Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Chickens 8 - Ducks 1

No, I have not taught the poultry to play football!
I am talking eggs.

These three girls have laid well all winter thus far.
They were, however, rather confused when their water turned solid!
For the last couple of months we have been extremely grateful to the white ducks. For, thus far, they have somehow conspired to lay throughout the winter. I am rather perplexed by this, for I thought that ducks were much more seasonal layers than hens. Maybe it's because they are three girls. I don't know.

The black ducks, the Cayugas, stopped laying way back, but they will be earning their money very soon when some of them become meat birds!

As for the hens, they have mostly been having a rest of late. There have even been days with no eggs at all from them, though they have been averaging out at two or three a day.

But we have started seeing two blue eggs a day now, so our pair of Cream Legbar hens are doing the business. We have also been seeing some tiny brown eggs, presumably the younger hens coming into lay for the first time.

The weather, it has to be said, has been foul of late, but it seems that the days drawing out a little has been enough to kickstart the hens into laying again. For the last two days, we have collected eight eggs each day, which is plenty for us and a couple of regular customers.

Plenty of eggs.
Plenty of cakes!

Let's hope we don't get too many of these though!

Meanwhile, as the young hens come into lay, the young cockerels are coming into their own too. They have begun to crow and to make advances toward the hens. But these direct challenges to the chief cockerel are not tolerated for too long.
One of the young cockerels looks disturbingly similar to Cocky, our old cockerel who passed away at the end of 2013. It's very tempting to keep him (don't tell the other cockerels I said that) but that would give us all sorts of issues with interbreeding. Some would say there's enough of that on The Fens already! Tongue firmly in cheek of course.

Clearly the offspring of Cocky.

Meet Spike
So we'll probably plump for the Crested Cream Legbar cockerel to do the job. He has developed his skills with the ladies, finding them tasty morsels and warding off danger in return for certain favours.Once we finally take the decision, I suppose we had better give him a name.
In fact, might as well do it now. Spike. That suits him. Yes, Spike it is.

As soon as Blogger allows me, I'll post a picture of him. It's playing up again!

The cockerel situation was slightly relieved this week when I managed to sell one of our Poland cockerels. (Photo at Blogger's whim) They are a very pretty breed, a very old, traditional breed, but pretty useless apart from that. A chicken fancier's bird rather than a producer of decent size eggs or meat birds. The woman who bought him from me was after a black cockerel to breed with her white hens, in pursuit of chocolate coloured Polands.

This Poland cockerel is on his way to pastures new

  I'm sure he'll enjoy meeting some new girls anyway.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Elvis moves out (again)

Elvis watches over her growing chicks

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with Elvis. But for those who don't know her (yes, her!), Elvis is a small black hen who has been with us since we moved into the farm. She is a Silkie, a breed of chicken which oddly has black skin.
For us, the important thing about Silkies is that they make wonderful broody hens. We have hatched many eggs under Elvis and she makes a brilliant mum. She has raised chickens, guinea fowl and even a brood of ducks. We haven't yet tried to put a goose egg under her!

Back in the first days of November
So it was back in October that Sue placed eggs under Elvis and in the last days of that month she hatched out four healthy chicks. Elvis has been a devoted mother to them ever since and they have grown into four healthy and very feisty chicks.
Maybe because it is winter, Elvis has stayed with this clutch longer than usual, but yesterday morning when I opened up the houses she came strolling out with the other hens.
The four chicks had spent their first night alone.
And today Elvis spent most of her time on her own, occasionally flirting with the younger cockerels. It probably won't be too long before she decides she wants to sit again.
Maybe time for that goose egg!

Friday, 24 January 2014

Someone please tell these geese!

George comes to say "hello"
It's a few months since George and the girls moved onto the farm.
They've been given the goose paddock all to themselves and have settled in well. The advantage of the goose paddock, if you are a goose, is that our friendly neighbour Don feeds you various goodies over the fence. And if you can't be bothered to break the skin and chew them yourself, he'll even cut them up into pieces for you! You also get to be first to HONK when a car or van pulls into the drive.

The Embdens, the white ones that is, go mad for an apple or a potato. They'll even go mining in the veg patch for root vegetables if allowed. The oldest boy has learned to gently take apples from my hand now. And we're not short of potatoes and fruit for the geese. We often get bags and boxes donated from friends' trees, or I'll find a box of apples or pears deposited down by Daisy's pen (courtesy of Don).

But George and the girls haven't quite cottoned on yet. They'll take the odd exploratory nibble, but then they just turn their nose (beak) up and walk (waddle) away. In fact, it was quite a while before they really started tucking into the grass. They just stood by the gate, as geese always want to be on the other side of a gate, and did not do very much at all. Goodness knows how they got to be such fine figures. I guess they may have been a little spoilt at their last home. After all, alongside horses, alpacas, rheas, an emu and some very fancy ornamental chickens, they must have been accustomed to a little luxury.
But not here! Animals have to earn their keep. Which means mowing grass.

Anyway, all the geese are getting along fine. The two groups only see each other through a fence, but as we get closer to breeding season - our friends had their first goose egg two days ago - the boys spend more time macho honking and neck stretching at each other. But they have their own, separate stables into which they put themselves at night and there is plenty of other grass for the white geese so they can live apart and there should never be any trouble. In fact the Embdens have done such a good job of cutting the back lawn that I have now opened the gate to the meadow and orchard for them. They never wander very far though.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

A First Effort at Making Goats Cheese

This last week has been a whirlwind.

The Veg Group, pruning and taking cuttings for the first time, The Blokes Baking Group and then, on Saturday, we spent the day with a couple of friends making cheese. In between, Sue taught herself to skin and gut pheasants. There's been more too - news in future blogs
We don't (yet!) produce our own dairy produce. A cow is probably a good few years off, being quite a big project. But a goat or two could be a possibility. We won't rush into it, as I don't want to become a farm zoo and the need to milk is another tying job.
However, we do have some access to a supply of goats milk if we want it, as several of our fellow smallholders keep goats. After all, we are members of the Fenland Goatkeepers and Smallholders Club.
A slight detour here. For that antiquated 'Goatkeepers' word may be going from the Club. Quite simply, it deters more people than it attracts and besides, members keep all manner of livestock. Not that we will forget the origins of the Smallholders Club, which did actually start out as a pure Goatkeepers Club until membership dwindled and it branched out.

Back to that goats cheese. Our friends have a couple of Golden Guernsey goats. (I stupidly forgot to take piccies of the animals while we were there, so just imagine a long-haired, golden goat. In fact, not unlike an Afghan Hound!)
These goats are very placid, can be milked just once a day and don't produce ridiculous quantities of milk. My plan is to try a few dairy products before deciding whether or not to keep my own.

So, the plan for cheese. I can assure you there was no expertise going on here!
We were literally reading from the books as we went along.

First we pasteurised the milk by heating it to 70 degrees C and keeping it there for half an hour.
At this stage, we divvied up the milk into three large pots, adding droplets of rennet (enzymes from a calf's stomach) to two of them and the juice of three lemons to another.
The book said to then leave the milk to cool to 40 degrees. At this point the one with the lemon juice would be separated and we could pass it through a muslin cloth to separate the curds from the whey. The ones with the rennet would have solidified and could be sliced into chunks, allowing the whey to come out. Well, that was the theory!


While we waited for milk to heat and cool down again, we enjoyed bacon rolls (yes, bacon from our pigs) and later shared a delicious mutton stew and sampled each others' home brews - plum wine, slow wine, elderberry wine and a stout.
Back to the cheese. The one with the lemon juice did split as it was supposed to.

So we strained it off and hung it to drip dry.

By the time we had to leave, the cheese was drained enough to be shared out.

Of course, in the olden days we would have brought back the whey to feed to the pig. But these days nothing which has been in a kitchen, nothing at all, can be fed to livestock. This basically comes down to the fact that industrialised food production systems have, in the past, totally defied logic, common sense and decency in their pursuit of profitability. Because of that, Daisy does not get to try some old-fashioned whey. Though if she were to try it, I'm sure she would really enjoy it. If.

Mini rant over.

Meanwhile, the rennet cheese was not really doing very much and it was doing that very slowly. As we left it was still very much resembling goats milk. I don't know whether the book we were following missed something out. It did seem from our subsequent research that it would have been usual to add some starter to it - yogurt-type bacteria that do the job. We'll find out whether it did eventually make it to being cheese or not.

All that remains is to tell you that the cheese we did manage to produce was very much like a cream cheese. Sue thought it was very mild. I thought it had quite a distinctive taste - maybe because it took me a few days to get round to trying it. I wouldn't say I disliked it, or that I raved about it, but as with any new food I reckon I will get to like it and we will learn to flavour it and make the best of it.

There is certainly potential there. And if I do grow to really like it, those Golden Guernseys could be just around the corner!

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Blokes Baking

In my last post I talked about the fact that smallholding can be a lonely hobby and told about how I had started up a Veg Growers group.

Well, shortly after I came up with that concept, another bright idea popped into my head. A Baking Group. No. A Blokes Baking group.
Now these groups are run as part of the Fenland Smallholders Club and I knew that this one may prove a little controversial, or cause a few hackles to rise, so I ran it past the committee first. I got their agreement, though I'm not sure everyone understood my reasoning.
For blokes sometimes need to spend time with other blokes, even when they get to my ripe old age. And when they're learning something new their successes and failures can be equally celebrated with a fair degree of banter.

So yesterday the day had come for our first get together. I bought the ingredients and provided the kitchen, others brought the beer!
I'm no expert, but it quickly became obvious that the other three were relying on me! I had decided to be ambitious and to go for a basic bread with a double rise. There would be plenty of time for socialising while we waited for the bread to rise. This would give me a chance to explain the processes going on a little further too.
As if this wasn't enough, I decided that we could make cinnamon rock cakes (a childhood favourite of mine) in the interlude, as well as enjoying a spicy parsnip soup which I'd prepared earlier.

I really wasn't sure whether all this would be a bit much, but my experience as a teacher came in very handy indeed. I managed to organise space, ingredients and resources so that everything ran relatively smoothly.  To be honest, I had done a practice run the night before, just to make sure that the recipes worked, that the dough would rise in time and that I had enough spoons, bowls and baking trays.

And so it came to happen that I showed three other blokes how to sift flour, how to use yeast, how to knead dough, how to measure ingredients. The whole thing went all the more smoothly with the help of a couple of beers. Nothing over the top, just enough to be sociable.
A lump of bread dough, all kneaded.
But would it do its stuff?

So, you're probably wondering how we did. Did I send three grown men off to sheepishly sneak past their other halves hiding burnt offerings and bread like lead, or were they able to enter the house with pride? (And no, before you think it, there were no emergency visits to 24 hour Tesco bakeries on the way home!)
Well, here's the story in a few pics.
Starting to look like bread.
We did make one mistake,
slashing the bread before it had risen for a second time.
My fault.

The Blokes Baking Group,
as much about spending time together
as about baking.

Ta daaaaaah!
Brilliant Bloomers and Man Size Rock Cakes!

So, what's next?
The February get together of course.
It's Valentine's so I really can't be telling much more. It'd spoil the surprise.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Veg Growers group - pruning soft fruit and taking cuttings

Smallholding, especially the vegetable growing part of it, can be a lonely occupation.
Luckily I like my own company, but I also like the option of spending time with other people when I choose to.
We have two immediate neighbours, then its a mile in one direction to the next house and its across the river to the neighbours on the other side. I have realised that if I want to meet more people and make more contacts, I need to be proactive. I can't rely on people coming to me and I can't rely on a lifetime of acquaintances, as we have moved away from our roots and even from our secondary roots.

The Fenland Smallholders Club has been an invaluable source of contacts and acquaintances. Sue and I have become very involved and have been on the committee for a year now. But it only meets once a month and members are spread all over Fenland. Meetings are on Sundays during daylight hours, which stops a lot of people from attending, and are held in a rather cold village hall. Don't get me wrong, the club is excellent in what it does, but I recently had a vision of how it could reach out further. I'm not sure everybody quite understood my vision, so I took the bull by the horns and organised things myself.

And so it was that the Fenland Smallholders Veg Growers group arose.
My idea is to spend time with like-minded people, round each others' smallholdings, learning from each other, socialising, chatting, eating and drinking.

Mission accomplished
This is why I refer to our get togethers
as gatherings and not meetings
The group has now been going for two months. At our second meeting we had a dozen people turn up, which is just about a perfect number. Any more and hosting would become more than onerous and the feel of our gatherings would change for the worse.

I have written an account of the day on the Veg Growers blog so I won't repeat it here, bar to say that I am very, very pleased with how it went.

Anyway, last week we met at a beautifully located smallholding backing on to the Nene Washes. We were treated to a demonstration of how to take cuttings from soft fruits.

Steve demonstrates how to propagate a blackberry by layering

I always remember old gardening programs being about getting something for nothing, propagating from seeds and cuttings, making your own compost and so on. These days there has been a horrible tendency towards encouraging gardener consumerism - garden centre sweeps - mirrors, clocks, sculptures, unnecessary landscaping, van loads of plants.

But those early programs don't seem to have rubbed off on me. Pruning only happens when a branch has been mortally wounded, primarily due to fear and a lack of understanding of the principles. And I've never got my head round taking cuttings, despite knowing that this is the way forward.

So, back to the Veg Growers, it was great to actually be shown, in the flesh, how to take cuttings. Books and the internet are helpful, especially YouTube, but there is no substitute for being able to see the real thing and ask questions. I returned to Swallow Farm ready to dive into my soft fruit bushes - not literally, of course!

Sunday was compost turning day so my new found skills had to wait till Monday. My fruit bushes and canes are now two to three years old so some were in need of a prune before it got too late. Late on Sunday night I spent several hours watching Youtube videos on pruning soft fruits bushes

So on Monday morning, a fine winters day, I waded into the currant bushes, secateurs at the ready!
I pruned out what was obvious and tried to take a few cuttings. There wasn't too much material suitable for cuttings, but I managed to get a few. Now that I'm pruning them properly, I hope that fruit and growth will be more prolific next year.

Next came the gooseberries. I have green ones, red ones and yellow ones. But they're all spiky. Very spiky. To make matters worse, the low branches, which I should have pruned out, had bowed down to the ground and given rise to a profusion of suckers, all of which needed gingerly taking out before I could proceed towards the desired goblet shape for gooseberry bushes.

Spurred on by my new found skills, I sorted out the raspberries and blackberries (and various strains) too. Now I just need to get those cuttings into the ground and be patient. In a year or two I will be arriving at the back door, my arms fully laden with berries and currants.

The blackcurrant, whitecurrant, redcurrant and gooseberry bushes of the future.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

An Unexpected Glut of Carrots

I wrote this post several days ago, but forgot to publish it!
So any keen followers may notice a few errors in continuity!
Here goes...

Buoyed on by my successful digging yesterday (last weekend), I decided to spend today (last Monday), my last day before school term starts (I've actually been back a week), digging.

Now that all the weeds have died down, a few carrot tops had become visible. I know I should have harvested them ages ago... Long story ... which I'm about to bore you all with.

Despite all my attempts, for several years I have been outwitted by a very, very small fly. I've never even knowingly seen it, or its grubs, but whenever I dig up my carrots they are spoilt by a mosaic of dirty tunnels. There are two blunt-ended solutions which I could adopt. One is to erect a two foot high barrier around my carrot beds. The other is to cover them with fleece throughout the growing season. Neither of these is very practical on my site, though not impossible. There is a third option too. Not to grow carrots. They are cheap in the shops, taste nice and are always perfect. But I just like the idea of growing my own. I know that they are chemical free, I've got the land and you get thousands of seeds for not a lot of money.

To be fair, the first year I grew them, in London, my carrots did well and only a few were affected by carrot fly. And the first year I grew them here it was a similar story. But it's been downhill from there.

Last year I couldn't even get my carrots growing at all, repeated efforts at sowing being defeated by cold, waterlogged ground and a plague of slugs.
This year I came up with a cunning plan to defeat the carrot flies. I decided to grow my rows of carrots in amongst mixes of annual flowers. The theory was that the flies' sense of smell, which they use to search and destroy carrots, is confused and distracted by the bountiful floral aromas of the blooms. In practice, I couldn't tell which seedlings were weeds and which were pretty flowers. Conditions for growth, apart from a cold start, were good this year and all of a sudden, before I knew it, I had beds of thick growth towering high and covering the ground. The only problem was that the poor little carrot plants, slow to germinate, got swamped, lost. To make matters worse, the bed never ended up looking very pretty anyway.
I had long given up on a crop of carrots, but as the annuals and weeds died down, there were the lines of carrot tops, a bit patchy but some had made it through. But it was now very late in the season and the voles had been at work - the same voles which have been helping themselves to my potatoes, attacking from underground, and the same voles which have gnawed away my celeriac bulbs, cleverly leaving the foliage still growing to hide their crime!
I knew that the carrots had been in too long now and that the carrot flies (and probably a few slugs) would have been attacking them from  underground too.
So, to paraphrase this tale of woe, I messed up on the carrots and abandoned them...till today. Today when, for some unknown reason, I decided to salvage what I could of the crop. I knew that hardly any would be suitable for storage and I wasn't wrong. But with a bit of peeling and a lot of chopping, I did manage to get quite a pile of carrots. Nowhere near as much as I should be able to get, but at least it was something.
Next problem - what to do with them? I could just slice and dice, blanch and freeze, but this really seemed quite a pointless exercise. I might as well just buy them from the supermarket.

Carrot and Coriander soup, Carrot and Cumin soup,
Carrot Cake, Carrot, Lime and Ginger juice.
All delicious!
So I came up with a three point plan.

Carrot soup. Carrot cake. Carrot juice.

I considered carrot wine, but thought better of it. Besides, I could probably make this just as well from cheap bags of 'horse carrots'.

A few hours later, et voila!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Garlic and Daffodils.

The first planting of 2014 - garlic
If you remember, last week I took the opportunity to stock up on some Indian spices while I was down in London. They also had some amazing garlic bulbs for sale, not the dried up ones but plump, juicy bulbs beginning to sprout.

I'm never sure what to do about garlic. All the books say to buy disease-free bulbs and to replace stock each year. But this is not cheap and it would probably be cheaper just to buy garlic in the shop - it would at the very least be a marginal crop. On the other hand, an old gardener I know reckons that once you've bought garlic the once, you're stocked forever.
So last year I used cloves saved from the year before and ... you've guessed ... it almost completely failed. Now, whether this was due to disease, strength of stock or some other factor, I cannot tell.
I've flown in the face of advice on many occasions, usually learning the hard way instead. But this year I decided to order in a few fresh garlic bulbs, since my potato supplier has started to stock them which means I don't end up paying twice for postage.
But there has still been a niggling thought which keeps coming back to me. What about those lovely, juicy garlic bulbs you can get in the shops? Surely they would grow?  And they certainly don't cost the earth, unlike those from the catalogues. And if the ones from the gardening companies can't be used from year to year, then what's the point?

So, back to that Indian grocers shop. I purchased four of his best garlic heads and decided to give them a go in the garden. If each clove developed into anything like what I was purchasing then this would be a very good buy.
The only problem now was that they needed planting, for garlic goes into the soil early in the winter. But with the constant stream of storms and downpours we've been having, I really didn't fancy putting spade to earth.

Despite the photos, it was actually me who planted most of the daff bulbs.

But another job was pressing, too. For a couple of weeks ago I purchased some daffodil bulbs at a knockdown price. There's a reason why they are sold off so cheap though, as it's really too late to be putting them in. They probably won't all come through, but then they were less than a quarter of their original price. Anyhow, with the weather being as it has, they've just sat in the hallway poking out of their mesh bags and making me feel guilty every time I've walked past them.
So, with a slight frost this morning and a break in the weather, I resolved to make the most of a fine winter's day and get them planted.

The ground was surprisingly unsodden. Crumbly would be exaggerating, but certainly not a sticky mass of lumpy clay.
The daffodil bulbs went in quickly, round the edge of the lawn where I can leave them unmown during their messy phase after flowering.
With the soil so compliant, I bit the bullet and decided to tackle those garlic bulbs too. Sue broke them up and we got exactly fifty cloves from four heads.

I turned the soil over in one of the beds where the root crops will grow next year - I like to grow my garlic and onions in with the roots to help ward off the carrot fly.
With a little 'help' from the chickens (who also did their best to eat the garlic every time I turned my back), the patch was soon dug.

It didn't take long to push the cloves in to the soil, up to their necks. It won't be long before they start sending out roots and getting a headstart ready to shoot up, divide and plump up in the spring and summer. That's as long as I can keep the chickens away from them.

Yours truly planting up a grid of garlic cloves,
being very careful not to tread on the soil.
But I do like the chickens to go into the veg plot in the winter. They search out the overwintering bugs, keep the grass down and fertilise the ground. They keep me company too when I'm digging.
It just means that any winter crops need a little extra protection.

It doesn't look much, but this is the start of the
veg plot 2014.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Glossy start to the year

It's traditional to go out birding on New Year's Day. A dawn start on the North Norfolk coast is always a good cure for a hangover!

And so it was that at 11am I finally crawled out of bed. Nothing to do with last night's celebrations and more to do with the generous dose of sedation I had pumped into me at the hospital yesterday.
The weather outside was frightful, as the song goes. No....that would be a huge understatement. It was a howling, blustering, chilling, drenching gale. There was no way I was going anywhere in that! So I sat by the patio window with my binoculars, but after five minutes my yearlist was still on a big fat zero. Even our winter birds weren't coming out to play today.
So out came the big guns - the scope. Surely the lapwings and golden plovers would still be in the back field, hunkering down in the wind....nope.
And so it was that, by midday on the first day of 2014, I accumulated a list of ONE bird species, Black-headed Gull. (For those non-birdwatchers reading this, the chickens, guineafowl, ducks and geese I keep don't count).

Even if I wanted to go out somewhere, the carpetman was coming to measure up 'in the afternoon' so I resolved to spend the first day of 2014 doing absolutely nothing.
But the carpetman came early and I was getting extremely twitchy stuck indoors. The weather was not laying off, but I decided that a Glossy Ibis just down the road at Deeping Lakes Nature Reserve was too good a bird to ignore. Besides, it was supposedly in a field by the car park, so we could do this bird without even exposing ourselves to the winter wind and rain. Perfect.

Now it's not many years ago that I drove overnight to Devon to see a Glossy Ibis. In those days they were genuinely rare and hard to catch up with. But since then the Iberian population of Ibises has more and more frequently sent intrepid explorers northwards to our shores in the autumn, often in small flocks. This is inexplicable. Why would an essentially Mediterranean species, however successful, decide to fly here for the winter? And why, on a day like today, would one not just turn straight back round and fly back?

Anyway, we got to the car park and there it was, mooching around on its lanky legs probing its bill deep into the soggy ground. I don't even try to be a bird photographer, but I stuck my phone up to my telescope and clicked away, without much success!

I did actually get out of the car and it wasn't a very comfortable experience. In fact I spent quite a while trying to figure out a rather strange looking wigeon too. I wasn't helped by the driving rain, the wind buffeting my scope around and the bird being pretty far off and only visible through a bush, appearing for a few seconds in a small gap before disappearing behind an island for large amounts of time. It clearly seemed to have some blood from an American Wigeon. I'd guess about a quarter, but such guesswork is pretty pointless when it comes to figuring out the parentage of hybrid birds. If a genuine American Wigeon is reported from Deeping Lakes Nature Reserve in the next week or two, I'll be kicking myself for not putting more effort in.

Well, at least I got out of the house on New Year's Day.

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