Thursday, 25 April 2013

Animal Babies

I drove to Mr. Baker's farm and collected our ram this week. We have him on loan, the same ram we had last year.

I was pleased with him. He got on with the job, shortening our lambing time considerably from the previous year. The quality of his progeny seems pretty good too, though one sheep judging seminar doesn't make me an expert on lambs. There are no obvious weaknesses or defects, and they're, you know, lambs. So that's good.

Did I mention that I can borrow the ram for a tenner? Like a good farmer, I'm cheap considering the input costs to overall profit.

I dropped the back of the trailer, so he could see the ewes. He casually walked out and sauntered over to them -

The ewes seem pleased with my choice -

After going to the trouble of wrestling the raddle harness on him, I forgot to change the crayon. No problem. The first cycle will be no colour butts, and I'll put a new crayon in for the second cycle, so late lambing ewes will have coloured butts. In this case my un-preparedness saved me the cost of a crayon. Well, heck, I'm just racking up the savings! 

While Ram was getting down to business in the field, our partridge eggs were delivered - 10,000 of them from France. I gave Mike a hand to inspect and tray each egg. It's a pleasant task, stood in the incubator house with all the machines humming around you. It can be done one-handed while you drink a cup of tea. Jobs which you can do concurrent with drinking tea are usually the best jobs.

Because they come from abroad, each egg is stamped and when the stamps smudge, they look like smiley faces.

That makes me cheery.

Only a scant number of those eggs is for us. We custom hatch for other clients so the bumblebee-sized chicks will hatch and be put into special boxes and sent away again to other counties. These birds are well travelled even before they can fly.

Our first pheasant hatch is Tuesday, only a couple of thousand eggs, also sold to a client. At home, I'm still waiting on Grumpy and L845 to lamb. It should be any time now. I check them at night when I get up to check on Podge and the pups.

Oh, the pups. Or tiny timewasters, as they should be called. Mum and litter are doing fine. After making a batch of scones, I had the kitchen scales out, so I figured why not check and make sure that the puppies are putting on weight-

So far so good. And a silicon loaf liner makes a perfect non-slip puppy holder.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

More puppies

Podge's maternity unit is also my office, and I find it a pleasant contrast to do my mundane, uninspiring paperwork next to this miracle of nature. The puppies vocalise, and I can tell whether it's contentment, frustration, or cries for mother.

At night, I leave the door open so I can still hear the puppies from my own bedroom, and an unhappy cry wakes me from my sleep to get up and investigate. Maybe I need to readjust a lost pup, or dig one out from under a fold in the blanket. Podge does the important feeding and cleaning jobs, I just assist in small ways. My main job is to look after Podge's needs. Podge's main job is to look after her offspring. It's a hierarchy of care.

The renowned primatologist Frans DeWaal postulates that empathy and cooperation in mammals stems from the origins of maternal care. It's definitely an interspecies empathy, which is probably why so may of us choose to share our homes with other mammals like cats and dogs, or our lives with livestock.

I've never been a mother, I'm unlikely to at my age, but I sure can empathise with Podge. I downloaded a little video of the puppies feeding, so you can too.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Puppies' First Trip Out

Podge and her Podgelets went to the vets for a check-up.

The vet pronounced the puppies in good heath, and he docked (shortened) their tails in the surgery. This lessens the problem of very waggy tails on little busy spaniel bottoms, which would otherwise bang against their sides and cause injury when excited, out working in the field.

We take off just the last third, so the dogs still have enough tail for balance and to communicate with other dogs. A lot gets said between dogs based on tail position and how it wags.

Podge tells me a lot with her eyes, too-

In this case, her eyes tell me that she's experiencing the oxytocin rush associated with motherhood.

A loved-up spaniel and a basket of puppies made us very popular at the vets this morning.

At home now, puppies safely cocooned

Friday, 19 April 2013

We have Podgelets!

Podge went into labour just after midnight, and gave birth to the last pup at about 7 a.m. this morning. We have five healthy cocker spaniel pups, three boys and two girls. Podge is fine, and a natural mom.

When not feeding or asleep, the pups make a constant humming-squeaking noise. They feed and sleep lined up in a row.

The delivery, though long, was fairly uneventful. All but one of the pups are black. The liver and white girl was the last pup to arrive and came out backwards. Coming in last and arse first? I think that's the pup destined for our kennel.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013


We had our first warm spring day yesterday, and even saw the sun come out for a few hours. Not one to take a nice day for granted, I piled all the not pregnant dogs into the truck and we drove into the middle of estate for a good run, swim, and hunt through cover. I didn't think about what else the good weather might bring out of hibernation.


Venomous snakes.

I bet you see where this is going.

We only have one species of venomous snake in Britain: the adder. They're not uncommon on the estate, but you'd have to be rather unlucky to stumble across one, and even unluckier to get this fairly docile snake to bite you.

It was Dulcie who found the snake. She must have accidentally trod on it. I never heard her yelp, and the first I knew of a problem was loading her into the truck after our walk. Her front leg was swelling rapidly. I couldn't find a puncture wound but I was pretty sure of the cause. I called the vets and told them to expect us. Again. With an injured Dulcie. Again.

So Dulcie spent the afternoon at the vets on an IV drip of fluids, antihistamines, and antibiotics. Her leg looks better this morning after treatment, but it's still twice normal size right up to the shoulder and bruised from the venom's effects on tissue.

I probably don't have to tell you which is the affected leg.

We popped back to the vets this morning and her temperature is still slightly elevated, so we'll bring her back for another check in 48 hours. As long as she's eating, drinking, and feel OK in herself, I think she's out of the woods. Which is great because 'in the woods' is where all the adders live.

With working dogs more so than pets, accidents and injuries are to be expected. I'm so grateful that we have such amazing veterinary surgeons only five miles from the estate. With Podgelets still to come, there's a better-than-average chance that we'll be visiting them again soon.

Sunday, 14 April 2013


We're counting down the final days of Podge's pregnancy. She's scheduled in the diary to whelp on Tuesday, but when did writing something like that in a diary ever make any difference?

I've helped birth foals and lambs, chicks and ducklings, but Podge's will be my first time assisting in the birth of puppies. Which is a coincidence as it will be Podge's first time having puppies.

The weather is not at all conducive to keeping tiny puppies alive so, after taking some advice from another breeder, I've moved Podge indoors to a quiet room of her own, not too warm, but safe from the elements.

Well, the intention was she should have it to herself, but the house dogs have been visiting. During the day, Pip comes in and hangs out by the kennel -

It's ten o'clock now and Dakota appears to be taking the evening shift -

And don't think she's sleeping on the job, she's definitely on guard -

In this case, defending the house against neighbour children dropping off cupcakes...

It's compelling to want to anthropomorphise the situation and ascribe nurturing feelings to Podge's companions. I think it's safe to say that Pip and Dakota know something is "different" and want to be part of it. The three of them work together beating the woods for birds during shoot season, and seem comfortable in each other's company. I love to think they're friends. (Even though Dakota did stand over Podge and pee on her the first time they met.)

The only one who doesn't appear comfortable is a very pregnant Podge -

I took her temperature this evening and it's below 100 deg F, an indicator that birth is imminent in the next 24 hours. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Our first turkey egg

Thank you, turkeys.

"And to think, YOU wanted to have us for Christmas dinner..."

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Animal, Vegetable, Miserable (weather)

There's still no new grass. Farmers are reluctantly putting cows out on pasture, many with calves, but I still see their silage feeders out, topped up daily to keep up with demands the grass can't satisfy until the soil warms up to at least 1 deg C.

With a poor summer behind us and a long winter following on, hay and straw reserves are depleted. Unless we have a reasonable summer for growing, and dry periods for harvesting, farmers will be heading into this coming winter wondering how long they can feed and house their stock on what's left. Some may have to take the hard decision to downsize their herds and flocks, which can depress the price if enough do it all at once.

This is why we talk about the weather so much. It determines our profit and loss.

Sheep are fairing a little better because they can take advantage of small paddocks and forgotten corners. I've seen our neighbours grazing their flock on their own lawn! I've grazed some of my ewes by rotating them on Mike's leftover cover crops of kale and turnip. They need good grazing now, 4-6 weeks before the ram goes in, so their bodies think the livin' is easy and produce more eggs for fertilizing. That's how we get the twins and triplets. Hay won't cut it, and concentrates aren't cost effective, so I walk them from crop to crop and hope they're eating more calories than they're using up while being moved around.

Our first batch of pheasants' eggs is in the incubator - 2,408 eggs.

There are three more incubators to fill when spring comes and turns up the volume on egg production.

I only put my onions, beetroot, and chard in the ground yesterday. When the inevitable rain came, I took cover in the greenhouse and planted beans, peas, tomatoes, and brussel sprouts in trays. Anything that gives me a few weeks' extra growth could be the difference between just enough to harvest and enough to freeze for later. Still, what I wouldn't give to enjoy a hot, ripe tomato out of the greenhouse in summer, instead of cold green tomato chutney out of the pantry in winter!

We had one sunny, hope-inducing day last Sunday and I spent the whole day outdoors at a sheep judging seminar, held on a local farm-

Ring judging

Pen judging and discussion

Polled Dorset breeders from all over the UK were there to debate qualities of the breed, and what they look for when selecting stock. Some on colder exposed farms value a "tight skin" (dense fleece); for commercial breeders with supermarket contracts it was all about the loin and leg size.  For this reason, judges often didn't agree on which sheep should get first prize.

There was even talk of what to wear in the show ring, and whether a uniform could be chosen to be associated with the breed. As the Polled Dorset was originally developed in North Carolina, I thought an authentic costume should include a baseball cap with NASCAR printed on it. I kept that suggestion to myself.

This is Tess, the shepherd's dog-

I always make time to give her a pat. She's 12 years old and still works their 200+ flock every day. 

Once when Grumpy the ewe was being particularly uncooperative, the shepherd came over with Tess, In minutes, Tess put Grumpy in her place. Even that cantankerous ewe opted to join her flock rather than stand up to an experienced sheepdog.

There's always lots of pats for our dogs at home too. Podge is bursting at the seams with less than a week to go. I disinfected the whelping kennel, and fitted the whelping box this morning for the impending Podgelets. Podge will go in there alone tonight, and over the next few days I'll watch and see if she settles - a sign that she approves of her maternity accommodation.

All the kennels had a spring clean today, while I anxiously awaited news on Spud who went into the vets to have an infected tooth extracted. I noticed a small, hard swelling on her muzzle a few days ago, and we all feared it could be cancer as flatcoats have an unfortunate predisposition to a specific type. It is a serious infection, but seems that's all it is. It didn't affect her eating, or her happy nature, which made the initial diagnosis so difficult. I don't suppose having one less tooth will slow down her appetite either.

Kitty's abscess is healing and, with a full set of shoes on to protect it, she's striding out on our rides. She's getting older, but she's not slowing down. Unlike Dakota. Last year Dakota suddenly got old, and coming out on rides (even long walks now) makes her stiff in her back legs. I leave her at home for her own good, but I don't think she sees it that way. She still likes to "own" the saddle while I get the rest of the tack ready -

If the rain lets up, we'll ride the horses to Milkweed tomorrow, where they can spend a few weeks clearing up hay that the sheep ignored. If the ground warms up, I can reseed the bare patches in their winter paddock while they holiday at Milkweed.

Speaking of holidays, I booked myself one: a few days riding Andalusian horses in the mountains of Catalonia, followed by a few days recovering from saddle sores in Barcelona. There's got to be some sun in Spain, right?

Now I have until the first week of June to get riding fit and brush up on my Spenglish (thank god for free iPod language courses.) With a long list of spring chores still to do, including shearing my flock, fitness should be no trouble - ningĂșn problema - at all.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Easter in Dorset

We were sat around the kitchen table with our friends (and local farmers) Bridget and Dominic, demolishing another of Bridget's fantastic home made curries. As most of us are originally from "somewhere else",  the discussion rolled around to The British. I laughed when it was pointed out that, ever polite, the British stick to two inoffensive topics of conversation: the weather and the state of the roads. It hit me that my recent blog posts have covered both topics.

I wonder if that entitles me to dual citizenship?

Not to let readers down, I will give you the weather update: still zero degrees and windy, but dry. Finally. There was just so much rain! When I observed partridges pairing up, I wasn't sure if it was for breeding or if they thought someone was building an ark.

I have no update on the roads - they're still collapsed, but we're using them anyway.

However, the soil has dried out enough for me to start cultivating the vegetable patch, which is doubling as a turkey sanctuary and healing centre -

One of the turkeys ripped its toenail clean off, and prefers to sit and rest her sore foot rather than walk. The other turkeys and chickens kept pouncing on her, ever vigilant for a chance to bully the weak. So, Turkey got the blue spray treatment that I use on the sheep to fight any infection, and we keep each other company inside the safety and tranquillity of the vegetable cage.

At work and at rest

Podge is filling out. She looks like an overstuffed burrito now. I revamped the whelping box and put in Cocker pup-sized roll bars, so she won't squash her Podgelets. I let her inspect my craftsmanship -

Seems OK to both of us.

Easter was uneventful, save the daily routine of picking up pheasants' eggs which has finally started late due to - You guessed it! - weather conditions. Yesterday as I bent to fill my basket, I counted my ewes grazing the laying field and there was one extra. I counted again. Then, I noticed a set of horns on one of the ewes.

Not living in town, I don't walk by shops and look into display windows and think "Oh, I'd like that!". But I do drive by a field of Dorset sheep every day, and there are a few horned Dorsets among them (the Polled form was derived from the original horned Dorsets). Without thinking, I mentioned to Mike how much I liked the look of those horned ewes, and for Easter, that's what I got-

Every new arrival gets christened sooner or later. Well, you can imagine what the boys named the only horned sheep in the flock. I was affronted on her behalf, so decided to give her a fancypants show name to make up for it. I christened her Hortense Cornucopia. The boys immediately burst out laughing and came up with an even worse nickname: Horny Corny. I rolled my eyes. 'Boy humour' is an acquired taste.

Now, to be safe and protect what's left of both our dignities, I simply call her 'New Sheep'.

We had an Easter bunny, too -

They're in season now, and in good condition. Nearly a pound of boneless meat came from that chap.