Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Pumpkins for Halloween


Wednesday 31st October 2012
Is that a pumpkin appearing in the sky?



Stuffed pumpkins - delicious!


Pumpkin and Bacon Soup bubbling away in the cauldron!












 

Well, it just wouldn't be right not to eat pumpkins on Halloween would it?

The only nightmare today though was the howling, and surprisingly cold, south-westerly wind.

And if anybody comes by trick-or-treating I'll eat one of those Hundredweight pumpkins! It's a cold, dark night out there and we're a long way from any reasonably sized habitation.
 
So, outdoor jobs for the day were limited. The main one, which I accomplished on my own and with astounding efficiency, was moving Daisy up to the stable blocks where she can hopefully give birth to her next litter in about a week's time.
 
 
 
 
 
 
She is familiar with the route now and just followed me all the way into the stables, where she settled in very quickly. It is a bit boring for her in there, but it is the safest place for a gang of newborn piglets.
 
 
 
The other job for the day was somewhat more traumatic, for I needed a haircut. In fact, I have needed a haircut for quite some time now, but I do like the wild Crusty The Clown look! Anyway, today I was well and truly shorn!
SCARY hey!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Ash Bark Beetle






Tuesday 30th October 2012
Full moon to the West, rising sun to the East

Three days ago, when it was still British Summertime, the gloves came out, along with my best woolly hat, complete with woolly flaps that go round and under my chin. Give it a couple of months and I'll have acclimatised.
I actually quite like winter. The rawness. The crispness. The instinct to snuggle down in the safety and warmth of the home. The woodburner heats the lounge to toasty warm, while the luxury of the electric blanket awaits up in the bedroom.

On a still day, the smell of wood smoke wafts through the air, somehow warming the heart.


The trees we have planted on the land are not quite yet earning their keep, but long term we will harvest them for wood. Another step towards self-sufficiency.
In the meantime we rely on oil and coal, since mains gas has not reached these here parts. We've bought in some top quality, seasoned oak logs too, but using these is a luxury. Sadly, coal still works out far more economical.
But we do manage to scrounge some wood every now and again. Sue has enjoyed using the electric chainsaw to chop up the Ash which Don gave us earlier in the year. Ash is reputed to be one of the best woods for burning, particularly as it burns pretty well while still 'green'. It coppices well too and we have planted a fair stand of it at the bottom of our land to heat us when we are old. (Actually, by coppicing we should start getting something back in a few years.)
 
So, a couple of days ago, I collected in baskets of wood to store on the hearth ready for the cold winter nights which are upon us. Imagine my horror when I noticed that all of the ash logs were riddled with holes!
I brought some into the house anyway, but by early evening there were little beetles crawling out and venturing across the carpet and up the walls. We carefully obliterated each and every last one, fearful that we had unwittingly just opened the door for woodworm to infest our house. But something was nagging at me. Surely woodworm prefers older wood than this, and why were no holes visible in the core of the wood? And if this happens to logs when they have been stored for just a few months in the stables, then how do people ever use wood as a fuel source without their homes being eaten away?

For a while it seemed that my long term plans for growing wood for fuel were in tatters.
 
However, a quick search of the internet explained everything. This was not woodworm, it was Ash bark beetle. Well, that was a relief.
Still not great, as we don't particularly want armies of tiny beetles crawling out of our firewood every night, but not the disaster we thought it might be. We'll just have to store it near the back door and get it in as we need it.
 
At least the ash seems to be burning as well as people say it does.

There is an old rhyme, almost mandatory to quote when discussing wood as fuel, which goes:
 
Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year
Chestnut only good they say
If for long it's laid away
Make a fire of elder tree
Death within your house will be
But ash new or ash old
Is fit for a Queen with a crown of gold
 
Birch and Fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last
It is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread
Elmwood burns like churchyard mould
Even the very flames are cold
But ash green or ash brown
Is fit for a Queen with a golden crown
Poplar gives a bitter smoke
Fills your eyes and makes you choke
Apple wood will scent your room
With an incense-like perfume
Oaken logs, if dry and old
Keep away the winters cold
But ash wet or ash dry
A king shall warm his slippers by.
 
Next week I'll try to explain why burning wood is good for the environment.

For now, I'll leave you with today's stunning sunset.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Souper Mix - Now self-sufficient in veg stock cubes


The thrush invasion continues unabated, with hundreds coming in across the fields. In with them today I picked up the calls of six Bramblings (5 together) and, following on from the first ones last week, a Redpoll, which briefly landed in a young birch tree.

It was a lovely day, so I decided to witness this spectacle while working outside.

It's been such a disheartening year in the veg garden that some of the beds got abandoned until next year, but now it's time to start digging them over so that winter can do its work and break down the soil.
In amongst the encroaching couch grass I found the remnants of a harvest.

Just a few carrots, nibbled by slugs and a few onions which had got lost. A little garlic too, alongside some shallots which will do for next year's starter bulbs.

Monday 29th October 2012

The sheep have had the leaves off the celery and the celeriac, but this did not affect the harvest.
My parsnips have done really well and a couple of slight frosts meant I could justify taking my first harvest from them. One was a puny little thing, the other a giant which went down forever. Despite my best efforts I left the tail in the ground.. The leeks are coming along well too. A bit smaller than I'd like, but there'll be enough for the two of us.


So today I picked a bit of everything, along with cutting a mountain of herbs - thyme, sage, rosemary, hyssop, mint, coriander, pot marjoram and anything else I could find.

For there was a plan.

And the plan was Souper Mix, from The River Cottage Book of Preserves.
Simple really. All you do is whizz up about 1kg of mixed vegetables, blend in a whole load of herbs and then add salt to preserve. It then just goes into sterilised jars and hey presto - your very own vegetable stock. Just add 2 - 3 teaspoons to 500ml of water.


I'll let you know how it works, but if all goes well that's another supermarket product which we no longer need to buy.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Farewell British Summertime

Sunday 28th October 2012
The sun has moved a long way along the horizon
since last time I saw it rise.
This was the last we saw of it today!
Well, British Summertime is over!
For everybody else that means an extra hour in bed.
But not for me, since nobody remembered to tell the sun to get up an hour later! So, at 6:45 the alarm went off. I was tired, as in the middle of the  night Gerry had woken us up by pulling the curtain off its rail doing some night-time abseiling!

I was in a good mood though, for most unexpectedly I got a LIFER yesterday. At 3:25 in the afternoon I heard about a Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll in the dunes at Holkham, where I had been a couple of days ago. Time was tight so I jumped straight in the car and had a somewhat hair-raising journey into North Norfolk, through hail storms and heavy rain. I pulled up in the car park an hour later, paid the extortionate parking fees and ran / fast walked the mile or so through the pines and dunes to where the bird was hopping around not 6 foot away from a small and appreciative audience. It had probably never seen a human in its life. Less than ten minutres later it hopped over the dune, never to be seen again. Phew! That was a bit tight. Depending on which official list you follow, this was my 514th species in the British Isles.

But that was still (allegedly) British Summertime.
Today it is Greenwich Mean Time - otherwise known as Wintertime. At least I got to see a proper sunrise this morning and I couldn't believe how far our nearest star had crept along the horizon since it was last sighted. I can just about understand and imagine why the sun appears to move along the horizon as the year goes by. But what I can't get my head around is that it reaches a certain point and then heads back the other way.

But before I had any time to further contemplate this I was struck (not literally) by the flocks of Fieldfares and Redwings coming in over the fields, many briefly alighting in the roadside hedge. The redwings tend to dive straight into the berry laden hawthorns, whereas the fieldfares head for the tops of the tall trees to survey their surroundings before descending to feed.
If anything there were even more thrushes than yesterday, flocks up to 200 strong coming in every couple of minutes. The light was much duller as the sun had already finished its brief appearance for the day, but I still spent a damp couple of hours again desperately trying to pick out a ring ouzel.

Much as I am determined to find one, I was quite glad when it was time to head off to the auction to see if there were any bargains to be had. We have a shed coming on Monday and a couple of dog kennels which will be converted for the ducks and geese. We also met a gorgeous Jack Russell pup - one step closer to getting a dog methinks!

From there it was off to Wisbech for the FGSC (Smallholders Club) harvest lunch. Soup, bread and puddings, of course all home made and most delicious. We enjoyed some good company and I managed to narrowly avoid being nominated as Treasurer! Though we do intend to get more involved and to give something back to the club.

Then it was quickly back home in time to feed the pigs and poultry before it got dark, which is now, of course, one hour earlier.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Winter's birds arrive on the farm

 
Waves of Fieldfares and Redwings swept across the fields this morning

 

The roadside hedge,
laden with hawthorn berries
The sea of thrushes that swept onto the East coast early in the week never really made it inland... Not, that is, till this morning when wave upon wave of Redwing and Fieldfare came rolling in from the East. Presumably these are the birds from the coast, now moving inland, though they could feasibly be a new batch of birds coming in on the bitterly cold northerly airflow which finally reached us overnight.
 
 
 
I searched and searched for a ring ouzel. Surely there must be one in amongst all these thrushes. But again I drew a blank.
 
I know what will happen. One day, when I'm least expecting it, there will be a Ring Ouzel hopping about on the ground. Maybe I'm looking too hard.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
At one point, all the thrushes took to the air en masse. Next thing I knew a Peregrine falcon whooshed past me, just feet away, making two passes low through the garden right in front of me. Wow!
 
At times the hawthorn bushes were dripping with redwings
 

Don's field was full of Fieldfares and Starlings
The cold winds brought in the first wild swans too. 13 Whooper Swans flew over in formation. On the other side of my land, up to a couple of hundred Lapwings settled in the newly sown wheat field, joined by about fifty Golden Plovers.

And, over the long grass just beyond the chickens, a barn owl gave prolonged close views as it hunted for voles.
 
Yes, today's avifauna had a distinctly wintery feel about it, as did the air.
Believe you me, it was not easy taking pictures through a telescope with numb fingers encased in woolly gloves!
 
When I could no longer feel my toes I retreated to the farmhouse to warm myself up with a giant bowl of porridge.
 



Golden Plovers and Lapwings
Birds of the winter


Friday 26th October 2012
A nip in the air


Saturday 27th October 2012
Distinctly clear...and cold.
 



Thursday, 25 October 2012

Oh rats!!!






Thursday 25th October 2012
So that's what the horizon looks like.
But still no sun.
When we moved into the farm two years ago, it was running alive with rodents. Now, we may be city people, but we knew that there shouldn't be this many. In the walls, the loft, the ceilings, mice could be heard scurrying everywhere. And they sound alarmingly loud when they're inside a wall.
 
We couldn't use the kitchen for almost two months, as any food would be sought out, the packaging nibbled away and the contents spread everywhere. It seemed as if we spent every second of that two months scrubbing and cleaning.
 
Then there was outside. It was impossible to enter the stables without a mouse crossing your path. Worse still, there were rat runs and burrows everywhere. The previous owners had sold animal food as a way of off-setting their feed costs, but the rodents had found it and the place had become a regular fast food outlet for them. Add to this the fact that the previous owners and our immediate neighbours were spending a fortune on poison bait, to which most of the rats were clearly immune, and we had a big problem to sort out.
 
The only plus point was the number of barn owls which spent their time in the Ash trees and in the stables, as well as the ever present pair of kestrels. I would regularly see a kestrel devouring a rat, sometimes even right up against the patio doors. But I was worried about the effect of all the poison being put into the environment.
 
For  me, it all came to a head when I found a dead barn owl.
This was Pied Piper of Hamlyn stuff, but the bit they don't make much of in the poem.
 
 
Now, I'm no expert, but I know that if you remove an animal's food source, disrupt its routines and disturb its habitat, then that animal is going to struggle. So the clean-up began. We cleared all the rubbish leaning against the walls where the rats liked to run. Give them no cover and they would be exposed to predators. We stored all animal food in secure, metal containers. And we got rid of all the poison - the riskiest act, but I was convinced that it had become little more than a food source for them. For some of the rats were dying - we would find them just sitting, motionless, on the lawn, and their remains turned up in all sorts of places - but many were clearly unaffected and were carrying these nasty chemicals around in their bodies.
 
 
To cut a long story short, we were pretty successful. So much so that there was no visible rat activity at all on the farm for the first half of this year. The occasional mouse is still heard scurrying along inside a wall, but a little strategically placed poison soon sorts it out. And if I do see any evidence of rats, again a minimal amount of poison and activity stops within a few dyas, once the rat has taken the poison. By the way, did you know rats are neo-phobic, which means they steer clear of anything new. This is why they often take a few days to take the bait.
 
So, we now probably have considerably fewer rodents (barring voles and shrews, which Gerry still catches on a very regular basis) on the farm than anyone else.
 
But recently a few tunnels and runs have appeared down by the chicken pens. At the same time there are mouse droppings in the garage. At this time of year, after the harvest and as the weather gets cold, this is inevitable. So I have placed trays of poison, going to great lengths to make sure the poultry, the cat and any wild birds can't get to it, but despite using two different types, the rat lives on! I did read the other day a report which said that in some areas of the country you might as well feed the rats Sugar Puffs as rat poison, they are that immune!
 
Besides all this, I would still far rather not use any poison. A Jack Russell would be one solution, but I'll never trust one with the cat.
 
 
So it was great news when somebody told me about a product called EradiRat. Great name and great product. We looked it up - it's now changed its name to EradiBait - and this morning a giant tub arrived from Mole Valley farmers.
This product is approved by the Barn Owl Trust as it works in a way which is not harmful to other wildlife. If you want the details, it dehydrates the rat (or mouse) by tricking it's lower gut into sending messages to its brain that it is not thirsty.

The great thing about this is that it will be much esier to administer in the vicinity of the chickens. I won't need to feel guilty about using it and, as far as I know, the rats won't gain immunity. Not only that, but it seems to work out cheaper than poisons. 

It all seems a little too perfect.

But if it really does what it says on the tin, why on earth can't some official body do something to encourage (or even obligate) its use instead of other poisons. It would be good for the environment, good for the economy and surely would have a huge impact on the number of rats in the country.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Rosehippy Syrup

Rosehips

Wednesday 24th October 2012
Is there anything out there?
For all I know there could be a giant flying saucer parked half a mile away in the middle of a field. It could have been there for several days and nobody would know. For I am beginning to question the existence of the horizon, let alone the sun.

There really aren't many outside jobs which are satisfying in this weather. I did spend a morning extracting thistles from the meadow. A couple of skeins of geese flew low over, though I couldn't see them in the low mist.


No. This is the sort of weather to be staying inside doing homely things such as finding ways of preserving hedgerow fruits.

Sue picked a bowlful of rosehips over the weekend and had found a H F-W recipe for turning them into a syrup, reputedly good for coughs or as a drizzle for ice-cream.


















After de-stalking, the rosehips were whizzed in the food processor. The great thing about this recipe is that you don't have to spend hours on the fiddly task of extricating all the hairy insides (does anybody else remember using this stuff as itching powder, stuffing it down the backs of people's blazers at school?!).

Then they were scolded in water twice and drained through a muslin jelly bag overnight.

Into the resulting clarified juice was dissolved a good wodge of sugar and the whole was boiled up and jarred.


Delicious, perfumey aromas pervaded the whole house. It somehow smelled of an autumn evening.

The finished product. You won't find this in the shops.




Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Thrush-tastic

 

Tuesday 23rd October 2012

I think I forgot to say yesterday, but as I emerged out of the back door into the fog, there were Redwings everywhere. There had clearly been a very large arrival of birds from Scandinavia with the recent onset of light (north) easterly winds, and now they were here and lost in the fog.
This was confirmed by reports from the Norfolk coast of unprecedented numbers of thrushes dripping from the coastal bushes.
So, on Tuesday morning there was nothing else to do but to head for Norfolk. I fed the animals first and scoured the farm hedgerows hoping to find a lost Ring Ouzel, but to no avail. Then I headed through the fog towards Stiffkey where a Red-flanked Bluetail (formerly a VERY rare bird in this country, but now occurs regularly) had ditched in the fog and found the strip of coastal woodland to its liking.
The wood was absolutely jumping with birds. Robins at every turn, Long-tailed Tits, Bramblings, a Redstart, one or two Yellow-browed Warblers and all the while Redwings, Fieldfares, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes passing over and in the tops of the trees.
The Bluetail showed very well and I then embarked on a long walk along the coast toward Warham Greens, where the hedge-lined tracks that lead inland from the coast hid an astonishing display of thrushes. They were absolutely everywhere and included at least 20 Ring Ouzels. A Woodcock flew up from the ground just in front of me too.
It's amazing nothing rarer was found in the area on this day, but this was a fall of birds the likes of which I had never seen before. They didn't need to be rare to be exciting.

But it was a report of an Olive-backed Pipit (this is surely the year to see one of these fellas) that had me heading back for the car and along to Holkham Pines. No sign of the bird while I was there, but I did flush another Woodcock from just in front of me.

And that was that. Back through the fog and home just in time to feed the animals while it was still just light.

A day I will not forget in a hurry.


Monday, 22 October 2012

Green Tomato and Lemon Marmalade

The green tomatoes took a lot of slicing.
Must sort out where we put the slicer on the food processor.

Monday 22nd October 2012
I'm begining to forget which way I should
point the camera to capture the sunrise.

The tomatoes I had to pick about a week ago are clearly not going to ripen any further.
In fact, one by one they have gradually been turning brown with blight.

So today we picked out the very best and turned them into this...



Green Tomato and Lemon Marmalade
Now, I'm not a great fan of green tomatoes, but this marmalade is absolutely lovely. It's tremendously zingy and the flavour really packs a punch.
From now on, I'll look forward to the end of the tomato harvest just for this!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Chicken In A Bucket

Yes, those are Elvis's chicks in the bucket.
Why wait till you're fed?
The guineafowl chicks clearly have a good secret to share too!
Sunday 21st October 2012
Just look how the guineafowl keets are growing.
I'm not sure they can still be called keets.
Look at the differences in size too.
Can you spot Minifowl?


Saturday, 20 October 2012

Pumpkins galore!

Saturday 20th October 2012
Just before sunrise
Just after sunrise!
Same view.

Sunset.

Under today's ever changing sky, I collected in the last of the pumpkins. The pigs got a couple too, those which had imperfections (rotting away) and would not store. They were very appreciative.


Most people have machines for this type of work...or at least a donkey!
I love it really. Keeps me fighting fit.
These are Pumpkin Hundredweight.
These pumpkins are going into the polytunnel to dry off and ripen a little more before they go into a cool, dark, dry place (the garage) for storage.
We'd better get used to pumpkins with our pork! Though various strains of pumpkin soup, pumpkin jam, pumpkin pie and pumpkin cake are also in our plans for winter survival.


The smaller pumpkins have done rather well too. Baked and stuffed they make an attractive and delicious talking point when people come over. We've been giving a few away to our pork customers. One couple, when presented with a pumpkin from the basket on the kitchen table, were greatly surpised that it was real. They thought they were plastic and merely for decoration!! It was one of Sue's prize-winning pumpkins though.



Jack-Be-Little, Potimarron, Turk's Turban, F1 Sugar Mixed
+ a couple of courgettes, the last of the year.


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