Saturday, 25 May 2019

Men and Machines

By men, I mean of the sheep variety. Yesterday I collected a new ram for my flock-

His breeders named him Aladdin, but I've shortened it to a Welsh name: Aled. He's been shown before and is halter trained, plus he has a calm nature. He came home in the back of my pickup and, though we got some strange looks on the highway, he was pretty chill for the hour and a half ride home. He's young and will fill out over the next year, but he's got good conformation. I'm really pleased with him.

Although it's best to quarantine any new sheep before introducing them to your flock, Aled has a health certificate. Even then, as Aled is a ram, I can't just drop him off in the field with my other rams. Boys fight. And rams fight with their reinforced skulls, repeatedly, until someone gets a concussion. So the accepted method of introducing new rams is to pen them together in a small area so they are too close to get a good run up and butt heads.

Pumpkin is trying to stay out of the way - you can just see his back

I made a pen in a section of the lambing barn next to the ewes using cattle hurdles (extra tall and extra strong) and lots of baler twine for reinforcement. It's working fine, though I had to break up a few fights with my shepherd's crook and a stern word. I'm not sure they care about my disapproving words too much.

The rams will stay penned in for a few days until they smell like each other and can get along. I'm taking this opportunity while they're indoors to shear the rams. Ed, the neighbour's shepherd, is going to come tonight and do it for me. My rams are just too big for me to manhandle well enough to shear them properly. My ram-handling skills are limited to wooing them with pats and buckets of grain. I'll set up my shearing machine for Ed, then tomorrow after work I can do the few ewes in the barn that are still waiting to lamb.

I have my own shearing machine, though I'm a terrible shearer. It gets me out of sticky spots, like when a ewe gets maggots in her fleece. I had to treat Grumpy's ewe lamb for maggots this morning. The maggots around her back end were inside her. I had to physically remove them. From inside her. No I'm not taking pictures of that. I then scrubbed her in my kitchen sink with baby shampoo, trimmed her tail, put some anti-fly medicine on her. She proceeded to pee all over my feet (I was wearing crocs). I had pee and maggots on my feet.

I wonder why I keep sheep sometimes.

I will get on YouTube later to remind me the steps for shearing sheep properly. I don't know what I would do without YouTube. This week alone I used it to put a new pull cord on one mower, and replace a blade on another mower. I have very little machinery knowledge. Like almost none. I learn as I go along.

When we got our new (old) tractor, I had to write the list of steps on a note on my phone so I could remember how to start it and what different levers and gears did.  Last year we bought a mower to go on the back of the tractor for mowing overgrown fields and paddocks. I taught myself to use it, added more notes to my phone reminder, and paid off the tractor mower by the end of the summer just by hiring myself out to cut people's horse paddock and small fields.

Cutting the pheasant field for Mike last summer. Yes of course I made him pay me!

This week we've made another machinery investment.  -

It's a telehandler. Basically it has forks or a bucket on the front so one can lift and move heavy things, bales of hay, pallets of stuff, etc. It's great for saving time and saving wear on an ageing body. Again, it's a slightly older model (in our price range) but sound. I had to drive it home from the farm where it was delivered. I sort of learned to drive it on the way and was grateful no other car was coming down the narrow lanes before I got it home.

It's jointed in the middle - sort of like driving a snake!

I will take a course on using the machine safely. When it comes to dangerous machines, I try and balance "having a go" with being informed. And I'll always ask a local farmer for help when I get stuck.

I bought a small zero-turn ride on mower over winter because it was such a good deal. I can have it paid off too by just mowing a few lawns and orchards in the area this summer.

We are trying to accumulate a few basic machines to help with our farming while we are both employed. The telehandler means I can move all my sheep equipment by myself, purchase big bales of hay and straw at significantly cheaper rates than small bales, and buy my sheep feed in ton bags. Mike will use it for pheasant rearing too. I think it's a good investment.

I promise it's not all work here. In the evenings I let the dogs free range in the orchard. Last night I gave them the bones to chew from the deer i butchered, while I enjoyed a glass of wine. I never underestimate a bit of Dutch courage to get me though things either!

Thursday, 23 May 2019

May Jobs

Just a quick post to show you why I'm a bit slow with the updates.

I'm lambing again, just a few ewes put to Horned ram for replacement stock. It's slow going but we've had a few born-

The maternity ward

Ewe 101 and her twins, a ewe and ram lamb

The highlight was Grumpy ewe - she popped out her usual giant single lamb but it was a ewe lamb! Finally!!

Miss Grumpette

Time will tell if she inherits her mother's personality. I'm not sure I can handle a second grumpy in the flock.

The pheasants are hatching every Tuesday-

We hatched over 8,000 this week. Mike and I take turns delivering the chicks all around the UK, so Tuesdays are very long days, at least for another couple of months.

My garden took a hit during the last storm. I lost some seedlings and have had to start over with my beans. The plants are slow to get going but the weeds are out of control already. The weed cover does great job suppressing any weeds underneath, but also creates a slug haven, and I lost my pumpkin and yellow squash seedlings overnight to the beasts. I'm going to put in a few hours this afternoon and try to turn the tide in my favour, and get round two of my seedlings outdoors.

Otherwise, it's business as usual: rescuing swan chicks that fall down the cattle grids -

Cutting stuck goats out of the fence -

You know, just the usual stuff.

I have bought a new Poll Dorset ram which I will collect tomorrow. He's coming from Stratford-upon-Avon so he might get called Shakespeare. I've also bought some Icelandic sheep, inspired after a day out at a Wool festival. I will pick those up when they're finished lambing . Only a few, to add a bit of colour to my flock and my knitting projects.

This week there's still lambs to vaccinate, ewes to trim, shearers to organise, dogs to train, squirrels to trap, and possibly more deer to butcher (I did two at lunchtime yesterday).

I'm feeling my age and what I really want is a nap.

I'd better go tackle the garden now before it's nothing but nettles.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Seedlings, Goats, and Fleece

Spring is coming. I've heard the first cuckoo of the year. The blossoms are out on the cherry trees and on the blackthorns in the hedgerow. Mike swears by the blackthorns and claims winter isn't over until the blackthorn sheds its blossoms. I put my faith in Kitty the horse: when her winter coat starts coming out in handfuls and the little birds pick up the drifts of horse hair for their nests, I feel it's safe to start putting seedlings in the garden. So that's what I've been doing.

I've taken over the pigpen garden for squashes and pumpkins, about 5 different varieties. I'm experimenting with planting under permeable weed cover -

It's reusable and by burning holes into the fabric instead of cutting them, the fabric won't fray (Thank you YouTube...) If it works, I don't have to use chemical sprays or spend every Sunday on my creaky knees weeding the veg patch. 

There's still room in the pigpen garden for my sweet pea, cutting flowers, and tomatillo seedlings, which I'll get to this week. 

I'm only growing cucumbers, tomatoes and tender herbs in the greenhouse -

The seedlings always look so small when I plant them, and every year I give way to temptation and plant them too thickly. I end up with an impenetrable tomato jungle and unripe tomatoes. I'm practicing restraint this year. 

I'm growing some bush tomatoes and hardier outdoor cucumbers next to the greenhouse, hedging my bets that we'll have another hot, dry summer. I chose different varieties most years, but always have beefsteak and cherry types. Mike would eat only tomatoes and cucumbers for every meal, all summer. (I require a daily amount of cheese at least!)

I've planted the purple french beans and yellow wax beans where the squashes were last year -

I cut the hazel stick supports while I was out checking my squirrel traps. The tall ones support the french beans, and I wove a small open panel of hazel to support the dwarf wax beans. I dug in some homemade compost and mulched the seedlings. 

I used both these varieties last year and saved the seeds as they were heritage varieties. The germination was good, and I know that they both grow well in my garden. French beans are expensive and imported from Africa, so I don't buy them in the store. 

The rhubarb crowns in front of the beans are ready to eat and for the next month or two, the boys will be eating rhubarb cakes, muffins, and bars at teatime. Then it's gooseberries, raspberries, and finally apples and pears. Nothing hangs around long enough that we get sick of eating it. Except maybe pheasant.

Of course, now that the seedlings are going in, the chickens and turkeys are on lock down. They have been free-ranging since last autumn, but will now stay in their run for the growing season. One of my turkeys has gone broody, so I've set 16 turkey eggs in my little tabletop incubator. I hope they will hatch and I can foster them under her.

Mike and others on the estate are ready for more pigs. I turned their old home back into garden, so Mike had to find another scrap of rough land - it's a corner of his rearing field. Scott the fencer (and happy pork customer) has put in the fence posts for us with his machine -

We also have a proper pig ark! It was a trade with our local goat farmer for pork and a Christmas turkey-

I feel we got the better end of the deal, so I will give him more pork from our next lot of pigs for his freezer.

Speaking of goats, we have seven now -

That's Nanny Giblets in front, Eileen the three-legged goat (in her winter coat), Talgarth our friendly ginger boy, his sister Nanny White Stripe behind him, then Nanny Magnolia. Nanny Brambles (retired) is too busy eating hay to join the photo op. The horned male goatling doesn't have a name.

The two goatlings with horns were born to Nanny Ivy last year. We lost Nanny Ivy to old age over the winter. The two horned goatlings are destined for the freezer as one is a boy and one has a congenital birth defect: she was born with her leg on backwards. So we named her Peggy -


Peggy and Eileen were kindred spirits. Peggy was born here, but we ended up with Eileen because...Mike. He was at the local goat farm and there was a lovely, kind goat that was roaming the barns. The farmer said she broke her elbow but it never set right and she had a pronounced limp, but she was such a favourite of the milking staff that she just stayed and did her own thing. Unfortunately for me, Mike had the trailer on back (he bought Nanny Giblets and Nanny Magnolia and was collecting them) so he offered to give this goat with a broken elbow a home.

Peggy was born not long after, and seemed to bond with Eileen almost right away. Eileen even started producing milk to feed her. They were usually the goats bringing up the rear at feeding times. They even share the same bad leg: front right.

Peggy adapted better to her disability than Eileen did, and even now Peggy will pogo around the field, withered leg swinging wildly, keeping up with her brother at a run. Eileen found carrying a broken foreleg more challenging.

Fun Fact: In four-legged animals like goats and horses, 60% of their weight is carried on the front legs, usually 30% each leg (20/20 on the hind legs). So Eileen had over half her weight concentrated on one foreleg.

Sadly, we had to put Eileen down just a few days ago. The vets examined her and suspected pneumonia, and she wasn't responding to treatment. She got quite thin even though she had her own special padded coat and slept in the barn on straw. Our neighbouring goat farmer once told me that "A sick goat is a dead goat" and he's right. They go down fast and hard.

So, now we are down to 6 goats. 4 goats after the horned goatlings go to ice camp, but that won't be for a long while yet. And there will be more kids to come too.

The goat herd is currently on loan to the estate to clear up a small paddock that has become choked and overgrown with ivy, bramble and weeds. 

They are enjoying their new dining experience and have made friends with the chocolate labrador next door. As more disused areas are fenced, I will lend my goats to the cause of clearing up. They are happy to oblige and the varied diet suits them. Nanny Giblets was prone to bloat but I haven't treated her once since she started her paddock clearance diet.

The weather has been warm and dry, but today and through the weekend it's set to rain. I'm now on my indoor jobs: baking a week's worth of cakes and scones (Hello rhubarb!) and processing some fleece ready for spinning -

I've been washing it in small batches and preparing it to spin. In the hot weather, I've been drying it on the clothesline in hay nets and sacks I save from my pony carrots. 

I commissioned my friend Angela who, besides shepherding her own flock of sheep, is a knitter and weaver. She used my Dorset yarn, plus Gotland, Icelandic, and Shetland fleeces I'd spun to weave a beautiful scarf for my sister's birthday, here being modeled by Pip -

The natural colours of the different wools really compliment each other. Angela sells her scarves and Ryeland wool on her Etsy site or you can commission your own.

I'm already working on woolly Christmas gifts. The fleece I'm preparing now is from ewe 0007, who I had to catch and treat for a foot infection this morning. I took the chance to look at her fleece and this year's wool is looking just as good. I'll hold her fleece back again. Rainy days give me a good excuse to spin wool and be creative.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Vermin and Wildlife

It's pretend spring in England: a few days of t-shirt weather and a sunburn, then we wake up to snow. The animals are sanguine about it as I run around dumping straw and hay for them in the morning, finishing in time for the snow to melt in the afternoon. Eh. The good news is the snow makes the grass grow better; bad news is that it caught my plum tress in full blossom, so it's probably a second year of no crop for me.

This is also the time of year that we get a lot of calls from farmers. New lambs are vulnerable to foxes and crows so we're asked to deal with any that are attacking the flocks. Canada geese and rabbits are eating the new shoots needed for cattle which will be turned out to pasture in a couple of weeks' time. Trout fisherman want the geese gone as they stir up mud in the fishing lakes. The woodsmen are planting new trees so please could I trap the squirrels around new plantations?

Fenn traps are quick and effective. Even quicker when I get them by the head.

Vermin control is a big part of the gamekeeper's job, but a thinking person and a nature lover doesn't take a "scorched earth" approach to wildlife. By targeting just the foxes that are taking lambs or geese eating the crops, we keep the farmers happy without leaving a vacuum that incomers will fill. Vermin are only vermin when they're causing a nuisance, otherwise we leave them in peace.

We divide up the work among the team. The underkeepers manage problem foxes. I manage squirrel trapping. Volunteers who like to shoot and haven't access to their own land are put in touch with farmers to take care of rabbit population build-ups and pockets of squirrels too far away from my trap lines.

All the keepers shoot the Canada geese, and my job is to retrieve and butcher them. Most of it gets fed to the dogs as we get so many geese, and one can only face eating so much strong wild goose meat.

I retrieve a few geese pretty much every day now. We try and disturb them too much to sit on eggs. Once goslings start coming, we leave them alone. Killing the parent bird could cause the gosling to suffer and die.

Spud and Quincy are my Go-To goose girls. They both love swimming and they're big enough to manage a goose, which is a pretty hefty bird, especially dead weight and water-logged. Here's Spud in action-

(You might want to watch it with the sound off. I talk to my dogs too much. My trainer tells me off for it.)

This morning the boys sent me for two geese on the trout lake. As an experiment I brought Gertie the spaniel, with Quincy as my back-up. Gertie loves water and her swimming has improved. She might like retrieving a goose. Well, Gertie found it and brought it as far as the reeds but, as I guessed, it was just to big for her to manoeuvre out of the water. Quincy finished the job but credit goes to both dogs-

One goose was badly wounded, and it was definitely a "big dog" job to swim out and get it, as it would thrash and fight back. -

When I came home Molly was waiting for me on the stairs with this, like "I'm a good retriever too!"

You are, Molly, but you don't like water. Still, points for wrestling that pillow into submission, and looking very sweet.

It's cold and raining today but the birdsong is constant so spring must be coming. House sparrows and blackbirds are fighting territory wars that Games of Thrones would be proud of. Mike has just come in for a cup of tea and lit the Rayburn because he said "The dogs look cold". The dogs. Molly and Miss Betty, sat on fleece beds at my feet, both snoring. .

I guess I'd better go butcher those geese and cook up some pheasant eggs, so my cold dogs can have a hot lunch. Mike can have sandwiches.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Our horses, Kitty & Sam

How about an update on the horses? You know Kitty, but you haven't met Sam.

Sam the day I brought him home, hairy and dusty, just off the mountain.

I bought Sam last February. A Welsh Trekking centre closed down and was selling its trail riding horses. Sam is 23 years old, which is pretty senior for a horse, but about the same age as Kitty. He's still fit and sound after his trekking work, but ready for a quieter retirement. I felt Kitty should have a companion and Sam seemed a good choice.

Sam four months later after a little extra TLC

Sam is great under saddle and, being a little shorter than Kitty, it's easier for me to hop on and off on a ride to open gates or move logs blocking a path. I'm also getting a bit senior and my flexibility isn't what it was. He's a hardy native breed - a Fell cross - and his passported name is Black Sam, though the years have turned his face and neck grey. Grey hair is just something else we have in common.

Like all native horses, he can be cheeky. We saddled up for our first ride - Kitty and Mike, Sam and me. I stood on a mounting block and got ready to throw my leg over Sam. He quietly stepped sideways out of reach, looked at me, and just pushed me ever so gently with his nose off the mounting block! All I could do was laugh. It was kind of endearing. The second try I mounted without a problem but I took his comment on board. We had a pleasant walk in the woods suitable for a retiree.

Saddled up for our first ride

As a trekking horse in a commercial situation, Sam had to pull his weight and there wasn't always extra funds for vet visits. He came to me with a bad case of leg mites, and thrush in his hind feet. His teeth are worn where he's had to graze whatever he can find at times. With the vets' and the farrier's help, we are on top of these problems and he's feeling much better. It will take some time to get one of his hind feet back into a proper length and shape, but remedial trimming should have it fixed by summer.

Sam's only issue is that he doesn't like having his feet picked up, which makes it difficult to examine and trim his feet. The vets sedated him in order to carry out a good investigation of his foot.. We now know that Sam needs a lower dose next time

The vets were already visitng to check on Kitty's progress and take another scan of her knee.

Just before Christmas, I went to feed the horses their grain. Kitty was reluctant to move and, when she did, she snorted and bunny-hopped in a panic. Of course this was a Sunday night, in a field with no lights or buildings, and it was getting dark. I called the out-of-hours emergency vet. We needed to get her heart rate down and relieve the pain as a first step.

The emergency vet did as best an assessment as possible under the circumstances. We loaded her with painkillers and sedatives, and covered her in a warm horse blanket to see her though the night.

After a few vet visits, x-rays and MRI scans of her stifle (back leg, knee joint), the vets could find nothing obvious except for some arthritis. The vets feel there was some "trauma", possibly slipping in mud, or taking a corner at a canter wrong. "Nothing catastrophic" in her joint was the final assessment. But poor Kitty was still lame, and guarding her stifle. All we could do was support her own ability to heal with anti-inflammatories, time, and patience.

I'm happy to report that she has come almost totally sound now, and the vets predict she will be rideable again. During her healing, I found her often lying down with Sam grazing nearby. She never laid down when she was on her own, which can be a sign of insecurity. It was one of the reasons I looked for a companion for her. She deserves to nap in her dotage. I think Sam came at just the right time. Of course it may have been the fact that the two of them career around the field and play that caused the initial trauma!

The vets struggled to get a good picture of Kitty's stifle joint because she has "fat knees". Poor Kitty. That is just adding insult to injury.

Kitty weathers her sedatives well, relaxing and sometimes having a little snore while the vets repeat the MRI scan -

She's muddy and hairy from a winter off, and will have the spring to continue recovering, grazing fresh grass and getting fatter knees.

Sam had his sedation and exam after Kitty. It took the two vets and me to keep him from falling over while they examined his feet. He was 900lbs of roofied horse, listing like a small boat in a storm. Kitty stood by Sam while he came out of his sedation, keeping watch and giving him a bit of comfort.

Sam stood like that for nearly an hour!

I think they're good for each other..

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Some Nice Things About Small Town Life

When I go to the village hairdresser, I can bring Miss Betty. While I wait for the hair dye to work on my greys, Faith gives Miss Betty her haircut-

A little off the top

Happy to lay on her back and have her belly trimmed

That was all me!

Mike and all the underkeepers go to Faith for their group haircuts en masse, after summer is over and it's time to look smart for the shooting season. Even the bosses have their hair cut by Faith.

When Faith was looking for another dog, we found her a pup. She owns Hadley Bubbles brother, Oscar.

There's some nice things about living in a small town.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Under Construction

This time last year, we were still shovelling ourselves out from under a record snowfall. This year we've had record high temperatures and a couple weeks without much rainfall. Our heavy clay soil is dry enough to get big machines and tractors on it, and to start some bigger projects.

Project no 1:  Mike's new poly tunnels-

Gertie is looking for the pheasants already 

Mike and six helpers with a telescopic handling machine put them up in a couple of days. I was surprised how straightforward they are to put up.

We acquired them from local fruit farmers when they upgraded their equipment. The tunnels are getting a new lease of life as a pheasant shelter. It will help protect the laying hens against extreme weather and rain while we keep them penned in and collect their eggs.

We're trialling it on the coldest, wettest part of the laying field. If it is successful, we will cover the rest of the pens next year.

Project no 2: The estate has also put some stone and hardcore around our barns on the laying field. The big trucks were getting stuck in the mud trying to deliver pheasant food. Now there's hard standing, a clean path to the pheasant sheds and plumbed in water - no more buckets!!

The work was done by a proper construction company but, as it's a small village, the guys in charge of the construction work are also in my shooting syndicate and drink at the pub where I work. I know their wives and they know what I look like in my pyjamas ( I wasn't getting dressed just to bring them a cup of coffee!)

The photo is of the "before" and I did a little video of the "after" this morning.

When I refer to "sheds" I mean the broody huts we use to raise young pheasants under heat

Project no 3: While the construction guys were here, they kindly levelled my old pig enclosure for me.

Oh yes, last year we got our first pigs (Spoiler Alert - they are already in the freezer)

We bought six 12 week old weaners: Mangalitza x Gloucester Old Spot. We wanted them to root up and kill (or at least weaken) an ever-expanding patch of bamboo. Then we wanted to eat them.

We didn't have a pig ark but went to a local food factory and picked up a giant plastic barrel used to ship concentrated orange juice. It's there in the background of the photo. It worked great filled with straw bedding as a temporary pig house.

The six pigs were owned cooperatively; Mike and I bought one, and other workers and families on the estate bought the others to share. Each paid the cost of the weaner, one sixth of the feed, and one sixth of the slaughter and butchery charges. We fed and cared for them while they proceeded to decimate the invasive bamboo in our garden. And everyone ended up with plenty of outdoor-reared delicious pork for their freezers.

Oh yes, so, the construction guys levelled the now rooted and mostly bamboo-free pig area with their machines and added some top soil for good measure -

Instant garden!

I checked with our agronomist and I can go ahead and plant straight into the soil, no worries about illness or disease from the pigs. I'll be using half of the area this season to grow my courgettes, pumpkins, and some cut flowers. It's doubled the size of my vegetable plot so now my squashes can run wild and unhampered. Well, unhampered if I can keep the dogs and rabbits from eating them.

I've already bought most of my seeds for this season and drawn up a rough plan, which I can expand to fill the new space.

Mike just told me that rain and strong winds are on their way tomorrow. I let the horned ewe and baby out of the barn and into a grass pen in the garden, just after I made the video, to get them both grazing.

I think that they will be going back into the barn later, until the worst of it passes.

It feels like spring but it's not. Not yet.