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.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Polar Vortex

I'm not a meteorologist, but I don't think the polar vortex has come over as far as Wales. However, we woke up to the coldest morning of winter yet. No snow, but the frost hasn't lifted all day. I had to bucket warm water to all the lambing ewes, chickens, dogs and horses. Even the little birds got some warm water in their bird bath. Dehydration can be a big problem in the cold, for livestock and wild animals alike.

Motivated by the cold weather, I spent a few hours restocking our wood piles. The boys log it and bring it back to our already crammed full barn. I use the log splitter on the back of the tractor to split it-

If you don't know, a hydraulic log splitter is almost as luxurious as a lambing barn. No swinging an axe, no problems with tough gnarly logs either. The axe head is pushed down by hydraulic, tractor-driven force and pops open even stubborn wood. And it has safety measures so you don't pop your fingers off your hands.

With a good audiobook in my ears and a mug of hot chocolate, it is one of the more rewarding jobs. Definitely better than hauling buckets of water, that's for sure.

The underkeepers' cottage is heated solely by wood, so the boys go through quite a bit over winter. You can always see smoke chuffing out of their chimney. Mike and I have a log burner in the living room, but we also had a Rayburn put in last year.

It burns solid fuel, so wood or coal. It has two hotplates on top, a hot oven for cooking and a lukewarm oven, which farmers' wives traditionally used for warming up hypothermic lambs. I used mine last winter when a ewe delivered an unplanned lamb in weather much like this-

He survived and had a sister.

It's only a second hand one that came out of an estate cottage, when they upgraded to oil heating, but it has been a godsend. It's in the sunroom which was previously uninhabitable after October. She's like another member of the family, so we gave her a name: Bernie.

I can leave a kettle on the hot plate, and there's always hot water for tea (or defrosting troughs). If you put the hotplate covers down, you can warm your folded pyjamas on top, so they're toasty when you put them on. A bottle of red wine can be warmed up for drinking if you stand it on the corner of Bernie. And a sheepskin in front of the Rayburn is a dog magnet -

Send more sheepskins!!

Mike just checked the weather update, and it seems that we're expecting snow overnight. The milkman seems to agree - he brought tomorrow's milk delivery this evening as snowy lanes would be treacherous for him in his milk van. Tomorrow is the last day of shooting season,  but inclement weather may stop the day. I'm not sure the dogs will mind much if I keep Bernie full of wood.  And the milk's arrived so, with a hot chocolate at the ready, neither will I.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

OK, So. Where Were We...?

It's been over a year since I've written a post. So. Where were we?

We are nearly at the end of shooting season, and our last day is the 1st of February. After a hot, dry summer in England, our birds grew well. We introduced a new strain of pheasant - the Byzanty.

Byzanty is actually the Polish word for pheasant, but it's also a strain of pheasant that's darker and has a bigger body than our usual type, and it's a stronger flyer. We needed a stronger flyer as the ground in Herefordshire is flatter than Dorset, so the birds need to take off and propel themselves, rather than just drift off higher ground.

The downside is that this strain wanders more, and we have to work harder to keep them at home. We use a combination "carrot and stick" approach: we feed them their favorite cut maize (carrot) and chase them back when they stray with a dog (stick). The shooting clients have been very complementary about our new breeding. We only introduced it to half the flock, in case it didn't work, but we will hybridise the whole flock this season, after a successful trial run.

I'm trialling a new ram too. Meet Bertram.

He's a Freisian - a  milking or dairy type sheep that comes from Holland / Germany. Mike bought me a proper milking machine for my goats, and it got me thinking about how delicious sheep's cheese is. My Dorset ewes are perfect for crossing with a dairy breed. Insomnia and scrolling through a livestock sale website at 2 a.m. led me to find Bertram. My first Dorset x Friesian lamb was born this morning -

It's a ewe lamb, and what I hope will be the first of my future milking sheep flock. She was born to my ewe called One Tag, for the (probably obvious) reason that she only has one tag in her ear, having ripped the other out on some wire fence while reaching through to eat the waaay better grass on the other side.

The first lambing of the year has not been without its drama already. One Tag has mastitis so I've had to defrost some frozen sheep colostrum (the first milk with all the energy and mum's useful antibodies) and tube the little lamb, to make sure she had a full belly and necessary antibodies. One Tag looked as if she could be having twins but hours passed and there was no sign of contractions. When I checked on her a couple hours later, there was a cold, dead ram lamb in the pen. 

Well, that sucks. I'm already at 50% mortality on the first day.

Breeding a milking flock is an experiment, like Mike's Byzanty pheasants. I chose Dorset ewes from my flock which were not great examples of their breed - maybe a bit masculine in the face, too woolly, pigmented eyes - or that were related to my Dorset ram. A cross could potentially improve them. I'm only lambing 7 or so this month, which are in lamb to Bertram. I won't know for 18 months to 2 years whether or not this crossbreed will succeed. 

Not to put all my eggs in one basket (or lambs in one pen?) Horned Ram has covered my best ewes and those are due in April. Sadly, Prick my stock ram died in the summer.

Staggered lambing also helps me to spread out my lamb crop so that any lambs going to market will go throughout the year. If they all go at the same time and the market price is low when the lambs are ready, that's a big financial hit to take on a once a year crop.

Last year's lambing was excellent - 200% return, no lamb deaths, and lots of replacement ewes. Yes, of COURSE something went wrong. The growing lambs got a virulent worm that was resistant to the medicine programme I was using. The lambs crashed in a week, and by the time the vets identified the cause and treated it, I lost 3 ewe lambs, including my only horned ewe lamb.

While the lambs recovered I kept them inside the barn, and I had to feed them on concentrated food to bring their weight and condition back to normal. The extra feed wiped out any profit on my lamb sales last year. It was tough. I still have some of last year's lambs not yet fit as "finished" lambs and I will hold them over the winter, requiring yet more feed and care, to be sold as hoggett (young sheep) in the spring market.


It's 4:22 am and I've been lambing for the last hour. Horned ewe was in the throes of delivering a big ram lamb when I did my early check. Thank goodness I did, as the lamb had its head out and was still in the water bag. I found his front feet, broke the bag, checked he was breathing and helped the ewe deliver him. A trick for delivering a big stuck head is to put your hand inside her bottom and push the head down. Works great, just wash your hands before making a cup of tea.

Writing is a great distraction while I wait for Horned ewe to lamb again. I didn't have them scanned so I have to use a combination of experience (limited) and observation to decide if there are going to be multiple births. She's restless and pawing the ground now so I've turned off the light in the barn to let her settle and get on with the job.

Oh yes, the barn!

I had a barn built, with electricity and plumbed in water, for lambing and kidding (goats). It is the absolute height of luxury! No more wandering around a dark field shining a torch, hoping to catch sight of reflecting eyes to find a sheep in labour. When I described this scenario to my sister, she said "That is how every horror movie starts."

Now, I walk 30 yards across the lane, turn on a light and lamb in a dry room on a bed of straw. All my meds are in reach. No more trying to time contractions in order to catch a ewe in distress, in an open field. No more being rained on while I tend to ewe and lamb.

Can you tell I'm excited about this?

It's not a huge barn, so I have to bring in batches of ewes, and turn them out on grass when their lambs are big enough, clean down, and bring in the next batch. There's another half, but at the moment it's filled with logs waiting to be split and a big bale of feed hay.


It's 6.30 am now. Horned ewe hadn't delivered within the hour, so I went in to have a look. She had nearly loaded the lamb into the birth canal, but she just got too tired to push. The lamb was in distress and had a front leg pointed the wrong way. A bit of manoeuvring and a lot of pulling on my part (she wasn't having contractions to help me), and I managed to get the ram lamb out.

He swallowed some fluid during the birth and his breathing is laboured but improving. Barring infection, he should be OK. I learned my lesson from yesterday's long delivery and intervened earlier. So, mortality has gone down - to 25%. I'll take it for now.

I won't relax until Horned ewe passes her placenta. I had a feel inside the birth canal, up to the middle of my forearm, and nothing else was in there. But, a placenta dragging along behind is a sure sign it's over.

Time for coffee. After I wash my hands.

P.S. I owe Kristen W and my family a big thank you for the encouragement to start writing again. I guess I have a year's worth of stuff to catch you up on.

Monday, 21 May 2018

A Long Coffee Break

I seem to have gone on an extended hiatus. I apologise.

Nothing bad has happened, aside from the regular ups and downs of farming life. I think I felt like I had nothing new to say, and was repeating myself with the seasons: lambing, growing, mowing, hunting, Christmas, end of the season. Lather, rinse, repeat.

If you will bear with me, I will try and grow my writing, along with my crops and my animals. I don't know exactly what we'll evolve into her at M&T. I know I originally started this blog to let my family know what we were up to, with photos of their favourite animals. That will have to continue to be part of the blog. But I'm open to ideas and suggestions always.

I've missed you guys as well. More to come.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Operation was a Success!

Different coloured sprays to heal, protect, and prevent flies bothering him.

Not only can he see just fine now, but he's still as handsome as ever, even with his horns trimmed. The vets had to remove quite a lot of horn -

I've saved them for a friend who likes to make walking sticks.

The horns will continue to grow so I will have to keep them filed down, which is a job I can do myself. It's a good thing he's such an amenable chap. 

Now he's ready to woo his first group of ladies this November!