Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Produce Show

Today was the much awaited Fenland Goatkeepers and Smallholders Club annual produce show. Competition was fierce. Well actually it's all very friendly and rather charming, but I was taking it very seriously!!
In the morning we selected our squashes and pumpkins and I unearthed the biggest mangold wurzel I could find - and it was a show stopper.

Category One of the competition were the cucurbits and it was clear that the rain this year had helped everybody to a pretty good crop. I entered the potimarrons as my own and let Sue enter the acorn-type summer squashes. But when I saw the competition I feared that size would triumph over beauty and perfection.

Size isn't everything!
The winning trio.
For the vegetable categories everybody got to vote for their favourite, so it was quite a shock when the winner was announced.

Sue scooped first prize
ahead of stiff competition.

We had entries in the jams and marmalades too, as well as the chutneys, but sadly they didn't win.

But here's a selection of the other entries from the show.

Category 14 - eggs
Category 4 - Veg grown above the ground

Category 6 - Beverages

Category 7 - Jams

Category 5 - Fruits
I didn't get photos, but there were categories for recycled objects, crafts, photography and baking too. Next year we'll get our act together and go for some of these too!

Finally came category 20. The Jeff Yates Mangold Wurzel trophy. This was what I had been waiting for. The result was never in question. How could it be? Mine was the only entry!
I seriously reckon that people had seen me come in with my giant and quickly sneaked their entries back into their cars in shame.

15 lb 14 oz of Wurzel magic!

So we had turned up and scooped the first category and the last. Victorious!

Next year we'll be back to defend our titles and maybe have a serious go at some of the other categories - I fancy the bread and the vegetables grown under the ground.

But in all seriousness, it was just great to see so many familiar and friendly faces and to catch up on how the cider's developing, how the veg has done this year, how the pigs, chickens and lambs are doing and has anyone got any plums this year?

Three quarters through the year.

Sunday 30th September
Three quarters of the way through the year
Sunrise is heading back along the horizon toward the Millenium Copse.
These three girls decided to sleep outside last night,
making a nest from the hay I'd thrown in for them.

These two didn't take long to find a way past my veg patch fortifications today.
Defeated by the new top rope on the fence, they found a weak link further along, via the fenced off edible hedgerow area!
I've abandoned all hope of defending the edible hedgerow - actually it doesn't really matter if the leaves get nibbled at this time of year. And the hedgerow saplings need to be cut back this winter anyway to encourage plenty of thick growth from the base.


Saturday, 29 September 2012

Sue has a Bee Buddy

Sue inspects the hives with the help of her new bee buddy.

Saturday 29th September 2012

Sausages sold out!
Today we sold out of sausages, only two weeks after the two boys came back from the butchers.
It's making me think about how to get the next three chopped up. I'm thinking that if we've got lots of shoulder joints left, we could get this cut of meat made into sausages next time. If it's what the customers want...

I spent much of the day putting a top wire along the fence that was supposed to keep the sheep out of the veg garden. I didn't realise, when I let them in there briefly the other day, what the ram-ifications would be. They have clearly realised that the grass is greener and took great delight in hopping the fence several times today, leading me a right merry dance as they did so. But I don't mind too much, as I know that I'll have the last laugh. They are beginning to fatten up nicely now!!

A Bee Buddy
Event of the day was Sue getting a new bee buddy. I've not mentioned the bees for a while, and that's because we have both been feeling a little out of our depth. You can read as much as you like about keeping bees but nothing quite prepares you for actually being responsible for a colony. We had a little help along the way, when we had emergencies, such as the bees' determination to swarm in the early days. Without this help we would probably have lost our bees, whereas we may now actually have two successful hives.
You will all have heard about the problems our honey bees are going through at the moment. It's hard to pinpoint the reason for this, though I suspect its a combination of pretty obvious factors - much the same factors that have caused a fundamental reduction in levels of wildlife everywhere.
Anyway, responsible bee-keeping is the best friend our honey bees have right now. With this in mind, we dutifully joined the Peterborough branch of the BBKA (British Beekeepers Association) a few months back and heard little more for our thirty odd quid a year.

Back to feeling a little out of our depth.
Plenty of detailed bee information here. It's interesting, but probably only if you keep bees or are thinking about it.
This is a crucial time of year for the bees. They must accumulate enough stored honey to get them through the winter. Many will die of starvation, but enough must make it through to keep the colony going when things warm up next spring.
We nearly missed the time for treating the hives for varroa. This is supposed to be co-ordinated by the local associations so that all beekeepers hit the bug at the same time and in the same way. Unfortunately, nobody told us and it was quite fortuitous that we realised just in the nick of time. So a couple of weeks ago we gave the bees their first dose of Apiguard - a natural remedy. The bees collect the Thymol crystals to remove them from the hive. However, in the process they take them down through the hive to where the varroa mites are lurking. As long as maximum daytime temperatures remain over 15 degrees (hence the urgency!) it will kill a good percentage of the varroa mites. Timing is important as it must be given to the bees after the main flow of honey.

We also realised, just in time, that we should be feeding our bees with a sugar solution so that they could build up their stores. Again, without any experience we had no idea if they had enough honey. But in such a dull year, and with the colony splitting a couple of times, it was always likely that we would need to supplement their feed and resist the temptation to draw off any honey for ourselves.

But still we did not really know the state of our colonies. Should there be more at this time of year or were we OK? Were we too late with the food and varroa treatment. And if so, what should we do now. Did we need to reunite the two colonies? All these questions and more. The most important question - is there anything we are totally unaware of?

And so it was that Sue decided to contact the local  BBKA and seek assistance.
To be more precise, she requested to be assigned a bee buddy. We have never had a bee buddy before, but it really is the best way to learn and avoid disasters along the way. A bee buddy is an experienced local beekeeper who offers their time once in a while to look through your hives and explain what's happening and what steps to take.

The bees were very active today,
probably because they are being fed now.
And so, today, Sue met her bee buddy, actually the woman who looks after the hives at the farm where I get my straw and pig potatoes. Small world.

It was great to find out that both our colonies are doing well now. We need to keep on feeding till they stop taking the sugar solution, probably well into October, and Sue was given some fondant to give the bees around Christmas time, to help them get through the coldest days of winter.

Sue put the bees back up to brood-and-a-half. This seems to be the favoured way round here, not something we'd ever heard of in London. It just means that as well as a deep brood box, a super frame is used to give additional brood space. Otherwise the hive can get too crammed in summer, encouraging the overcrowded bees to seek alternative accommodation.

So, for the moment that's it. We feel much more secure abut keeping bees now that we have somebody to help us. It's a great weight off our minds.
Maybe one day we will be experienced enough to be somebody's bee buddy. You never know.

One more cute picture of Elvis and family!

Friday, 28 September 2012

New Chicks on The Block

Friday 28th September 2012

I present you with more unashamedly cute pics of Elvis and her young family. If I remember correctly, I don't actually think we put any of her own eggs under her, but she doesn't know that.

Strangely, though, when we tried to introduce a couple of incubator hatched chicks to her, even though they were exactly the same age, she was having none of it and we had to step in quickly to remove them again. (Remember those blue eggs that took so long to replace after 100% infertility the first time round - well we've got two out of six this time.)

Chicks have a habit of poking their heads out from anywhere.

Chicks available in a right assortment of colours.
They are already getting their wing feathers.
I wonder what they'll look like when they grow up.

Meanwhile, we still have eleven keets (guineafowl chicks), which is absolutely amazing given that we've left them pretty much to be reared naturally. They are now capable of quite sustained flight with controlled landing, even onto the top rail of the fence. This is fortunate as they're now all too big to squeeze through the chicken wire. They are quite independent at times and already have some flank spotting and feather barring.

It may sound very cruel, but by early next year we should be able to pick off some of the males for eating. That is, after all, our main reason for keeping them. That and clearing insects from the veg plots and orchard.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Bounty from The Earth

First exposure to the air for these Arran Pilots.
This year has been a tricky one for many reasons, mainly the weather. To tell the truth, I'm looking forward to putting it behind me and beginning anew next spring.

But there are still plenty of crops out there and today I ventured to dig up a few more potatoes. Believe it or not, I'm still harvesting the Earlies!
Problems early in the year made them difficult to sell and I thought most of them would have rotted away or been devoured by slugs, but I managed to dig a surprising amount from the Sald Blue and Arran Pilot beds today. When you push the fork into the ground, lever up the soil and up pop nutritious, tasty potatoes, well the feeling never changes. All the back-breaking effort earlier in the year is forgotten in an instant.

And there's an added bonus. For the harvesting of the spuds is a great time to clear weed-covered beds. And on my smallholding those weeds have almost become a crop in themselves. First to them were the sheep, who I have discovered will eat just about anything. I even gave them a brief taste of the veg garden today, closely monitored of course.

But the main recipients of the weeds are the pigs, most of all the three girls who will be going off in just over a fortnight. In fact they've been getting all the imperfect potatoes, the stringy runners, the oversize courgettes and everybody's blemished apples of late. And I don't think they suspect a thing!

Ready soon!
Thursday 27th September 2012
The weather has settled down now after the storm

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Weasel Juice is Pungent

Wednesday 26th September 2012

Weasel Juice is Pungent
I must mention something that's just this very moment happened.
Every now and then I hear a familiar high pitched squeak to announce that Gerry has brought in a vole. Occasionally it's more of a squeal (rabbit).
Well, I was just disturbed from my computer by the most ear-splitting screeching. For one awful moment I had visions of a rat on the loose in the house. But no, Gerry had again caught himself a weasel! At least his third.
I'd rather he didn't, but as I've said before Gerry is needed on the farm for rodent control and I can't exactly teach him to only catch certain species. As long as he doesn't catch too many, the weasel population will probably end up just the same anyway.
Fortunately this time I managed to chase Gerry out of the house and make him drop the young weasel, which bounced around confused for a couple of seconds before heading for cover. I returned to a VERY smelly house - reminded me of when the woman at the table top sale had a ferret with her, except even more pungent.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Elvis has a new family

I thought Elvis was acting a little differently this morning, sitting higher and more alert. When I just went to feed her I found this...

Elvis had moved her new brood away from the old nest,
now just a pile of empty egg shells.

and after a little patience I counted at least seven of these...

Let's hope they all turn out to be hens.

Meanwhile, the last chicks we raised, the two Cream Legbar hens, have made firm friends with the Polands (who they have almost outgrown) and were thoroughly enjoying a mutual dustbath under the chicken house today.

947 miles for a Magnolia Dip.

A pager message on Sunday evening temporarily turned my life upside down.
***  MEGA  ***
Fair Isle

Fair Isle is a remote island between The Shetlands and The Orkneys. And it's not easy to get to, especially when the whole twitching community all wants to get there at the same time. If I had plenty of time I could drive to Aberdeen and get an overnight boat to Lerwick on the Shetlands, then a flight over to Fair Isle if it had seats, or a place on the once weekly boat across, which takes twelve passengers along with its precious cargo which keeps the island alive.
But that wouldn't see me on Fair Isle till Tuesday at the earliest. What chance of the bird sticking around that long? And goodness knows what day I'd be able to get back off and home. I would miss all my other commitments next week.
Flying on to Shetland might speed things up, but since the flights were taken over by Flybe they have become prohibitively expensive. Over £200 one way from Aberdeen, over £400 from Birmingham. Not an option.

To cut a long story short, several phone calls later and I had a place on a private plane from Wick. Several planes had been booked to go from various air fields in England, and the pilots from one company were happy to use their planes to shuttle birders to and from Wick airport, in the far North-East corner of Shetland.
We put together a crew and I prepared for the long drive North. The ever-patient Sue was put in charge of looking after the animals in my absence!

We drove through the most abominable weather until, in the early hours of Monday morning, we found ourselves here...

Monday 24th September 2012
Looking for Crossbills at first light in Speyside, at the foot of the Cairngorms.
All we needed now was a message that the Magnolia Warbler was still there this morning and we could complete the final stage of our drive up to Wick to meet the plane.
Just one problem. About half past 7 we received the news we did not want to hear. No sign of the Magnolia Warbler so far.
This was not good. But there was still a chance it would appear or be found nearby, so we decided to spend our time looking for some of the Scottish speciality birds in the Caledonian pine forest. But we drew a complete blank here too, compounded by the continued news that the Magnolia Warbler had still not been found.

Unfortunately for this one,
someone ignored the sign.
But we did see a couple alive too.


Realistically we had a deadline of between 10 and 11 o'clock, otherwise there would not be time to get on the island, so as that time came and went we headed south. Driving down the coast of Northumberland the Easterly winds got stronger and stronger, accompanied by squalls of showers. A White's Thrush was found on the Farne Islands, just a few miles from where we were, but there was no chance of any boats running today. Good job that all in the car had already seen one. The pager messages just kept flooding in. Those howling Eastrlies had predictably lured a queue of birds waiting for the right conditions to cross the North Sea, but they had flown into the face of a storm of torrential rain caused by a weather system heading up through the country. The result, the whole east coast of Britain showered in birds, the rarest of them in the Northern Isles.

We took advantage of low tide to drive onto Holy Island and sought any sheltered spots where birds might take refuge. This brought us to the vicar's garden, right next to the ancient Lindisfarne Priory. A few birds were flitting about in the wind-battered sycamores, but as soon as they attempted to move they were being blown around and would end up hundreds of yards away. But we did manage to see a few Redstarts, a couple of Spotted Flycatchers, a Ring Ouzel, Brambling and, best of all, a Common Rosefinch. And over the beach a couple of young Long-tailed Skuas harassing the local terns before resting on the sand. 

Still no sign of the Magnolia Warbler though, and if it was found now we would have to start the whole quest again tomorrow.

So nothing to do but continue the long drive back to The Fens.

I wonder what birds have taken refuge in the farm hedgerows and trees while I have been away. I will probably never know, unless they're still there in the morning.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Curiosity killed the ... sheep

Guinea fowls in the wet.

Sunday 23rd September 2012
You may have thought I was playing it up a bit yesterday with my "Will the Baillon's Crake be there or not?" line. Well, this morning there was no sign of the bird. We were very lucky not to have had a wasted journey.

Onto today.
On my way to take the sunrise photo, the whole guinea family were up on top of the fence. The babies have been stretching their wings of late. In fact, they are now too big to freely pass into and out of the chicken enclosure through the wire fence, so over the top is the only option. As the parents flew down to feed, the youngsters followed. Not quite totally in control of their flight yet, two made it all the way across the chicken pen and crash-landed into the fence on the other side. One overshot completely and made it over the 6 foot fence! I had to usher it back in through the door.

As I am suffering a severe case of man flu at the moment I went back to bed to sleep it off. It it was a good job that Sue was up and about as I was rudely awoken by her shouts up the stairs to "Come now. The sheep have jumped in with the pigs!"

Now there is intelligent curiosity and there is darn right stupid curiosity. The sheep come somewhere in between. For a few days they have clearly been interested in the pigs, standing up on the fence to watch them, but when one went a bit too far and ended up toppling over into the pig pen, the other just followed, as you do if you're a sheep.

The pigs were equally curious, but their approaches worried the sheep who couldn't work out a plan of escape. Fortunately Sue was there to sort things out. I didn't dare take pictures. It wouldn't have been the right thing to do at the time.

My plan for today had been to rest up and then harvest some more potatoes and pull some more sow thistles in the afternoon. As it was the weather closed in so I spent the whole day resting and napping. Should hopefully help me to get better sooner and be ready for action again.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

A Baillon's Crake brings in the Autumn Equinox.

Where was I this morning?

Thirteen years ago I spent ten hours trying to see a Baillon's Crake in Kent. I saw it for maybe half a second as it darted across a gap in some dense rushes. Luckily it was spring time and the sun was shining.
I did return three days later, in the evening, and had it walking around at the base of my feet.

But this secretive and diminutive member of the crake family has been almost impossible to catch up with in this country since then.

But this year something extraordinary happened. An influx of Baillon's Crakes into the near continent coincided with a national night-time survey of Spotted Crakes. The males of both these species sing (if that's the right word) at night. Spotted Crake is a rare breeder in large areas of reedbed, Baillon's Crake is a very rare visitor to these shores at all and has only bred once to anyone's knowledge.

Well, it's a bit of a long story, but all those pairs of trained ears out in those marshes at night time eventually revealed the presence of at least NINE singing male Baillon's Crakes in the country. This was remarkable news. But still this didn't make it easy to see one. The Conservation bodies kept stum. The most determined got to see one in controversial circumstances in Wales. There was belated news of another walking around in full view of the car park on another Welsh nature reserve. One was close to me, over the border in Cambridgeshire, but even the chance to hear it singing was only open to the select few.
But then, just as I was preparing for my mammoth drive to South Uist two weeks ago, the pager mega'd with news of a juvenile bird in front of one of the hides at Rainham Marshes RSPB on the shores of The Thames. It was very elusive, but did tend to be seen just after dawn each day.

This was sure to be a popular bird and so it was.
So this morning I was finally tempted to make the pilgrimage down to London and pay homage to the bird. I met my old friend who had driven down from Scotland at four in the morning and by quarter to six we were near the front of a line of cars waiting for the gates of the reserve to open. Two weeks after its discovery, this bird could still attract a decent crowd of birders at six in the morning, many returning after unsuccessful previous attempts.
A twenty minute yomp to the Shooting Butts Hide (I didn't name it!) and we waited for the bird to duly appear. I waited for the sunrise too.

Saturday 22nd September 2012
Autumn Equinox
Sunrise over Rainham Marshes

This Water Rail put in an appearance early on.
Of course, this bird wouldn't stay on this reserve for ever and last night was the coldest of the autumn so far. The change in overnight temperatures recently would be activating its instincts to move on. And there was an amazingly clear sky last night, perfect for navigating by the stars.
But we needn't have worried. We didn't have to wait for too long before somebody at the left hand end of the hide caught sight of the bird working its way through and along the waterside vegetation. But could I get on the bird? I kept following the directions - "above the right hand coot" - "down from the third pylon" - "right at the top of the reeds". What they should have said was "Right where the sun is rising so brightly that you can't see a thing from where you're sitting!"

Anyway, after a slightly anxious minute or so I could see the bird picking its way along a line of flattened vegetation. It was tiny, but a real character, reaching its long neck up occasinally to feed and treading along the stems with its long legs and giant feet. Luckily it stayed out in the open for most of the time we were there and after quite a while we were very happy with our views. News of a Yellow-browed Warbler at the other end of the reserve was our excuse to leave, though we never did see it.

By 11 o'clock I was back on the farm in Lincolnshire feeling more than ready for another trip. At this time of year I get very twitchy, as they say.

Friday, 21 September 2012

An Edible Hedge, A Carrot and some Cross Eggs

Friday 21st September 2012
The first really wet day for a while, so just a few odds and sods events to catch up on.

Cross Eggs
I was re-reading one of my books on keeping chickens the other night when I came across a really simple idea to solve a problem I've been having.  For Priscilla, as you know, is sitting on a clutch of eggs which will hopefully all hatch into fine hens for me. But there has been a problem - other chickens laying eggs next to her which she then carefully rolls across the straw and under her feathers. Trouble is, they'll never hatch as they'll be adandoned once the main clutch have hatched. Meanwhile, she is leaving me with too few eggs to sell. But this problem stops today. For each egg under Priscilla now has a large pencil cross on it. I can't believe I didn't think of it myself. From now on, all newly laid eggs will be easy to identify.

The edible hedgerow,
fenced off from marauding sheep.
The Edible Hedgerow
Last winter I planted an edible hedgerow, composed of hazels, elders, sloes, blackberries, crab apples, dog rose, wild pear, cherry plum and hawthorn. In a few year's time I'll hopefully be able to potter around in the garden and return with baskets full of wild hedgerow fruits to turn into jams and wines.
However, Number Ten and Number Eighteen (The Lambs) have completely misinterpreted the term edible hedgerow and, since they have been moved to a new area of grazing, have been trying to eat the whole hedge! Nothing that a bit of temporary fencing couldn't sort out though.

And finally, remember those rows and rows of carrots that I sowed earlier in the year to no avail? Well, I'd pretty much forgotten about them and left the beds to the flowering annuals I'd planted to confuse the carrot fly. But just look what I came across the other day! No prizes for beauty, but it may find its way onto the bench at the smallholders' produce show next weekend.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Pugnacious corvids

Thursday 20th September 2012

Today was a corvid day. That's not an adjective I've just made up, but the collective term for members of the crow family. It started with 3 Magpies mobbing a Barn Owl over Don's newly cut hay field at first doors.

Then a couple of Jackdaws were picking their way through the pig pen. Apart from briefly alighting in the old ash trees a couple of times, I think this is the first time that Jackdaws have actually dropped in on the farm, rather than just passing overhead calling loudly.

Later a Sparrowhawk was mobbed by Swallows, which were feeding low over the fields on their way South. No sooner had the Swallows moved on than the poor Sparrowhawk was well and truly set upon by three of the local Carrion Crow population.

Even a Common Buzzard came in for a bit of grief. Two young birds, in pristine plumage, have been taking advantage of the wheat harvesting in one of the back fields, hovering laboriously above the throng of gulls, presumably waiting to pick off any rodent fleeing the deafening noise and whirring blades of the giant combine harvester.

Finally, later in the evening, the kestrel which often hunts our land late in the day, came under attack.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Courgette wine it will have to be then!

Sue with a couple of oversize courgettes

Tuesday 18th September 2012

Wednesday 19th September 2012

Yesterday evening we went into the Lincolnshire Wolds to pick up 19 demijohns. That should tide us through for a while. At 4lbs of courgettes for 1 gallon of wine, the 32lbs that I picked today should use about 8 demijohns!
Yes, that's right. 32 lbs! To Sue's delight I presented her with another three baskets of courgettes in their various shapes and colours. Some ridiculously overgrown as a couple of downpours recently have brought on a fresh spate of logarhithmic growth!

The varieties of courgette which I have grown this year came from the Mr Fothergill's Courgettes and Summer Squashes Collection.

Courgettes & Summer Squashes - Seed Collection
Black Beauty, Grisette de Provence, Di Nizza, Patty Pan, Golden Zucchini and Yellow Scallop.
The most prolific have been the Grisette de Provence, though they tend to grow fat and quickly reach a large size. However, the flesh stays firm and it's easy enough to scoop out the middle so that, even overgrown, they are great for stuffing like marrows. They've a good taste too. Similar are the Di Nizzas. A couple of these have attained the size of a medium pumpkin! The Black Beauties have cropped more modestly, but they are a very good looking courgette (though mine are not so dark, having a pleasing dappled, striped appearance.) The Golden Zucchinis (a pretty generic name for yellow courgettes) cropped very heavily early on and have a good, sweet taste along with a firm texture and a crunch to them. They are still cropping, but much more slowly now. Finally the Patty Pans have just started to produce fruits. They took me a bit by surprise so a few have reached the size of mini flying saucers! We'll see what the flesh is like in due course.
Some of the smaller pumpkins are ready now too. Fortunately these can stay on the plant much longer, as they just reach their full size then slowly ripen. But today I decided to pick a few of the dozens which are growing, just to see what they taste like and how ripe they are. Besides, they make a very colourful and exotic addition to the vegetable display in the Secret Shop.

Pumpkins and Squashes
are always fun to grow and harvest.

Ye secret shoppe.

The Potimarrons have grown and fruited profusely. They were the first to produce fruits and some have now ripened to a deep orangey red colour. They are a very convenient size for a meal for two and have a lovely, nutty taste.
The Jack-be-Little pumpkins were much slower to produce fruits, but each plant looks as if it will yield a hatful of fruits (and a big hat at that!).
Anyhow, back to that wine I was talking about. The recipe is at

A modern kitchen, complete with laptop displaying recipe.
First, chop up lots of courgettes.
Then boil them in big pans.

Strain the juice into a very big bucket, along with other bits and pieces (see recipe)

As far as I remember, it stays about a week in the bucket then goes into demijohns, where it stays for about a year. By which time there will be plenty more courgettes to deal with!!

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