Sunday, 27 May 2012

Date Night - Dorset style

I know most people go out to dinner or the movies, but this time of year we're lucky to find an hour to spend together. That's enough time for us to either catch up on the day's events or unwind enjoying our hobbies. It was rare we could do both, until we invented Knishing -

If one of you is a fisherman and the other likes to knit, compromise is easy. I sat by the pond on an upturned dinghy working on my jumper while Mike cast a line.

It's slightly midge-ier than sitting on the couch at home, but the early evening sounds of pheasants going to roost, and tawny owls calling out their territorial claims more than compensates for a few bug bites. I'm ready with a net in case he hooks something.

And he did -

A 5+ pound rainbow trout. We had steaks for dinner, and I made trout gravlax from the rest of it.

If only all compromises in a marriage were this easy, and ended in two nights' worth of dinner!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Ugly Naked Sheep Day

I personally think that people look better in clothes. It's not that I'm against nudity, but a flattering waistline or a good pair of jeans can enhance one's...erm...assets. It turns out sheep are the same. In their wool, sheep look sort of plump and snuggly -

Once sheared however, sheep look spindly and not at all like sheep in a children's picture book -

As you can see, my Polled Dorset ewes were hiding a thick covering of fat under their sheep-fros. A mild winter and a daily handful of barley each has gone straight to their hips. I probably didn't want them to be quite so fat before the ram visits in a few weeks, but too fat now is better than too thin. I have cut out their barley rations though.

Shearing day - my own personal Hell - came a bit late this year due to the rain, but still too soon for my liking. If I kept a smaller, less woolly variety, I wouldn't find shearing such a trauma. I know, I say this every year. The trauma was compounded by a shoulder injury I sustained falling off of Alan the day before we sheared. Blame the rain again for washing out the bridle path. Alan's legs went out from under him sideways and it threw me into the hedge. I rolled under him, but he's so sensible that instead of kicking me in the head while panicking to stand up, he actually waited for me to crawl out from under him before getting on his feet. Alan is my new best friend.

I was too scared to tell Steve my shearer/drill sergeant that I was a bit stiff. These are tough farming men, and professing any weakness is just not done. So I pulled up my big girl shearing trousers, washed down a Vicodin with a cup of cold black coffee, and said nothing. By the time we sheared the seven lambs and three half-breed sheep, my shoulder was burning and there were beads of sweat on my forehead. I suggested lunch to buy some recovery time before we started on the ewes.

Setting up in the paddock to shear the ewes

By now my energy was spent and the Vicodin was wearing off. I sheared the first couple of sheep trembling with muscle fatigue. That fact that Polled Dorset sheep are notorious fidgets and kickers only exacerbated the situation. I focused on my reward: opening a good bottle of red wine when it was all over. Even Steve was beginning to tire, and slipped with the clippers. One sheep got an ear wound so gory that Tarantino could have used it in a film -

As blood is only about the sixth most disgusting substance I come in regular contact with, I was happy to play nurse and clean up the wound while Steve wrestled with more fat, woolly, uncooperative ewes.

We finished twenty sheep by 6pm. Our neighbour the professional shepherd did a flock of 50 Polled Dorsets, alongside his son, and they were finished by 2 o'clock. And his son sheared with a hernia!

I will collect this year's Ram / baby daddy in a fortnight. By the time all the little lambs are born I will have forgotten all about shearing, and be complaining about the sleepless nights on birth watch. I will never give up shearing my own sheep, if only for the perverse pleasure I get from farmers complimenting me on 'having a go at it'. Props from a farmer is praise indeed.

But you don't have to wait until October for pictures of cute baby animals. I've hatched some more chickens, including Buff Orpingtons and Welsummers -

And some French Copper Marans, which will eventually lay deep chocolate-coloured eggs -

The Orpington/Welsummer batch is being mothered by a Buff Orpington hen -

The Copper Marans are being mothered, appropriately enough, by a Chocolate Orpington who we've named Mrs. Cadbury. I don't mind a few more chickens around the place, they don't need shearing.

My shoulder, I'm pleased to tell you, is completely healed. And I enjoyed my job-done-for-another-year glass of wine immensely. Now, to get that vegetable garden under control...

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

More Random Acts of Husband

" Hey - Come out and see what we've got!"

These are the words that fill me with trepidation. Especially the 'we' part, which inevitably means more work for me.

And what have we got?

Meet Hattie -

Yes, Mike brought home another dog. A ninth dog. "But she needed a home! And isn't she sweet?"

Of course she's sweet. In fact it was hard to get a photo of her because she kept trying to crawl into my lap for a cuddle. Mike knows any resolve I have to be hard crumbles when I see the dog.

Hattie is destined for Underkeeper Ian, as his first working dog. She's a four-year-old cocker spaniel who's already had experience on the shooting field. She's biddable and lovely natured. She now belongs to Ian, but she'll be spending a lot of time in our kennels (and kitchen) while Ian finishes his course at Gamekeeping College.

I have learned to accept the inherent chaos of the universe. And of a husband. Plus, what's another scoop of dog food in the grand scheme of things?

Sunday, 6 May 2012

It's Showtime

It has been raining for three straight weeks now. I haven’t been exposed to sunshine for so long that I think I’m in danger of getting rickets. I’m living in my rubber dungarees and swapping to a drier fleece top only when I have to wring out the sleeves like they were sodden dishcloths. So when the local sheep farmer offered me a chance to come and wash sheep in preparation for a show I thought “Well, I can hardly get any wetter.” and jumped at the opportunity.

Sheep are about the greasiest creatures you can imagine, which is great when you want a water-resistant sweater to wear, but hard work when you’re trying to clean one. There’s no science to it: simply fill a bucket with water and soap and get scrubbing. It was oddly therapeutic work – enjoyable even. Sheep are peaceable companions.

Once the half dozen sheep were scrubbed clean we put them back into the sheep wash for a final rinse in mud. Mud? It seemed counter-intuitive to me, too. A 25 kilo sack of field soil is tipped into the sheep wash to dye the now grease-free but white sheep the colour of their local soil type. I assume it's one of those traditional things best accepted without question.

Sheep are excellent swimmers, and appear to be naturally buoyant, popping straight up every time the farmer dunked them under with his brush.

See? Everyone's rocking the Rubber Trouser look. Accessorised here with bailing twine belt.

As my mother always said "It hurts to look beautiful" Or in this case, it takes a lungful of water to get to show standard.

I apologise for the lack of photos to accompany the whole process. I'm really there to help not document, and even taking these couple of photos elicited a sideways glance of bemusement from the farmer. He'd already shown remarkable patience towards his chattering, enthusiastic amateur sheep washer. In the few hours it took to complete the task, I watched him handling sheep, using equipment I knew nothing about, and handling his shepherding dog. I did my best to take in his thoughtful, complex responses to my simplistic questions.  With a collection of prime sheep to compare and contrast, he showed me how to feel for width and depth in the loins, and what constitutes a good head. I'm doing my best to watch and learn, but it’s a steep curve and much will simply take time and experience to master. Check back with me in 25 years.

Sadly, a day spent washing sheep has done nothing to dissuade me from my plan to show my own sheep at a local show. In fact I’ve already asked if I can come back and watch the farmer trim the sheep’s fleece, which is done to enhance or conceal, and present a pleasing overall shape.  So far I can only do one style of sheep haircut, and I don’t think there’s a show category for Most Naked Sheep.

While the sheep seem impervious to the weather, our laying pheasants aren’t fairing as well. We provide them shelters and cut greenery as windbreaks, but their usually green pens have turned to mud. I’m struggling to find the eggs because they’re laid in puddles deep enough to cover them.

This evening Mike found a hen that was hypothermic in one of the pens, laying on her side near death. We started up the tractor and put the heat on in the cab, and left the hen in there to dry off and warm up. When she was revived, Mike took pity on her and set her free. I think it was a symbolic gesture, to try and alleviate the guilt he feels that his laying flock is subject to the elements. (This courtesy doesn’t extend to his wife, who is subject to the elements just the same, but never excused from egg collecting duties!)

We've taken two hatches out of the machines, both very successful in spite of incubator breakdowns. Most of the chicks are already out of the shell when we open the machines -

Of course, there are always the late arrivals which need a helping hand. 

Each time I removed that shell from over a chick's eye, and it sees the world for the first time, I feel amazed. Elated to bring life into the world.

I don't enjoy the other end of the process so much. By far the worst chore this week was taking Meaty and foster lamb to Ice Camp. Meaty’s name seems to be ironic; although he weighed 31 kilos it appears 20 of those kilos is fat. I butchered him and restocked our freezers.

No points for spotting the glass of wine.

Foster lamb is much less fatty, and the best lamb carcase I've produced yet. He’s been sold, and will hang another day or two before I butcher him. That’s two lambs down, and three to go. Later. When I’ve recovered from this trip to the abattoir. I still take a Valium to help me cope with that trip, but a glass of wine is enough to get me through the butchery. I think that's progress, don't you?

Under surveillance