Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Dog Days

Shoot season is three weeks away, so I've turned my attention to our dog team. Some of the girls have been working all through the summer, chasing wandering pheasants home to their roosting pens. Here's a little video so you can see what they do each morning before breakfast:

The dogs run through margins of cover crop and over large stubble fields, where the pheasants like to wander and sun themselves. The dogs rouse any pheasants they scent and force them to fly home. I drive in my truck to keep up with the dogs, and because I'm lazy. I praise the dogs, even though they can't hear me. They are such good dogs.

Of the four dogs out that morning, two of them are so old that I have to lift them in and out of the truck, and I still expect them to work. It's like hitching your grandmother to a plough and telling her to go clear an acre. Dulcie and Dakota are both 12(ish). They still love their work, but I keep a close eye on them, ready to bench them at the first sign of a limp or stagger.

I had hoped by now that Tinker would be doing the summer bird-chasing work, but she hasn't got the temperament. Tinker loses her mind when the birds fly, and she cannot be steadied. I've never known a dog embody absolutely every fault a gun dog can possess: lack of concentration, running in, giving tongue (yipping and barking while hunting), hard-mouthed (crushes any game she finds) - the list is endless. But she's got the perfect temperament as a pet: loving, great with kids and other dogs, playful, retrieves toys.

Our friends Matt and Julie, who re-homed Hazel and Jazz when they retired as gun dogs, happily agreed to give Tinker a home too. Tinker now lives in their house, and takes daily walks on the beach (a pheasant-free zone!) Julie sends photo updates -

Watching the waves roll in...

Hazel, Tinker, Jazz in their dri-bags, post swim

Tinker is happy, because she can't fail at being a pet.

It still leaves a big gap in our gun dog line-up. Molly should be working now but, with her knee op, she is on a limited winter work schedule. Gertie's training is coming along well but she's not a year old yet, and still needs time to mature.

So, we got another puppy.

A yellow Labrador. She was born on the 4th of July so her full kennel name is Hadley Yankee Doodle. I've been naming my labs after towns from my home state of Massachusetts, so I have a theme to help me chose names. After three spaniel pups in a row, I am looking forward to training a more laid-back breed. As the saying goes: Labs are born half-trained, and spaniels die half-trained.

It doesn't solve our immediate dog shortage this year - I will have to rely on Spud and Quincy for picking up though the winter. I'm just hoping that it will stave off future dog shortages. Gertie should be able to do a whole winter's work in a year's time and Hadley will be coming on behind her. Some keepers train a new dog every 18 months to keep up with the demands of their job. We only do half the days we used to in Dorset, so maybe we can cope with only 9 dogs in our kennel: 3 retirees, 1 semi-retired, 2 working, and 3 in training.

They are all good, good dogs.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

The Neglectful Gardener

I have a small, underdeveloped vegetable patch at the bottom of my garden, which came with the cottage. It came complete with rhubarb plant that gives me enough rhubarb for a few crumbles in the late spring and a couple dozen autumn fruiting raspberry canes that are prolific, even when I forget to cut them down in winter.

My bijoux, semi-tended patch

There's also an orchard stuffed with apples, pears, damson and plum trees which are more or less self-sustaining. I just need to carry out regulatory pruning once a year.

It's the annual vegetable planting that catches me out every time.

I forget to start seedlings under glass. I miss the opportunity to direct sow in the ground by at least a month. I start to prepare seedbeds and, before a third of the veg patch is tilled, I've wandered off to deal with livestock. My gardening professor told me "Never let a weed see Sunday", Surely it's easy enough to find time to hoe between rows once a week?

If only I could eat the weeds we would have a bumper crop. In that spirit, I tried making soup from the nettles that invade my garden. It tasted like weed soup, even with a half pint of cream stirred into it.

I'm surrounded by fields of crops, which I treat as "wild food" to be gathered. This only adds to my gardening laziness, These crops are grown for animal fodder but, if picked before harvest, are sweet and delicious (and don't get sprayed by chemicals). This year's bounty included peas, broad beans, and new potatoes. Technically it's stealing, except the farmers are OK with it. That's three crops I didn't have to plant.

Bill the retired shepherd has a magnificent garden. His veg beds are cleaner and better kept than my living room. I barter with Margaret - Bill's wife and chief neighbourhood cake maker - our extra chicken eggs for runner beans and courgettes (zucchini) to round out our vegetable harvest.

That's five crops I didn't have to plant.

raspberry canes - look at the nettles encroaching!

Bill gave me some of his extra runner bean plants, which I planted in my veg patch. Luckily they were big enough to outgrow the weeds and they are starting to crop now.

I especially love yellow squash and pumpkins - "no brainer" crops for sure, but not easy to buy in the UK grocery stores. I have planted some of each and tend them haphazardly: a bit of water, fertiliser, hoeing. I put a fence around them, which keeps the chickens off but seems to be exactly the right size for rabbits to walk through. I'm waiting for the rabbits to grow a bit bigger, and I'm going to harvest them as well.

"fenced"-in Connecticut field pumpkins & Runner beans 

I'm less of a gardener, and more of an opportunistic forager.

Our fruit trees are our main crop. It's looking like an average fruiting year, but there will be enough to share with friends and neighbours. The gentleman who owned this estate many years ago made sure that every estate cottage had an orchard with early and late fruiting trees, so no employee would ever go without fruit - as long as they were thrifty enough to preserve or dry store the harvest. His forethought and generosity is still paying off today. The first early season cooking apples are ready now and, as it's raining, I'll spend today canning chutney, and making hedgerow jam with wild blackberries I picked yesterday while dog walking.

The dogs love the fruit too, picking their own blackberries and cleaning up windfalls in the orchard at breakfast time. They all adore pears, and will pick any they can reach straight from the trees. I watch the retrievers eat at least 5 raw pears each, every day.

I spent a few years studying horticulture, garden design, and food production. I try and apply principles I learned to my own gardening work, but I've never bettered nature. One morning as I opened the gate to the goat paddock, I looked at the fence line and saw this profusion of "weeds" and wild flowers -

Mallow, grasses, & bindweed

It was better integrated and more aesthetic than I could have designed with my big human brain.

I am going to expand my vegetable garden and have decided on the No-Dig approach. I am layering the soil with horse manure that I collect from Kitty's paddock every few weeks. I'm making compost from horse manure, used straw (from the dogs' beds), and grass clippings. I've covered over weedy areas with plywood sheets and tarps to kill off the weeds. I like the idea of layering waste, composting, and - of course - not digging the heavy clay-rich soil every year.

I've also scrounged inherited a hoop house, which I plan to put up next to my neglected veg patch, to grow the most precious of commodities: tomatoes. A poly tunnel is one more gardening task I can forget to do next year.