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.