Saturday, 19 October 2013

Strawberry Popcorn - A load of poppycock??

What's inside?

If you remember, earlier this year I planted some sweetcorn plants in the polytunnel. The result was that they grew, and grew, and grew, until they reached the sky. Well, the roof of the polytunnel anyway.
The reason I was growing this sweetdorn in the polytunnel was that I didn't want it cross-pollinating with my supersweet F1 variety which I grow outdoors.

This particularly corn crop was grown for an entirely different purpose - to make us self-sufficient in popcorn! Yes, that's right. Popcorn!
Not only that, but it looks very pretty when harvested too.

Well, how's your maths?
Take 200 seeds. Lose half through non-germination - too cold early in the year. Lose another third which just don't take very well. A quarter fall victim to climbing mice, which have come in after the fields were harvested and eaten the cobs before they had a chance to dry on the plant. About 15% of those saved and placed safely to dry on the crop bars of the polytunnel, also get munched by mice which scale the tomato plants to reach them. (Luckily I noticed a little pile of husks on the floor before it was too late).
The mice got to this one first.

How are you doing so far? I'm down to about 43.  But each plant had a couple of cobs or more, so I was still quite excited when I went to peel back the papery coverings today.

The first couple looked very good indeed. Like giant raspberries, each kernel a delicious deep red colour.

But the maths goes on.
For many of them don't seem to have developed. I guess that they didn't get pollinated properly.

In the end, my total harvest amounted to this...

Still, it looks pretty, doesn't take up too much polytunnel space, and I can only do better next year, can't I! Lessons have been learned.

Despite, or inspite of, the trail of losses, I just couldn't wait to try one though.

I checked back to the website where I purchased them from and, as I thought, it said to simply pop the whole cob into the microwave to enjoy gorgeous, fluffy popcorn with a hint of a strawberry flavour.
Being one to think ahead, I had this vision of a microwave splattered with popcorn shooting everywhere, so I placed one small cob into a plastic bowl and put a plate on top to keep it from escaping. It was only 30 seconds before I could hear that tell-tale popping sound and the smell of popcorn started to waft into the air. I had a peek and, although some kernels had split, there was no explosive fluffing up yet. So I put the lot back in, this time risking taking the lid off. I left it a while, but the microwave filled with smoke and the smell wafting through the air was now one of a distinct burning nature.

But the cob just looked like this...

All I can think is that the cobs need more time to dry out.

But, to be honest, how much more can a man take?

Not every crop has to be totally functional. I value beauty in the veg garden too and a couple of novelty crops each year never go amiss. Sometimes they give a very pleasant surprise, but often I discover just why they've not entered the mainstream of growing  in the UK yet.

I'll try microwaving another cob in a couple of weeks, but it'll have to do something pretty spectacular to earn its place on next year's growing list.

At least I have some interesting table decorations for Christmas though.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Getting the bees ready for winter

Winter is truly on its way now. I've not seen a swallow for over a week and their chattering has been replaced by the thin calls of flocks of redwings sounding lost as they come in off the North Sea. More harbingers of winter, a flock of 30 Pink-footed Geese honked noisily as they flew over late in the evening last Sunday. These won't settle in the fields here, but will remain closer to the coast. The fields do, however, hold small flocks of golden plovers and lapwings (peewits to some), occasionally panicked into the air by a prospecting peregrine. Skylarks chase each other overhead and winter flocks of goldfinches bounce around. Yes, the birds are telling me that winter approaches.

But potentially the best bird of the last week has, frustratingly, remained unidentified. For last night, on the way back from locking away the chickens, the silhouette of an owl broke the skyline. It was no barn owl, too large and too long-winged. It was certainly either a Short-eared or a Long-eared owl, both of which have been coming in over the North Sea in the past week. I'll be on the look out for the next few days. If it's a Short-eared, I'll probably see it hunting over the fields late one afternoon. But if it's a Long-eared, which would be a new bird for the farm, it will be much more strictly nocturnal.

All these signs of a change in the seasons mean that we need to start preparing. Winter won't wait for us.

Sue pretty much takes care of the bees these days, ably supported by Elaine, her bee buddy. I stand at a distance, taking the occasional photo and, once in a while, making a run for it when one of the guard bees finds me and starts battering me on the head.

We still have three colonies going, which is a great improvement on the one which came through last winter.
They withstood the wasp onslaught, helped by me finding the wasps nest - a tiny hole in the ground over in the goose paddock, but a hole through which a steady stream of striped assassins were emerging and flying straight over to the bee hives to battle and plunder.

Somehow, despite us taking very little honey from the bees this year, they managed to get very low on honey (maybe not helped by the wasps). To this end Sue has been feeding them with sugar syrup. The local shops must wonder what on earth is going on as Sue has been regularly emptying their shelves of sugar!


But they've been doing a grand job turning Sue's sweet offerings into winter stores, safely stowed away and enclosed in a myriad of hexagonal storage jars. Where they've stored it in the supers, Sue has been moving it down to the main brood box where they'll huddle together through the winter, so that it will be readily accessible during more difficult times ahead.

Last weekend our helpful expert, Elaine, visited to help Sue make a detailed inspection of the hives before they are closed down for the winter. What we had thought was the strongest hive, the original one in the middle, is in fact the weakest! Why? Because there is too much drone brood. Useless blokes!
The bees which are active and flying now are not those which will take the queen through the winter. No, it is the current brood which will have the job of keeping her warm and trying to survive the winter. So a hive full of drone brood is not much use.

Hopefully there'll be enough females born to carry the colony through. Bad news for the queen though, as in the spring she will need to be replaced.

For the meantime, Sue will move the frame feeders out of the brood section of the hives but continue to feed the bees using top feeders. This is so that she doesn't have to expose the bees to the cold when she tops up the food. It won't be long now until the bees huddle together, but with temperatures still remaining high for the time of year, we'll see the bees out and hunting at least this weekend and quite possibly for a while longer yet. Fortunately there's a lot of ivy climbing up the ash trees, which will be providing an important late season supply of forage for the bees.

So let's hope for a normal winter. Not too warm, not too wet, not too cold and not too long. Come to think of it, when's the last time we had a normal winter?

Saturday, 12 October 2013

MEGA!! Hooley brings seabirds to the farm.

I like to spend time with the sheep. That maybe sounds wrong, but what I mean is that I can just sit and take a moment or two watching them graze.

It was while I was doing this last week that I got a new mammal for the farm - I'm heading towards twenty species now, and that's without knowing how to identify any of the bats.
Completely out of context a grey squirrel went bounding across the grass, quite some way from any large trees. Presumably it was one of this year's young push out by its parents and searching for a new territory. Like foxes and muntjacs, I have to say I hope I don't see it too often.

But this post is about a couple of very special birds which I was lucky enough to see yesterday. It's been rather windy here of late, and that's something of an understatement.
Finally the leaves have started coming off the trees. Finally autumn has arrived. Only a few days since the thermometer in my car hit 25 degrees!
A hint of autumn colour

I was most frustrated to have to be at work on Thursday. For I knew that strong gales from the North would be blowing birds into The Wash and hopefully inland towards my farm. But I could only manage half an hour of daylight on the farm, during which I managed to see a couple of flyover bramblings. It really was blowing a hooley!

A small tree does its best to catch out
unwary motorists speeding round the corner.
Daisy prepares her house for the winter
The plan for Friday was to bird North Norfolk, but I was battling a thick head and decided to stay on the farm. And what a good decision that turned out to be. The winds switched more easterly and squalls swept through all day. But in between I made sure I was outside, taking the opportunity to move the sheep to some new grazing.
All the while a constant stream of gulls were battling north into the wind, sweeping low over the fields. But I wasn't quite prepared for the sight which met my eyes late afternoon. I was conscious of the possibility of a skua species flying over and that's what I was hoping for. All of a sudden, from nowhere, I became aware of two large, dark birds sweeping low over the neighbouring field, really not very far from me. I instantly knew what they were. Pointed at both ends and long, pointed wings, they had the distinctive shape of a pair of juvenile GANNETS!!!
They cut the corner of my land, making slow progress into a strong headwind. I sprinted all the way back to the farmhouse to get the telescope so I could track their progress further, over the back fields towards South Holland Main Drain.

I was absolutely chuffed. It was never impossible that, one day, I would get gannet for the farm list, but it was far from probable.
Greedy for more, I set up the scope in the lee of the tractor and spent the remaining hours of the day watching over the fields for more seabirds. Apart from the usual evening flight of gulls, which was more spectacular today than normal, there was nothing more of note. It turns out that quite a few inland gannets were seen elsewhere on the same day, all making their way back towards the sea after being blown overland the day before.

It all makes me wonder what I might have seen had I been able to spend all day Thursday on the lookout.
An unconventional seawatch!

Thick-billed Pork Burgers

Gratuitous use of the oil painting setting on my photo software.

If you don't want to see graphic images of a butchery nature, please close your eyes and scroll down enough to get past the next picture!  (Seriously)

GOARY, but strangely fascinating.
If you're going to eat an animal,
I firmly believe you should be able to look it in the face.

The title of this post reflects the total panic which reigned last Friday.

In fact this post is a strange mixture of butchery, burger-making and birding. A strange mixture which I have chosen to make my life.

For two weekends ago our last piglet went off, leaving us with just Daisy.
Trailer in position, ready for loading


Daisy: The survivor
I was planning on keeping this one till after Christmas, mainly because of shortage of freezer space. But when someone expressed an interest in buying half of her for bacon / gammons / hams, I decided that I could just about manage the other half. She was growing very quickly anyway. Could be something to do with a certain lady upping the pigs' rations without telling me! Anyway, she (the piglet, not my lady!) spent her last month on a diet, topped up with oodles of apple pulp from our cider making activities. At this time of year we get many donations of windfalls for the pigs - all most welcome.

So, back to that total panic on Friday. As usual I had picked up the pig from my butchers on Thursday afternoon. Half had gone off to a happy customer and the rest was for me to sort out. We still had quite a lot of pork joints left in the freezers, which really were bulging with the summer's harvest, so I decided to get the majority of our half pig turned into mince. This gave me the opportunity to ask the butcher to take out the whole tenderloin - something of a luxury.

And so it was that, on Friday morning, I set about the task of turning half a pig into pork burgers. I had an ambitious plan to make at least half a dozen varieties, and an even more ambitious plan to somehow find room in the freezers!

I set about peeling, chopping, cooking, measuring, mixing and shaping. First came Red Pepper, Chili and Tomato burgers, then Curried Potato burgers. All the ingredients (bar some of the spices) came from the garden. Fortunately, I think, I tried one of the chillis before committing them into the mixture. Just the tiniest piece had my tongue tingling for the next hour!
Everything took time, but I carried on through the morning and by lunchtime I had knocked out a batch of Thai style pork burgers too.

Red Pepper, Chilli and Tomato pork burgers

I was doing OK, though I was a bit worried about the tiny amount of space left in the freezers. I would surely need to take an hour out of burger making just to reorganise the freezers and make some space. I started the next batch - Fennel, Apple and Coriander - when suddenly, and most inconveniently, the pager wailed into action.


... on Shetland Mainland!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

That was it. My industrious day at home was turned upside down. The phone started ringing and I went into blind panic, running around like a headless chicken. I hastily worked out my options and booked a flight from Aberdeen. My phone was then pretty much non-stop for the next couple of hours - all while I was now desperately attempting to get the last two batches of burgers made. This might have been a little bit easier if it weren't for the fact that I have to go outside to get any form of acceptable signal here.

I don't quite know how I did it, but by the evening the burgers were done, in the freezers and I was getting ready to drive to York, where I would meet up with a fellow birder and head northwards towards Aberdeen airport, via Tebay where we would pick up another two mad souls.

I should say that Sue and I were due to be entertaining on Saturday evening. Fortunately everybody we know has come to expect this type of spontaneous behaviour from me at this time of year.

If all went to plan, while Sue was cooking and entertaining I would be getting on the overnight ferry from Shetland back to Aberdeen, hopefully having seen the bird.

And that last phrase most certainly could not be taken for granted. For, of the four previous Thick-billed Warblers to be found in Britain, none had been twitchable on the second day. Add to that the fact that I'd already made two unsuccessful trips to Ireland during the previous week, and you will see why us twitchers sometimes get a little twitchy!

I had intended this blog post to be exclusively about burger making, but as usual my best laid plans have been interrupted by a bird. So here's my account of the twitch. I'm afraid there are no photos - I wanted to avoid having to check any luggage onto the plane so the camera had to stay at home.

I won't describe the drive up to Aberdeen - it takes a long time but I was at least able to get a bit of sleep. I did my fair share of staying awake to keep the driver going too.
We arrived at the multi-storey car park at the ferry terminal at about 6.30am. The plan was to get a taxi from there to the airport, which we had booked en route, so that we would be able to get straight off the ferry and into the car when we returned. However, £45 for parking just over 24 hours seemed like a rip off so we cancelled the taxi ( for which they seemed to have no record of the booking anyway!) and drove to the airport car park. The one small benefit of booking last minute is that you always have to buy the expensive (but exchangeable) tickets, which gives the perfect opportunity to lower the tone in the executive lounge! I hit the espresso coffee machine and the cakes while Danny Boy started his celebrations a little early!
But this was nothing compared to when the north-eastern twitchers arrived. They did their best to recoup their air fare in cakes, biscuits and miniature drinks cans! It was very good to see so many familiar faces. It's a funny old game is twitching. You meet the same group of people from all over the country, but you never know where or when you will all meet up next. It is usually on a plane or a boat though.
Everybody was excited, though I have to admit I was slightly in fear of a third major dip in a row. So it was with relief that we received a phone call before boarding the plane that the bird was still present.
The night before it had been seen by quite a few birders already on Shetland, but apparently most views had only been of the bird in flight. Although Thick-billed Warbler is large and distinctive as far as little brown jobs go, it's still not ideal to see any lbj only in flight. We also knew that the bird was skulking in an oat crop and that no access to the crop was being allowed. So we most certainly were not counting our chickens... or our TBWs for that matter!

As we landed it was a race to get off the plane, through the airport and into our hire car, before Dan raced the few miles to Geosetter. We left the car parked as sensibly as we could and approached the field where maybe thirty or forty birders were already looking to get views of the bird.
For maybe an hour or so there was nothing. This sure would be a major hit to take if we had made it all the way here and failed to see the bird, especially knowing that it was in the field in front of us. We had been told in no uncertain terms that the farmer would not allow anyone to access the field so, having waited patiently, Plan B was put into action. As soon as the drizzle stopped and the sun almost came out, a recording of Thick-billed Warbler was played and OOOMF!! It wasn't long at all before the bird briefly flew above the oats towards its perceived fellow lost soul. It was fairly obvious what it was - it couldn't really be anything else, but a better view would most certainly be appreciated.

We then stood for a further 90 minutes with nothing to entertain us apart from an occasional flight over the oat crop by a blackcap and a couple of diminutive yellow-browed warblers flitting around. This really was very frustrating indeed.

But then the rather brash, self-appointed organiser of twitches on Shetland appeared having spoken to the farmer. He had permission for two people to walk through the field.
An anticipatory crowd headed up to the far end of the field and waited with bated breath. It wasn't too long before the quarry was flushed out and again made a short flight over the crop.
This happened a few more times, until I had what I refer to as a 'jigsaw tick'. I had seen enough bits of the bird on my various views to piece the whole thing together. The bird did at one stage leave the field, only to dive into the thick willow growth which filled the adjacent burn. Unfortunately the crowd was too twitchy and 'edged' forward too impatiently, which resulted in the bird heading straight back into the field!

Anyway, to cut a long story short, with patience we eventually got extended views of the Thick-billed Warbler in flight and in the binoculars. The stubby, thick bill, the open facial expression and beady eye and the long, graduated tail all combined to make it a most distinctive bird, even with only flight views.
It would have been nice to explore a little more of Shetland and to see some more of its birds, but this bird was a skulker which had led us a merry dance all day and before we knew it we had to head back to the ferry terminal in Lerwick. There was just time to burn my tongue on a hastily consumed fish and chips in the harbour before we boarded the ferry and began washing our meal down with a few celebratory drinks. Some were thirstier than others, Dan!!!

So that was it, from burgers in a fenland farmhouse kitchen to a thick-billed warbler in a far-flung corner of Britain.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The edible lawn mowers

Onto the sheep. They've grown very well indeed and I've sorted out the electric fencing so that I can graze them right to the bottom of the land. This will be the last cut for the grass this side of winter, so I've been strip-grazing them. When they've clipped the grass and eaten out the sow-thistles, I move them to a new area of lush greenery. They always delight in the first day's grazing a new area, though it's a wonder they don't make themselves sick!

I'm hoping that we can get all the way back down to the back lawn before it's time for the four woolly lawn mowers to go off - they're booked in for the end of this month. I've managed to sell all eight halves and have plans to keep about eight next year. I'm sure that the people who buy a half this year will all want a half next year too and we have a good while to find customers for the extra ones we plan to keep. I'm also thinking about keeping a couple through next winter, so that the grass is being cut as soon as it starts growing in the spring.

I will be sad to see the sheep go this year. I often spend time sat on a hay bale just watching them. It's a very peaceful place at the bottom of the land, at least until the sheep decide to start eating my jumper and trousers that is!

Monday, 7 October 2013

Bees under attack

Back to that wasps nest I mentioned.

No photos I'm afraid, as that would involve taking my life in my hands!

Our poor bees have been having a right torrid time. We've still got three healthy colonies, which is a fantastic situation in which to be approaching the winter. But they have been under heavy attack from battalions of wasps, not just stealing their honey and damaging inside the hives, but engaging in struggles to the death. My early interventions (squashing any that landed with a flat piece of wood) made little dent in the wasp numbers. So jamjar traps were deployed, cheap jam luring the wasps into a sticky, watery death.

Despite catching maybe 100 wasps every day, they just kept coming, until one day I came across a tiny hole in the ground over in the corner of the goose paddock. I noticed that insects were flying in and out, and as I approached I realised that I had located a wasps nest. They had set up home just around the corner from a very handy honey restaurant!
Much as I resist using poisons and chemicals on the farm, pragmatism was called for here so we duly called in the wasp man and the nest was eradicated. We've not got rid of all the wasps, but the bees are now firmly back on top.
Whether it was because of this or not, the three hives have got very low on honey. Nowhere near enough for the bees to make it through the winter. So for the last ten days or so Sue has been engaged on a morning and evening chore of feeding as much sugar syrup to the bees as possible. We purchased a couple of frame feeders, which are placed in the hive and filled with sugar solution. The bees have been devouring it and turning it into winter stores, which they have now started to cap with wax. So far Sue's given them 35kg of sugar. That's what I call a sweet tooth! Not that they've been very grateful to Sue, especially in the evenings when they have proved most tetchy!

A duck lost, a duckling born

So where to start with the updates?

Well, let's start with the sad news. We lost one of our Cayugas. It was while one of the girls was sitting on eggs under the old pea plants and we sort of assumed this one had sneaked off somewhere too, maybe in the dyke. But Sue was getting worried as this duck was not even returning for food in the morning or evening. Then one day I was over in the goose paddock investigating a wasps nest when I noticed something in the goose bath. You've guessed, it was our poor duck, long gone. It must have happened on the one night when we were away for the evening, otherwise we'd surely have heard her struggling and quacking to get out.

But, on the plus side, the sitting duck did, against our expectations, manage to hatch one duckling. This little creature is hilarious. For, as protective as she is of it, mummy duck does not wait around for her fluffy little offspring.

Instead, the poor duckling spends most of the day running as fast as it can through the long grass, those clockwork legs doing their best to keep up. Despite its constant extreme exercise regime, our new duckling is growing, though nowhere near as fast as those that Elvis recently reared.

These are now virtually indistinguishable from the adults and will be going into the freezer after Christmas, so I've been making sure that Sue doesn't get too attached to them!

Not so long ago these were cute, fluffy ducklings.
Now they look good enough to eat!

Elvis has already long moved on and is now sitting tight again on anybody's eggs she can find. So Sue has put some Cream Legbar eggs under her. A big softy is Sue.

Despite our attempts to stop them, I recently found Lady Guinea sitting amongst a patch of thistles, incubating quite a clutch of eggs. I've decided to leave be, but it will be a miracle if any survive till next Spring. For starters, it seems to be another of those communal nests where no bird is quite sure which eggs she's responsible for. It's late in the year too, so if any do hatch they'll have an uphill struggle against the elements. Guineafowl chicks are particularly susceptible to cold, wet conditions. The long grass won't do them any favours.

Too much gallivanting

Long time, no blogging! Too much gallivanting I'm afraid. Chasing after rare birds. A couple of pretty disastrous misses in south-west Ireland kept me busy late September, but I bounced back with a Thick-billed Warbler on Shetland this past weekend - only the fifth ever recorded in this country, all on Shetland.

But the farm does not stop for me and much has been happening. It's just that I've not had time to write about it.

We've had births and deaths, insect battles, we've been to the abattoir and the last of the harvest has been coming in.

I guess the best way to do this update is with a flurry of posts to catch up. Until, that is, the pager starts wailing at me and I up and go again!

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