Monday, 30 July 2012

From Dovecote to Dove-not

Gamekeeping, in its broadest definition, can cover many jobs on an estate, but the common thread is always the care of game destined for the table.

The manor house on this estate has a dovecote, which was built by a previous owner circa 1660, at the same time as the chapel -

Chapel (L) with Yew tree, and free standing Dovecote (R)

Dovecotes were a special privilege of the noble classes. Some 350 years ago when this example was built, pigeons were a valuable addition to any manor house. Pigeons provided three crops: eggs, squab, and dung. A breeding stock of pigeons was kept. Unlike other poultry, pigeons pair bond. According to Wikipedia, ten pairs could produce eight squabs per month, without extra feeding (I assume this is minus any eggs harvested).

The dovecote and its inhabitants was 'keepered by the pigeonnier. We haven't got one of those on this estate and sadly the breeding stock, without management, has fallen prey to disease and parasites. I guess squab just doesn't have the same value it once did before the advent of supermarkets.

Lady S decided that the stock had to go, and the dovecote fumigated and laid fallow before healthy stock could be reintroduced. So the gamekeeper was called. As he was busy, the gamekeeper's wife was called.

Inside the dovecote are, well, pigeon holes. Hundreds of them lining the walls, occupied by hungry young pigeons and their harried parents. We were able climb up and remove many of the eggs and young birds. The parents were a different problem. We opted to shoot them as they flew in and out of the dovecote-

They didn't always present a sporting shot, and some were dispatched where they sat, on the roof of the sawmill and along the edge of the dovecote itself -

Sawmill (now a cafe)

Dovecote entrance

We had to be as judicious as possible with our shooting, but I'm afraid ricochet was inevitable. I've left my mark -well, pockmark - on this historic old building with my 20 bore Beretta. A century from now some Lord will be wondering what idiot shot the hell out of his dovecote. I am that idiot. 

Over a week we cleared out 70 adult birds -

One morning's work

Spud was on hand to ensure nothing suffered -

Good old Spud.

Sadly, none of the birds could be eaten because of their potential to carry Avian Tuberculosis, which can also infect some wild bird species and humans (via ingestion or inhalation). It was a difficult decision to take, but I understand why it needed to be done. 

Once the dovecote is habitable again, a selected stock of ornamental doves will be introduced and managed. A feast for the visitors' eyes, if not for the Lord's table.

On a more uplifting note, while I was carrying out my dove genocide, I happened to look into the chicken house. Long time readers may remember Myfanwy the social-climbing chicken? Two years ago, she went to live at the Manor House and has been a favourite visitor attraction ever since. She's hatched 3 chicks this year, carbon copies of herself -

Myfanwy is the daughter of my original flock of hens and Charles the cockerel, and it's wonderful to see her progeny. Though, if their egos and personality are as big as their mother's, I'm not sure 2,500 acres of estate will be enough for all of them.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Nellie 1999 - 2012

Our oldest retired spaniel Nellie had a stroke during the night. A trip to the vets confirmed it, and Nel was put to sleep in my arms at 8am this morning. 

She was a good dog.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Expletive Post

The last of this year's ram lambs went to ice camp this week. I loaded the pair into my stock trailer around dawn for the half hour drive. This time I tried it without the Valium and I was fine. No tears or regrets, and four days later I collected 63 kilos of butchered lamb. I called a local farmer and demanded that I be given a t-shirt or badge or something that says "Official Farmer - No tears!".

I think I heard eye-rolling over the 'phone.

In truth, I'm far from any reasonable definition of 'farmer'. I have livestock, sure, but that includes a chicken with brain damage, a Labrador that licks the furniture, and a ewe that wags its tail when I pet her. As a rule, farmers don't pet their sheep, and I admit that I look forward to a morning cuddle with my friendly ewe.

I was recently reminded of my farming shortcomings while watching Countryfile, a show on the BBC about countryside stuff, though most people only watch it for the week's weather report. The celebrity farmer (yes such things exist) was helping someone purchase sheep to start her flock - Horned Dorsets as it happens. In fact, I had only picked out and purchased three new ewes earlier that week. Then I watched the farmer select the lambs by checking their udders and teeth were good. Of course! Udders and teeth. If they can't eat or produce milk, you're sunk before you start.

Shit. I forgot to check those when I chose my lambs.

I chose my lambs based solely on my (limited) knowledge of the breed standard. Essentially, it would be like going to a used car lot and saying "That red car's pretty!", kicking the tyres once, then writing a cheque for it. Thankfully, I bought my stock from Mr. Baker, a lovely gentleman who is a tireless promoter of the breed and encourages me in my burgeoning shepherdess role. He made some gentle suggestions when I chose which means I probably didn't buy a lemon. Or three.

The three new lemons / ewes in front. They have pink ear tags.

Note to self: check teats and teeth next time. It's bad when a TV show reminds you that you're ignorant.

All the remaining lambs born last year are ewes to be added to the breeding flock. I've amalgamated my flock so born ewe lambs, newly purchased ewe lambs, and mums-to-be ewes are all together now. That's 18 sheep in total - a proper starter flock. The sheep will just graze now until 20th October, when lambing starts.

But between now and then I can harvest yet another crop from my sheep: Poo. After the TV let me down, I turned to the radio for solace and Gardener's Question Time: a weekly Q&A programme with timely tips for the gardener. When asked what fertiliser made for the best tasting tomatoes, one expert said a tea made from sheep poo. Simply put poo in a hessian sack inside a container filled with water, wait an unspecified amount of time, and feed liquid to plants.

In case you didn't know what crap looks like

I have a penchant for experimenting and sheds to clean out which were awash in sheep poo, so it was a no-brainer. Everyone knows that the only things money can't buy are love and home-grown tomatoes. 

I happen to have planted similar tomato cultivars on either side of the green house, so I'll feed one side my sheep tea, and the other a proprietary tomato feed only. The expert didn't give a standard or recipe for the Water:Shit ratio so I've opted for a barrel of water to a bucketful of shit, mostly because I had a barrel and a bucket to hand. This should indicate the rigour of my scientific inquiry to you. With any of my experiments, simply assume that it's the rigour of a woman drinking cooking wine out of a mug that came free from the pheasant feed merchant (It is, and I am.)

It has a lid - mandatory - to contain smells. So far I haven't noticed any.

If summer eventually comes to Britain and the tomatoes ripen, I will invite friends round for a taste challenge and post the results. If it works, I'll fit a spigot to the barrel and start my tea brewing a bit earlier in the year.

But, time and weather means my attention must turn from sheep to game: pheasants are going to wood, and a dry evening means I should put on my camos and see if I can bag a roe buck. The chiller's still on from hanging my lambs, and my extra Buff Orpington cockerel finally went in there today, after another stay of execution. Yesterday was our first day of sun in a long time, and I though he should enjoy it too.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Harvest interruptus

This was Wednesday's meagre raspberry harvest -

Just enough to add colour to my breakfast cereal. I was given 6 young canes last year (an exchange for eggs, of course) and they're bearing fruit; I'm harvesting this amount every few days. I simply need more canes in order to harvest more fruit. My benchmark is a single harvest large enough to make a batch of white chocolate and raspberry muffins.

While picking my "bounty", I caught sight of my frizzle Pekin hen making a P.L.C. -

Poor Life Choice. She decided to go broody out in the open, behind the vegetable patch. Genius. That way the fox can eat her in the middle of the night, then come back in the morning and have partly-incubated eggs for his breakfast.

That damn fox is going to harvest more than I am!

I leave her to sit on the eggs during the day. At bedtime, I pick her up off her clutch and put her back in the hen house, enduring her complaints and pecks. I might try moving her somewhere safe, and put a few fresh bantam eggs under her. She seems pretty determined - either to be a mum or fox bait, I'm not sure which.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Leftovers Post

Yesterday was officially our last pheasant hatch of the season. Once the chicks were collected and on the road bound for their new homes,we washed down the incubators and hatchers and turned off all the machines. It's silent in the hatching barn now, except for the nests of swallow chicks. Those are their parents' responsibility.

As one group of babies is born, I hope another is gestating. All the ewes have been covered by our borrowed ram Roz. After hatching, I caught him up - twice, as he managed to jump the hurdles penning him in away from his ewes - and returned him to Mr. Baker. I've hung up the raddle harness in the shed for another year.

Of course, it would be wasteful to drive home with an empty trailer, so I bought 3 more ewe lambs. I only intended to buy a nice matched pair, but there was a friendly ewe lamb with a sweet face and I'm a pushover. I blame Disney cartoons - show me a big, kind eye and I'm hooked. These young ladies will be ready to see the ram next year. Until then, they will be mowing grass alongside my ewe lambs from last autumn.

So I've spent my first paycheck on livestock. I forget to mention I've got a new job. I'm gardening on a private estate again, just a few days a week. If you've ever seen the River Cottage series on TV, it's the estate and gardens that Hugh used for the original series (My bosses are in an episode featuring a carp feast).  So I'm busy trimming topiary, tending the vegetables, and keeping beds and borders in order, as well as propagating for next year in the greenhouse. The job comes with a companion - the owners' old Labrador, who quickly sussed what time I stop for elevenses, and joins me in the shed to share my sandwich. She also enjoys laying under the bench in the greenhouse while I sow seeds, which is about all we can do in this weather.

Gardening this year is abominable. The news is awash - pun intended - with 'the wettest summer on record' statistics. Put another way, it's the 4th of July today and I've got the wood stove lit to dry out the house, and two jumpers on. The soil has been so slow to warm up that germination of seeds is poor, and the slug population is at its highest, so anything that does germinate is being eaten before it breaks the surface.

My own vegetable patch is sulking. I sowed my carrot crop for a 3rd time. Beans and peas are late, and salad crops are only baby leaf size. The tomatoes are setting fruit in the greenhouse but without heat and sun to ripen them, I envision many jars of green tomato chutney in our future. I have managed to harvest a few handfuls of raspberries, and the cherries on the tree are nearly ready. I've netted half for us, and left the other half for the birds, who are struggling in this weather too.

A sodden, unhappy plot and netted cherry tree

Mike already has young pheasant poults going into pens in the woods. Normally we would expect summer weather this time of year - you know, a few hours of sunshine, temperatures above freezing. We are losing birds to weather, and the vermin hasn't even had a shot at them yet! The game farmer is keeping them warm in his sheds until this weather turns a bit more sensible. We try and release birds in conditions that will give them the best chance of survival.

This year's crop of chicken chicks are doing well with mother hens caring for them. Eleven chicks are well grown now -

Mrs. Cadbury and her 4 French Copper Maran chicks

Buff Hen with Orpington and Welsummer chicks

The pullets will be kept for eggs and the cockerels are destined for The Cone and Ice Camp. There are a few broodys still sitting on eggs in dark corners, so perhaps we can expect more babies before the end of summer. Or should I say "summer".

The unseasonable cold means I have continued to knit, finishing a hat -

It's a knitted hat Charlie Brown!

And some wrist warmers from locally-produced organic wool -

The pattern and yarn were a gift from my tea drinking buddy and knitting sage, Colette at Poppy Cottage. Last time we got together to knit, we were disturbed by a procession of journalists knocking at her front door. Her neighbour is the son of a children's author, and the author (think War Horse) had just had a biography published in which he admitted to rather lacklustre parenting skills. The journalists wanted information or comments from poor Colette, who just wanted to work on her blanket. It was an odd interruption to an otherwise pleasant afternoon. It reminded me to be thankful I'm not connected to anyone famous (or infamous).

Although garden production is behind, I'm ahead in other departments: I've put away over half our required logs for this winter, thanks to an unexpected gift from Ted the woodsman. Very unexpected, as it arrived around 6am in the morning with an announcement from Ted shouted up at our bedroom window to Get Up! we'd already wasted half the day laying around. This was followed by the sound of the hydraulic tipper dumping un-split rounds in the middle of the lawn. Good old Ted.

Wood piled

Between jobs, I got it all split and stacked in a few days. Aside from one minor hiccup: the overhead cable running to the kennels. I misjudged an axe swing and pulled it out of the wall. I had to endure a lot of teasing from both the husband and electrician, but no one was hurt. Just my pride. Again.

I apologise for this meandering post, intended to bring you up to date with a few happenings and paint a woeful picture of our climate hardships. Think of this post like that dinner you make from leftover bits in your fridge. I promise to do a mental shop for next time and, with lots of game keeping ingredients including deer stalking and caring for young pheasants, put together a hearty meal.