Friday, 16 August 2013

Gluts and Gluttons

We are in the thick of our busiest season (I feel like I say that in every other post). Our day's work runs from dawn to dark and, with the nights drawing in quickly now, we're running out of light before we run out of chores. Mike is out of bed before sunrise, to make sure his pheasants don't drop off roost into the waiting jaws of a predator. We've lost a few early risers but, as I say to him, everyone has to make a living, even foxes. He huffs and grumbles, and vows to get up earlier next morning. I don't see how that's possible unless he discovers a wormhole that allows him to time travel, and get up before he goes to bed.

The rain has come in- nature's way of reminding me that I should catch up on a month's worth of neglected farm paperwork. This included consulting a sheep gestation table to divine exactly when this autumn's lambing is due to start: less than five weeks from today. That leaves me just enough time to set up a fox-resistant fence at Milkweed, vaccinate and worm the expectant mothers, move them, and start them on extra rations. It doesn't leave me enough time to catch up on my sleep before lambs start dropping thick and fast.

A glut of lambs coincides with a glut of fruit, which I hope will be our year's supply of jams and chutneys. After a nearly fruit-less 2012, the cupboard is bare. I don't want to get caught out again and plan to preserve and store as much as I can. As much as I can, can. I've already started juicing windfall cooking apples to make apple cider vinegar, useful in the kitchen and as a tonic for most of our animals. Preserving the harvest is a very time-consuming job.

A lack of last year's chutney also means I have nothing to enter in this year's local country show. I'm full of good intentions in winter when the days are short and our workload has dwindled into something manageable. I always plan to enter a knitting project and some home made chutney at the very least. When the show schedule appears in July on the counter at the feed store or vets, we'e usually up to our armpits in pheasant poults. Knitwear and preserves are the very least of my worries, stored in my mental closet like so many winter coats and long underwear.

I manage to grab a few minutes while on pheasant patrol, or waiting for Dakota's acupuncture appointment, to knit a couple of rows on this winter's jumper but, at the moment, my knitting entry would consist of the back, plus a sleeve and a half of a ladies' cardigan-

Work In Progress

Picking it up and putting it down so much means the tension is all to hell, and those knitting judges are strict. If I entered my sloppy work, the judges would have my guts for garter stitches. I will have to take solace in the garment's warmth this winter, and forego the chance at a country fair ribbon.

I also had high hopes of entering Kitty in the coloured horse and veteran's classes at the show. She's got good conformation, and she's in the show condition (i.e. fat) that judges seem to prefer on cobs and native breeds.  We would definitely be in with a chance. Without a groom to help with all the preparation - washing, pulling, plaiting, chalking, oiling, - that goes with showing horses, I simply can't spare the time. I'm not even sure I will have enough free time to go to the show as a visitor which, frankly, isn't a bad thing. Last year I got slightly tipsy in the beer tent and bought a goat. It might be safer (and cheaper) to stay home.

I am making time to take Fraggle to her gun dog puppy training classes - that's a priority. The trainer is an hour's drive from here and Fraggle made it exactly halfway there before barfing over the front seat. She recovered, and made a good first impression on our trainer who said to me "That's going to be a fast dog. Stylish - but very fast." The thought of trying to keep up with this pup when she hits her rebellious teenager phase (in about 8 months' time) made me feel a little sick too. 

The meat chickens have doubled in size, and pound down a kilo of food each every week-

Like any hybrid crop, these meat birds will mature all at once and I'll have a glut of chicken to kill, hang, eviscerate, pluck (by machine, thankfully) and package for the freezer. Also time-consuming, but the harvest should last us a year.

The laying flock have another job to do this September: I've hired out a dozen chickens for filming. They will be extras in the movie being shot on the estate. I'll crate them up every morning and drop them at the big house. At the end of the filming day, they can simply see themselves home. Filming takes place around the orchard where they normally go scrumping windfall fruits that time of year anyway.

It seems only a small part of the filming will be here on the estate and tenant farms now. Lady S has also decreed that she will be exacting a 30% cut of any money paid to her tenant farmers for the use of their farms for filming. The farmers are grumbling about taxation without representation, and I'm firmly on their side. I'm waiting to see if she demands her cut of my chickens too (I wonder if she'll accept a check for £1.80). Maybe I can pay her in eggs; I have a glut of those. I haven't got a glut of cash.

Welcome to the real Downton Abbey, folks.

Friday, 2 August 2013


We had a month-long spell of hot, dry weather – an actual summer! I’m sporting a farmer’s tan, horsefly bites, and I’m itching from the dried grass that finds its way into my bra during haymaking. Thanks to a great deal done with neighbouring farmers, our hay and straw is now stacked in the barn, insurance that our livestock will have food and dry beds even if this winter comes early and stays late. A full barn goes a long way to alleviating my worries. That is, until I turn and look at our completely empty woodshed and coal bunker. We burned just about every stick and nugget to stave off last winter. It will take a lot of (wo)man hours to replenish our fire wood supply, the next job that needs my attention.

Our “people” winter food supply is looking good also- 

One freezer is full of lamb, and the rest have been butchered and sold, so even my bank account is more like the hay barn than the woodshed. Fraggle accompanied me on my lamb delivery rounds, harnessed into the front of the Land Rover. She likes riding in the car and visiting new people, but the harness isn't her choice -

It was a kind gift from a client, and comes from a fancy pet store in London. I told Fraggle to enjoy the small luxuries when she can. (To her, a luxury is finding a turkey feather in the garden.)

Thirty day-old meat chickens arrived last week-

I re-jigged the puppy pen and a spare kennel, and wired in a heat lamp to keep them warm until they’re feathered up and ready to venture out onto grass. If we get an Indian summer, these chicks could be in the freezer before shooting season starts, though not before lambing in mid-September.

Last week the sheep scanner man came to Dorset, and the local shepherd let me tag my 14 pregnant ewes onto his flock as part of our hay-making deal. The ram did us proud; we’re expecting 25 lambs! Ewe 5 is empty, Ewes 2 and 7 are having singles, Eudora is my only set of triplets, and everyone else is having twins.

Between now and lambing, I need to move the girls to new pasture and begin their prenatal feeding and vaccination regime. Their current pasture - below the partridge sheds – had good grazing but no shade. When the hot weather came, I raided my bed linens and knocked up a Bedouin-style tent with sheets and hurdles-

OK, more shanty town than sheik, but they all made use of the shade it provided. And I needed some new sheets anyway.

The dogs have had their pre-shoot vet checks. Dulcie came up lame, and we worried she would need her other cruciate ligament repaired, but x-rays showed nothing sinister. What a relief. Dakota is having back spasms, but with anti-inflammatories and a course of acupuncture, her prognosis is good too. On our last visit, the vet gave me an ice cream for the ride home. “I bought them as a treat for the staff. We keep them in the dead freezer. Have one.” I've lived in the country long enough that I found nothing odd about that sentence.  Anyway, nothing puts me off free ice cream.

Jazz is now in her new home with Hazel. I still miss her on our morning walks, but she’s a house dog now with teenage boys who adore her, and another spaniel her own age that she lived with for years. It’s a better retirement for her, an opportunity for more companionship, which Jazz thrives on more than retrieving pheasants.

Speaking of opportunities, filming for the Thomas Hardy film starts soon. None of us have caught the acting bug yet, but after receiving a little brown envelope from the BBC for Mike’s day filming, we realised that it’s an opportunity not to be missed. We've offered to be extras in the background scenes where needed. The guys have been told to start growing their hair and beards. The local shepherd’s horned sheep have been contracted, and I'm going to offer Trevor the turkey and his ladies for background shots too. We've had to leave some of the paddocks of grass long, so it can be used in a “cutting hay” scene, and scenery building has started already.

The thing is, it’s not much different than what we would be doing in a normal day anyway. OK, it may be out of season, and I’ll have to wear a smock and bonnet instead of jeans and wellies, but not a lot else will change. I’ll simply get paid twice for the same work, and filmed doing it. I'm already spending the money in my head: replacing the living room curtains that are still stained from the Great Jam-making Incident of ’11, purchasing that longed-for meat grinder, or maybe just a new set of sheets.