Thursday, 30 May 2013

Hardening Off

Every gardener knows the feeling that comes in spring. A few days of good weather early on, and we get to wondering "Can I plant those less hardy flowers and vegetables, or is it too soon?" All gardeners are optimists and we wish so hard that one weekend of hot, sunny, dry weather is a portent, an indicator that it will continue for the next several months uninterrupted (except for the overnight rain showers watering the garden, of course). We've all sacrificed geraniums and cucumber plants because of hope.

Of course we can put our plants out during the day and give them protection at night, or from freak bad weather that's not in keeping with our mental picture of continuous sunshine. Here, we call this gradual exposure to discomfort "hardening off". It toughens the cells of the plant which would otherwise be soft, lush and green from sugars and water. Being soft and sweet leaves plants vulnerable to weather, to aphid attacks, fungal diseases, what have you. A soft plant quickly becomes a dead plant. (Or, if you want to sound really fancy, you can say it's suffering from chronic necrosis.)

French beans, very much alive for now

It's not just plants that have to harden off around here. As long as it's dry, the Podgelets have been going outside in their puppy pen when the thermometer reads 10 degrees plus. The lambs stay out in the rain and cold now, with hedges and full bellies of milk to ward off chilling.

Tails ringed, ear tags in

The horses no longer get rugs put on them; they have to bear the transition into spring with a thin winter coat. Though they can put themselves in draught-free stables, they rarely do and accept the wind and rain on their backs as long as they can keep their heads down and eat the new shoots of spring grass.

Already recovered

Being cold causes warm fleece to grow, or increases appetite. Being wet ups the oil production to waterproof fur. It's all a trade-off: enduring some adversity to gain some strength. I think the same process happens with people, but on a psychological level instead of a physiological one. Heck, if the ability to grow hair was a strengthener against fear or anxiety, I would be an emotional Sampson (though I would resemble a Sasquatch).

Ram lamb's recovery more of a drama, as he had other bits ringed!

I hate inflicting any kind of stress or pain on my animals: docking tails, tagging ears, administering shots or horrible-tasting worming solutions. I try and keep in mind this concept of hardening off when a lamb struggles in my arms or a puppy shakes its head after a mouthful of worm paste. It's going to help you endure I remind them. And myself.

A pair of Podgelets do muscle resistance training with my riding boot

Friday, 17 May 2013

Spring Lambing Finale

Finale makes it sounds exciting, but spring lambing was a quiet, easy time with just two ewes in lamb. L845 gave birth at sunrise to twin ewe lambs.

I performed my midwifery duties: iodine on the navel, a jab in the tiny thigh muscle against diseases, and a quick "mouth and eyes" health check. The ewe is an experienced mother but I've penned them together for a few hours, as the babies are still new to their jobs: staying close and suckling.

That puts our flock number at 30. I started a few years ago with 3 orphan ewes. The fold is now tenfold.

Our autumn lambing starts again this September. Half the flock went to the ram. This time next year I will be grading and selecting ewe lambs to keep and, if all goes well, I will have surplus ewe lambs to sell.

Lucky, Grumpy's lamb, is still alive. In fact, he's thriving. I caught him pronking and leaping about in the paddock yesterday. There's no better sign of health than that demonstration of surplus energy. In a few days when the twins are a bit stronger, he'll have some playmates.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Podgelets Al Fresco

The rain passed through, and the sun has come out. It's a balmy 15 degrees in Dorset. It's time to set up an outdoor playpen for the podgelets to take advantage of a few hours of spring weather. They are quickly outgrowing their maternity crate.

I dismantled a spare kennel run and set it up on the grass.

The podgelets still can't see very well and they are like little Roombas, bumping into the sides of the mesh pen, backing up, and turning around to waddle in the other direction. They wag their tails now, and bat each other with a raised paw in an attempt to instigate play. And they pee a lot.

Podge has rejoined us for our long morning walks. The pups can stand an hour or two without her, and she enjoys a break rummaging in the woods with the other dogs.

We have working homes for all the puppies now. It was easy to place them. The podgelets will stay with mum until at least 8 weeks old, except for Mike's little brown and white girl who he's christened Fraggle. She's home already. Fraggle starts her training this summer, and potentially her working career in the 2014 shoot season.

They grow up so fast.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A bit late for Mother's Day but...

Grumpy the ewe lambed in the early hours of this morning. I found her licking clean a single ram lamb, strong-looking and up on its feet, when I made my 5 a.m. check.

Grumpy seems to be making every effort to mother it properly. You may remember that she's had two lambs previously, but has never kept one alive longer than 48 hours. This is her final chance to perform. With that in mind, I've been calling her lamb 'Lucky', as in third time lucky. If he makes it, Lucky is destined for ice camp (maybe not so lucky for him) because his mother "throws singles", meaning she's not a particularly fecund line for breeding purposes.

Grumpy giving me the "Maternal Stinkeye"

Lucky is my first ever spring lamb. I've often wondered if all the weather-related uncertainty that comes with autumn lambing is worth it. Well, today it's 8 degrees outside, with 30 mph winds, and driving rain. Mike lit the wood stove and huddled in front of it to eat his lunch. I guess the spring grass isn't always greener.

My one lamb birth pales in comparison to Mike's 7,609 pheasant chicks that hatched today.

A small sample

I made my first delivery of the year to Exmoor, to our game farmer who raises the chicks for us in specially heated houses, and returns them as feathered-up adolescents in about two months' time.

I loaded up the van but stopped by the field to check the lamb before I left for my long drive. I wanted to make sure Lucky was feeding alright. He would need the energy to combat the elements, let alone the whole birthing experience. As I picked him up to feel his belly, he promptly deposited a poop in my lap. Well, at least that answered that question. Something has to go in, for something to come out. I changed my trousers, then headed off with a peeping van full of chicks.

Ewe L845, Grumpy's birthing partner, is looking close to delivery herself. I hope she has the sense to wait until this weather breaks.

If she doesn't, no matter - I have plenty more red lamb raincoats to go round.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Podgelets on Solids

The pups attempted to eat mum's dinner last night, so I guessed it was time to introduce solid foods alongside mum's milk.

"Solid" might be an exaggeration. It's a slurry of baby rusks in milk.

Yet another use for recycled takeout containers

Like all babies, they seem to wear more than they ingest.

I'll leave mum to clean that one.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Podgelets at play

The Podgelets have tripled in size. I can still weigh them in the loaf pan but, like bread dough left to rise, they have expanded to fill the pan. The biggest still only weighs 800 grams.

They are 3 weeks old today. The have opened their eyes, and mastered sitting and holding their heads up. They are toddling, unsteady as drunken teenagers. Some of the boys are starting to play, yapping and teething on each other's legs or tails. They are a lot more mobile.

But they're really cute.

* Excuse the abrupt end of the video, the camera ran out of memory

Thursday, 9 May 2013

God, is it that time of year AGAIN?

The sun has finally come out in our part of England. It's been dry and relatively warm for over a week. No rain at all. I would be happy if it stayed like this until October - heck, I can always put a sprinkler in the vegetable patch.

Local topics of conversation this week include: first sightings of swallows returning from Africa, who's heard a cuckoo call, exactly how many weeks late are the bluebells this year anyway, and the Fodder Situation (capital letters) - who's short of it, and who's not. And my personal obsession: when are you shearing your sheep?

My sheep are enjoying the dry weather too, if not the sun and heat. They've all grown thick, weatherproof wool coats to combat the bad winter. Now the sheep are itchy and hot. When they roll over on their backs to have a good rub, the fattest, woolliest sheep get stuck there. A sheep on its back is eventually a dead sheep. After turning a few right side up on my morning checks, and weighing up the likelihood of the weather staying mild, I decided to get the flock sheared.

Outside of math class, few problems have one right answer. It's a matter of balancing pros and cons. Other people I asked were waiting to shear their flocks, for all different reasons. Then, while helping Mike tray pheasants eggs, I could hear the "clack-clack" noise of the shearer's gate. Our neighbour ran in 500 of his ewes - a thinner, less woolly commercial breed - for a professional shearing team of New Zealanders. As their winter is our summer, these NZ guys can spend the whole year shearing simply by moving hemispheres. Turning one more of my sheep right side up that evening clinched it: I booked in my regular shearer, Steve.

Steve is farmer, and a good one. He enjoys his shearing and has a sideline this time of year shearing small flocks in the area like mine. I have passed my basic shearing course, and helped to shear my own flock for two years running. After two years, I know this about myself: I do not enjoy shearing sheep. Particularly my own sheep.

Eudora, freshly shorn. She was first into the shearing pen, expecting her daily grain ration.

Don't get me wrong, I love my sheep and I enjoying working with them, feeding them, handling them, trimming their feet, helping them lamb. A Dorset sheep is a perfect sheep, until you put her on her back. Then you have exactly 3 minutes - in this case, to get the wool off - before an imaginary bell sounds to start the fight.

And your opponent is above your weight class. Back legs kick, and front legs dig in for leverage. A Dorset sheep will play possum until she feels you relax and drop your concentration, then she explodes and makes a run for it.

Pre- and Post-shorn. Half their weight must be fleece.

One ewe, half her body sheared, double barrelled Steve in the chest with her back legs knocking him off his feet. She shot off to a safe distance where she began running in circles, trying to escape the half of her fleece that remained and unbalanced her, blowing around her as she spun faster and faster. While Steve recovered, I drove her in the corner and rugby tackled her.

Almost finished...

The ram escaped before his turn, jumping the hurdles like a show pony, and breaking the buckle on his raddle. We lured him back using his ladies as bait, and moved him to the front of the queue. Steve sheared him while I fixed his raddle with baler twine (what else?) and put in a new crayon. As he was already on his back, I took the opportunity to trim his feet, too. I wanted to return him to his owner with a haircut and pedicure.

When I'd finished and Steve turned him over, he jumped straight out of the pen again.

One fleece, ready to roll

I don't mind my job assisting the shearer: catching the sheep, rolling the fleeces, and filling the wool sheet (bag).
Holds 30 commercial sheep fleeces but only 15 Dorsets.

This year the ewes' fleeces were such good quality that I sold them to our neighbours at Simply Dorset who have their own Polled Dorset wool milled and hand-woven into fabulous scarves and blankets to sell. Only our shearling fleeces have been sent to the British Wool Board.

I only sheared one ewe and we- the ewes and me - were all happy with that arrangement. But I wasn't excused from lamb shearing duties.

Steve was determined to help me improve my shearing, in much the same way as a drill sergeant is there to improve you from being a worthless maggot your first day at Boot Camp. Lots of "What are you doing there?!?" "Why is your other hand not working?!" "Get those feet in position!" He means well and he's helping me in the way he knows how. I don't perform my best under that type of motivation, but I powered through.

I made that my final shearing job.

Next year, when those commercial shearers come, I will book them for my flock. They don't like doing Dorsets either but I will ask kindly, smile, offer a premium price per head, and produce a plate of warm brownies from the oven. I think in motivational terms that's called Incentivising. I will pen up my flock and watch the shearers set up. Then I will rejoice as I hear the "clack clack" of the shearing gates receding in the distance as I drive away.

I'm glad I took the shearing course, and I'm glad that I know enough of  the basics to get the wool off a sheep. I even enjoyed lending my neighbour a hand a few days ago, while he got the hang of using a new pair of electric clippers on his flock. I don't feel like a failure, or less of a shepherd for handing over that part of the job to professionals. To practice acceptance is to grow. I accept that I'm no shearer. Those New Zealand guys can shear my whole flock in the time it takes me to bake a pan of brownies. That's a division of labour that we - the ewes, the shearers and me - can all be happy with.