Monday, 25 February 2019

What's been happening with the sheep this week.

My horned ewe did lamb a couple hours after I posted. She popped out a nice healthy ewe lamb, unassisted. The good news is the ewe lamb is a pure Horned Dorset; the sad news is she will replace her mother who has severe mastitis and will have to be culled. I'm grateful to have a replacement with excellent breeding.

I bottle feed the lamb four times a day as the ewe isn't producing any milk. But the ewe is an excellent mother otherwise, and being together makes them both happy. I'm just the lady that holds the bottle.

They are the only pair left in the barn. I moved the 5 ewes and 9 lambs from our orchard to a bigger field with fresh grazing.

A majority of the ewes in my flock are now related to my horned ram, so I'm looking for a new ram, probably a polled (hornless) one with the right breeding. I still have Bertram the Friesian, but at the moment he is on thin ice with me.

Bertram likes the ladies. It doesn't matter if they're mine or my neighbours'. And Bertram, with his long dairy sheep legs, can jump a lot of the fences. I often get calls from the neighbours to say Bertram is visiting, wooing their sheep. Thankfully, all the ewes he's managed to reach have already been pregnant, and all my neighbours have seen the funny side of it. Probably because Bertram is very personable.

Bertram now waits for me to show up in the trailer with a bucket of grain to give him a lift home after his night out carousing.

I am literally an Uber for a sheep.

He recognises the Land Rover and wanders over. I get out and give him a pat, and usually some lame speech like "Where do you think you've been, You treat this house like a hotel", etc. Bertram doesn't even have the decency to look contrite. He just walks straight in the trailer and eats his breakfast.

The farmers don't bother to hide their laughter now. They are laughing down the phone when they call me to tell me Bertram's escaped again.

I've put him back in with the goats, where the fences are a bit higher and there are some of my ewes (already pregnant) to keep him happy. I love Bertram but he's an arse.

Dropped off in the goat paddock, striding out to see the ladies.

It was market day today, so I got up early and loaded up my last four castrated ram lambs to sell. I'm still very new to the workings of the market, but I'm of the "fake it til you make it" school, and I just get behind guys who look like they know what they're doing, and copy them.

Once unloaded, you make your way forward, towards the weigh scales, shutting the pens as you funnel forwards -

We're waiting our turn at the weigh scales - a big platform where an average weight of similar sized lambs is taken -

As you can see, I had one slightly smaller. They mark him with an "A" but sell him in the same pen. I don't know what the A stands for, but I will find out and let you know. 

I got back from market and gathered 19 of my ewes that were "on tack" - winter grazing on a field used for cattle in spring -  and gave them a quick health check, foot trim, and a dose of wormer based on the vet's advice. 

The barn is so useful for basic sheep work.

They don't love it, but I think the ewes look way more appreciative of my help than Bertram does.

Once tended to, I loaded them up for the short journey to the new field shared with the mums and lambs.

The new trailer holds our whole flock - it's a double decker!

Now I get to tend to the really fun part: the paperwork.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Our New Butchery

This might be kind of a dull post, but there are pictures of cute lambs at the end of it. You can just skip ahead.

This year, we built a butchery to process and sell our game direct to consumers. I'm sharing this because I think it's important to remember that game birds are food, not targets. We wouldn't put a single pheasant on the ground if this was not true. 

We spoke to the local planners and standards officers about setting up our own butchery. We have a hatching room which we use in the summer to hatch and sort chicks, but it was empty in the winter. Would that be suitable, with a bit of upgrading? Turns out it would, which dropped the set-up costs significantly as we didn't have to rent a premises or build something new.

We have a talented estate maintenance team - Stu and Andrej - and between them they clad the walls, put up the plastic curtain barrier, installed sinks, and painted the floor. Mike already had stainless steel tables, and sundries like knives and vacuum packers we acquired over the season, which is only 1 October through 1 February for us. 

The food safe wall covering going on

The curtain to separate the butchery from our hatchers and the entrance

The finished room 

The market for game is uncertain, made worse by the insecurity of Brexit. No one can predict what it will mean for exported meat. The estate owners here were not comfortable shooting birds if there was no steady market for the meat. The butchery was our answer, and it works well for shoots of our size. (Very large or very small shoots probably need different solutions.)

A week's worth of shot game, ready to fill our orders

Via word of mouth and return custom, we sold out, all season long. We sold to pubs, local butchers, direct to people who picked up their orders on site (which is extra nice - being able to open you premises for inspection). We even filled a last minute order for a film company making a movie, who were desperate for rabbits skinned and in the fur. 

Feather and fur need to be kept separate until butchering, so I gave over one of my house fridges to the rabbit orders. 

Meat that didn't make the grade, i.e. it was too bruised or perhaps had a tear from being retrieved, we minced up and sold as dog food. Raw feeding is popular, so legs and carcases were in demand too.

Our deer stalker has a separate butchery, and we passed business back and forth between us. He took our pheasants to Fortnum & Mason in London, a very prestigious food hall which also stocks his fallow venison. We sold his venison liver - it was our best seller.

I won't bore you too much with this project. We were glad that it turned out to be a profitable addition to the shooting business, and we plan to invest in it a bit more next year. There's a sausage maker and commercial grade mincer on our shopping list. In our first season, we managed to wear out two domestic vac packing machines before we bought a more commercial one, and it's holding up great.

I'm especially pleased that all the pheasant and partridge we supply were once an egg laid on a field near the house, hatched in the barn, raised and released within a few miles radius, shot and butchered in the barn, and sold direct. Few food miles, complete trace-ability, and a very affordable product: boneless pheasant breasts are 65p each, a brace of partridge crowns is £2, whole oven ready rabbits £1.50 each. 

OK, how about some cute lamb photos now?

Ewes and lambs in the orchard

Friendly lamb no 5

Moose and her new ewe lamb, Squirrel

There are 9 lambs so far. Six ewes have lambed, two are still to give birth. My other horned ewe has started to make her birthing nest, and her sides have gone hollow so there should be another birth today. I have some of last year's lambs to trim up now, and I'll select out the biggest ram lambs to take to market on Monday. Fingers crossed the prices stay high another week!

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Storm Eric

We've been battling rain and strong winds here in the UK, but lambing goes on. Five ewes have lambed now, and I have 4 ewe lambs and 4 ram lambs (and no more lamb casualties!) I've put the next batch of pregnant ewes in the barn ready to lamb. This morning, it was looking pretty crowded in there-

If I turfed the families out into the icy rain and winds earlier, the ewes would use up energy keeping warm that they need to produce milk. The lambs struggle to stay warm in the wet, more so than in the cold. In the barn there is protection from the elements, plus an all-day hay and grain buffet.

Pasture is as limited as I've ever known it. Every farmer is utilising every corner where grass is growing. Our neighbour usually lets me have a small paddock this time of year, but he's been just as desperate and needed to keep it for his rams.

So, my ewes are now grazing the lawn-

The rain broke this morning so, after chores, I set up a fenced area in the orchard and let four of the ewes out to graze with their lambs. It gives the ewes access to the hedges too, with a mix of plants like ivy and willow, which ewes seem to nibble as a tonic or medication.

Ewe 0007, a first time mother, is still a bit confused and unsure about motherhood. She only has one lamb to cope with, not the usual twins. But, to give her time to strengthen her bond with her baby, I have left her penned in the barn with the yet-to-lamb ewes. I will probably bring a dog to her pen later, which can sometimes kickstart the maternal instincts to protect. I'm sure it will be fine in time, then she can join the others in the orchard.

Around 4pm is when the lambs get playful and I will try and take a video to post - it's very therapeutic watching lamb zoomies.

I'm also being watched while I type this.

Hey Enrique.

The turkeys and chickens are free-ranging again, now that the vegetable garden is fallow. They have been stripping the last of the kale and turning it into lovely eggs with a deep orange yolk. A perfect use for kale after months of eating it ourselves.

We added an extra turkey to the flock too. After raising a few for family, the freezer, and the shoot's Christmas Jumper Competition (first prize, oven ready), Mike pardoned the last hen turkey and she's joined the Narragansett turkeys. This turkey is big and white and ungainly as she free-ranges. I keep calling her Christmas Dinner Turkey. She probably needs a better name,

The bad weather was a good excuse for staying in and reading through seed catalogues. I think it's one of the best ways to spend a dark, wet winter afternoon. I ordered my seeds this morning and if the winds die down, I will continue cleaning out the greenhouse and getting ready for the new growing season.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Annual Holidays & Miss Betty

We had our last shoot day of the season yesterday, in spite of the snow. All of these photos were taken by Alice. She's one of our regular beaters, earning extra money while she studies to be a vet. Alice also looks after me when we hunt on horseback, and we work together at the pub on Sundays. That's life in a small village for you.

Young dogs came out for their first taste of the field and future gun dog roles; old dogs came out for a last hurrah, in case they are too stiff and can't come out next year. My team of four, who were very strong this year, enjoyed their day too.

L-R: Molly, Spud, Quincy, and Gertie waiting patiently for the action to start

My experienced retrievers carry the team, for now -



The spaniels are still learning their trade, as demonstrated by Gertie's retrieve -

Her second retrieve was tidier -

Both Molly and Gertie certainly show the requisite enthusiasm for their job -

Even the mature dogs aren't always that mature, especially in fresh snow -

We had an extra companion for the day too - a lamb that Alice found cold and alone in the snow. I put it in the Land Rover and wrapped it in a dog towel. 

After a few hours in the heated Landy, it warmed up but was still unwell. I dropped it off to the farmer to keep in his barn, with his other lambs needing extra care. 

We celebrated the end to a good season, and lamented the loss of underkeeper Ian, who is moving on to start his own game farm and shoot. We wish him well, and we will all miss him.

Mike & Jen


With Mal, my Welsh Santa

Today, the 2nd February is the official start of my annual two week holiday. My holiday was over by 2am this morning with the delivery of 2 healthy lambs, a ewe and a ram lamb. We now have 4 girls and 3 boys in the nursery barn so that's worth the lack of sleep. Mike has headed off to Cornwall for a few days to see family, and bring them all a selection of meat for their freezers.

The rest of my first day off included removing a hay seed from a goat's eye and butchering the last of our meat chickens and one big turkey, to replenish our freezer. There's turkey soup cooking on the stove right now, and turkey trimmings and offal in the oven for dogs' dinner. I'm planning to have a glass of champagne (a kind gift from a client) and to read my book later, if no more lambs pop out.


As some of you noticed, we've added a few more dogs to the pack. Shall I start by telling you the story of Miss Betty?

In June last year, our estate's maintenance guys showed up at the house at breakfast time, with a bundled up fleece coat. Inside was a tiny, terrified dog. Half her fur was missing, and she had scabs all along her sides. Maintenance Stu said he saw her on the side of the road, coming home late the night before. He brought her to us, because everyone brings lost or surplus dogs to the local suckers gamekeepers.

My sister was visiting from California, and she chose the name Betty, in honour of Betty White from the Golden Girls. Betty recovered quickly with some care and vet intervention, and we realised that she had a big attitude, and the "Miss" was added as a mark of respect. We searched for her owners, but no one came forward, and she had no microchip. Mike was instantly smitten, so she now lives here with us.

Her fur has grown back, long and silky. The vets cured her mange and fleas, removed her rotten teeth and cleaned the others. I cut her toenails back bit by bit, which were growing into the pads of her paws. And she now has drops for her eyes, to correct for poor tear production.

Her legs are so short, that she can't really navigate the rough terrain on the estate. When we take the other dogs for a walk, Miss Betty rides in a sling around my shoulders. She may be small but she doesn't want to be left out.

Miss Betty loves fish for dinner, and has a particular hatred for owls, which she barks at when they hoot at night. She's incredibly friendly, even to strangers, and prefers to sleep in a lap or on a hot water bottle. Her other nicknames include: The Angry Burrito ( when owls are around), Four Pounds of Fury (food or owl related barking) and the Bonsai Rottweiler.

Little dogs are a small package of health problems, due to poor breeding. The vets suggest Miss Betty is around 7-8 years old, and they say they've seen a lot of "handbag" dogs abandoned recently. The result of a fad for buying them, but sadly, their owners soon lose interest. Especially when the medical bills start piling up.

Luckily, both Mike and I are mad about dogs, and we have funds and time to devote to dogs, even the ones that need eye drops twice a day forever, and bad knees that need operations, or retirees that need meds and supplements to stay mobile and comfortable. It sounds corny,  but they more than repay us with their personalities and their company.

I will tell you about Biscuit and Daisy in the next post.