Thursday, 16 October 2014

Morning Rounds in the Truck

All the animals like to see the truck arrive, but for all different reasons. The sheep make full use of it to scratch those hard-to-reach itches while I dispense sheep chow into feeders -

The sheep would do that all day if I let them. They would be awesome at one of those Touch the Truck competitions.

Kitty capitalises on her height and prefers to investigate what's in the flat bed. This morning she thought she hit the jackpot, finding straw and bags of cut maize -

Then she sniffed the wormer paste -

Poor Kitty. Sometimes the truck giveth, sometimes the truck taketh away.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Birds, Dogs, and Dogging Birds

Our first shoot day is Saturday, less than 48 hours away. We are getting through a long list of jobs that still need sorting before the first bird goes over the first gun, but I thought I would give you a quick update on the work so far.

The birds have been to wood for a few months now, and the October frosts have helped them feather up. The cocks have grown long tails and assumed their autumn colour, matching the chestnuts and changing leaves in the park. They are never content to stay where they're put. They come off roost on daylight, eat a quick pelleted breakfast, and begin their daily rambles. Like their chicken bretheren, they love crossing the road. We put up signs to warn motorists -

"Slow" describes a pheasant in more ways than one.

Every morning, the dogs and I pile into the truck to chase birds back where they belong, which is the centre of the park. We sweep the margins and edges of the woods. I say "we" but the dogs do all the work. Podge goes with Mike -

I take Pip and Dakota. Even though we have seven dogs, there's a lot of dog work to do. We're short of dogging in dogs so Dakota, like the old cop in an action film, has had to come out of retirement for "one more job". Her hips are holding up, though she deigns to let me assist her into the back of the truck. She's as proud as any self-reliant old woman, and twice as cantankerous especially if I try and leave her behind to give her a morning off.

Lazy dogging in: I drive the truck and drink my coffee while the dogs do all the work!

Ian borrows Dulcie, as his Labrador Stella is too young to work yet. Instead, Stella gets dropped off for play dates with Tinker, also too early in her training to go dogging in. The pups work on their social skills instead. Dulcie is a hard worker, She was as fat as a pork sausage in June, but is back on double rations having run the extra weight off before the shooting season even starts. 

After dogging in is done, I have to go round the kennels and check each dog for injuries. Scratched faces, bleeding tongues and noses are usual for dogs that work hard in brambles and tall grass. The spaniels always need their eyes wiping over with cold tea bags at least, and everyone needs the burrs and sticky buds combed out of their fur. 

Happy but a bit scratched up - Pip after a morning's work.

Quincy and Spud take the night shift, usually less busy than the morning shift as birds are wont to go home to bed on their own. I try reserve these two girls as my picking up dogs. Giving a dog carte blanche to chase birds one day then, on a shoot day, expecting it to sit steady while birds drop all around can be confusing for the dog. As a dog matures, most seem to understand the different jobs required of them. Pip is at that perfect age. Quincy will be there soon.

Recently, a Big Time cocker spaniel trainer came to the estate to give a demonstration. His dogs were impressive, very responsive to his commands to go left, right, back, and stop and hunt an area. He trains them to win field trials and he's the 2102 and 2013 champion so he must be good at it, but he doesn't work his dogs on shoots. Different training you see. 

The big difference between us (besides his skill and my amateurishness!) is our expectations. My dogs often need to find game that I haven't seen fall, or has run off. I expect them to work independently without handling from me. Mr. Trainer can take all the time needed to fully train his dogs. Our dogs have to earn their keep as soon as possible, or we don't get paid. Food and vet bills are only covered for working dogs, not puppies or retirees. Finally, if one of Mr. Trainer's dogs doesn't make the grade, he can sell it on as a part-trained dog to a shooting person. I'm not sure I could regularly part with even the most useless dog, as they quickly become part of the family for me.

His highly trained trialling dogs are tools of his trade. I suppose mine are too (tools of my trade, not highly trained!), but they're also my companions. I take a dog or dogs everywhere I go. In late summer, we hiked the local woods together and picked fruit from the hedgerows to make into jams and chutneys -

The dogs pick for their own consumption alongside me, and come home with purple tongues. Quincy shares her windfall apple finds with me, but these are tart cooking apples -

She doesn't share the sweet pears that she picks for herself from the low hanging branches -

Dakota and Pip check for wandering birds while I glean the potatoes left behind by the big harvesting machines and bag them to store over winter. The smallest potatoes get cooked up for the dogs' dinners. Pip snacks on raw ones. 

I don't think any of my dogs would starve in the wild.

Sometimes I do things just for the dogs' enjoyment. This summer Dakota and I spent the day canoeing up the Wye river in Wales -

Dakota loves canoeing and I worried that this might be the last summer she was fit enough to enjoy a day messing about in boats. Swimming is good for her joints and her float vest means she can swim without too much effort. I even tied a bandanna around her neck, so she could feel like a real outdoorsy dog -

So I said I was going to fill you in on all the work we've been doing to get ready for our first shoot day,  but I'm not making it sound like work. I suppose that's the secret. Alongside the fruit picking and bird chasing, the dogs have got fit. When I'm not being lazy and drinking coffee in the truck, I've just about got fit too. I'll let you know how our first day on the new shoot goes. Soon I'll have to turn my attention to the sheep, as the ram goes in, in under a fortnight. But that's a story for next time.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Turkey learnin'

I am really enjoying my first time raising turkey chicks. Each week, they grow older and demonstrate new (well, new to me) behaviours that I find endlessly entertaining.

Our apprentice underkeeper Monty discovered this neat trick when his phone rang while he was stood near the turkey poult pen:

Most evenings I had to chase the poults into their pop hole and the safety of their shed (OK. Not really a shed. A converted dog box. I'm not sure why you expected anything different.) Once we discovered that a simple ringtone sent them running for cover, it made my evening chores - the turkey ones anyway -  a little bit quicker.

Last night was the first night that I left the pop hole open between the run and their "shed" (it's in quotes, are you happy?). The poults are big enough and feathered enough to come out on daylight. When I went to check on them, the little poults were vocalising and the stag turkey poults were displaying - tails spread, wings down, and emitting tiny chuffs of air that will later become booming sounds when they're fully grown. I tried different noises myself, to see how they'd react to me:

I spared you the video where I sing "The Doggie Breakfast Song" (don't ask....) which generated only a half-hearted response. Possibly the poults were just humouring their food and water provider, I don't know. One low-toned, loudish but short word was most effective. I was a half hour late for my breakfast and now-cold coffee. That's how entertaining turkey poults are.

My second hatch of turkey eggs was pretty good too, resulting in another eight turkey chicks including a pure white one. That's sixteen new turkeys in total this first year. Not bad at all. The second batch are still under a heat lamp but will soon join the turkey chorus outside on the grass.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Happy Birthdays

It just so happens that Mike and underkeeper Ian share a birthday (albeit 30 years apart). On Saturday, Mike turned 50 and Ian 20, so it was a great excuse to throw a party in the garden-

Colourful bunting festooned the apple trees, and caravans and tents appeared in the orchard. I minced one of our lambs for burgers. Friends manned the grill, tended the warming fire, played guitar and sang. Dogs, kids, and slightly tipsy adults made everything festive. Pip and another labrador were caught pinching bread rolls from the table, but there was enough to go around. Even for dogs

Pip's on the Clean Up committee

Weekend over, and it's back to pheasant duties. Happy birthday guys.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Meet the Flockers

Eight turkey chicks hatched out this morning to add to our growing flock. They are huge chicks -

So far, not one of them has grumbled about living in a sheep trailer.

That's the good news. The bad news is the chicken eggs I incubated didn't hatch. Not a one. I had two Buff Orpington cockerels and gave one away. He must have been doing the work of two. I know my current cockerel is treading his hens, so maybe he's just sub-fertile. In which case, he will be sub-merged in the crockpot, in wine and herbs. I'll candle the eggs this afternoon to decide his fate. If there are embryos inside, then I know the fault is mine, and cockerel can stay.

There's a small tabletop incubator filled with a second hatch of turkey eggs due in two weeks' time. The sheep trailer will get a lot of use this month.

UPDATE: Huge apologies to my cockerel. The chicken eggs have begun to hatch. I must have miscalculated days. So it's beef for dinner, not chicken.

UPDATE TWO: Nope, I was right the first time - my cockerel is subfertile and only two eggs out of twenty were fertile, and only one hatched. Mike did remind me he's at least 5 years old. If the chick is a cockerel, he can replace dad.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Nesting Instinct

We have two big chest freezers containing our year's supply of homegrown, hunted and bartered meat. They now live in a lean-to attached to the house. The lean-to is open on one end and, unbeknownst to me when I put the freezers in there, was already occupied by at least three pairs of swallows.  The last, late brood in the nest closest to the open end looks about ready to fledge. I say that not as a bird expert, but simply from the fact that they're so large now that they overhang the nest, and are in danger of spilling out of it.

If they can fly, it will make certainly make falling a little easier. 

My first hint that the mud and straw nests were in use was the growing mounds of bird poo accumulating on top of the freezers. No matter, as the poo is on the outside of the freezer and a quick wipe when the birds have headed off for Africa will put things right. My first hint that the nests had chicks was less subtle: angry, screaming parent birds dive-bombing me. I thought they got mad when I disturbed their peace to get something out of the freezer for dinner, but they were apoplectic when I climbed up and took that photo of their chicks.

I apologised and topped up their feeders with mealworms by way of penance.

I had my own nest building to do today. Our hatch of chickens and turkeys is due on Tuesday, so I have day old chicks to keep warm, dry and safe from predators. I had planned on using one of the small kennels with a heat lamp, but we have dogs boarding with us while their owners are on holiday so the kennel block is completely full.

Time for Plan B -

Sheep trailer with the doggie swimming pool inside, lined with wood shavings, and a spare heat lamp suspended from a ratchet strap, parked by the incubator barn so I can plug in the lamp. An old horse blanket will cover the gap at the top.

I'm pretty sure the swallows are laughing at me now.

It means I can't move the sheep until the boarders come and collect their dogs, and I can move this set-up to the kennels, but it will work for now. Perhaps if anyone reading this is thinking about keeping chickens but worries that she can't afford an expensive set up, remember my sheep trailer nest.

Ingenuity and low standards, my friends.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

A Pox on Your Sheep Shed

Everyone loves animal stories. This first big book I devoured in one sitting was Aesop's Fables.  I remember my sister, maybe seven years old, walking into our kitchen clutching a paperback copy of Where the Red Fern Grows, in floods of tears after reading the sad ending (I won't spoil it, in case it's on your own To Read list.)

The nightstand next to my bed is a testament to my continued fascination with animals: books about wild mustangs, pet nannies, milking sheep, dog domestication, beekeeping, and horse tack. Today, traffic on the internet would be halved if it wasn't for funny animal videos.

I recently bought a book for its title alone: Today I Baled Some Hay to Feed the Sheep the Coyotes Eat. Now there is an author who can sum up farming in one sentence. Farming and gallows humour go together like, well, sheep and coyotes - an inevitable if unwelcome pairing. The author Bill Stockton wrote with great compassion for his sheep, and his spare, conservative illustrations convey in a few strokes the whole attitude of his animals, and must have come from years of close observation.

Farmers occupy an odd, contradictory space between raising animals for food and finding their behaviours endlessly fascinating, worthy of a lifetime's study. Let's face it, sometimes daily farm chores can be repetitive and not particularly mind-expanding. On a bad day, one amusing behaviour can be worth as much to the soul as the meat, milk and fleece are to the body.

When I'm not watching my own flock, pack or herd, I'm reading about people's observations of their own flocks, packs, and herds. I enjoy reading these books immensely, but for jaw-dropping surprises nothing trumps watching your own animals. The animals don't read these books, and therefore don't always behave as directed.

Turkeys are relatively new stock for us. I've only owned a handful, so not enough for a reasonable behavioural study. I've read a few anecdotal remarks about turkeys, all of which claim that turkeys are stupid. This is not my experience at all -

My bronze turkey hen demonstrates learned patterns around food. Without thinking, I let her out in the morning on my way to prepare the dogs' breakfasts, and she soon learned that if she followed me and stood by, I would give her some of what was going in their bowls that morning. (I learned that she's partial to oatmeal.) The turkey is even fonder of peanuts, and if she sees me take down the empty wild bird feeders, she will flap-run at full speed across the garden and follow on my heels to "help" me refill them from the storage bins.

That turkey perfectly demonstrates the new thinking behind animal domestication: animals that have shorter flight (as in "fight-or-flight") distances and can endure being close to people reap the benefits of our largesse - or at least the benefits our compost heaps and garbage dumps. I do tidbit her more than the chickens because she's "nicer" to me than my chickens. In fact, I know that if I dropped down dead in the garden, those chickens would strip my carcase before sundown which, I suppose, is a fitting end for me considering how many chicken carcases I've stripped in my lifetime.

Sheep are another animal that gets bad press in the brains department. Sheep also demonstrate learning patterns around food distribution. I feed the sheep; Mike never does. The sheep associate my truck with food, and shout like hell when I pull up in the truck at mealtimes. If Mike borrows my truck, they still shout like hell until he gets out. Then Mike says they lose interest and go back to grazing. That's because sheep recognise faces. Actually, they're very good at it.

One study claims sheep recognise at least fifty individual faces. That's more than I can recognise, as I suffer from mild prosopagnosia. I don't forget family members or anything, but if you and I have dinner together tonight, I won't know who you are tomorrow. I've developed adaptive behaviours that help me cope (i.e. hide it) but our recent move and subsequent meeting of new people and clients has been trying. Inexplicably, I recognise animals like dogs easily, and in point of fact I recognise most of my own sheep by their faces. Some people I never learn to recognise. The sheep have me beat in this department.

Sheep remember where they live, too. Have you heard of hefted flocks? It's a method of managing sheep so they are allowed to graze unfenced land, with only a daily visit from the shepherd to push them back if they stray too far. In time the ewes learn their boundaries, and pass on the knowledge to their lambs - where to find the best grazing, shelter from bad weather, the edges of their territory. It's hard work to heft a flock initially but once the flock learns, it takes on the teaching role for all future generations.

My sheep have taught me a behaviour too. When a normally aloof ewe deliberately seeks me out for a pat or physical contact, that ewe is telling me she doesn't feel well. Twenty-three of my breeding ewes are currently suffering from orf - a sort of sheep chickenpox. If you've had chickenpox you can empathise with my poor ladies. I saw one tiny sore on a ewe, and within 24 hours other ewes sought out my company.

My worst case

It's a horribly infectious virus which - joy of joys - is transmissible to humans. There's no cure for it; they simply have to ride it out. I can only alleviate some symptoms and bolster their immune systems, which are thankfully fairly robust in these older ewes. After suiting and gloving up, I administered 46 tiny vitamins, and sprayed sores with anti-bac spray, then I took a Karen Silkwood-style shower in virucide, and used a broom to poke my contaminated clothes into the washing machine.

I'm not sure what the title of that book would be.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Firsts and Lasts

Our first season here and it's not a total disaster yet! Our last hatch came off this past Tuesday. Twelve hatches in all this year, and the extra day-old pheasants we hatched paid for all the equipment, the cost of the move, and provided a small net profit to boot.


I drove our last sold hatch to a game farmer, along with a ten week old labrador puppy that we found on behalf of a client. Finding dogs for shoot clients is another gamekeeper duty, but a very pleasant one. Travelling with a truckful of baby chicks and a puppy made me a bit hit at the rest stop car park.

A lot of neighbours gave up their time to help us through our first year: collecting eggs in the laying pens, counting out hatched day-old pheasants into travel boxes, and putting bits the growing birds on our field. (Bits are soft plastic nose rings that fit in the bird's nostrils and between the beak. It allows the birds to pick at feed but not to pick on each other). As a thanks to our free labour neighbours, we're running an incubator just to custom hatch eggs for our helpers: some want chicken eggs to bulk out laying flocks, quail eggs to start their own coveys, bantam hens as broodys, even duck eggs to replace ducks lost to a sly fox who visited a farm in the middle of the day.

I'm starting the ball rolling tomorrow with some of our turkey eggs. As the inserts for our incubator trays only fit smaller eggs, I had to fashion an insert from chicken wire stapled on a frame, to hold my big turkey eggs secure while the drum inside the incubator turns and tilts them through their 28-day hatching cycle.

I hope it will work. I hope the eggs are fertile!

I'll also hatch some Buff Orpington eggs to increase our stock, downsized to a rooster and three hens when we moved from Dorset to Hereford. So eggs have been off the menu for the past couple of weeks while I saved enough to hatch. It's not too much of a hindrance to my cooking; Mike only takes eggs in cake or cookie form, and the now free-ranging laying pheasants continue to drop eggs in the field across the lane. I simply gather enough for baking, and sometimes a few extras for adding to the dogs' dinner. I have missed the eggs as currency. My gardening neighbours have gladly swapped me gluts of broad beans, beets, and new potatoes for what I feel is a meagre trade of a dozen eggs. They leave surprise packages of vegetables in the bed of my parked truck while I'm feeding Kitty. It's like Christmas, but better.

My own garden should have an "Under Construction" sign posted. All I'm creating this year is compost and space. Weeds and bamboo have invaded the garden. I cut down the first clump of bamboo and found an entire mature apple tree inside it.

I should give up my sheep and keep a flock of pandas instead.

The pheasant chicks hatched for our shoot are growing well. (Even the chick raised by Turkey Mom fledged this week.) As sickly as the pheasant mothers were, their offspring are the picture of avian health. Each house on our field holds pheasants a week apart in age. In one house. the youngest are still hugging their heat lamps and eating crumbs in tight nursery groups; in another, the older birds are let outside in grass pens to stretch their wings, chase flying insects, and dust bathe to their tiny heart's content. The oldest birds have their bits removed (simply flick out between thumb and forefinger) and get taken in special crates on the back of our trucks to big pens in the woods. "Going to wood" is a trying time for both birds and keepers. They're released, on their own recognizance, where they join nature's food chain.

Our first birds of the season have gone to wood. We spent five hours on Saturday crating birds. On release they flew straight up into trees, peeping and whistling. They had a relatively uneventful weekend.

Until last night.

Predators are just part of the deal when raising any kind of livestock. Your first line of defence is, well, a line of defence - in our case a big wired-in area surrounded by electric fencing. Somehow a fox breached our defences in the early hours of this morning. Mike woke me at 6am with a cup of tea and the bad news.

After breakfast, Quincy and I went to search through the woods outside the pen for casualties. Foxes seem to kill for fun, and will tear through every bird it can spook out of a pen. Quincy worked quietly in the covert outside the pen and, after a half hour's work, retrieved thirty cold, dead pheasant poults. One retrieve was just a head! (Shudder..) I think even the dog - usually a retrieving machine - got too down-hearted to search out much more.

I will take Pip over there later and expand our search. I suspect Mike will spend the night out by the pen, with the birds for bedfellows. Second line of defence: night vision and a rifle. It might just be Mr. Fox's last visit to the pen.

We will repeat this going to wood with birds seven more times, in seven more pens. As the pens fill, our days get longer checking that batteries on electric fences are charged, the wires aren't dead shorting on nettles or fallen branches, and that birds of prey aren't worrying poults. Oh yeah, attacks come from above too, usually more devastating as there's no roof on the pens and the perpetrators are protected species. All we can do is dissuade them with our presence. Hence, loooong days and very early morning starts.

Actually I think I might just go and hide in the bamboo until shoot season starts.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Tune In

I posted last July about Mike's day participating in a reality TV show called Ladies of London. Well, it seems they actually made it and aired it. The episode which includes Mike teaching the ladies how to shoot premieres on Bravo this Monday 30 June at 10pm

Courtesy of the Bravo website:

We can't watch it over here in the UK, so you'll just have to let us know how it turns out if you tune in. Mike struggles with image issues post-accident, and he dug deep to find the wherewithal to be in front of a camera. I hope the camera captures his passion and commitment to his work more than his scars.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Why I don't Shear: the Evidence

When we moved home, we needed to find a new shearer. The first guy we booked never showed up. That was two weeks ago. There's another shearer booked for this evening. Both the sheep and I are keeping our fingers crossed that he shows up. The alternative is that I shear my own flock. And I'm a terrible shearer.

This poor chap has flystrike. When the weather goes wet then warm, flies lay their eggs in the humid fleeces, and maggots burrow into the sheep. It's both disgusting and, if left untreated, life-threatening for a sheep.

There is a special dip that I can pour over their backs to prevent flystrike, but I can't treat the flock until the fleeces come off or the fleeces won't be saleable. I can't treat the ram lambs at all as they're going to Ice Camp this week, and the spray has 40 day withdrawal period. This means that you can't put an animal in the food chain until 41 days after application. I never use the dip on any of my lambs or hoggets going for meat.

This ram lamb just needs to be safe and comfortable until ice camp on Wednesday. It won't matter that he looks like this, shorn by me with the cheap, plug-in clippers I bought for trimming bottoms, not whole sheep -

Basically, I just gave him the $5 student hair cut ours moms made us have at the strip mall hair salons when we were kids. 

After seeing their mate, the rest of the flock is really hoping the professionals turn up tonight. And I'm going to tell the guys at the abattoir that my husband sheared this lamb, and roll my eyes knowingly. Pffftt. Amateurs I'll say, without a trace of guilt.

If anyone near Hereford would like to purchase half a hogget, butchered and bagged, we have a few halves ready next week. They are for sale at £65 and can be collected at your convenience. Please email me.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

New Additions

Friday was the last day of egg picking - the daily chore of collecting pheasants' eggs from the laying pens. This means we can release the laying birds to go to wood. They're free to roam, but we still put out feeders for them.

This also means I can bring in new stock, without worrying about infecting our laying stock.

And yesterday was the big Spring Poultry Auction.

I thought of our lonely hen turkey at home. She will soon experience empty nest syndrome, quite literally. And turkeys are flock animals. There were a few pens of turkeys at the sale, but none as stunning as this pair of Narragansett turkeys -

When the first of the turkey lot - a scruffy looking lone Bronze stag - sold of £50, my heart sank. A pair of heritage breed birds in top condition would be out of my price range. When the auctioneer called "selling once, at £20" my hand and bidder's paddle shot up. I don't even think it was a conscious decision. A breed from home, well underpriced. It was meant to be. The hammer dropped on £22 per bird, my winning bid.

I worried that maybe other bidders knew something I didn't.

As I transferred the birds to the dog crate I brought with me - as a just in case, you understand! - two country-looking men stood back with their hands in their boilersuit pockets and nodded approvingly. "You got a good deal there, miss." said one. I don't know why two strangers' confirmation should allay some of my worries, but they seemed genuine. For all I know they were the sellers, and glad to be shot of this pair. Still, when it comes to livestock, I'm an optimist.

The pair are now in quarantine, in a spare dog kennel. I'm an optimist yes, but a cautious one!

Trevor never performed his reproductive duties with any real success. Perhaps because I gave him a name one might associate with a middle-aged dentist. So, I've called our new stag turkey Enrique. That's a name to make ladies (even the turkey variety) swoon. 

If it works, we'll have tiny turkeys this time next year.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Wasn't it Just Spring Last Year?!

Spring is the season that catches me out every time. Weeds go from nonexistent to knee-high. I find myself wearing only one sweater and that my feet are now sweating because I forgot to swap my insulated socks for regular ones. (Wellies are still essential, of course.) Spring rains cause the grass to grow so much I swear I can hear it creaking. Little fruit buds are swelling on the trees in the orchard, and the idea of all that chutney-making potential makes me way more excited than any normal person should get about fruit.

Garden birds are bringing their fledglings to feed at our bird feeders (I keep the feeders stocked with mealworms). On the lakes, the mallard family has six well-grown ducklings, and a pair of Canada geese has a brood of tiny goslings that dart about too fast for me to count.

Turkey hen still has her one chick -

That would be the small brown dot above and right of the turkey.

I let the pair out of their sheep trailer home every morning, and turkey takes her brood-of-one for a walk around the garden. Turkey is happy to stay out in the open ground of the orchard, but the pheasant chick is cautious by nature and keeps to the shadows - patches of weeds, clumps of grass, or the hedgerow for protection. Turkey will sit down and let the chick warm up under her, and she's very talkative.

It's certainly been a more successful fostering than I expected. So is the chick a turkant? Maybe a pturkey, where the p is silent.

We had our biggest hatch yesterday, including pheasants, partridge, and some quail - the last as a favour to our underkeeper's mother. (She who sends the homemade farmhouse cakes, rules the world.) I made a little video: it's a box of partridge chicks boxed and ready to go into warm sheds, and we're helping the last few stragglers out of their shell -

It's school vacation so the little hands belong to a local lad who's been helping us pick up eggs every day. The "payment" for helping with the hatch is a cup of tea, biscuits and some homemade cake with the last of the rhubarb from our garden. All served on the tailgate of the truck, of course.

Yesterday's hatch filled the stone shed. The shed was once a lambing barn, but it's been converted for raising pheasants. Kitty's shelter is built into the side of the stone shed, so she watches the flurry of our activity between tearing mouthfuls of grass in her pasture -

Pheasants hold little interest for Kitty. If she can't eat it or scratch her butt on it, it's not worth her attention.

It's an oppressive heat inside the sheds if you're a person, and perfect if you're a growing chick. Mike is decanting the chicks from hatching room boxes into the little rings where the precocious chicks will start feeding and drinking almost immediately -

The pheasant chicks will stay in here for a few weeks, then be let out during the day in protected runs for sun and fresh air. They can't all have turkey moms to care for them!

The partridges go into freestanding sheds, delivered and knocked together at a mad pace by some very kind Polish builders at the same time we were hatching the chicks to go in! I supplied the builders with tea and cake from our tailgate cafe to keep their energy and morale up, and they got it done-


Without a lot of the infrastructure here necessary for pheasant production, we have had to adopt a "build it and fill it" approach. We're only just keeping ahead of ourselves, but we knew we were in for a tough first year.

It's been a quieter day today, just checking on chicks and performing our daily ritual of collecting eggs. The elderflowers in the hedgerow are just right for picking, and I managed to start a batch of elderflower cordial, now currently steeping on the stovetop-

And I dug out a secret stash of sloes from my freezer to make sloe gin. It needs to be started now, in order to mature by autumn. It's a traditional eleven a.m. shoot or hunt day tipple. Gin, sloes, and sugar go together in a pot (in this case, an old jam tub) which needs to be shaken once a day for the next month to dissolve the sugar. I leave in the cupboard where the teabags are kept. With the amount of tea I brew, I'm sure to see it there and remember to give it a daily shake-

What spring jobs have snuck up on you?

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Small World

Turkey mom is down to one chick. And of course anything else she chooses to tuck under her enormous bulk. Being a big fan of the game "What Will This Cow Eat?" (pat pending), I devised a variation: "What Will This Turkey Incubate?" I removed the food pot and left my pocketknife in its place and waited.

No dice.

My deeply flawed experiment (but fun game!) has proved that the turkey will sit on a) chicks b) fake eggs and c) chinese takeaway containers filled with bird food. The pocket knife elicited no maternal feelings whatsoever.

That answers that burning question.

Speaking of burning, my tennis elbow hasn't been improving on a regime of no treatment and never resting it, but wearing a ulnar strap like it was some kind of superhero exoskeleton that would fix everything. I went back to the doctor this morning. Living in the country means that your mini-hospital is situated between the village hall and a fish and chip shop ( n.b. the shop holds a Guinness World Record for making the largest bag of chips). It also means you see this at reception-

A dog tied to the railing while its owner pops in for a consultation.

How sweet is that? I would also hazard that this dog looks like it's no stranger to a fish and chips dinner now and then (Well, someone had to eat that record bag of chips, right?)

I saw a new doctor, and it turns out that besides the elbow stuff, I've torn something in my shoulder and there's a capsule of blood, yadayada, limited range of movement etc etc. So I've been bumped up to steroid shots and painkillers. He told me to rest it, so I immediately came home and butchered a lamb for our neighbour.

I really don't understand why it's not healing.

None of that is interesting, I know. It was the conversation with my doctor that was interesting. My doctor was also severely burned in an accident ( an ill-conceived plan to start a bonfire with petrol) and was treated in the same specialist ward where Mike was treated. Since his accident, my doctor has specialised in chronic pain management, something that is still a huge problem for Mike too. In our move, we may have found just the right person to help Mike regain more of his quality of life.

If not, well, at least there's a nice doggie he can pat on his way out.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Hatches, Matches, and Dispatches

We're in the middle of pheasant hatching season now. We've taken off ( gamekeeper speak for "dealt with") four hatches so far, and hope to have six more.

This is the Thursday Night Transfer: Mike takes the nearly hatched eggs out of the incubators -

And Ian and I put them in the hatching machines. Like the incubators but more humid -

We remove the eggs from their individual holders, and put them loose in trays so the chicks have the freedom to move about and kick their shells off, somewhere between Sunday night and Tuesday morning. The hatch gets "taken off" on Tuesdays.

We're aiming for ten hatches in total, and each hatch has to average about 3,500 chicks over the season to balance our budgets.

Yes, of course there's a hitch.

Our laying birds caught a chicken virus.

We brought our laying stock from Dorset, and what we didn't realise is the sheer volume of chicken farms in our new area. Or that an airborne virus could transfer from chickens to vaccinated laying hens. Our old girls don't have immunity and there's no effective vaccine for what they have. The vet tells us to expect losses of 50% of our pheasant laying birds.

The good news is the offspring will have some degree of immunity. I don't understand the finer points of virology but we're trusting the vet's prognosis.

As if on cue, both Mike and I promptly contracted our own virus (human not bird), and although it didn't take 50% of us, we both felt near death for a couple of weeks. We actually did some chores on our hands and knees at one point. I think this is how the turkey got out and I didn't notice.

Fox + turkey = no turkey.

So we have one turkey left (and ham for Thanksgiving this year). The remaining turkey has gone broody with a vengeance. Capital B broody. She will not be dissuaded. I gave her a china egg to sit on and figured she would lose interest eventually. That was six weeks ago.

With limited options, I decided to give her three pheasant chicks from yesterday's hatch. This is the Hail Mary pass of poultry rearing because a) pheasant chicks are dumb and b) turkey moms are gargantuan.

Little and Large

Also, I didn't have a spare hen house, so I improvised (you know, for a change) and the family is living in the sheep trailer -

It's safe and weatherproof, if temporary.

The turkey is still not satisfied with her handful of adoptees, and I found her this morning with the chicks, the china egg, and their pot of chick food all pushed under her to "hatch".

Which is how chick no. 1 met its demise. It must have tried to eat from the pot under the hen and she sat down firmly on its neck.

I can't risk bringing in chicks from the poultry sales with our pheasant stock already in jeopardy. The turkey and remaining chicks will just have to ride out the broody storm on this occasion. 

Sometimes it seems to all go wrong on the farm. Why can't it be more like it is in books? 

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Comfort of Routine

I would love to be more organised. I really try. I make 'To Do' lists, and keep a diary on my phone with an alarm to remind me of appointments. I have bursts of tidiness - spring cleaning the house, and tackling the grey badger stripe that appears in my hairline with alarming regularity. I wake up every morning with an efficient plan to make best use of my days.

Pfftt. Who am I kidding?

In Dorset, I was flying by the seat of my pants. Now that I've moved counties and haven't yet got a routine to lean on, I am flying by the edge of the hem of the overstretched elastic of my knickers. Just. Without a routine, I am in a state of constant adapting and reacting in order to get the basics accomplished.

Take Kitty. I rented a paddock for Kitty, but the spring grass hadn't yet come in. With my winter hay supply still in Dorset, all I could do was to take Kitty for a walk and let her graze the grass verges 15 minutes in the morning and evening. The locals have rechristened her "Kitty Four-Legs" as it seems that there are already two Kittys of the human variety living on the estate. The "number of legs" nomenclature avoids confusion I'm told.

Kitty will be pleased to know that she is a topic of conversation on the estate, alongside current topics like who's heard a cuckoo (me!) and the Pothole Problem (capital P).

Sheep grazing has been even worse. My flock quickly ate their winter grazing down to the roots. There were only two small paddocks available, so I rented those, then fenced off the orchard in our garden to make a third paddock.

Our new view from the window

My flock is now divided into three mini flocks. Grazing the garden also solves the additional problem of not owning a mower big enough to tackle the new expanse of lawn. My "lawn" is now "sheep keep". It's all in the renaming.

Hey, this nomenclature thing really works.

The garden sheep are like a roving party of drunken louts, knocking down every bench, birdbath, and chicken fence they wander into. They freed the chickens today, flattening the electric netting around their house while trying to get to the wheat in their feeders. In turn, the now free-ranging chickens are scratching up my newly planted seedbeds. It's Farmageddon out there.

Our Land Rover is still languishing in Dorset with the hay. Besides towing trailers, the Land Rover was our dog transport vehicle. The new truck (which I've named "Truck") has no back on it. So as a temporary measure I cable tied a dog crate to the rings in the bed, and used old rubber car mats as non-slip flooring.

Spud and Quincy off on another wild goose chase - resulting in 40 lbs of goose meat!

It will have to do for now, and it's fine for short trips around the estate. I need to fetch the Land Rover before winter and shooting season.

When not walking horses or driving dogs, I am finding my way around the estate - locating pheasant pens, shortcuts to town, and safe lanes for riding Kitty. The locals use landmarks when giving out directions. I was confused when, out for a hack on Kitty, I was told to "ride to the rabbit in the hedge, then turn left".

Wait. The what in the who now?

Oh right.

There's also the "take a left when you see the silver birch", and "over the second cattle grid where the Suffolks lay up at night".

Suffolk sheep getting ready for bed?

Which begs the question: how do I plug these directions into my car's GPS? And where exactly do those sheep go in the day anyway?

I have been driving around looking for other fields suitable for grazing my flock (You know, seeing as the prime real estate over the second cattle grid has been taken by those lazy Suffolks.) We were offered a local castle. Yes, CASTLE. The remains of a 12th century Norman castle. How many shepherdesses can say their flock of sheep maintains the grounds of 900 year old castle? It's poor grazing, but tempting from a purely historical point of view. Would that make the meat from my lambs artisanal and historically interesting?

Next to the ruins of the castle is the Kilpeck church, built around 1140. It's still in use today. I'm told there are 12 churches in the local area serving a total of 150 parishioners. That's only a dozen per church if everyone shows up and spreads out!  If I was a church-goer, I would definitely go to the Kilpeck, just for its aesthetics. The door has Celtic-style carvings of serpents and dragons -

There's a basilisk (sometimes interpreted as a manticore) -

There is a "green man" on the column -

And 85 of these corbels running along the top of the stonework, described as a bestiary -

The Agnus Dei symbol in the centre

This is the most pagan looking church I have ever seen. There's even a Sheela na gig corbel that apparently so offended one of the more puritanical parishioners that she tried to knock it off repeatedly with a stick. Or so my neighbour told me, between his offerings of directions based on strange landmarks.

I wonder if the other eleven parish churches are equally fascinating. Even if the churches aren't, I'm sure the directions to get to them will be.

It will take time to find my way, and find a new routine. It's an uncomfortable process. A few landmarks is all I have to go by at the moment. We have our third pheasant hatch next Tuesday. Whether I'm organised or not, whether my phone alarm reminds me or not, they come every Tuesday. Well, I suppose that's a routine of sorts. It's a start.