Friday, 12 July 2013

Fifteen Minutes of Fame?

Mike has had to take time out of his busy schedule being a gamekeeper to play one on TV. There's a new reality show destined for the US market called Ladies of London (I think that's the working title). The cast includes the incumbent Countess of this estate who will be having a shooting lesson with her friends under Mike's instruction as part of the show. It is one of the duties of a gamekeeper to assist his family and any guests with shooting requirements, and this certainly counts. Much to Mike's horror.

He's had to put on his full set of wool tweeds for the filming, and the temperature today is over 30C. An introverted man by nature, and still conscious of his scars from the accident, he's just walked out of the house looking like a man on his way to his own hanging. It will be good for his personal healing process to face this challenge, but Mike's still hoping that these scenes end up on the cutting room floor.

I want to be as supportive as possible and Mike is a simple man, so instead of talking to him about his feelings, when he returns from his ordeal he will find a warm gooseberry crumble waiting for him. Lady S has let me have her gooseberry harvest as she's not fond of the fruit herself. It's Mike's favourite (I told you, simple tastes). While he was sweating in his wool suit, I walked to the fruit cage in the walled garden and picked a kilo of gooseberries and made him  an "I'm sorry you have to do this, but it'll be OK" crumble.

Mike came home looking both tired and baffled. He's not used to seeing breast implants or enhanced lips. He asked me why they do that to themselves. Where do I start to give him an explanation? To Mike who has been through many painful re-constructive surgeries, he sees plastic surgery as a form of self-harming.

It's safe to say he hasn't caught the acting bug.

I could have stood and watched the filming, and taken a few photos for the blog but I haven't got the 'bug' either. Besides, I had to de-flea the dogs, help a friend trailer her horse, and the leg of venison we're having for dinner wasn't going to cook itself. And I've seen fake boobs already thanks. You'll just have to watch the programme if you want pictures.

The young Countess-to-be was happy, so therefore Mike's happy. And the BBC provided so many cartridges that there's enough leftover for 3 days' practice at the shooting club. Mike came home after four hours' filming and peeled off his tweeds, and ran straight out to check and feed his birds. Real gamekeepers have to deal with real livestock.

I don't know how to break this to him, but filming of a new adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd starts in September on this estate. On the up side, I don't remember a gamekeeper in that book.  I'll tell him to be thankful it's not Lady Chatterley's Lover. September's apple season - I can always make him another crumble.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

The Hard Decisions

I know I often say "Where's there's livestock there's dead stock", and that's true. What I forget to mention is overstock. There are always inherent limits on the amount of livestock one can keep. Sometimes you have a good year and produce enough females to replenish your breeding stock, and have extras to sell. Sometimes you suffer a bad year and the weather means you lose your entire hay crop, and you can't manage to feed surplus stock through the winter. Gaining or losing grazing affects stocking rates. The price of a finished lamb will push profits up or down, and influence your decision to breed more or less for next year.

You get the picture.

This year's hay crop on the ground, with days of sunshine forecast to dry it out before baling!

The horses, Kitty and Alan, count as livestock, but they don't have any earning potential. Both are purely a luxury item we have in place of big vacations. Mike and I used to get more time to ride together, but his workload has become crushing. He has exactly zero days off a week. After losing our hay crop last year, we are in arrears - at least in the fodder and bedding departments. This year's hay crop has just been cut and looks to be a safe bet "in the barn", but the possibility of another hard winter combined with an expanding sheep flock, and Mike's time constraints, led me to make a difficult decision.

I have sold Alan.

The first person to see him bought him, and it softened the blow that his new owner is a local lady. Alan's only down the road at a neighbouring (very fancy!) yard. I tacked him up for the last time on Sunday for his new owner, who hacked him straight out of the yard and 5 miles home. That traitorous lout never even looked back! As soon as the happy couple were out of sight, I sat down in the field and cried my heart out. It felt like breaking up with my first boyfriend. Worse than that.

My tears have finally dried, and with a few days' perspective I know it was the right choice. Alan clicked with his new owner immediately, and she's planning on taking him to shows and competing him. Alan is a do-er, and a social butterfly. He will enjoy a more active life.

Kitty is still here, and always will be. She's stoic about Alan's absence and, once the hay is baled, she can visit her horse friends in the neighbouring field so she won't be lonely. With only one horse to ride, I'm already getting out more. I've ridden more this week than I have the whole of the past month. Kitty and I will both benefit from the increased exercise. My bank balance will benefit from halving our horse stock.

Kitty eats her evening meal in peace now

Still, I miss my big, fat Alan - even if he doesn't miss me.

We finished hatching chicks last Tuesday, for the first batch of poults (half-grown birds) to be delivered on the Thursday. Initially the poults are placed in protective pens while they learn to where to roost and to feed, and how to avoid being fodder for hungry predators. The night before delivery, our dogs work through the pens and make sure there are no unwanted guests in the pen; particularly deer, which get trapped and then beat their way out. This is the start of our dogs' fitness programme. Shooting season is only a few months away.

This is also the time to assess the dogs for next season: how did they do in the field last year, what training problems are they having, any health problems, that sort of thing. Most working dogs love their jobs, and will work in spite of pain or an injury. It's up to us to protect these dogs from themselves with rest or medication, and monitor any changes in behaviour that can indicate improvement or deterioration.

Some dogs lose the will or ability to work. Often it's age related. Last year, Jazz our 8 year old black and white springer, started to show signs of confusion: losing her way even over ground she knows well, preferring to stay with me instead of working away to find lost birds. Her heart wasn't in the hunt. I had her checked over by the vets, and there is no obvious health issue.

We have made another hard decision: to retire Jazz, sooner than expected.

I'm happy for Jazz to live indoors as a pet with us, but we have friends who would like another retired spaniel to love. Do you remember Hazel? The family who adopted her love her so much that they've asked if they can have Jazz too. Mike's agreed. So, yet more tears from me.

Never mind forage, I'm going to be spending all my money on boxes of tissues.

Jazz is affectionate and personable, so I know she'll benefit from living as a pet in a spaniel-friendly family. She deserves the best retirement we can provide.

The last 'sold' puppy was taken home yesterday, too. In total, the five puppies went to three gamekeepers, one land agent, and one gardener. With all her litter mates settled in their new homes, Fraggle and I can begin her puppy training programme. We're starting simple: mastering toilet training and the 'sit' command. Fraggle's retrieving instincts are coming to the surface even at this age, and she loves carrying the turkey feathers that she finds in the garden, and - less helpfully - retrieving teabags from the compost pile. And her favourite toy?

A prolapse harness for a ewe.

Well, at least she's easy to entertain.

Fraggle will be living in the house for at least the next six months with Dakota, who's very tolerant of youthful exuberance, and Pip who most definitely is not. Pip will spend the next six months sulking in my bed, looking betrayed and put-upon until the pup gets a little older.

I know there will be more hard decisions to make in the future. Every year brings its own challenges and opportunities. The trick seems to be recognising them. For the moment, the sun has come out, and we are taking advantage of that rare opportunity. I treated the sheep for their assortment of summer pests this afternoon, planted more salad leaves in the garden, and enjoyed long morning walks with the dogs. My first chili peppers are ready to harvest. We have some new buff Orpington chicks running alongside foster mothers in the yard, including two chicks hatched and being mothered in partnership by the blind chicken and turkey hen -

Celebrating the overturning of DOMA through poultry

There's also a delivery of meat chickens on the way, and our ram lambs are ready to go camping.

Red dots - all aboard the bus to Ice Camp!

So, I guess my heart feels empty but my freezer will be full. That's farming for you.