Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Poachers and puppies

It's less than a week until Christmas, and we're being plagued by poachers. A neighbour called to say one of his lambs had its throat ripped out by a dog, and another neighbour lost a couple lambs earlier that week. The poachers were working in broad daylight, using wolfhound / lurcher crosses to run down deer; unfortunately, some lambs got in the way. The market is paying over a pound (£) per pound (lb) for venison, so deer are valuable.

We know so much about the poachers because, after recent heavy rains, the fields are so muddy that they got their vehicle stuck. The poachers were easily apprehended by our local police, who I'm sure pointed and laughed at them before dragging them off to the station. It is a serious issue.

Aside from deer, heating oil has been stolen from farms around us, and dried split wood from the woodsman's barn at the bottom of the road. Chickens and geese have also been taken and I'm worried for my turkeys. Last night someone ripped open a round bale of silage, one in a pile of bales. The cheeky thieves were checking the quality before they went to the trouble of stealing it! They would have to come back with a tractor and bale forks to get it.

In a bid to help, we've set up our Critter Cams in various hotspots. Normally we use these infra-red cameras to look for predator activity of the furred and feathered kind. But, vermin is vermin, and if we can catch a face or vehicle make/plate number, it might help stave off future thefts. Or at least give the police something to go on.

I'm not worried about things getting stolen, but I fret over our kennel dogs. If I were to lose a dog to a thief I would be inconsolable.

Quincy has been letting me know that she wishes to spend more time with me, instead of in the kennel with the other dogs. When I try and put Quincy in the kennel after a walk, she stands next to me wagging her tail. If I leave the truck open, she jumps in, peeks out at me and wags her tail. So, she's been coming with me on morning checks. We're packed up ready with feed, milk replacement, and pheasants for neighbours -

The back is full so Quincy has to ride up front with me, which she prefers. She uses the opportunity to showcase her retrieving skills. First a notebook -

Here - I found this for you!

Then a lamb's milk bottle -

Here - I found this for you!

Then a glove -

Hey - you'll never guess what?! Yup. I found this for you!

And this is all before I've even pulled out of the driveway. 

In her defense, if I cleaned out my truck once in a while, we might not have the in-car retrieving entertainment. But, where's the fun in that? In the end, I give her a dog lead to hold on the ride around and she stares out the front window, proud as anything to be carrying her lead.

When we returned from our morning rounds, I saw that the stalker was in with the boys having breakfast. How do I know? -

Gamekeepers are easier to track than deer. Look for abandoned boots, en route to a kettle and baked goods.

Dave the stalker was successful on my patch of ground, and put a big fallow doe in the chiller for me. That's two roe does, and one fallow doe for about 80 pounds of meat in our freezer this month. I've butchered and packaged both roe already, but the fallow will have to hang until after Christmas. For the rest of the season, our shoot day menu will be venison casserole for the workers, thanks to that fallow. 

The dogs had all the raw bones, and butchering scraps. There was enough to feed seven dogs for three days. And I made 5 quarts of game stock for soup and casseroles. It was an early Christmas present for us all.

These are some of the dogs, post-feast -

They tell me they're working dogs, but that it happens to be their night off.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Dog Diaries

Our shoots have been scheduled on the 'feast or famine' program: a week off, three intensive days, another week off, another crazy weekend. I rotate the dog teams so they don't get too tired. Last Friday's team was Pip, Spud and Dulcie - a formidable pack.

Pip the yellow lab is getting older, but she's experienced. She knows where a wounded bird is likely to hide, she can mark more than one retrieve, and she works nice and steady. With her hip dysplasia, one day's work for Pip means two days off to recuperate in front of the wood stove. 

I can hear her snoring over the crackling of the wood

Spud is a retriever par excellence. Quirky but honest. I know when she has brought me a wounded bird, because she lays down with it, instead of sitting and giving it to me. I think because she can hold it down with a big paw if it flaps and struggles.

Spud works out problems and finds her own unique solutions. At the end of a work day, I put a wool dog coat on Spud to keep her joints warm. When she's sufficiently warm and dry, she simply chews through the strap and deposits the coat in her bed, ready for collection (and repair) rather than wait for me to take it off of her. I stitch the strap back on for the next shoot day. 

Look at their concentration -

Pip and Spud are watching pheasants flying over, looking for injured or fallen birds. I adore my retrievers.

Spaniels are a different gun dog. Adrenaline-fuelled workaholics. Dulcie is a come early, stay late dog. She has her own way of telling me that she's spotted a wounded bird and please let her go get it. Now. Pleasepleasepleaseplease.

She jumps on me and implores me with those eyes. Those spaniel eyes. 

She knows when birds are hit birds. I know if I let her go, she'll bring me back a bird with just a few pellets in its leg, or a wing tip out. I don't know how she does it. 

By the last drive Dulcie had debris in her eyes and was getting cold sat marking birds on top of a windy hillside. It didn't slow her down or dim her enthusiasm, but I took off my coat and put it around her anyway, until it was time to work again. 

She surely needed it more than I did.

Quincy, Podge and Dakota came out on Saturday's shoot, picking up and beating (driving birds from cover). I'm trying Quincy in all different permutations, to see which dogs she compliments and works best with as a team. So far, she's fit in with every scenario, and with all jobs.

Quincy went in the beating line Monday for her first full day as a beating dog. As a beating dog, Quincy is expected to hunt and flush birds close to her handler, and come back as soon as I whistle her in. Basically, be a well-behaved little dog. Apart from one minor infraction when she scented a fox and ran on to investigate, Quincy did great for such a young dog. She will be 2 years old on Christmas day.

Quincy has another job to do this time of year: duck flighting. On the road between the sheep and horse fields, there is a small pond that we use for duck shooting. The ducks are fed in to encourage them to take up residence. We don't want the ducks to become too domesticated, so we rouse them off the pond and stir them up a bit.

That's where a water-loving, energetic Labrador comes in handy -

She's flushed the ducks once, and she's now waiting for them to circle around and land back on the pond. She waits for the command to 'Get on' and throws herself into the icy water, sending ducks back up into the air again. A few minutes of this is enough for the ducks, but Quincy would spend all day here if I let her.
Today Quincy worked with Podge the cocker spaniel and Dulcie, in the driving rain. Tomorrow Pip will have to drag her little yellow butt off the sheepskin rug and do a day's work with Spud.

For work, for companionship, and for the laughs - I just don't know what I would do without my dogs.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

A Fruitcake that even Americans will eat

It's twelve days until Christmas, or as the children here say "only 13 more sleeps 'til Christmas morning". Traditionally  this is when many houses put up their decorations, although in the past few years I hear complaints that it's all happening much earlier. We haven't got Thanksgiving as a 'buffer' holiday

Here Thanksgiving usually coincides with Stir-up Day, traditionally the day British cooks mix their Christmas pudding - a concoction of dried fruit, suet, spices, and lashings of alcohol. We don't eat Christmas pudding in this house. I can't reconcile suet in my desserts, let alone one that "matures" for 5 weeks before cooking. Mike is not a big fan either, but he does like fruitcake. I make this one every week for Mike and any passing gamekeepers, farmers, or friends that stop in and have a cup of tea.

The recipe was kindly given to me by the chef at our local cafe. This cake always sold out, and got more compliments that any other we made. Even my father, when on a recent visit, enjoyed a few slices, and took the last piece with him for the train ride back to London.

- Pineapple Fruit Cake -

In a pan combine:
8 oz sugar
1 can (appx 430g) crushed pineapple in juice
4 oz butter
12 oz dried mixed fruit (a UK staple - 90% raisins/sultanas, 10% candied fruit, Raisins and dried cranberries mixed works well too)
1 1/2 t mixed spice (or pumpkin pie spice)

Bring mixture to a boil, boil for 3 minutes, allow to cool. (I often do this bit before bed so it's cool in the morning and ready to finish)

When cooled, stir in:
1 1/2 t baking soda
8 oz (225g) flour
2 t baking powder
2 lg OR 3 medium eggs, beaten

Pour into a pan - I use a spring-form cheesecake pan with a silicon liner - and bake at 325 deg F for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

It's not a fancy looking cake, but it keeps for a week without going stale and freezes well.

I only made this one yesterday!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Of Christmas trees and cobbling together

This year I broke with tradition and took a husband with me to pick out the Christmas tree instead of a dog who, frankly, didn't have an eye for design anyway.

This is a view from the Christmas tree plantation, looking over other pheasant drives -

The plantation is bordered by a crop of Jerusalem artichokes, put in for pheasant cover. I have to walk through it to get to the trees -

The trees are planted for windbreaks so individual specimens are imperfect. Charlie Brown Christmas tree territory. But we found a tree with at least one good side and in easy reach, so I took him down -

Obviously I should be wearing protective equipment every time I use the saw

Trimmed him and snedded him -

Held him up for the official naming ceremony. Mike christened the tree 'Mervyn' -

Mervyn and I made our way back to the truck -

I got him into the truck -

And tied down for our ride back home on bumpy farm tracks -

The rough ride home pruned a few of his branches, but we found his best side, faced it out, tidied him up with secateurs, and popped him in the tree stand - well, wedged him in with some fireplace kindling for support -

A strand of lights, some ribbon, and a few decorations gussied him up for the big day -

Not bad, Mervyn. Homely but festive.

After the holidays, Mervyn will be recycled for cover in pheasant drives. Mike collects all the old Christmas trees from the nearby villages, and uses them to replace cover for pheasants on windy hillside drives in winter, when so much natural vegetation has died back. Mervyn will be going back to his roots, pun intended.

There aren't many presents to put under the tree this year - the customary socks for Mike and flannel pyjamas for me, of course - but the saw bench (Mike) and sewing machine (me) will have to wait as both the truck and the Land Rover decided to break down at the same time this past month. Our gift from the mechanic was a bill in excess of a grand. Still, two vehicles that run is a great present as far as I'm concerned. Even Mervyn is going to have to make sacrifices and give up his tree skirt that I made out of an old birdseed sack. I need the burlap for setting mole traps, as moles have invaded the garden again leaving heaps of soil like speed bumps on the lawn.

After tree trimming and evening chores, I cobbled together a dinner of leftovers - home made pumpkin and mushroom soup, with apple and Gorgonzola on bread toasted under the grill. There was even enough apples and some pastry left to make a strudel, which we ate with double cream poured over it. We opened a bottle of Churchill's vintage port to toast the tree and another year, to give thanks that we're both still here, and to laugh at how much we enjoy our oddments, leftovers, and less-than-perfect life anyway.

Monday, 10 December 2012

The freezer is looking better

The stalker brought back a roe deer this morning -

And there were three brace of oven ready pheasants left by the guns today.

Cheese sandwiches are officially off the menu.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Ten days off

We had ten days off between shoot days, which I hoped would give me some breathing room to catch up with a few jobs and some pre-holiday preparations. Job number one: put something in the freezer. I was stunned to realise that, barring some lamb, a few chickens, and a single venison leg, our freezer is mostly full of empty.

I planned to breast out a dose of pheasants as the price the game dealers is giving us is unsustainable, but Mike shook an extra few pence out of him, and all the birds were sold and gone before I could plunder the game larder. Rain and fog have postponed my stalking plans. I gave one of our stalkers free rein to shoot a deer on my patch - he likes shooting them, and I like eating them - and he missed a roe doe. My stomach is grumbling as I write this, trying to take consolation in my cheese sandwich.

"But what about the turkeys?" you say. As Mike has already purchased a goose for our Christmas dinner, I think it's safe to say that my Rafter (collective noun, apparently) of turkeys will see in the New Year. Unless those Mayans were right, anyway.

We've named the stag Sage and the two hens Cranberry and Onion. Names yes, but a reminder of their eventual purpose. They're North American Wild x Bronze. The wild genetics means that they attempt to roost - in the apple tree, or on the roof of the porch, or the whelping kennel. Roosting on the kennel gives them a view of the TV, and they seem to enjoy both BBC evening news and the Arts channel - my charges are nothing if not highbrow in their tastes.

How can they see anything through that dirty window? Another job for the list then.

Although very personable, I am starting to tire of catching them up on dark every night to put them in a coop. I'm too old to climb the apple tree, in the dark, one-handed, wrestling with a flapping turkey. At least when they roost on the roof or kennel, one semi-skilled swipe with my shepherd's crook dislodges them, ready for bed.

As it's still raining, we switched to Job number two: Christmas preparations. We decided a walk in the woods to collect some material for decorations was just the thing. We traded the guns for secateurs, and brought Podge who enjoys a wet, woodland ramble. To get to the woods, we had to find a passable route on the flooded roads. Mike gives it the "Welly Test" -

If it's not as deep as your boots, the truck can get through. A failed welly test can end in wet feet, so I let Mike do the honours. We rode through here on horses the next morning and it was a foot higher, up to the smallest pony's belly and just below my stirrups.

On our walk, we found some clematis vines that I wove into wreath forms. I don't look filled with the Christmas spirit in this photo, but we had a nice afternnon.

We found a little bit of holly with berries still on, but I left the holly in a bucket outside the back door. Within the reach of the turkeys. They made quick work of those berries, and I had to pick some more. Woven into the clematis wreaths, with a bit of ribbon added, and hey presto! A holly berry wreath -

At least until the turkeys find it.

The turkeys are a big hit with some of our chickens, three of which have taken to sleeping in the turkey pen. First my one-eyed hen of dubious breeding moved in. Then Mrs Cadbury lost her chick, Chip - it had always been sickly and never grew. She seemed to take the loss to heart. Mrs Cadbury began a monumental moult, and she moved in with the turkeys. I've tried popping her out over the fence in the mornings, but she wriggles back through gaps in my not-very-turkey proof fencing and rejoins them. Meh, who am I to judge? Then yesterday, a brown hen moved in. It's getting crowded on the turkey perch.

Last spring, Mrs Cadbury raised a hatch of four French Maran chicks, all of which appear to be hens. One has started to lay those deep brown eggs. And her preferred laying spot? The back of the Kubota ATV. She waits until the boys have loaded it with ten or twelve bags of wheat, then chooses a bag at random and lays her egg. The boys now take bets on who will find the egg when they're emptying the bags of wheat into the pheasant feeders. It gets put in a glove, in the cup holder, and returned to me.

So, I have highbrow turkeys and well-travelled eggs. And there's still nothing in the freezer.