well with the sheep and there's still enough daylight, I'll fit in a evening's deer stalking. And I really need one - we have only scraps of venison left in the freezer. In fact, I had to buy stewing beef from the butcher's today, which felt all kinds of wrong. Mind you, when you see how the beef animals are kept -

Outside, in a herd, rotated regularly onto fresh grass, being raised on their own mother's milk for a long period of time - it's hard to feel too badly about buying beef.

This is part of our neighbour's herd of suckler cattle. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for him next calving too.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Quincy's Big Day Out

Quincy and I competed in our first Gundog Test today. We completed a series of 3 tests: field retrieves, water retrieves, and hunted retrieves in cover. Quincy struggled a bit with the first, I let her down on the second, but once we got over our nerves we achieved a perfect score of 20 on the last one.

This is my Noble Canine pose...

Doesn't she look proud? She should - she earned a 3rd place in the Puppy Retriever Class, with a respectable score of 46/60.

I think she's smiling in this picture!

If I'd not made a mistake at the water retrieve, it would have been 2nd place. I think Quincy forgives me but, just in case, I've made her a conciliatory dinner of scrambled pheasant eggs and pasta.

We move up to the Open class, and will compete again in July. Quincy has plenty of time to train me between now and then.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Fun with Sheep

Heavy persistent showers have driven me indoors and forced me to do battle with my pile of paperwork - bills, tax returns, overseas voting forms, flock plans. In fact, I'm due at the vets in a hour to go over this year's sheep management programme with 'Bloody' Mary.

Mary is a very capable, tough, large animal vet who earned her nickname from us because, every time I bump into her, she's covered in blood from performing emergency cesareans in the field or other such heroic life-saving procedures. I have all the time and respect in the world for a hands-on, can-do woman like Mary.(The boys do too, possibly because of the huge cauterising bull castration pliers she keeps in her van.)

The sheep are doing well. You will not be surprised to hear that I've not yet booked the lambs in for Ice Camp (I used Easter as an excuse last week). So, they're happily putting on a useless layer of fat as the lush grass comes in.

On top of good grass, I'm still hand feeding them a little barley, just to encourage them to come close enough that I can check them over every day. We finished building a small holding pen with a system of gates in and out which, in theory, will make handling them easier.

If I can figure out how to get them all to go in there.

Now, I'm a big fan of operant conditioning. Sheep behaviour is relatively easy to manipulate using association and positive reinforcement, as long as you are specific about your training goal. For example: I'm inherently lazy, I hate walking all the way across a ten acre field to round-up sheep. I wanted my sheep to come to the gate to greet me. I started by rounding them up, and simply feeding them by the gate around the same time each day. Once they were habituated to eating by the gate, I added a stimulus - beeping the Land Rover horn - before I parked and put food in their trough.

In less than a week, that flock was conditioned to come running for food as soon as they heard me beeping the horn as I drove up the road. Only a few of the "brighter" sheep need to respond, and flock mentality draws the rest of them in.

Training works both ways. Ewe 0002 - the Texel cross - is especially receptive to rewards and habituated to me. She's trained me to give her a handful of food as soon as I arrive by standing on the gate, which amuses me, and causes me to reward her -

I know - cute, right?

I'm such a sucker.

My first rule of animal training is "Feed them, and they will come." This nearly always produces a successful result (possibly because I keep Labradors and Cob horses, both notoriously greedy breeds). The wary sheep simply need time to get habituated to the new enclosure and if I show a little patience I'll be rewarded.

While wading through my mound of paperwork, I've just come across the bill from the fencers for putting up the small pen. For the same amount of money, I could have purchased a fully-trained sheep dog, so smart that it could have rounded up my flock then helped me with my taxes.

Live and learn.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

And I thought they only contained monkeys...

Our weather has been so consistently sunny and freakishly warm that I've refused to come in until dark. Lots of outside jobs are done, including a new fencing project at Milkweed to create a small handling yard for sheep and lambs. My computer has dust on it. In fact, every surface in the house has dust on it, the carpets have a layer of dog hair, and the washing basket is overflowing. It's fine because it's nearly impossible to see the dirt at night, and if I trip over the laundry, it will afford me a soft landing.

I don't know if that rationale counts as 'thinking outside the box', or just plain denial.

My one "indoor" exception was a lambing class held at our vets' surgery last week. After all the lambing difficulties of last season, I wanted to rectify the pre-natal care and get some advice on dealing with problem births. The course finished with a Problem Birth test: a cut-away, 50-gallon drum on its side, with one end fashioned into a birth canal, and fitted with a see-thru plastic womb, was "impregnated" with a dead lamb. A real dead lamb. The vets arranged the poor creature into different problem delivery scenarios, and each student had to don the armpit-length glove, lube up, and go in. The rest of the class could watch the progress inside the barrel sheep, through the clear plastic womb.

Some towns have art centres where people gather and socialise. Some have museums and other cultural venues to patronise and enjoy. Dorset? We have lambing courses at the vets, where we take turns pulling a dead lamb out of a barrel, while drinking tea (remembering to hold it in the non-gloved hand; lube is slippery).

Truthfully? It was as much fun as a barrel of....OK, it was so fascinating that I've signed up for the next course on worming sheep.