Friday, 22 November 2013

Thanksgiving Preparations

We are in the middle of a fortnight's break from shooting. The chiller is empty, aside from a fallow buck the stalker shot a few nights ago. It's the perfect time to harvest a few more meat chickens and to prepare a turkey for Thanksgiving.

We chose the fattest one. She should have been on the plate last year, but my soft-hearted husband argued her case and she got a reprieve for her egg laying skills. She may be a bit tough a year after her 'best before' date, so I'm going to hang her in the chiller for a few extra days to relax the meat.

Her friend, who is not on the menu, is showing off as I take the Thanksgiving hen away -

Who knew turkeys could be such jerks?

Now, I'm off to raid the manor house orchard for windfall apples, enough for a pie and a cake. Then the dogs and I will head to the woods and see if there are a few chestnuts we can collect to make stuffing.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Of Tags and Testicles

This year's crop of lambs are looking strong and healthy. They've finally outgrown the diseases and common accidents that befall baby sheep. It was time to make them official members of the flock by giving them ear tags. Ewe lambs get one in each ear - flock number plus a unique identifying number. My ram lambs get the "pirate special" - one earring with my flock number only, indicating that they're destined for ice camp. No unique numbers for the campers.

I was waiting for a dry spell of weather to tag the lambs. The thick surface of mud in the handling yard makes it messy, and less hygienic for putting holes in one's livestock. Dry or frozen mud would have been preferable, but it continued to rain. I resigned myself to the weather, put on my plastic pants and got the big bottle of iodine to dip ears and tags as a precaution.

As a side note, I'm wearing the cardigan I knit for this shooting season -

It's becoming a tradition to knit one in time for the cold winter nights and days out in the field. In the few days since it's been finished, my cardigan has been out picking up pheasants, killing meat chickens, splitting logs, and now tagging lambs. It's destined for a life of muck and work, and it's holding up so far.

Back to the tagging - All my lamb tools fit in a plastic box that I rested on a hay rack within reach.  It was easy enough to catch a lamb, and hold it between my knees for tagging and a basic health check. I wrote down tag numbers as I put them in so I can keep track of mother-daughter family lines.

I tagged most of the lambs on my own, but Mike and Ian came up to the field and helped me catch the last few lambs, and take some photos. The process went so much quicker with an extra set of hands (and freed-up knees)

All lambs get ears, eyes, teeth, and feet checked. The ram lambs get an extra check, to make sure that the rings I put on their testicles did the job. I took a knife to anything still hanging on. 

This made my helpers whimper and go a bit grey.

I did manage to mis-ring one ram - one of the horned ewe's boys. He had been limping, and I couldn't find the cause. I even had a shepherd stop by for a second opinion. We couldn't find anything in the leg or hip joints. 

I expanded my examination and found that I'd only ringed one testicle. No wonder he was walking funny! I made what is know as a "rig". I had no choice but to cut off the rubber ring. Within 48 hours he was sound and a lot more comfortable. Only now I have a fertile ram in my flock. He will have to be separated out before he hits sexual maturity which, in a sheep, only takes a few months.

All my lambs get a quick hug before I set them down to run and find their mothers. 

I'm not sure that my affection makes up for, say, knifing off their withered scrota, but finding mom and drinking a bellyful of warm milk makes it all better.

There is only one more lamb to tag: the ram lamb from Eudora's triplets. I mismanaged the situation, ignoring all the books that said a ewe can't feed three. She seemed to be managing, so I thought I could beat the system by simply supplemental feeding the smallest with a bottle. 

The morning after our first frosty autumnal night, I found the smallest lamb looking hypothermic. And really tiny. It was like he was melting away. All of a sudden he was snack-size for a fox again. His ears were cold, and he'd lost his suckling reflex. He was hours from death.

I stuck him in the truck, in the front seat with the heater on full blast. A cold lamb can't feed until it's warm. 

Tink had to give up her dog crate in the living room, and move into the kennels with Spud and Quincy. The crate became a lamb ICU and as it was so close to Halloween, we named the ram Pumpkin.

It took Pumpkin a week of intensive care and a trip to the vets for vitamin jabs before he started to show any signs of recovery. Even then, at a month old, he only weighed 4 kilos.

He's doing very well now, and has just started going outside in a pen to graze. He has to wear Podge's dog coat to conserve his body heat but he's eating grass now so his rumen is working. As are his vocal chords. He blares at anyone passing, demanding his bottle -

In another week, Pumpkin should graduate to a dog kennel outside for a few nights to harden off. When he's self-reliant and has some muscle tone, he'll be returned to the flock with an ear tag. Mike wants me to give him two tags - and a free pass - but I'm not budging. In a year's time, when he weighs 80 kilos and still screams at me for milk, he's off to camp.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

From "The Good Life" to a Better One

I apologise for my blog absence this past month, but I'm finally able to update you on what has been a difficult time (don't worry, it has a happy ending).

The estate decided to close the pheasant shoot. Mike was made redundant. We lost both our jobs and our home in that one decision. It was very unexpected.

Being made redundant when you work for a company is hard enough; being made redundant from a family that you've served heart and soul for almost 25 years is more difficult to process. Mike has made his home in Dorset and it will be a terrible wrench for him to leave.

But - here comes the happy part - the phone started ringing almost immediately after news of Mike's redundancy was out. It's not the done thing to "poach" staff from other families but now Mike was on the market, he had inquiries from shoot owners looking to redesign or reinstate their shoots (Mike's speciality). An experienced 'keeper who has been trained by the royal gamekeeper, and presented to HM the Queen for his services to shooting is not going to be unemployed for long. (If it sounds like I'm boasting on Mike's behalf, I'm just trying to focus on his strengths and remind him of his worth. He calls it "blowing sunshine up his arse". Same difference.)

One call came late on a Sunday evening. The owners have known Mike for many years and shot here as guests, including a particularly cold and wet day last winter when they brought their young son. The poor lad was succumbing to the cold, and Mike simply took off his own jacket and put it over the boy, and carried on with the day. The owners reminded Mike of that small kindness. Mike had forgotten, and I never noticed (it not being unusual for Mike to see to his guests' needs at the expense of his own.) They asked Mike to come for lunch and have a look at their shoot, about two hours' north of here, on the England / Wales border.

We have accepted their job offer and, when shooting season is finished here on 2nd February, we will be doing the same thing you read about on M&T, but in a new place, for a new family. A family that takes notice when their employee gives them the clothes off his own back. That bodes well for Mike and me.

We will keep our acreage here, but rent it out for now, and rent new fields closer to home for the sheep (now numbering 50 head) and Kitty. The dogs have new heated stone kennels, and we have a lovely lodge house with outbuildings and a well-tended garden. And a nice family to work for - did I mention that bit?

We won't know the real reason why the shoot's closing here until sometime in the future. Often a shoot closes because the family wish to focus on other sporting activities, like fox hunting. Sometimes it's a prelude to selling the entire estate.

Now our news is out, I can resume our normal blog scheduling, including updates on the end of the filming here, our shoot season so far, and of course it will come as no surprise that there's a lamb recuperating in the living room as I write this. It also means that, once we're moved and settled, I can start writing that book, filling in all the details I've left out of the blog. At least you - and we - know now that it has a happy ending.