Our sheep shearer Matt and his family have come and sheared most of my flock.
The set up team!
Wet weather and dull blades stopped progress, six sheep short. The rams, Pumpkin and 3 ewes due to lamb in September will have to wait til next week to have their fleeces off. The rest of the sheep are feeling relieved to be rid of their heavy sweaters.
I'm relieved because the ewes are looking in great condition this year, even so soon after lambing.
I took this picture of Grumpy being shorn - it's probably the only time you will ever see her deign to be handled by a human.
Even then Matt still has to sit on her.
I had my own shearing job to do -
Podge needed her summer haircut, as she will start working while the weather is warm and I don't want her to overheat. I use the horse clippers and she stands on the tailgate of the truck very patiently. Thankfully, she's not fussy about her haircut.
Yeah, I know. My shearing skills are nil. Mike won't let me trim the poof of hair on top of her head because he thinks it gives Podge character. I hope it draws the eye away from the terrible haircut.
When the sheep are all shorn, I will have two wool sacks, each the size of a double mattress, to take to the wool sellers. I hope I'm not too late to sell to the Irish buyers this year. Their prices are better than the British Wool Board. Wool payments are very small and all my wool will only earn me about £50 annually.
Shearing is most importantly a welfare issue: to keep the sheep cool in summer and prevent fly-strike (maggots burrowing into the flesh of a sheep). My ewes graze better when sheared. In full fleece, the ewes spend their days laying the the shade instead of eating.
I sent a few hoggets to ice camp this week. One ram for Ian, his payment for helping me with sheep jobs throughout the year, one ewe for us, and the best ewe sold to a local gastropub. The one sold cascase covers all the butchery costs and my shearer's fee. A couple culls went to market, in time for Ramadan, and made good prices too.
The rain last week meant I was able to finish my own wool project -
My annual shoot season jumper. Of course, this was supposed to be finished for last season. It's only 9 months late - or is it 3 months early for this season? It fits great and it's super warm, but it has one flaw on the back of the right sleeve -
Either I was distracted by something on TV or I had an extra glass of wine, I'm not sure, but the result is a couple inches of purl stitch when it should have been knit stitch. It's like a small scar but I don't mind imperfections.
Alongside my wool week, I've been doing my daily squirrel trap checking round. On one of my checks I found a tawny owl caught in some plastic deer netting. It was hanging upside down, wings outspread, and looking poorly -
It must have flapped to try and free itself, but only managed to wind the plastic net tighter around its leg. I cut it down, keeping an eye on the trapped leg. I should have been watching its good leg. The owl sank one of its curled talons into my middle finger, so far that it went in one spot and came out another, like it was sewing a running stitch with a needle. I had to free my finger before I could resume freeing the owl's leg.
I brought the owl home and gave it an injection of pain killer ( a stab for a stab!) and put some antibiotic spray on the leg wound. I put in my Rehab Hutch, a guinea pig hutch I use for any hurt or abandoned young that the boys find.
The owl survived the stress overnight, so I was at the vets when they opened, to get it checked out and sent to a special owl rescue centre. The owl got the care it needed, and I got a week long course of antibiotics for my infected finger.
The Hutch is already re-occupied - this time it's a Greater-spotted Woodpecker fledgling-
Normally we leave fledglings for their parents to find, as long as they're safe from immediate danger. Ian found this one in the road. The fledgling is feisty and is almost big enough to go it alone. A few days of hand feeding, water and protection and I can let it go, I hope. And its talons aren't nearly as dangerous as the last occupant's, which is a bonus.
I don't normally write about places or families I work for in any detail. Discretion and respect for others' privacy is important. However, as this story is national news, I'm not sharing anything that isn't public knowledge already.
It's been confirmed that the fire was deliberately started, but it's not yet been proved by whom. Thankfully no one was hurt. The apartment I lived in was attached to the house and completely gutted by fire. I've already experienced enough fire for one lifetime.
They were kind employers and my heart goes out to the family for the huge loss of their home. It's also a terrible loss for architectural and garden history. If there is no home, the gardens will be lost to the encroachment of nature. Formal gardens are time-consuming to maintain and take lots of man (and woman!) power. I dread to think how many hours I spent mowing lawns alone.
I don't think this story is over. I'm hoping for a happy ending.
Spring lambing is over. Ten out of the thirteen ewes put to the ram last November produced 15 healthy lambs -
None of the ewes died, and we achieved a 150% on live birth lambs. I'm calling that a win. Grumpy ewe was the last to lamb, producing her usual giant single ram lamb.
The ewes are recovering and the lambs are growing well -
I used a terminal sire, which means that the lambs are a cross between my Dorsets and a Beltex, a meaty but unattractive Belgian breed of sheep -
Image courtesy Paul Slater Beltex Texel sheep
Not a looker, but check out the muscles!
All the lambs are destined for the meat trade this year. I use a terminal sire in the years that I don't need to breed any pure Dorset replacement ewes. I have last year's lambs - now shearlings - to replace any ewes that are too old or, like the ewe that got mastitis, no longer fit for breeding.
But even some of the pure Dorset shearling ewes will go for meat, either into our freezer or for sale as high quality hoggett to pubs and people who prefer a more flavourful meat. The ewes I select for meat have serious conformation flaws. I'm sending four to Ice Camp that were too small or have "parrot mouths" - basically a sheep overbite. I kept a ewe two years ago with a parrot mouth and she passed this trait onto her offspring. It's not just that it looks bad; it stops the lambs grazing efficiently and results in a slow grower.
The three ewes who didn't lamb this spring have gone back to my Dorset rams, and I hope I'll have a few extra lambs come September. One of the empty ewes is no 42, the one I kept from the 2014/5 season to improve our breeding stock. If she's infertile, it will be a blow. But, such is life and livestock.
The other goat - Nanny Brambles - kidded last week. She snuck her kid out and I didn't find it until morning, tucked up and hungry because it couldn't feed properly. Her mother was so full of milk that the kid couldn't latch on. I immediately fed a very hungry kid some colostrum I milked from Nanny Brambles and from my stash in the freezer. I hope she - yes, it's a she-goat! - got enough in time to give her a good immune system for the future.
Poor Nanny B came down with a uterine infection a few days later. I called the vet out because 1) vets have access to way better drugs than me and 2) a sick goat is no joke. The saying goes that "A sick goat is a dead goat." Sheep will malinger, then get better. Goats get sick and die. Faster than that. They getsickanddie.
We threw everything at her, also know as the "Hail Mary Pass": antibiotics, calcium injections, pain killer, glucose and vitamin drenches. She wouldn't get up or eat for three days. I rolled her, moved her, injected her, and pushed the goat equivalent of Flintstones Vitamins down her throat twice a day. I even drove to the store and bought her tortilla chips -her very favouritest food- and hand fed her.
I was so relieved when she greeted me at the gate of her stable on day four and ate her grain, while baby nibbled mum's ear -
Oh, I had baby de-horned while the vet was visiting, hence the blue dots on her head
Nanny B has developed mastitis and I have to hand strip her sore teat every day and give her shots of pain killer, but it looks like she will survive. And with only one baby to feed, she can manage with one functioning teat. However, the mastitis means it is her last go-round with motherhood. She's given us her relacement, so now she can just live out her life eating the brambles she so loves and that earned her the nickname Nanny Brambles.
Almost to the day that I finished lambing and kidding, the pheasant chicks started hatching. Last Tuesday we hatched 6,400 chicks. Today we hatched another 7,200 chicks. There was a village-wide power cut planned for today, which would have meant our incubators and hatchers would be down for 6 hours, killing the chicks. The Electric Company sent us a huge generator to keep things working while the power was out -
The engineer left in charge of the generator even came in the hatching room and was put to work helping partly hatched chicks out of their shell, and came to the rescue when we ran out of teabags - he had a whole box in his truck! Yes, of course I emailed the company and praised the whole team for their great work.
We're filling pheasant sheds as fast as we can put them up, even though half the hatches have already gone to other shoots. Panels for their outdoor runs get delivered, and I managed to pull the cushy job: unloading them from the truck with the telehandler -
Once again, Thanks to my dad for teaching me to drive all sorts of things when I was a kid!
The guys will assemble them up when they get a few spare hours.
I'm still trapping squirrels and, between mid April and today, I've caught 160 squirrels so far. In one patch of woodland alone! I average about 4 per day and it's not slowing down. The guys are trapping the other side of the estate.
The dogs are back in training, too. This photo of Molly sitting on the kitchen table just about sums up our progress -
She taught herself to jump from the floor straight on to the table. You have to admire her athleticism. In her defense, she does this when she needs a break from Cheyenne, the German Shepherd pup. She's a very patient nanny, but even Molly needs a break sometimes and this is how she tells us.
Gun dogs are too smart and it can be a challenge to out think them. Sometimes prevention is as good as training. They all love retrieving, and shoes are great for retrieving and leaving dispersed around the house or even outdoors. It's tiresome but I don't wish to discourage their enthusiasm. Then Mike came across this old filing cabinet in a skip -
It fits perfectly inside the door, so when I get home I just open a drawer and toss my shoes inside. Boots have to go in the trug next to it but are usually too unwieldy to make good retrieving toys anyway. However, it won't surprise me if Molly and the others figure out how to open the drawers. It won't surprise me one bit.
Since I last posted, spring has come to England. The thorn hedges are covered in white blossom and grass fields are covered in white lambs. I've heard a cuckoo in the copse of trees behind the house, my favourite indicator of spring. There are blackbird fledglings in the garden. Mike and I have been productive too, and here's what happening on the farm-
We are halfway through lambing and kidding -
We have 11 lambs so far. I didn't scan the ewes this year - we lambed so late the scanner man had already left the area when our ewes were far enough along for scanning. So, I'm flying a bit blind this season. Six of the seven ewes that have already lambed had twins. Grumpy hasn't lambed yet; she only ever produces a single. She doesn't like to put herself out too much. However, she's still motivated enough to give me the stinkeye when I check the ewes -
Grumpy's favourite hang out - by the food trough
The dry weather has been ideal for lambing, but it's not been a perfect season. One ewe has mastitis. A few of the girls are suffering with twin lambs disease, which is essentially keitosis brought on by a nutritional imbalance. I keep the newly lambed ewes and babies in the garden, on lush grass and close by so I can watch for signs and treat them immediately. Two lambs have died, but in novel ways: one died as the birth sac didn't break so he never took a breath. A dopey ewe laid on another one and killed it. These are common enough occurrences, just new to my lambing repertoire.
Another not-so-thrilling addition to my repertoire this year: reading glasses. I had to put reading glasses in my lambing kit for the first time! All the instructions on the medicine bottles are so small and my arms are only so long. Getting old is an arse ache.
The smaller doe goat kidded on Friday night -
Both kids are bucks, so don't get too attached.
Kidding is much less fraught than lambing. Goats don't suffer with anything like the same problems at birthing as sheep do. And goats eat up the brambles as fast as they can grow. They are clearing the paddock of weeds and allowing the grass to recover, benefiting the sheep and saving me the hassle of mulching or spraying. Golds stars for the goats!
On the poultry front, the three turkey hens are laying now. Last year's stag turkeys have gone in the freezer. Enrique sadly came to the end of his breeding life. He was too old to eat or keep, so he had a respectful burial. He has been superseded by Enrique Jr.
Day old partridge chicks arrive next week. Mike's first hatch of pheasant eggs - 10,000 of them! - is due to hatch two weeks from tomorrow. We had so many trays of eggs prepared that we ran out of room to store them before they went into the incubators -
Out of desperation, some trays were stored under the tables. At dog feeding height. One morning the door to the hatching room was left open and the pack ate about 100 eggs between them before we stopped their raiding party. (The kennels took some cleaning that evening!)
Bird flu is still a concern, but no new cases have been reported in some time. Vets tell us that the warmer weather kills off the virus responsible, but we remain vigilant. We've curtailed the free-ranging poultry in our garden. The turkeys are allowed to range free during the day, but Mike built me a large chicken pen to contain the chickens' wanderings and to protect this year's vegetable patch -
We reused the gate from our old lockup tool cage. Mike built the pen over a derelict area in the garden, full of nettles and once used as a refuse pile. The chickens' activity is disturbing the roots of the weeds so they can't grow; their scratching is dislodging bits of rubbish which we can pick up and dispose of. (They even uncovered an old half pint milk jug, which makes a great little flower vase.) The pen can be taken down and moved later, when the chickens have cleared the area and deposited their special fertiliser, and used to grow vegetables in the future.
Gold stars for the useful chickens too, then!
I managed to find a second hand greenhouse last year, so now I can finally grow my own tomatoes and peppers. I dismantled it over winter, removing the glass but leaving the metal frame intact, which I moved whole -
I guess I must have dismantled it on laundry day, as I seem to be wearing a dress with riding trousers.
I've rebuilt greenhouses before, and learned some hard lessons. So, here are my top greenhouse tips for you: Use a Sharpie marker to label the glass before you remove it. It makes reassembly so much easier. I numbered the side panes and lettered the roof panes (A-Z), left to right and top to bottom.
Pick a system that works for you. Include the broken or missing panes in your numbering system so you can organise replacements before you rebuild your greenhouse. Write these things down, (though maybe use a more sophisticated method than I did -)
Well, I already had the Sharpie marker to hand...
Once all the parts were in my garden, I built some footings for the greenhouse. It's aluminium and light, so compacted soil and recycled railroad sleepers are enough to support it -
Once the base was level all ways, I trimmed the ends to fit with my chainsaw. Then, I popped the glass back in and gave it a clean -
Ready to grow tomatoes!
I also borrowed a mini-digger from the builders working on the estate. I don't have a trailer big enough to tow it, so had to drive the digger 2 miles back to the house. At the digger's top speed of two miles an hour, of course.
But, with a digger, I managed to remove old stumps, turn the compost, level a new area of vegetable patch, and fill a trailer with the goat muck heap and spread it on a field to be ploughed in as a soil enhancement. In one afternoon!
I saved my back and a couple days' work, and all it cost was a paltry sum, a couple dozen eggs, and two hours' of my time on a scenic digger ride via the estate logging tracks.
My off-farm work has changed a bit. I've taken on a job for the forestry department, running a trap line to control the grey squirrels on the estate.
One of my traps, with occupant
It takes a couple hours a day to check all the traps, but pays a lot better than pub work, and I can take a dog with me for a bit of training at the same time. This estate produces wood for commercial sale and squirrels affect replanting. The government pays the estate to control the grey squirrels.
I still do one shift at the pub on a Sunday, because my co workers are lovely and I need to retain some social skills. Plus, the kitchen lets me take home all the leftover meat and potatoes on Sunday, which feeds all the dogs for at least their next two meals. They sure love roast potatoes!
If it sounds like I'm working hard, let me come clean and say that I took a two week vacation to visit my sister in San Francisco, just before lambing started. She thoroughly spoiled me and we did not a jot of manual labour.
When I returned, my husband had a surprise waiting for me -
Yes, Of course it was a German Shepherd puppy.
I've called her Cheyenne - Chi for short. No, we didn't need another dog and no, she can't replace my old Dakota but she is a lovely girl in her own right. Molly the spaniel is back on nanny duties and all the others are helping with Chi's socialising.
Spring is a time for babies, so what's one more in the grand scheme of things? Those roast potatoes just have to stretch a little farther now.
Sorry, guys. We have had an exceptionally warm, dry spell of spring weather and we're working like the dickens to take advantage of it. So, I haven't been indoors on my computer blogging; I've been outside on a mini-digger, eh..digging. And lambing of course-
We have 7 so far: 6 girls and a boy. There are only 8 more ewes to lamb. And both the goats still to kid.
I promise to put up a longer post, with lots of photos and updates, before the week is out. Thanks for hanging in there with me!
Dakota's health has deteriorated over the past week. She lost most of the use of her back legs, stopped eating, and likely was succumbing to late stage spleen cancer (both common GSD problems). This morning she was put to sleep, before she could suffer. Yesterday morning, she accompanied me for one last (very slow) walk, to feed the lambs -
Her ashes are coming back to be spread in the orchard where all the dogs play. I put her collar on my bedpost so she can still sleep next to me every night.
She was a good, loyal, loving companion. I miss her so much already.
Shooting season is over for another winter. As is usual, I've lost a few dog leashes and broke another walking stick. I wore out the seat of my remaining pair of wool pants and had to borrow a pair of Mike's old breeks to see me through the last weeks. I managed to tear those on barbed wire.
My hands and face are also cut up from climbing over barbed wire fences, and from the industrial strength brambles that grow here, but they're healing fine. The rough cover wears bald patches around the dogs' eyebrows too. Quincy's are the worst this year. We share a tea tree salve from the doggie first aid kit to help the healing.
Other post-shoot season jobs include checking the dogs' condition. I run them through the sheep weighing scales, and give them appropriate doses of worming meds. They have been munching on all sorts of half-decayed animals they find in the woods, and even carp remains that the otters leave on the banks. So, worming is a must.
I bring home lots of shot pheasants to fill our freezer, and the dogs' bowls. Pheasants (and deer) are making nothing on the open market. The game dealer takes our shot birds away but, this year, only gave us a few dozen oven-ready birds for the clients each day in exchange. We try not to waste anything, even if I only cook up pheasants for dog food..
I was kindly invited to shoot as a client on another shoot this season. It was a fancy shoot with morning coffee in the grand estate house, being chauffeur-driven to each peg (where one stands to shoot), and fed canapes and champagne by liveried staff between drives. I'm a confirmed introvert, but did my best to be a good guest, to add to the good conversation and to put a few birds in the final bag. But there is a saying: You cannot drink the keeper's beer and the boss's port. It's hard to straddle the class system, to be a worker one day and a gun the next. My introverted self was relieved to return to the beer side of life, with my dogs for company.
I did shoot a bloody good hen on the last drive though, to the applause and hurrahs of the other gentlemen. A good shot is always a pleasure.
So, as workers, we were all glad to see the end of the season. It's not that we don't enjoy it, but continuous wet winter days and lack of sun makes us look forward to spring.
A few of the beaters in our break room, enjoying a sit down after a long day's work
There is a dark cloud hanging over this coming season before it even starts. An outbreak of Avian Flu has hit the UK. It's the H5N8 strain, harmless to humans but lethal to birds. Migrating waterfowl are passing it on to wild and farmed birds. A pheasant farm in the north of England lost 10,000 birds to the flu and will likely go bankrupt because of it. The carrier birds show no symptoms but an infected flock just drops down dead.
The first few weeks of February is normally our holiday time, the break between the end of one shoot season and the start of catching up our breeding stock for next year's season. At the moment, Mike is holding off on catching any stock. A pheasant in the woods is classed as a wild bird; a pheasant in a pen is classed as farmed. Catching birds inevitably causes them initial stress, the biggest factor in a bird getting sick. A late chick is better than no chick at all.
Our normally free-ranging chickens and turkeys now have to be penned in by law. They must be fed inside a shed so wild birds don't eat from the same feeder. Same with the birds' drinking water. We have a population of wild birds in our garden that feed from bird feeders. I have continued to feed them, to prevent them moving on and contracting the virus. But there's a zero tolerance policy on Canada geese that take up temporary residence on our ponds.
Our chickens, in their free-ranging days, helping themselves to goat feed.
They always check to see if I've forgot to close the lid!
Biosecurity has been increased: no visitors to come in or out without using a virucide foot dip. And traceability: every visitor has to be logged in, and must write where they're going to next after leaving us. Even if we take all the right steps, any outbreak within a 5 km radius of us means all our stock will be automatically culled.
We attend the lectures and webinars given by our poultry vets, to keep up on regulations and information that changes on an almost daily basis. Most vets feel that the worst will be over in 6-8 weeks, when the migration cycle ends. I hope they're right.
There's only two weeks left of the pheasant season. The dogs have worked hard, been invaluable, and have enjoyed themselves thoroughly. And I enjoy working with them. In case you wondered, my job, as far as the dogs are concerned, is to drive them to work, carry the birds they find, and dish out big helpings of cooked dinner. I don't like to brag but, yeah, I'm pretty good at it.
If the dogs had opposable thumbs and a driver's license, I would be obsolete.
Before the season started, I worried that I didn't have enough dogs to spread the load on shoot days. I didn't take extra work on other shoots, which I do most years, because I though I would be under-dogged. However, Molly has recovered so well from her knee surgery, she's been able to do a full day's work picking up birds. And she's a pleasure to work.
And I'm very pretty...
Gertie is only a year old, but she's been out in the field a few times this month. It was just to give her some experience, but Gertie impressed me with her confidence and desire to please. She's always looking at me, waiting for the next command-
Next season is going to be wonderful with these two on the team.
The old dogs, Podge and Pip, have been out picking up too. They are past the training stage, and well into the "I know what I'm doing. You just worry about driving and making our dinner, mum." stage. Field trialers (those who train working dogs to compete at a very high standard on simulated game days) claim that after around 6 years, a field trial dog is often retired as it knows its job so well, it stops taking directions from its handler.
What is a drawback in a trialing dog is a blessing in a working dog. Pip and Podge know from experience when a bird is wounded, or where it will be likely to hide. Each has followed enough blood trails to recognise the scent, and remembered pulling birds from the security of thick brush, fallen trees, or even rabbit holes, so that's where they look. They mark falling birds, accurately estimating the distance they need to go before trying to pick up the bird's scent.
They also know they are not as quick as the younger dogs, so each has come up with a solution: Get a head start on your competition -
Podge sits ever further away than Pip does; I'm sure it's because Podge knows she has shorter legs than a retriever.
I'm certainly not going to tell them off for doing their job -
The gang's all here, except for Hadley Bubbles - she's off to the left eating an apple, and hasn't quite got the self-control to sit still for a group photo yet.
In other dog news: I'm sad to report that Hazel, companion to Jazz and Tinker, passed away this month.
You may remember we adopted Hazel as a failed gun dog (c.2010), and our re-homing angel Julie offered Hazel a forever pet home. Hazel lived a long life as a house dog with a family that loved her, threw loads of tennis balls for her to fetch (Hazel's favourite game) and took her on daily walks on the beach. Hazel died happy, at a ripe old age, from natural causes.