Friday, 31 August 2012

A Decision and a Nomination

I finally gave up trying to sleep at 4 a.m. this morning, worrying about hay and goats and weather.  Of course I woke my husband to get his opinion and, to be fair to him, he was a good sport about it. He got up and made us tea while I worked through the business plan again, sans our own hay.

I couldn't make it work.

My creative solution? I called Kevin and Lynn, who own the goatling, and together we decided that the goats would stay with them for another year.

I haven't given up on goats, but I've had to concede defeat this year in the face of our hay crisis. Lyn has more than generously offered her herd for me to come and practice on, so I can get my goat fix and gain experience at the same time. When it comes to livestock, goat people are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.

It feels like a setback in some ways, but it's a mature business decision too. I really want a goat to pet and milk (that's not the mature part of the decision), but I really don't want to fall out with my bank manager over an overdraft either. (That is.)

The local farmers gave us advice on our grass, and we found someone willing to bale it and take it away. He's spending time and money of a crop of poor fodder with limited feed value, but hay will be short this year and he can feed it to calves. We get the long wet grass off our field so the new shoots can regrow, and we can overwinter our expanding flock of sheep there. It's not a perfect solution, but it is good enough.

We're still left with having to purchase hay to feed our sheep and horses this year, but, with the money I've had returned from the goat purchase, plus another gardening job, and if I shoot some extra deer which are plentiful, then I can keep the bank manager from the door.

Among all this worry, a bouquet of roses was delivered to the door. Mike nominated me for an award given to gamekeepers' wives and apparently I was the runner up - hence a beautiful bouquet of flowers. I am honoured to even be considered for the award, and therefore feel kind of guilty wondering what feed value a bouquet of roses might have for a milk goat.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Sorting out the sheep from the goats

Meet "Goat" -

She is my new, as yet unnamed, goatling. She's one of two goatlings I bought yesterday; the other bought sight unseen. Both are Anglo-Nubians. They're going straight off to stud, and will be in kid by the end of September, I hope.

I chose Anglo-Nubians because their milk has the highest butterfat content, perfect for cheese, yogurt, and adding those elusive fat calories to one's diet. However, Anglo-Nubians aren't the easiest breed for a beginner. I've heard the terms "willful", "vocal", and "serious challenge to fencing" applied to them. The seller showed me her middle finger which was missing its top knuckle, the result of a goat she was leading around the ring, panicking at a country show. It took out two bystanders as well. Oh, and that destructive goat? It was our new goatling's mother.

I hope to god that rampaging behaviour isn't hereditary, or at least skips a generation until I can learn more about goat training. 

So I was awake in the middle of the night wondering if I've made a sensible decision to add goats to our mixed enterprise. The self-doubting voice in my head, which is quite loud, was yelling at me that I'm an idiot and, frankly, one hamster away from being on an episode of Confessions: Animal Hoarding. The farmer-in-training voice, which is much quieter, reminded me that I have been researching this for more than a year, that I can commit the time to this endeavour, that I've outlined a business plan and contacted restaurants interested in local produce already. I know it has potential to add to our income. And, if it doesn't work out, I can sell the goats. No one is going to die, no deadly virus released if I fail. Basically no Armageddon will befall the world if I've made a mistake with the goats. 

OK maybe I'll lose the top of my finger, but I'm willing to run that risk.

I have resolved to be positive about the goat endeavour, and my ability to make it succeed. Even though we found out this afternoon that our entire hay crop is likely ruined because of rain, and because the farmer who we contracted to bale it, bailed on us. Our winter hay supply is now whatever we have left from last year. This would be fine if we didn't do anything rash, like buy two milking animals that require daily hay, even when grass is plentiful. I'm still going to be positive; it's the only way I can muster enough creativity to cobble together a solution to the winter fodder problem. 

I read that the Dalai Lama said "Goats are the ultimate source of success in life." I have absolutely no idea what that means, but I know, if I can make goats work for our little farm, I'm going to feel triumphant.

Monday, 27 August 2012

The 2012 Calorie Challenge

Tamar at Starving Off the Land issued a challenge to us fellow home producers: meet 20.12% of your calorific needs in 2012. Curious to see how we would fare, and because Tamar and her husband Kevin can convince me to try anything, I happily joined in. Although a bit slapdash, I've endeavoured to keep a complete list of food we produce or harvest from the wild since the beginning of this year.

The guidelines are simple: Only count what you grow or forage, no bartered or bought goods. You don't have to eat all of it yourself but, if the armageddon happened tomorrow, and you could stomach a daily diet of five eggs and half a pound of lamb, those calories would keep you alive.

A batch of runner bean chutney simmering on the stove gave me a chance to sit down and work out the math. As per Tamar's helpful suggestion, I used the USDA website for calorie counts, and referred to the table in the back of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook when I got stuck. There is only marginal rigour in my science (more mortis, than rigour) but I averaged, rounded down, and made conservative estimates just to be on the safe side.

As of the 240th day of the year, we have produced, harvested, or foraged a grand total of 474,931calories. That works out to 1978 calories a day to share between us. If Mike uses 3000 calories per day and I use 2000, then we're meeting about 32% and 48% of our calories, respectively.

With our hunting and livestock, we have a high protein diet; the lambs, hoggets, and eggs combined account for almost half of our total calories. If we were vegetarians, we would have starved to death by April 15th, (a great opportunity to skip out on paying our taxes but a fairly final solution.)

In fact, if our normal mild summers continue to devolve into long spells of cold and rain, we could lose even more of our non-protein food sources. The vegetable patch is a horticultural disaster zone: onions which we won't be able to store, underdeveloped garlic, non-existent carrots, a pea crop that produced enough for only three suppers. Our apple crop is the worst I've ever seen.

The bean crop is late but they're coming, and the promise of an Indian summer means my pumpkins and tomatoes will keep ripening. There's some hope for the winter kale and broccoli crops if I can keep the caterpillars away. But, whether we like it or not, we will be embracing the Paleo diet for the bulk of our calories.

I can add 2 jars of runner bean chutney to the next half of the 2012 Challenge list. It should be ready to eat in a few months, when fresh beans will be a memory.

750grams runner beans - 172 calories.  Click here for recipe

Friday, 24 August 2012

The Weather

According to the calendar, those of us in the northern hemisphere are in the dog days of summer, technically referring to Sirius the dog star (stellar body, not canine actor of course). These days are associated with hot, sultry weather, which I understand you all in the US are enjoying, or at least coping with, at this moment.

Not here in England.

I'm not sure if climate change is already affecting the gulf stream, which the UK depends on for its relatively balmy climate. Perhaps it's merely an anomaly. All I know is the thermometer is reading 12 degrees C, and the constant rain and wind storms are making it feel worse. I've given in and lit the wood stoves. On August 24th. Summer.

The cup of coffee and book are there to distract me from worrying about this year's hay crop. It's cut and on the ground and was dry, but we couldn't get it baled before this storm came in. We need a least three dry, preferably windy, days in a row to bale it or we'll lose all our winter fodder and have to buy it in. I have some of last year's still in storage but a bad winter will see that gone by Christmas.

Even the livestock look fed up. Chickens began their summer moults, and now have to take shelter under the Land Rover.

The pheasants are holed up in the woods under shelter too, possibly evolving webbed feet.

Checking the sheep takes longer too; they are the same colour as the fog. I'm nearly driving over them by the time I spot them. They get checked twice a day now minimum as their pregnancies develop. A few days ago I found N1125 on her back in a tractor rut, unable to roll over. She was stuck fast, legs in the air, like a wooly bug. (The scene reminded me of Gregor Samsa waking up after his metamorphosis.)
I turned N1125 right side up, but it took her some time to recover, and I had to help her onto her feet. Losing a sheep to pneumonia is one thing. Losing a sheep and her unborn lambs to a misplaced roll in the grass in another thing entirely. 

The outside dogs are piled up together in their dry, straw beds. The indoor dogs have found the lit wood stove and laid beside it. I just picked up the mail, including this month's National Geographic with its headline: What's Up with This Weather?

My sentiments exactly.

Friday, 17 August 2012

A Birthday

Yesterday was Mike's 48th birthday. With an estate full of young pheasants he had to work of course, but he came home for a special birthday lunch.

No, not that kind of special lunch.

I popped down to our local cafe to pick up a BLT for him, which is his favourite. The cafe is at the bottom of the manor house drive, a two minute walk from our house. I came back to find this -

Neither stirred when I took this photo

I left his lunch in the kitchen, and left him to carry on. All Mike really wanted for his birthday was a nap. All Pip ever wants is a napping companion. Everyone's happy.

Happy Birthday, you hardworking old 'keeper.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Fowl Formula

These are a couple of the borders in the garden where I work. There are no chickens.

Gardens - Chickens =

These are a couple of flower borders in my garden at home. Where I have chickens.

Gardens + Chickens =

I'll let you do the math.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Lows and...well, no, just the lows

Ewe Two died yesterday.

Waiting for handouts

She contracted pneumonia. When I called the vet I could tell by his voice that there was little hope. Apparently it's the weather patterns: lots of wet followed by a hot day acts as a trigger factor to allow the infection to develop in a sheep. I dosed her with antibiotics and painkillers, but nothing worked. All the sheep are vaccinated and wormed so there's not a lot else I can do but accept it.

Or in my case, sit on the couch and sob my heart out. 

Ewe Two, my little orphan Texel

I realise it's a sheep but I also realised she's been a companion to me. I've spent more time recently in her company than in Mike's. She responded to basic training, and to affection. She wanted to be with me even when I didn't have food. She wagged her tail like a dog when I stroked her.

I had to swallow my tears because I was due to meet a farmer taking delivery of pheasant food. I didn't want him to see red eyes and have to explain that I was crying over a dead sheep. I used a bag of frozen peas as a compress, then slapped on a pair of sunglasses to hide the rest. Delivery done, I called the hunt kennel. 

The hunt kennel is an approved dead stock handler. They take "fallen stock" to feed their hounds. I had to deliver the ewe to the waiting kennel man, which meant getting the 90kg ewe into the back of my truck. I weigh 61kg. I didn't do the maths. 

Lifestyle magazines have a lot to answer for. Pictures of outdoor tables with teapots and bunting, piebald cows, ladies in aprons throwing scraps to hens with shiny conker-coloured feathers. Do you know what the reality is? A woman in sunglasses, dripping in sweat and tears while she tries to lever her sheep companion's bloated carcase 3 foot up into a truck. And fails. Then tries a rope. And fails. Then tries strength and sheer willpower. And fails. All the time being bitten by horse flies. 

There was no one else but me to do this. I don't have a big extended family on my doorstep, and I'm not 'in' with the locals well enough to ask dead stock-moving favours. Of all the situations I've been in since I started this life, I think yesterday was my lowest point. I have never felt so alone or disheartened. 

Well, I did get Ewe Two in the truck eventually, and I did get her to the kennel, and I have stopped crying now. And when a farmer tried to give me some well-meaning advice that I should stop keeping sheep if I couldn't cope, I decided that he was wrong.

I coped. OK, I needed advice, sheep meds, a bag of frozen peas, sunglasses, a rope, a hurdle, and some itch relief cream for fly bites, but I coped. 

I'm not giving up my sheep. 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go and bury Nell's ashes on the hillside, walk the dogs, and check on MY flock.

Monday, 6 August 2012

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

The summer is arguably the busiest season in gamekeeping. With 16 hours of sunlight a day, you feel obligated to make use of them all. Young poults are going from their brooder houses to large outdoor pens in the woods. Now they face rain, wind, and potential predation from buzzards, sparrow hawks, and foxes, but they feather up and learn to hide away when danger approaches. They grow much better out of doors.

The keeper's days are long and monotonous; tipping bags of pellets into feeders, topping up drinkers, sitting by newly released pens of birds until dark, to make sure they settle (you can at least bring wine and a book for that last job; I often volunteer). Stalking deer is done very early or very late. And of course I still have to find time to manage my vegetable garden, work the dogs, look after the sheep and horses, and go to my own jobs (paid and volunteer).

In the face of all this work, I decided to go holiday. Or what passes for a holiday when you have livestock and commitments. Two hours before sunset, I put up a tent in our field five miles away, brought a kettle and tea bags, reading material, and a few dogs for company, and slept out overnight.

It's from the "A Change is as Good as a Rest" school of vacationing. 


Like the pheasant poults, I do better outdoors. The view is bucolic; in my opinion, sitting and looking are two very underrated activities. I finally got a chance to catch up on a backlog of New Yorker magazines without people constantly dropping by unannounced - my personal bete noire. Our house is like Grand Central Station and, quite frankly, my nerves can't take it. A vacation from my own house was necessary.

Pip and Dakota hared around the ten acres until dark, excavating field mice nests and generally bothering the local wildlife. It was like Disneyland for dogs - if Disneyland encouraged kids to chase Donald and dig up Mickey. Pip found a badger latrine (another attraction lacking at theme parks) -

I had to give her a bath in the trough with hand soap before she smelled tolerable enough to be allowed inside the tent. 

In the morning, Mike showed up with a fresh pot of coffee and croissants, and we had a peaceful breakfast together, just the two of us. Mike was relieved to find a much happier, more relaxed wife. He's suggested I go every Saturday night.

I readily agreed.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

In the Pink

Like any good shepherd I check my sheep regularly. Like the small flock, pet sheep enthusiast that I really am, I check my sheep lots. So I noticed when Ewe N1125 developed a squint in one eye. I assumed she probably scratched it on a thistle while grazing. This morning 4 other sheep had similar squints.

Pink eye.

I didn't even know sheep could get pink eye. I thought it was a disease specific to kindergarten-aged children (or snotlings, as I call them). Imagine my joy when I read that it's described as an outbreak rather than a disease, and it's both infectious AND contagious.

I rounded them up and gave them the sheep treatment de rigueur: a shot in the ass of antibiotics. The ones that were showing symptoms also got eye cream.  And I got a bill for £75 from the vet surgery, so everybody's hurting. N1125, or Patient Zero as I'm calling her, has the milky eye as in the photo, but the rest are just squinty or have round, red eyes.

Which reminds me, my first tomato harvest is in -

Ta Daaaah!

Mike and I shared that bounty in our salad, which was in danger of being smothered by a lettuce leaf. This week I harvested four more, enough for half a BLT sandwich. I can continue to look on the bright side of things, so long as I don't get pink eye. Then I'll only be able to squint at the bright side.

Thursday, 2 August 2012


I have just finished my very first cabled jumper, after a 4-hour home stretch on the couch today, fuelled by cups of tea and Radio 4 programmes.

Ignore the tired looking woman modelling the jumper

The jumper is an Olympic achievement for me technically, not to mention sitting down uninterrupted for that long. Well, uninterrupted if you don't count the farmer delivering pheasant poults, and Mike, and someone looking for Mike, and the postman, and a deposit of someone's unwanted chickens, and the Jehovah's Witnesses that stopped by (I graciously accepted a leaflet on creationism and gave them some eggs as a gift, and now I'm square with their god.)

I knitted this as my new lucky shooting jumper. I've joined a shooting syndicate, which is a group of people who spend the day shooting together. Just a few farmers who spend Saturdays walking the hedgerows with dogs and guns. I understand the average bag is about 5 birds a day, so it's the very definition of 'pot-shots'. Mike bribed a space for me on the syndicate by rearing their birds for them this year.

It's still a pretty sexist hobby and not all syndicates like to include women, so I'll just have to be a good sport and good company to change their opinions. And a nice new jumper will make a good impression as I hand over a bribe of home made sloe gin to the team.