Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Geronimo!

Tuesday 31st January
Hardly a stunner to celebrate a month of sunrises.

Thirty one down, three hundred and thirty five to go.
I have now seen every sunrise in January 2012, though the sun did not make an appearance every day. I have come to realise that the beauty of the sunrise lies not in the sun itself but in the light and sky effects which it produces. The best are when the rays and radiance of the rising sun bounce around in the clouds, though some clear sky is needed for this to happen. Often the most dramatic photo or view is obtained not at sunrise itself, but as the sun pokes its head above the layer of cloud which so often sits on the horizon. (Or is it just that you are looking through all the thick, moist air which is just above the ground?) As the year progresses, I have decided to try to learn more about the sun and the factors which change its appearance and make the sky turn such an amazing range of colours.

Geronimo!
Time for a proper introduction to Geronimo, aka Gerry. He is very vocal and is often heard to emit a distinct war cry, hence the name. Gerry was acquired from a local farm along with his two half-brothers. They were supposed to be feral and we expected hissing and flying claws. What we got was three extremely cute kittens, but still extremely good hunters. Unfortunately we have since lost the other two on the road, victims of their own sense of adventure. This remains a cause of great sadness to Sue and myself. So Gerry is pampered!

Gerry, a vital tool in our anti-rodent toolkit!

As a kitten, Gerry did once slash my fingers with a pawful of razorblades which went extremely deep. However, it was only a panic reaction when I surprised him one day. He had taken to catching rabbits by the time he was six months old, eating the whole carcass from the head down. He is a prolific catcher of voles - Short-tailed Field Voles which are not supposed to be so common. He has been known to catch up to seven in a day - obviously not so rare round here, as he is still catching them, even in the deep midwinter. At the right time of year he is partial to a wide selection of birds too, though he can only catch the young and unfit. I would like to control what he catches and what he doesn't, but he was brought onto the farm to hunt and that's what he does. Amazingly, he has even brought two dead weasels to the door. It is not great that he has taken another skilled hunter, but populations in nature have a habit of finding a balance and replacing the lost very quickly.
Gerry's other function is as a last stage in our recycling machine. Very little goes to landfill from our house. Most importantly, we are not great consumers of packaged goods. Secondly, we re-use and recycle everything we can. Anything that can goes to the compost and any vegetable matter from the garden goes there too, or to the pigs. In the olden days, kitchen waste would have gone to the pigs too, but of course that is not permitted today and would never be allowed to happen on a responsible smallholding. Gerry's role is to demolish any meat waste. As a kitten, he did this admirably. However, as he has advanced to the grand old age of nearly one and a half, he has slowly spurned every form of meat going. He no longer likes chicken, fish, pork, lamb or beef. Not even eggs.

Just a thought, but why don't they make mouse and vole flavoured cat food?


Monday, 30 January 2012

Free potatoes

Monday 30th January 2012
A grey, chilly morning

A Confrontation with Fear and Dread
I am slightly surprised to be sat here blogging this evening. At best, I thought I'd be too ill, too groggy or semi-conscious. At worst ... For today I had an appointment with the dentist, an event which has stricken me with an irrational feear since fainting after an injection at the age of 15. Since then I have only consented to dental work on condition that I be sedated. However, I knew that when I moved to rural Lincolnshire it would be hard enough to find an NHS dentist (don't get me started on that subject), let alone one with sedation facilities. So it was that today I had a full scale, polish, a tricky deep filling and athe remnants of a back tooth ground down. And all with the help of FIVE INJECTIONS! I have to say, things have moved on since I was 15 and it wasn't actually too bad. And to think of all the worry I have caused myself. I am glad that I finally faced up to my fears, not that I had much choice. There's probably a more general lesson to be learned here.

Free Pig Potatoes
So as to divert my mind from the afternoon's events, I devoted the morning to visiting a local farm to collect over half a ton of free potatoes... that's right, free. When potatoes are harvested, those that are supermarket regulation go off for sale at prime prices. THe sorters pick out those which are the wrong size and these get bagged up as "seconds" for the local population to buy at discount rate.
A trailer full of free potatoes, along with 8 bales of straw which I picked up while I had the trailer hitched up. Gerry could clearly smell the wildlife of another farm in the straw.

A proportion, however, don't even make this grade. Either too oddly shaped, too large or too small, slightly green or nicked or sliced by the harvesting machine. Ask around and these can often be snaffled for free, or maybe a tenner a ton to buy the sorters a drink.
Many of these would be perfectly edible for humans, but since I have plenty still in storage in the garage, these potatoes are for the enjoyment of the pigs. They are not the ideal food for pigs, not unless cooked, which seems a lot of bother, especially as nothing is allowed to pass from the kitchen to the pigs. However, I like to toss a handful or three of spuds into the pig enclosure just to bulk up their pellet food and to give them the opportunity to snuffle and root around.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

More Signs Of Spring

Sunday 29th January 2012
A thin, icy mist hung in the air as a blood red sun glared between the clouds.
A wafer thin layer of ice and the slightest of frosts betrayed the night's dip below zero.

Spring Is In The Air
Over the course of last week the birds clearly judged that spring was springing. The Great Spotted Woodpecker has been drumming out his territory and a Common Buzzard was seen carrying a beak full of twigs for nest material. This is a very encouraging sign. The spread of these birds into the south and east of the country over the first part of this century has been remarkable.
On the way to school last week I decided to take the back road and was lucky to be able to watch a group of 10 Goosanders, 5 gleaming drakes and 5 greyer females, on South Holland Main Drain just by Coy Bridge. The males were tossing their heads back and generally trying to outdo each other and impress the females. Doubtless trying to secure a mate before their journey back to their breeding grounds. A pair of hares were being romantic in a field too. I must say, hares appear to be sprinters rather than long distance stamina merchants!
As I planted trees on Thursday, I did so to the sight and sound of two singing skylarks, hovering high up in the air, broadcasting their beautiful song and singing out the onset of spring.
Then, yesterday evening, as I was tidying the bed around the honeyberry bushes (well, more a very small collection of twigs), I heard the repeated mournful hoots of the Little Owl, technically a song, designed to attract a mate and warn off any rivals.
And all week, the loud "teacher, teacher, teacher" song of the Great Tit, always the first to anticipate the end of winter and hail the new season.

However, I wouldn't be at all surprised if we still get a taste of winter at its harshest before the spring equinox.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

This Little Piggy...

Saturday 28th January 2012.
Just enough overnight cloud cover to ward off the forecast frost.
The day continued warm and dry.

Out with the Old, In with the New - We're talking Pigs.
No piggy pics here today -  just in case anyone out there is getting attached to them! Yesterday evening we sold Squiggle and Curl's legs! Don't worry, they get to keep them till the end, they're just promised to someone else when the pigs no longer have a use for them...which will be Monday 13th February. This morning I phoned the butcher to arrange for their dispatch. It's a small family concern, some 20 miles away, but it has a much better reputation than the abattoir nearer home. Part of an animals welfare is minimal stress at the end. 
I have choices as to how the pigs are  divided up, but despite having read about this several times in the past, it doesn't seem to be sticking in my head. On top of this, I have no real idea if my pigs are the ideal weight, or whether they will be too lean or too fatty. So I thought it better to profess my beginner credentials to the friendly butcher and have arranged to go in one day so they can take time to explain the choices I have. Pork chops and loin...or bacon...or a bit of both? And what is a gammon? Do I have to choose between that and a shoulder, or will I not get one as I've sold the legs already? And if I want more sausages, which bit do I not get?
I'd better read that section again before I meet the butcher. There's a difference between beginner and rank amateur! 
Anyway, I just need to get their ears tagged (phoned this morning, tags promised early next week) and get the right paperwork ready - a movement form, which I'm familiar with, and a Food Information Chain form, which I've no idea about.


The patter of 40 or more tiny feet won't be too long after Squiggle and Curl have gone off. I'm pretty sure Daisy is preggers - it's not easy to tell, even for the vet. I'm guessing just over 2 months gone. Pigs are pregnant for 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days (Though surely that must depend which months are involved??) so she should give birth sometime in March. To that end, it's time for Gerald, her boyfriend, to go. He's actually going to perform his services on another farm next, but don't tell Daisy.                                                                           
                                                                                     Daisy and Gerald,
                                                                                chilled out in the stables.
                                                                          (I know I said no piggy pics today,
                                                                               but these two get to stay.)

Chicken House Clean Up
Finally managed to snap Chick of Elvis snuggled into her new egg-laying site.
Today was a good day to clean out the chicken houses properly. Every couple of weeks I empty out all bedding, shavings and hay, and scrape the floor and perches clean with a cheap wallpaper scraper. In fact I have three sizes to fit different nooks and crannies. I then liberally sprinkle the accommodation quarters with mite powder. I can use as much of this as I like as I've found an unbelievably cheap way to buy it. Branded, it costs almost a tenner for a small tub (300g), which doesn't go very far at all. However, the ingredients are 100% diatomaceous earth. I discovered that I could buy 25kg of this on the internet for £28. That's over 80 times the quantity for three times the price. Maybe I've made some huge mistake and I'm not buying the same thing, but it looks the same, feels the same, smells the same and is called the same! And so far, no mites. Maybe I should offer a cheap refill service.

Friday, 27 January 2012

The Shooting Party

The Pheasant Shoot
Shooting is a popular pastime round here and, for some, part of country life. It's obviously a social occasion which seems to bring together people from all walks of life, as long as they own a 4WD. A mix of old farmers and those who've deliberately purchased all the gear for their occasional romp in the countryside. Their wellies probably never see mud at any other time.
As you can probably tell, I'm not particularly in favour of shooting. Don't get me wrong. Though once a vegan and keen hunt saboteur, I do now eat meat and am even prepared to send it off to slaughter or kill a chicken myself.
I would far rather that any animal lived a natural life in the wild before reaching its end to go on someone's dinner table. Better to occasionally eat this as a delicacy than to gorge on meat with no interest or concern as to how it got to your plate or how it lived.
However, I still have an uncomfortable feeling when I see or hear a shoot. Most of the victims don't lead a life in the wild. Million upon million are released every year - goodness knows what conditions they are raised in. Scaring them into the air and blasting them back out hardly seems to constitute a sport.

The one that nearly got away.
This afternoon I witnessed several 4x4's arrive, along with about a dozen flag-waving beaters and about a dozen shooters. They tramped along the dykes and through the fields, (I'm sure the farmer gets a good whack out of this, and is probably a popular man amongst those involved)  like an invasion party. All this in an area which is winter home to Buzzards, Peregrines and even Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls occasionally. Also Lapwings and Golden Plovers. After they'd blasted a few pheasants to the ground, they all got in their 4x4's and headed off to invade the next area.
Unfortunatley, not one of them bothered to go and find the bird which was obviously injured in flight and crash-landed after a long glide of about 500 yards. They can not have helped but notice it. I have witnessed the same behaviour from a duck shooter before, as an injured mallard crashed into the river near where I was watching the swans. I was unable to reach it, but fortunately it came to a quick end, unable to hold it's neck above the water. I hope that pheasant didn't suffer for too long either. What a waste of a life.

A New Friend Arrives.


Friday 27th January 2012
The first clear morning horizon for a while now. And with it a sharp frost.
Sunrise now arrives before 8 and is creeping forward daily.

While I was out today my new rotavator arrived. I already have a small tiller, which is perfect for the system of small beds I operate in the veg plot. But I needed something with a bit more oomph for the larger area which I use for growing spare crops, fodder crops and those crops which demand more space, such as squashes, pumpkins, sweetcorn and maincrop potatoes. I must admit, machines always scare me a little. The bigger they are and the more noise they make, the more they scare me. But hopefully me and my new rotorvator will become firm friends over the next few years.
I was going to buy something bigger, more fancy and more expensive, but I decided to quiz Don about his rotorvator, which always seems easy to handle and does a good job. He spoke highly of his Apache Euro 5 Rotavator, and especially the reliability of its Honda engine. A quick scour of the internet had revealed that I would save several hundred pounds by buying this. And a personal recommendation is worth it's weight in gold, especially from someone who you respect and who knows more than you do. So today my Apache arrived (City Link kindly left it on the doorstep for the few hours I was out!) If it disappoints, Don's to blame.
Late afternoon I discovered three holly saplings which had taken refuge in an old tea chest down by the chicken pen. So, officially, it was today that the tree-planting marathon was 100% finished.

There's probably a Law to explain why this happens but, just a few hours after the arrival of my shiny new rotavator, a sickening crack resounded from the wooden shaft of my trusty spade, which has been a loyal friend for several years now. From Do-It-ALL originally, it has outlasted the DIY chain as well as most of my other tools. I will ask around to find a skilled craftsman capable of giving my spade the loving attention it deserves. Don will know someone. Meanwhile, despite a visible crack, the spade continues to function, though I am being very careful not to stress it.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Feasting without Food Miles.



Tuesday 24th January 2012
The tree protection tubes have somewhat spoiled my traditional sunrise photo!


Wednesday 25th January 2012
         
Thursday 26th January 2012
A series of gloomy mornings. Tuesday was a washout, but at least it watered the newly planted trees and wet the ground for those to come. Wednesday was wet till 9, followed by a dry but occasionally windy and chilly day. Thursday was a good day to work outside.


Surging Forward With The Trees
Wednesday
After the morning rain, I carried on with the job of getting the trees planted. This was a satisfying task and the end was in sight. Today I aimed to plant half of the 175 trees still left. I started with an area of Ash trees in the furthest corner of the land, by the back dyke.
The Ash tree was not very familiar to me until I moved here, but it is the species which dominates the Lincolnshire landscape. Here on The Fens it obviously copes well with an exposed site! The four majestic Ash trees which tower over the garden here produce a plethora of seeds which attract hordes of birds. A charm of goldfinches are almost always to be found feeding precariously in the tallest branches. Often I look out on an autumn or winters day to see a gang of fieldfares and starlings swoop en masse from their elevated perch down into the adjacent field, only to all swoop back up to the safety of the trees a few minutes later. These four statuesque trees are dozens of years old and it will be a couple of decades before the newly planted trees produce their own bounty of seeds. Hopefully it will be sooner than that when we can begin to take a little firewood from them.
As I came back towards the farmouse, I introduced a few woodland shrubs to the Ash plantation, the odd blackthorn, guelder rose or crab apple. Then a few Field Maples, a few more, until this delightful old English species was dominant, with just the occasional Ash, and Dogwood and Dog Roses for the understorey.
Before I knew it the sun was on it's way down, the chickens and pigs needed their late afternoon feed, and I had been so engrossed in the task I had completely missed lunch myself!

Thursday
Only 94 to go! An early start and a determined attitude. I had enjoyed this task, but would be happy too when it was completed. The weather might not hold out much longer, and the young saplings would appreciate being in the ground sooner rather than later. In went the last few Field Maples, merging into an area of mixed Goat Willow, Rowan and Alder. Planting was very easy as the rain of Tuesday night had softened the ground perfectly. I worked straight through breakfast and lunch, and by 3.30 I was finished, with time to stand back and admire too. I was finished! 430 trees planted in a week. Not bad going!
Now to be patient. Another five years and it will resemble a young woodland. Another twenty years and I will be strolling through an established woodland in my retirement


Funny Old World
It's funny how things turn out. We have made the conscious decision, as far as is practical, to settle for the foods we have, rather than flown-in exotics from all over the world. The only exception to this is fruits, until our orchard and fruit bushes become productive enough to grow and process most of our own. Even then, in season we at least buy all our apples and plums locally from the farm gate (or scrump them from Don's, whose orchard is six years further down the line than mine!) I have written previously about keeping seasonal tastes special, something to look forward to.
Funny then that we should find ourselves this evening feasting on Jerusalem artichokes (more on this wonderful-to-grow veg at a later date), fennel bulbs, blanched baby beetroot leaves and beetroot. This following the celeriac and Hamburg parsley of the other day. Exotic ingredients all from the garden and harvested in the middle of winter.
Some of these you can buy year-round from the supermarket, bigger, cleaner, more uniform versions flown in from god knows where, though lacking the freshness and so the flavour of those straight from the garden. Some of these you'll never find in a supermarket, or you'll have to pay a fortune for. Either they are too knobbly to be convenient or they just don't store well enough for the supermarkets. Some would just never make it onto the shelves because of minor imperfections, or being the wrong size. Yet others are not commercially viable on  a large scale.
It infuriates me! If only we had to pay for all the hidden costs of our food we might make some far better and healthier choices.


A New Bird For The Farm List!!!
All day I planted trees with my binoculars hung on a fencepost nearby. The only times I stopped briefly were to scan through the gulls which flew to and fro all day. A few of those northern white-winged gulls which recently flooded into the Northwest of the country have begun appearing down south, but none yet over the farm. Still, a good excuse to stop and take in a small piece of the countryside every now and again.
With an hour left before dark, I decided to move the twenty bags of animal food down to the bins by the chickens and pigs. Typical... No sooner do I abandon my binoculars than low toward me and straight over my head flies a large grey goose. Unusually it was not honking loudly, but it was clearly a Greylag Goose. Not a spectacular bird for the list, but a long overdue one for the farm. It continued in the direction of Peterborough, doubtless in a hurry to reach its intended roost site.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Name That Copse

Monday 23rd January 2012
A promising sunrise.









Sunset over our new copse. OK so it doesn't look that picturesque yet, but just imagine in a few years time. Any ideas for what to call our new woodland? We already have a Weasel Ridge and Blackberry Alley, so a nice cottage-style name is what we're after.


Sunday, 22 January 2012

A Copse of our Own

Sunday 22nd January 2012
 For the briefest moment the rising sun peeked through a slither of a gap in the clouds this morning. The sky was a mix of ominous clouds sweeping quickly by interspersed with sky blue glimpses through.

Chilled Chickens
The chickens were strangely chilled out this morning. Unconcerned by my offers of food, they mooched around happily in their luxury enclosure. Perhaps they've accepted that for the moment they are to live within the very spacious confines of their fence. The wing-clipping seems to have worked, with only the guinea fowl and Chick of Elvis wandering. They never go far though without the back-up of the cockerel and the elder chickens. Since they started their worming treatment, their eggs are stronger shelled. We were finding a broken egg most days for a while. Although not of too much concern, it's not a good idea to let the chickens get a taste for egg!

A Woodland is Born
With the help of my wonderful Sue, we managed to plant a mixed copse of 175 trees today, complete with stakes and tree guards. Quite an achievement. This copse is designed to be more suitable to a slightly wetter area of land, so it is a mix of mainly birch with alder and rowan (also known as mountain ash, but doesn't actually need mountains!) All these species do well in wetter ground. This copse is the nearest to the farmhouse and orchard. The rowans will provide their berries and the birches can eventually be tapped for their sap. They are also decorative species, and I have interspersed them with other attractive shrubs and trees, such as crab apples, dogwood, dog rose and a couple of hollies. Alders and birches produce huge quantities of seed and are a favourite food of avian winter visitors such as siskins and redpolls.
At the moment it looks as if I've planted a forest of plastic tubes.
Should be more impressive in a few years time.

We finished protecting the last few trees under a glorious red sunset. When we got in, I realised just how much of a battering my poor hands had taken. It was as if they had been sandpapered... with an electric sander.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Wind in the Willows, Birches, Rowans, Alders...

Saturday 21st January 2012
The sun still did not show itself as it broke the horizon, but the sky was more promising for the day ahead.


Wind in the Willows, Birches, Rowans, Alders, Hazels, Crab Apples, Field Maples, Guelder Roses, Dog Roses, Ash trees, Dogwoods, Blackthorns...
We know when it's a windy day here. The sun comes up! Well, that's how it seems sometimes. A Westerly wind especially announces itself. The front door howls and whistles. Today was a breezy one - not unusual out here on The Fens. There's nothing to stop the airflow and it's better to embrace it rather than try to fight it. Important to remember that when ahead lies a weekend planting trees out on the most exposed parts of the farm. Today the wind swung round to a Northwesterly, bringing with it several squally showeres of decidedly chilly rain. So it was that I found myself huddled up in the lee of what remains of the haystack. But today's task was a "whatever the weather" task. The 430 trees which arrived too late to begin planting on Thursday now needed my attention.

What they'd look like in two years, five years or twenty years time is hard to imagine, so I like to drive stakes in where the trees are to go to get some sort of picture.

Since moving in to Swallow Farm, I have been keen to preserve the views across the surrounding farmland to the horizon. At the same time, there is a definite need to provide some element of shelter from the winds. The prevailing wind sweeps in from the Southwest, which is why whenever I stake a tree the stake goes on that side of the tree. So I have come up with a policy of breaking the airflow with a series of short hedgerows which still preserve the views as far as possible. I have planned the same for the new woodland areas, to allow breaks in the woodland through which to admire the openness of the landsape. Not only that, but I still need to be able to scan all around to look at the birds!
Our land is very long and thin, running west to east, so I have also used the perspective as far as possible to plant as many trees as possible and still keep open the eastern horizon where the sun comes up. 

I managed to place 430 stakes in a morning. In the afternoon I began the daunting task of planting the trees. Each one is barely a slip, so they can go into a T-shaped slit in the ground made with the spade ... in theory. The bare root saplings need their roots protecting from drying out until just before planting, so I take about 25 out at a time and transport them around in a bucket of water, giving them one final dip before planting. Under no circumstances should they be stored with the roots submerged long term. They will drown.
I planted a single species area of hazels, planted fairly close together so that when I eventually coppice them they grow up nice and straight . If I had a larger area I would intersperse the occasional ash tree to grow above them as standard trees. Then a line of Scots Pines on the exposed side of the land to eventually provide a majestic windbelt. Finally 50 Sycamores, for quick growth and quick coppice. The only species in this woodland scheme which is non-native, sycamore has been quick to adapt to life in Britain, and our native buglife has been quick to learn to exploit sycamore in return. One of its main benefits is that it is reputedly immune from rabbit grazing. Ultimately though, sycamores on the coast seem to act as a magnet for warblers on migration, so maybe one day my small migrant trap might attract something unusual like a Yellow-browed Warbler. Everything I plant has at least one purpose, be it for a crop, visual attraction or for the wildlife.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Raspberries, Celeriac and Hamburg Parsley

Friday 20th January 2011
A third day without seeing the sun actually rise. In fact, the sky this morning was a completely universal shade of grey. No contrast, no variation. There was no point starting on tree planting today as I had to work at school in the afternoon. I find it not worth starting a really big job if I have to break the job before I've really got into it.
Save The Raspberries!
So I spent the morning, in the constant drizzle, weeding a new raspberry bed and planting up the raspberries I had salvaged from one of the wilder parts of the farm. I got very muddy, and occasionally had to rinse my hands under the overflowing water butts before I continued my work. I found label - Octavia. When I looked this up I found them to be a late summer fruiting variety. Now I'm no expert, but I know there are basically two types of raspberry, summer fruiting and autumn fruiting. There is a crucial difference. Autumn fruiting bear their fruit on this year's canes. These are all cut down at the end of the year and the next spring the whole plant shoots up again ready to bear fruit on every stem. Summer fruiting bear thier fruits on shoots which grew the year before. So at the end of the year there will be two types of cane on each plant: Those with fruit, which can be harvested and then pruned out; and those with no fruit which need to be left to bear next year's fruit.
There's probably a way of telling, but to my untrained eye all the canes on these plants look the same. It my be that the old, dead canes have already snapped off, but for the moment I will leave all the canes until next year, when I can see which canes fruit.

A Parsnip Impersonator and a Bearded Celery.
When I returned from work I harvested some leeks, some celeriac and some hamburg parsley. Celeriac in this country does not quite grow to be as big and chunky as that which is flown in from elsewhere. However, as a first sortee into this field, I am happy to get any crop at all. Celeriac is, reportedly, just a form of celery wherre the base swells. This is the part which is eaten and it's actually a corm rather than a root. Which explains the mass of beard-like roots emanating from the bottom. Not widely grown in the UK as it requires a long growing season, celeriac provides a refreshing root with a strong hint of celery. Hamburg Parsley looks like parsnip, but the leaves are basically parsley and can be used as such. So a vegetable with a double use. I'd never tried it before, but the root had a subtly nutty taste.
I had an idea for these ingredients. A true rustic feast. I sauteed the vegetables with a couple of handfuls of green lentils, chucked in a good scattering of fennel seeds and then the final piece, some ham hock. Simmered until most of the liquid was soaked up by the lentils, served with mash and a chilli, chorizo sausage. Sue said it was the best meal I had ever served up! I have to admit, it was very tasty and perfect for a winter evening.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Has Anyone Seen a White Chicken?

Thursday 19th January 2012

Another grey start to the day. Today was an excellent day. Lots of different jobs.

Chicken Wings
I started with the chicken wings. Time will be soon when the chickens cannot be allowed to have free roam in the veg plot. I hope instead to be able to let them wander in the meadow and orchard, but this will not work out if they are still eminently capable of hopping any fence up to 6 foot high. Also this week they are being treated for worms and are supposed to only eat the treated food (as far as possible). Four birds in particular, beautiful girls who have completed their moult and have a beautiful set of new feathers, have hopped the fence every morning even before I'm up. Clipping their wings is a simple process, no more painful than clipping your toenails, as long as it's done properly. It's actually better to only clip the feathers on one wing, as this affects the birds flight balance. Otherwise they just flap really hard. Three hands help in this task, one to gently hold the chicken, one to spread out the wing, and one for the scissors to snip off most of the primary feathers - not too short though, otherwise it's like cutting too much off your toenails - painful for the chicken.
The first chicken, Mrs Brown, was no trouble. Chestnut was next and was n problem as she's always been the friendliest and tamest. After that, the rest had cottoned on to what was happening and quickly scarpered off without even eating their morning food ration. I managed to take one by surprise later in the morning as she sat to lay. The rest will have to wait. This is no problem, as it will be better to do it once all their feathers have grown back in anyway.


Has Anyone Seen A White Chicken?
As if to celebrate it's evasive manoeuvres our youngest hen, Chick of Elvis, completely vanished this afternoon! I searched everywhere, counted the others several times, searched the whole farm again. Nothing! Surely she couldn't have been taken by a predator. I'd been outside all day and would surely have heard the commotion or found a scatter of white feathers. Maybe she's wandered into one of the dykes, or even over the road, tempted by the sound of Don's lone bantam cockerel.  Surely I didn't spook them that much this morning?

A Pile of Ash
Last week a professional team moved in to lop the giant Ash trees in Don's garden. They even put traffic lights on the road for a few hours. Don was left with a huge pile of logs, branches and brushwood and has been busy the last few days loading his tractor trailer with the smaller pieces and preparing for the monster of all fires. He very kindly asked me if I'd like some of the medium-sized logs to cut up for our wood burning stove. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I changed my priorities for the rest of the morning. Don is very generous and let me take a whole trailer full. I didn't want to take advantage. Ash makes excellent firewood as it will burn green. Like any wood it is even better left to season, and provides a welcome temporary home and shelter for a wealth of wildlife. The wren and robin were hopping in and out of the woodpile within minutes of me unloading it.

The rest of the day was devoted to pottering around, pruning and tidying up, a spot of weeding, a bit of digging. I even got a line of old raspberries and miscellaneous fruit bushes dug up from the rough ground along the dyke, where a previous owner had planted them and then forgotten about them. This is a job which had been on my list for quite a while. They are dormant at this time of year, so it's a good time to move them.

A New Nest
The final chicken feed of the day. The chickens appreciate some wheat or, as a treat, mixed corn before they go to bed. Incidentally, feeding chickens too much corn is apparently a bit like feeding a teenager too many McDonalds. So "corn-fed chicken" may sound a friendlier way to eat chickens but access to pasture, weeds and insects is far, far better. "Free-range" does not guarantee this, not by any means.
As I opened the shed I noticed a bundle of white feathers perched snugly between the hay bales and the wall of the shed. Chick Of Elvis! Sat on 2 eggs. She scarpered when I got close, but returned later to lay a third egg. She didn't stay on the eggs, but has clearly decided not to use the luxury facilities I have done my very best to provide. She would not stay to pose for photos, but here's her new nest site.

The Trees Arrive
Too late in the day to get started, 430 trees arrived along with an equivalent number of stakes and guards. Thanks to Lincolnshire Council's Hedgerows and Small Woodlands Grant, these cost me a fraction of how much they would otherwise. A little job for the weekend then. By the time they're planted, I will have introduced over 700 trees to the farm!




Wednesday, 18 January 2012

A Mouse In The House

Wednesday 18th January 2012

A Change in The Weather
Grey skies and drizzle overnight at least meant a rise in temperatures, the cue for a spot of digging. I've still got a huge task to get the last few veg beds converted from weed-ridden ex-pasture to perfectly tilthed patches of goodness just waiting to nourish oodles of healthy home grown food. I find the best way to tackle this is to do what I can whenever I can, gradually biting chunks out of the task until the end is in sight.

I thought my pig ear tags had arrived today. I need them to come, but at the same time feel a little apprehensive about the prospect of attaching them to the pigs' ears. I want to do it well in advance of them going away, otherwise they will distrust me (more than they already do) and enticing them into the trailer will be tricky!
As it was, it was my first consignment of seed potatoes, Swifts, one of the earliest of First Earlies. If I can get a quick enough harvest these potatoes will command a premium price for a couple of weeks.
There's a Mouse in the House
Tell tale signs...
Occasionally, of an evening, you hear scratching and scurrying from inside your walls.
It sounds like something of the approximate size and grace of a porcupine!
Your cat is desperate to access cupboards, under sinks, walls, ceilings...
The poison tray which has sat empty for a while has been nibbled.
I once even found a nest of leaves inside my welly.

Now, as much as we have tried to catch the little blighters in humane traps, they are clearly a lot cleverer than we would like to think. We do have several plug in rodent deterrant devices, and these do seem to work quite well, but nothing is 100% effective. We are scrupulously clean, especially in the kitchen, and all food is in cupboards, plastic boxes, tins or jars. The presence of a cat obviously keeps them well hidden, but as they are capable of living entirely in areas which even the cat cannot access, there is not really any option but to lay poison down for them.
We only do this when absolutely necessary and try to target its use efficiently.




Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Pigs Think It's Christmas.

Tuesday 17th January 2012
A clear night at this time of year means a frosty morning and a stunning sunrise. This morning's was a privilege to behold. The eastern sky was truly ablaze. Such wonders can sometimes make you feel very small in the scheme of things.
The animals' water was completely frozen today, so buckets of warm water had to be carted from the kitchen. And all this before work. The wild birds always appreciate a tray of warm water too. Of course, I am keeping them well fed at this time of year and there are constant comings and goings at the feeders. It is important to remember to carry on feeding them as they will come to rely on this food source as the winter progresses, even if the days warm up.

Nearly ready!
The point of yesterday's musings over mangel wurzels was that the pigs have gone onto a luxury diet to supplement their pig nuts. I have saved a binful of apples for them from the autumn windfalls (our orchard is too young to be producing, but it's surprising how many people have apple trees and a surplus of apples if you ask around a bit) and they have been munching their way through 2 tons of pig potatoes over the last couple of months. Now they are enjoying a mangel wurzel or two ... or three or four... every day and whatever fruit scraps we can cobble together for them.
There is a very ulterior motive for all this star treatment. I am beginning to make plans for the pigs to go on a little journey and whatever goes into the pigs now should reflect in how they taste in a month or so!

The smallholders who provide me with my horse manure also own a small livestock trailer, which they have very kindly agreed to me using when I need to transport the pigs. This is one worry off my mind.
I have also ordered the metal tags which have to go into the pigs' ears before they go to slaughter. Putting them in will be more stressful for me than for them I'm sure. As we originally had 10 piglets, it follows that the two left after we had sold the other eight are the two most adept at avoiding capture!! This could make the whole process of ear-tagging and moving down the land into a trailer a very interesting experience. I have found that patience and calm are the key to operations such as this. Try to hurry things and the pigs very quickly realise what is going on.

Coincidentally, I have also enrolled myself on a pig butchery course later on this spring. It was organised by Theresa at the Fenland Goatkeepers and Smallholders Club and should be very educational. Please take a look at the club's website. They have been a godsend for us as newby smallholders moving to a new area. A real wealth of experience to call upon.
http://fgsc.org.uk/

So far I am very happy that in our first year we have not just kept the pigs alive, but also managed to breed some piglets and raise them to this stage. However, this course and the feedback I receive back from the butcher who turns Squiggle and Curl into tasty produce will all add to my knowledge and experience in the future.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Mangel Wurzels!





Monday 16th January 2012

Mangel Wurzels!
Not a countryside expletive, but a delightful form of beet which I tried growing last year as a fodder crop. I also tried stubble turnip and swedes, but the wurzels won hands down. Beautiful to look at; growing to hefty lumps; the pigs' favourite root; providing luscious green tops; standing through the winter; unaffected by the pests which devastated the other experimental crops. And a whole stackful for the price of a packet of seeds and a small parcel of land.
The seeds were not easy to find, but if you decide to give them a try, this site is where mine came from:


Tuckers Seeds

I would love to say I grow all my pigs' food, but these days that's not practical on a small scale, and I sure don't have enough knowledge of how to ensure the correct balance of protein and nutrients by doing this. So I rely on bought in pig nuts. These account for 90% of the cost of keeping pigs, but there's no way round it. The fodder crops I grow will make a small contribution and more importantly will give the pigs the opportunity to root and munch and crunch as nature intended. To be fair though, the pigs will leave whatever they are eating in favour of the bought in pellets. 
But I will certainly be growing a bigger crop of Mangel Wurzels this year. It says on the packet you can make wine out of them! Now there's a little project for next winter.
I am also going to try chicory for the pigs this year and maybe a couple of other experimental crops (more on these later, if they work out).

While trying to find out about mangel wurzels I came across this site.

http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2006/06/scarcity-root.html

Here's the gist of what I found out from a little surfing.
The original name, still often used, is mangold wurzel, meaning "root of the beet". This has morphed into mangel wurzel, meaning "scarcity root". Grown primarily for animal fodder, it is also edible to humans, though the palatability is questionable. The abundant succulent green leaves are said to be very tasty. If I remember I will try these next year.Traditional German recipes for mangel wurzels include pickling and turning into beer. More information, and most importantly recipes for beer and wine, are easy to find on the internet. Then of course, there's the 70's group The Wurzels

 
European Settlers Very Welcome Here
I took the back route on the way home from work today. I was rather hoping that the frozen dykes might have displaced some of their hidden birds into the fields or onto the Main Drain. As it was, the fields were rather empty save a small flock of lapwings and golden plovers. The Main Drain was frozen too. All that was on it was a carrion crow, stood on the ice trying to extract something from the frozen sheet beneath. A somewhat odd sight as furnished on one of the wider dykes, where a grey heron and two snowy white leiitle egrets stood hunched on the ice. As a teenage birder, a Little Egret was a major rarity in this country. However, I was distracted from birding while at University and living in London, so when I came back to the pastime it was a surprise to find them everywhere. They initially colonised along the South coast, but spread rapidly and are now regularly found throughout the country and even North into Scotland. They arrived here naturally, of their own accord, and are a very welcome addition to our avifauna.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Wrap up warm

Sunday 15th January 2012




This morning's frost was a sharp one, at last. The animals' water needed a series of concerted heavy stamps with my welly heel to break through. I had to jump up and down in the pigs' trough to crack through the ice. The chickens had let themselves out already and were busy exploring new areas of the farm. I will need to clip their wings soon, as it won't be long till they're banished from the veg plot again.
I am a man of many layers - at least when it comes to wrapping up for winter. At least two pairs of thick socks, longjohns or pyjama bottoms under trousers, t-shirts, sweatshirts, fleeces, thin jumpers, thick jumpers - at times I feel as if I'm wearing half my wardrobe. But it does the trick. It takes a good while for the cold to penetrate, always fingers and toes first. If I choose the right jobs, normally lugging things around, I'm warmed up before I ever feel the cold. Unfortunately, many of my jobs at the moment involve digging, which is not happening when the ground is frozen. So today was a good day for moving some more of the haystack and mixing up the compost heaps.


Right on top of the haystack was this little beauty, a shiny, fresh owl pellet. More evidence that at least one barn owl has moved back into the area.

There's only a certain amount of lugging you can do in a day, so I allocated the afternoon to bitty indoor jobs that always get relegated down the to do list. First, the bathroom fan which has started screaming manically to announce when it comes on. Only intermittent of course, so that you can never quite be sure it's fixed. Now, I'm not so good at this sort of thing, so I generally prodded and poked about, couldn't see anything obvious, and am now hoping the problem will sort itself out before I have to start taking things apart.

Flubenvet (other worming products are available)
On top of monthly treats of cider vinegar and the occasional garlic clove crushed into their food, periodically the chickens need to be wormed thoroughly and properly. The girls work hard for us (though they don't think of it this way) and deserve to be kept healthy. Besides, egg quality and production depend on the birds' continued good health. Probably beginner's luck, but the hen's have laid brilliantly this year. Not only that, but everyone who tries them seems to genuinely rave about their taste. We will certainly never again be able to pay good money for what they sell in the supermarkets, even the guilt-free organic freerange ones taste nothing like what our girls are capable of producing.
Now this rural idyll which we are creating has to exist in the real world, and we have to think about economics. Although we are lucky enough that we can support the venture with our other work, it is important that eventually everything at least pays for itself. I reckon the food cost of our eggs is about 10p per egg. Add to this 1p per egg for the boxes (nothing fancy, the quality is in the egg, not in the packaging). The Flubenvet adds almost 2p per egg so already we're up to nearly 80p for six. That's how much you can buy them for at the farm gate round here! OK, so we only sell the large ones and they taste fantastic, but convincing drive-by customers of this so we can actually make a marginal profit is a long-term project. Luckily we have a couple of regular customers (who also return their egg boxes). As we're not exactly in mass production this means we are not now overwhelmed with eggs, although hardly a day goes past without an egg in at least one meal.
Back to the point, exhaustive internet searching uncovered the possibility of buying Flubenvet in a bigger tub (4x larger) and at higher concentration (2.5x stronger). By my calculations this is 10x the active ingredient and all for double the cost. Overall, that's 20% of the price. Quite some saving! A long use-by date, so nothing to worry about there. Just need to take extra care with quantities when mixing. At our current scale of production, I reckon that's £32 per year we've saved. Not much, but count the pennies...

Anyway, must go now. That bathroom fan is screaming again!

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