Monday, 25 February 2013

Gamekeeper Theatre. Today's episode: Star Wars

Scene: A morning discussion over a cup of tea, the SyFy channel is on in the backround.

"I like this show." (he thinks it's Psych)

"No you don't, it's science fiction." (it's actually Warehouse 13)

"I like science fiction, I just don't like it when it's too far fetched."

"Darling, that's the point of science fiction. Imagination that leads us to make technological strides. Some of it is now science fact, or at least based on probable theories."

"Really [said with sarcasm]. How is a bear driving a flying saucer plausible?"

"I'm sorry...What? What bear?!"

"That's why I don't want to watch Star Wars."

"What bear??"

"The bear. In Star Wars. The bear with the squeaky voice. He flies the spaceship."

"You mean the wookie? Chewbacca?"

"Why are there bears in outer space?"

(I love that my husband still says "flying saucer" and "outer space", like a Ray Bradbury novel)

"It's not a bear. It's a wookie. Wookies are a race of aliens. And he's not flying the ship, he's the co-pilot."

"Who's the pilot then?"

"Han solo. It's his ship"

"Is he the main character?"

"No, that's Luke Skywalker."

"And his father is the bloke in the black suit that doesn't breathe too well?"

(Now I start laughing.)

"So you think of Darth Vader, leader of the empire, builder of the Death Star, as just some space guy's asthmatic dad?!?"

(I don't want to explain anymore. I want him to stay just as he is. So I give him a kiss and tell him to go to work. He stands by the door.)

"I expect all the evil chaps are defeated in the end, and Luke saves the day." 

"Actually, his dad cuts off his arm and learns that Luke has a twin sister by reading his mind."

"And that's how it ends?!?"

"That's how the first movie ends" 

"The first movie? How many Start Warses are there?!?"

(I hand him his gun, and fill his pocket with shells and send him out the door, and into the woods, where there are no squeaky bears, wheezy dictators, or one-armed heroes.)


Saturday, 23 February 2013

Out with the cold and in with the warm

Winter's still here with below zero temperatures, but it's been dry for over a week. It's impossible to overstate just what a psychological lift this has given all of us. Farmers are pulling their ploughs again, dogs come in the house clean, clothes can dry outside on the line, I can walk in the field and drop hay to the horses without re-enacting the skating scene from Bambi. 'Cold and dry' trumps 'cold and wet' any day of the week.

Yet there are signs of spring just showing on the margins: there's a lot more bird song in the morning and at dusk. The straw lorries drive our one lane roads and scrape their loads under trees, dislodging stems that the blackbirds and magpies gather from the side of the road, presumably to start building their nests.

The chickens are noisy too, and egg production is up. Cock pheasants are squaring up to each other in the back field. Hen pheasants ignore the 'Fight Club' antics and continually peck the ground for food. They have to build up reserves to lay eggs and sit their nests.

We are catching up the laying stock now. We've set up the catchers, and empty them three times a day
The birds walk in through the narrowing tunnels to get to the bin full of food. We catch them inside by hand, and crate them up, a dozen birds to a crate -

Then we release them into large outdoor pens where they can lay eggs, protected from predators like foxes and buzzards. We're hoping to keep between 2,500 - 3,000 hens in our laying pens this season.

The gardens are waking up, though it will be a while before the soil warms up enough to start planting. Bulbs are flowering. Mike picked me a daffodil - hand-stolen from the drive leading to the Lord and Lady's house - a seasonal, annual ritual (he also picks me the first snowdrop, and brings home four-leaf clovers that he finds while tending the pheasants.)

There are still a few hardy outliers in the veg patch, like cabbages and kale. Our purple sprouting broccoli crop is finally coming to fruition -

Two great clumps of parsley overwintered well in the greenhouse -

Most of the parsley will have to come out to accommodate tomatoes. The wild garlic leaves growing in the woods are just about big enough to pick, so I think I'll make a batch of parsley-wild garlic pesto. After winter, our freezers are well-stocked with meat but I'm craving vegetables now, something fresh and green. I'm dreaming of pea and mint soup, even as I see a few snowflakes dropping outside my window. I've had my fill of winter.

Our dogs are coming into their seasons. This year, it's time to think about bringing on a young spaniel, so I took Podge to a stud dog last week. If it was successful, we can expect "Podgelets" in about two month's time. We'll be lambing a couple of ewes at that time too, and the hatchers will be full of pheasant chicks, so it will be baby-mania here.

I have acquired a Shepherd's hut for this year's lambing -

It looks deceptively like an old caravan with flat tyres, but when I finish repairing and redecorating inside, it will be "Shepherd Hut Chic". I can sleep in it, parked right in the field with my pregnant ewes. In summer, it will be the boys' tea room on the pheasant rearing field. Best of all it was free!

I hope cold and dry will soon become warm and dry, preferably before we run out of firewood. We used more than expected because our boiler broke and we were without heat and hot water for a few weeks. It's repaired now, but our reserves - in every sense of the word - are low now. A dose of sunshine would certainly refill our tanks.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The other F-word

Our winter grazing is exhausted now and, even on occasion, buried under a dusting of snow. This year we have enough animals to needs lots of hay. Our tiny hoard of small bales left over from last year just won't meet the demand. We've graduated to big bales. Four-stringers they're called. One bale just fits in the back of Mike's single cab pick-up, with the tailgate dropped. The bales are so heavy (a third of a ton I believe) that it takes a tractor to move a single one. Big bales means big feeders, so we invested in one -

The sheep were wary of the new arrival, but quickly overcame their shyness -

Last year the flock was small enough to eat hay out of a plastic tub.

Purchasing an honest-to-goodness piece of farming equipment like this round feeder made me feel like a bona fide shepherd. But my excitement at being a shepherd was short-lived as I caught up my lamb with chronic joint-ill and administered yet another dose of antibiotic and pain relief. You can see how swollen her knee joint is -

Compare the swollen joint above my thumb, with the normal joint on the other side

I think her knee joint has been permanently damaged, and she's taken to walking on the toes of her foot to avoid bending the joint, which can only worsen the stiffness. I'm going to take her off antibiotics and just continue the pain relief, to keep her comfortable. I will try and limp her through - no pun intended - until she's killing weight. I'm lucky to have buyers for all of my ram lambs as butchered half carcases already, and another carcase to sell would be a welcome outcome.

I managed to give all the lambs their first vaccinations this morning, which I'll repeat in a month's time. Not all the lambs are growing at the same rate. Knit lost condition during the first spell of very cold weather, and his tiny backbone and hips were protruding above his pot belly. I had milk replacement left so I un-weaned him. He runs for the bottle every morning like a skinny, woolly addict. 

A couple of weeks on and his top line is nice and smooth, with fat covering those little bones. He's still a lot smaller than 2844's ewe lamb, born only 3 weeks before Knit -

That's Knit on the left, 2844's lamb on the right

The bigger lamb was a single, and had exclusive access to the milk bar. Knit will catch up eventually. I know, that's hard to believe but remember Matilda the orphan lamb? Once the flock runt, this is her now -

Still with the twisted yellow ear tag that she popped out of place when she was Knit's size. She's fit and ready to go to the ram this May. Spring grass is Miracle-Gro for sheep.

I still balk at calling myself a farmer, or telling people I farm. A hobby farmer, maybe (though as far as hobbies go, it's a pretty masochistic one). Then I attended a two-hour lecture on cross-compliance - essentially statutory requirements for farmers regarding animal movement, soil and environment conservation. As I scribbled notes, I realised that the government absolutely considers me a farmer, enough to send me invitations to these talks and, more horrifying, subject me to inspections and fines if I don't fulfil my duties as custodian of my land and animals. 

There's nothing like crippling bureaucracy to make you feel like a real farmer. That, and the slim-to-none profit margins.

authentic farmer car...

So maybe I'm not comfortable with the title of Farmer just yet, but I wholly embrace the title of Flock Mistress, as I am the mistress of my flock. Apparently, the position does come with a tiara, which I received in the post -

Thanks Aunt Meg!

A perfect fit, worn over my woolly hat. If you don't think I'll wear this to check on my sheep, you're so wrong.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Farm vs. Wildlife

While out walking the dogs, I found this roe doe hanging in a newly erected fence -

Sadly, she had been dead for awhile before I found her. Even if I had found her alive, her ankle was snapped in the tangle and I would have had to kill her anyway. Poor thing. Hanging upside down isn't the kindest death.

Farmers seem to prefer fencing with two top strands of barbed wire; it keeps cattle from leaning over the fences, weakening or breaking the posts, and creating repairs that cost farmers time and money. I understand that. However, we are finding two or three deer every year hung up in fences like this. The deer attempts to jump, catches a toe on the top strand of wire, which bends and traps their foot, or feet, between the wire and the sheep netting. 

We're doing our best to keep the deer numbers in check, so the deer aren't pressured to move all the time and forced to cross fences. It helps somewhat, but certainly doesn't solve the problem. In this case, wildlife loses out to farming.

I wish I had a solution that made everyone happy, including the deer.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Albino Bob

The underkeeper caught an albino badger!

We've been using these cage traps to catch foxes. Mike calls the traps unpaid underkeepers. They're on duty even when we're asleep.

The benefit of these cage-style traps is that it's easy to release any unintended captives. Badgers are definitely on that list. They are a protected species in Britain.

This is what a non-albino badger looks like -

This is our albino specimen -

Everything needs a name, so I christened him Albino Bob.

We appreciated seeing the unique, if temporary, visitor to the trap. The badger was not so appreciative of the experience. I didn't want to stress Bob so I quickly took these few photos, and Ian opened the door to let him go.

Bob didn't hang around. You can just see his bottom as he lopes off, headed for the woods -

Bye, Albino Bob.
I like knowing he's around. I hope I bump into him again, though I bet the feeling isn't mutual.

Friday, 8 February 2013

It's deja vu, all over again

Shooting season finished 1 February, and it's taken me an entire week to post about it. After a tough year with wet weather and the contributory diseases it causes the birds, Mike and his team managed to produce over 30 successful shoot days this winter. Full bags and happy guns. All our guests have re-booked for next year and there's already a waiting list. It means we're still employed, until this time next year at least.

The last three days of the shoot season are given over to the beaters and pickers up, a thanks to the workers who corral and drive the birds over the guns, and find the downed birds. Workers bring their guns and we shoot cock birds only, in preparation for the breeding season. We need more hens than cocks, and too many cocks left behind become "sex pests", and won't let wild hens alone to sit on clutches of eggs. So, the boys have to go.

We split into two teams and take turns, one group driving the birds over the other, and then swap. An average shoot day is four drives, but in our enthusiasm we manage eight drives a day, over three days.

Jazz and I helped the first day, and we put six birds in the bag. Jazz is a confident peg dog, unperturbed by gunshot going off over her head. I'm only an average shot on a good day, so I missed the first few that went over me. Jazz seemed to have blind faith in my abilities and hared off after each bird I fired at. I was sorry to let her down. She's never discouraged, even when I give her plenty to be discouraged about!

Our turn to beat

I wear my grandfather's old upland hunting jacket every year on beater's days. It's nice to feel the family connection. As my grandfather was also an average shot, I figure it's in the genes. I imagine him missing birds but at least enjoying the warmth of a good wool coat, just like his granddaughter!

Our turn to stand

I left my gun at home for the last two beaters' days and took a pack of dogs instead. We happily picked up fallen birds for everyone else, cheered for a good shot, and dished out some good-natured teasing as well.

Beaters' days ended with a big communal supper - pheasant stew! - and a few bottles of wine and beer. We all commented how quickly the next shooting season will be upon us.

Now, our end of season rituals take place: cleaning the guns, making a list to restock the ammunition cupboards, removing the pheasant rack from Mike's truck, putting all the two-way radios away, sending the tweed suits (and grandfather's coats!) to the cleaners, going over all the dogs and treating any torn claws or burred fur, and butchering shot birds for the freezer or dogs' dinners -

From this

To this

I butchered a fallow deer per request of Lady S, for a luncheon party, so the dogs had their end of season 'Thank You' bones too.

The first two weeks of February are traditionally our quiet period. We will manage a day's fly fishing in Hampshire, but otherwise, non-shoot related jobs need attention: vaccinating lambs, repairing horse shelters, and a mountainous backlog of farm paperwork. And the vegetable garden won't dig itself.

Next week, the new season starts.