Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Daisy. One Stubborn Pig!

We spent Bank Holiday Monday in the pleasant company of a larger than life figure and his wife down in the southern fens. The reason for our excursion off the farm was to discuss sausages and bacon products.

If you follow this blog you'll know that we only have one pig at the moment, Daisy, our breeding sow who has become too close to being a pet since we decided to stop breeding her.
The Cambridgeshire Self Sufficiency Group are holding a sausage making and barbecue evening in the near future and the subject of our art is to be Daisy! This seems like a fitting end for the old girl.

We have ordered half a dozen different packs of sausage flavouring and are researching the chemistry of bacon curing.

But Daisy has other ideas!!

We started trailer training her over a week ago. For Daisy cannot be manhandled. Daisy goes where Daisy wants to go.
I had two major concerns. Getting her in the trailer and getting her out the other end. I figured that I needed to get her used to eating and sleeping in the trailer and coming back out in the morning. If we could get to this stage then I would move the trailer onto drier ground and repeat the process there, leading her up from her pen every evening. The next stage would be to take her for a little drive so that she got used to coming out of the trailer after a journey.

Now all this sounds like a good plan and Trailer Training Stage 1 went reasonably smoothly, although it took 3 days to get her into the trailer the first time. I had to move it so the ramp didn't slope quite so much. But we eventually got to the point where she went straight in every evening for three nights.

Then I had to use the trailer to fetch the lambs. I decided this would be a good time to park it on higher ground. Well, that was four days ago. It took FOUR hours of coaxing to get Daisy up into the trailer on the first evening - it was gone midnight before I got back into the farmhouse. Part of the problem is that Daisy is so long that I need her to go right into the trailer before I can shut the gate on her. I lost count of how many times she backed out just as the last couple of inches of bum were still sticking out!

For some reason, Daisy wasn't happy when I closed the gate that time and she has steadfastly refused to go in the trailer for the last three nights. She takes the titbits I throw to try to tempt her, but most unusually for a pig her stubbornness is overcoming her hunger.

To be quite honest, I have been getting very frustrated by the whole situation. However, something always happens to lighten a situation and this time it has been a family of wrens which provided the entertainment. For they have nested in the top corner of the garage porch, in an old swallow nest. While I have been waiting for Daisy to go into the trailer, there have been constant high-pitched begging calls coming from the nest. Then, on the third day, four young wrens appeared on the scene.

One of them found a very novel perch!

Despite this, there was no budging by Daisy on the trailer issue. So yesterday I took the decision to move the trailer back down to her pig pen. This is now a major worry as we have had constant rain for two days and I really am not confident that I will be able to pull it back out again... if Daisy goes in that is. I have decided that she will only be fed right inside the trailer. She could do with losing a little bit of fat before she goes off anyway.

Monday, 26 May 2014

A Stinking Comfrey Bath Full of Rat-tailed Maggots

Two of my previous posts have become unexpectedly linked. For it wasn't long ago that I encountered this creature in my polytunnel

This is a drone fly, so called because of its superficial resemblance to a honey bee. It appeared in my post about polytunnel intruders.

Now just outside the polytunnel sits this old bath, full of stinking comfrey juice.

It is just rainwater with a bag of comfrey leaves immersed, but this makes the water go really quite disgusting. It has a rather unappealing aroma too, though you get used to it. But it's worth it for the black gold it produces, free plant food which my tomatoes love. For more on growing and using comfrey, you can visit this post.

So you're probably wondering what these two subjects have to do with one another. Well my tomatoes are just forming their first fruits now so I decided yesterday to start feeding them but, as I approached the bath of black liquid, I could see what appeared to be hundred of slugs swimming around in it, slugs with tails! The last thing I would want to do is pour slugs, or anything similar, all over my crops.

So a quick internet search for "water larva spiky tail" brought me instantly to the answer at

The aquatic larvae of droneflies are known as Rat-tailed maggots.  They develop in stagnant water, animal faeces and rotting carcasses.  The more putrid and foul-smelling it is, the more the larvae seem to like it.
Each larva is equipped with an extendible tail called a 'siphon'.  This tail, which can extend to about 5cm (2 inches), is used as a snorkel to breath air from the surface of the liquid while the larva feeds below.

Special features:  Drone flies look similar to honeybees (hence the 'drone' name), but they lack the narrow waist between the thorax and abdomen.  They also have just two wings, where the honey bee has four.

The body is brown to black in color, quite hairy, with varying amounts of orange/yellow markings on the side of the second and third abdominal segments.

The males have large eyes which meet in the centre, while the females have smaller eyes with a gap in between.

When they are fully grown, the larvae leave the water to pupate.  The pupae are a reddish-brown colour.  At the front are some
horn-like projections, and the tail often curves up and over the back of the body.

Mystery solved.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Lamb Plan Part 2

If you want to skip the build up, just scroll down to the cute lamb pictures. Here's one to keep you going.

Excitement has been building all week. For Friday was the appointed date for collecting the lambs from the Rare Breeds Centre.
All I had to do was to bring the livestock trailer up from the pig enclosure, where Daisy has been using it to sleep. (Don't ask why!) But then a prediction of rain on Wednesday night made me a little worried that the ground would become too slippery to tow the trailer out. And it certainly did rain overnight, which would have been a good thing had it not been for the trailer.
Still I thought that everything would be alright. The ground had been very dry and the grass would dry out during the day. After all, temperatures had been up into the 70s (I still think in Fahrenheit) all week.
But on Thursday, while I was stuck at work, the heavens opened as we were hit with several late afternoon downpours accompanied by clashes of thunder and some quite spectacular lightning. I rushed home from work and went straight down to the trailer. It was still raining so the quicker I could move it the better. I decided that the best way would be if I could pull it by hand, for I reckoned to have more grip than my car, which is not really designed for such tasks. I managed to heave the trailer some of the way until I was beaten by a slight incline, plus a rather muddy dip in the ground where the moles cross.

I reversed the car to the trailer, hitched it up and tentatively touched the accelerator. Slowly and gently we started moving. I kept a featherlight touch on the accelerator and crossed my fingers. A minute later we were on safe ground and all I needed to do was to clean out and disinfect the trailer ready to head out early in the morning.

The journey to the Rare Breeds Farm went according to plan and they were ready on my arrival. I chose the biggest stockiest lambs. They don't have the cute factor, but they will be better equipped to move outside and start chomping on my long grass. They should end up bigger too.
In no time I had six boys and three girls loaded up and ready to go. Six of them are commercial cross-breeds which the farm buy in so there are enough hand-reared lambs for the public to ogle over. One is a pure Norfolk Horn and one a pure White-faced Woodland.

And here they are.

It was a cautious arrival at their new home.

This green stuff was new to them too.

I backed up the trailer and, opening the back door, I stood back out of the way before they came bounding out. But they were more cautious than that. After all, they'd just been picked up from their home and put in a strange trailer which moved.
When it finally stopped and the gates were flung open, there was a whole new world outside. And it was covered in green stuff. They had seen this distantly before, but most of their lives had been spent in a straw-filled barn.
It took a while for the bravest to venture out, eventually followed by the others. And when they did get there they weren't sure what they were supposed to eat. First they tried the trailer, but that didn't taste too good. Then they tried my trousers... which didn't please Goliath who was hiding between my feet.
Is this what we're supposed to eat?

Eventually one of them discovered that dying dock leaves, the old ones at the base of the plant, are quite tasty. Another discovered that sticks were good to chew on.
New experiences just kept coming. They tried a bit of Goliath chasing, until they happened upon his dad.

They tried a bit of tree climbing too.
They did a bit of running around madly, but John was too slow with the camera. But eventually they discovered that the green stuff made pretty good eating.

White-faced Woodland
Norfolk Horn.
His wool will turn white with age, apart from the legs
So that was that. Our lawn mowers have arrived and we will have meat in the autumn.
And while I work outside the occasional bleating of lambs is a most welcome sound on the farm.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Lamb Plan Part 1

Two years ago we had these.

Number 10 and Number 18
Last year we had these.

And this year we have...

Five and a half lambs presold ... but no lambs!

Our sheep plan goes something like this:
Buy sheep in spring. Preferably bottle fed so they are tame (saves on rugby tackles). Sheep eat grass, so saving me a major headache. Sheep get nice and big and juicy. Sheep go on a journey. Sheep go in our freezer, or people come and pick them up in boxes and give us money.
This plan avoids all the tricky bits of keeping sheep. No lambing. No overwintering. No shearing.

Almost everybody who bought half a lamb from us last year has asked for a whole one this year. Everything had fallen into place perfectly. Sheep sold before we even bought them.

But then our plan skidded to a grinding halt. For some reason, there just aren't any sheep available this year. We have looked everywhere, but everybody is asking for lambs and nobody wants to sell any. Several leads fell through and we were left with  a couple of acres of rapidly growing grass and six expectant lamb customers. One small problem... no lambs!

I was even forced to consider changing the sheep plan. If it was to be this tricky to find lambs every year, maybe we should set up our own flock. But this is not the right time of year to think about that and we would not be producing lambs until next year.

Just as things were getting desperate and I was contemplating having to let down our customers virtually before our customer base was even established, not to mention what to do with the ever-growing grass, Sue made a phone call which solved everything.

Those lovely folks at the Rare Breeds Centre still had some bottle fed lambs left to sell. For most farmers, bottle feeding lambs is an expensive and time-consuming inconvenience. But it is the Rare Breeds Centre's meat and drink. This means that we don't even have to take them while they are still on the bottle. The idea of bottle feeding lambs may sound cute, but I've got enough to do without that.

And so it was that a couple of weeks ago we went to view our nine lambs.....

 Of course, we took the chance to have a look round the rest of the farm too.


Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Meet Goliath The Giant Gosling


You can almost see Goliath growing!

For a few hours he (or she) was called Gary, but it reminded me too much of someone I know with the same name, so instead I have decided to call him Goliath. Quite fitting this name really. For he is, after all, a Giant Dewlap Toulouse and will hopefully attain the same statuesque figure as his father, George. And it certainly seems that Golly is heading that way as he doubles in size every week. I have calculated that this cannot continue or else he will be 150 metres tall in ten weeks time!

Goliath is fast becoming a pet. Since the loss of his sibling he has become even more reliant on us and spends all day calling for us, only going silent when he knows we are there. Given the chance, he follows us around everywhere. He has been to the vegetable garden, the chicken pen, the back garden, the front garden, the kitchen... I had not realised how flat-footed a gosling could be, but when he crosses the kitchen floor his feet flop, flop, flop on the slate surface. This is quite useful really, as it means you don't forget he's there and accidentally step back onto him.


Funniest of all though is the fact that Goliath has also imprinted on Angel, our adopted black and white moggy. She was, after all, present with Sue when he hatched out of his egg. He runs up to her and tries to peck her on the nose. She runs off and he goes flip-flopping in pursuit across the kitchen floor. Hilarious!
Angel looks on with a weary eye

My usual view of Goliath

Monday, 19 May 2014

Barny's Back!

I have spent most of the last two days grappling with electric fence wire, made from a substance of which the sole function is to tie itself in unfathomable knots. It has been absolutely glorious weather, which is not really what was needed when spending two days working right out in the open. Having said that, the bottom of my land is a very peaceful place to relax... until that blasted fence wire twists itself into yet another impossible knot. At least I've got an instant tan, though that's not really the done thing these days.

The bottom of my land is a place of long, undisturbed grassland surrounded by the young trees I have planted, which are finally starting to look like they may one day actually become big, grown-up trees. At least one pair of skylarks seem to be nesting down there, constantly serenading me from somewhere up in the blue sky. A Meadow Pipit, too, made frequent visits, its mouth full of grubs for its young, and a female Reed Bunting broke cover a couple of times.

But best bird news of all is that I have had daily Barn Owl sightings for five consecutive days having virtually not seen one for well over a year. Hunting during the day is a sure sign that it has young to feed. After a population crash over the last couple of years, it will be brilliant for the barn owl to again be part of our fenland landscape.
The Little Owls, I presume, have young too. They are very active during the day flying between the old Ash trees and even perching out sometimes. They too seem to be faring well. I have seen four in this area within the last week. The pair of Yellow Wagtails continue to add a splash of colour to the pig enclosure and finally I have heard a cuckoo this year. In fact I saw two fly acoss the neighbouring field being chased by a blackbird.
Yellow Wagtail

Today my job is to plant 66m of bird-friendly, intruder unfriendly hedge. I wouldn't normally be planting bare root trees at this time of year since they would have long come out of their winter dormancy. However, those folks at Ashridge Nurseries have had them in cold storage and are selling them off half price.
The bird-friendly hedge consists of the following native species: Hawthorn, Wild Cherry Plum, Wild Privet, Hazel, Wild Damson, Guelder Rose, Blackthorn, Dog Rose and Field Maple. I've ordered extra hawthorn slips just to make sure it becomes impenetrable and I shall be using it to fill any gaps in our boundary with the road. Any left will be planted as a windbreak.
Who knows, one day Barny may well be spotted hunting along my new hedgerow.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Nettles. If you can't beat them, eat them!

The Veg Growers Group has now been meeting for six months and has gone from strength to strength. Each month we have a Vegetable of the Month, but choosing one for May was a challenge. For May is bang in the middle of the hungry gap. This year's crops are mere seedlings and small plants, only just going out into the garden. And stores from last year won't keep any longer. The potatoes are softened and have tentacle-like sprouts reaching out into the dark. Most of the pumpkins have been eaten or gone rotten and the onions aren't what they were.Having said that, I am already eating asparagus and rhubarb aplenty and I have beautiful fresh radishes, turnips and lettuces in the polytunnel. Jams and chutneys are always on tap and we have already taken honey from the bees this year. We have eggs coming out of our ears and can always treat ourselves to a chicken, guinea fowl or duck.

And if all that's not quite enough to keep us going, thankfully these days we have freezers. So even in the hungry gap visits to the supermarket are infrequent.
But there is another way to fill a hungry tum. For while we are still procrastinating over whether or not to put our tender young vegetables out into the big wide world of the veg plot, our native plants (also sometimes known as weeds) have been happily growing away for a couple of months.

There is one plant in particular which seems to do remarkably well on our fenland soil. I seem to be particularly adept at growing it. Fortunately it's an excellent plant for bugs such as aphids, which attract more garden-friendly predators such as ladybirds and hoverflies.

However there's a sting in the tail. For the humble stinging nettle crops up everywhere and takes persistence to control. As well as forming impenetrable patches, it bites when it's least expected, as you are peacefully going about your daily garden pottering.
But there is a solution. Bite back!
For nettles are indeed very tasty. They can be substituted into any recipe which uses spinach and have a pleasantly distinctive, almost nutty flavour.

233g of nettles
They should be harvested wearing thick gloves (and make sure your wrists aren't exposed, for however careful you are, you'll eventually get stung). Only young leaves should be used as the older, darker ones get a bit tough. Young leaves can be found when the plants first emerge early in the year, or taken from the top of each plant, but before the nettles come into flower. If you simply mow down your nettles though, you'll get a vigorous regrowth of fresh young leaves. This also leads those friendly insect predators to move to your vegetable plants to seek out aphids.
Now, you're probably thinking about hippy nettle tea and nettle soup. You may even have tried them and not liked them. All I can say is that I have four delicious recipes for you and urge you to give them a try.

All nettle recipes start off with picking a stack of nettles. One portion is about half a plastic bag full. Wash the leaves thoroughly. I like to leave them in soak for a while with a little salt added to the water to help drive off the bugs. Don't be put off. This really is worth it.
After that, plunge the leaves into boiling water for 3 - 5 minutes, then drain and squeeze out the water, as you would with spinach - put them into a colander and press out the liquid with the back of a wooden spoon.
They are now completely safe to touch and can be used in any recipe.
The four recipes I have for you today are all carefully selected and adapted from the internet. They are: Garlicky Nettle Pesto; Nettle Gnocchi (or gnettle gnocchi if you prefer); Nettle Bread; and Sweet Potato and Nettle Soup. Give them a try, though you may have to mow your nettles first or wait till next spring.

Garlicky Nettle Pesto
Delicious as a light coating for pasta. If you make a double portion, you can freeze this in ice cube trays too. 
1/2 pound nettles
4 large garlic cloves, smashed
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts (I used walnuts, as that's what I had in)
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/4 cups extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (or cheap substitute)

Add the nettles to a large pot of boiling salted water stirring continuously, for 2 minutes.(This denatures their sting.) Drain into a colander and squeeze out the water. You’ll have about a cup of cooked, squished nettles.
Pasta tossed in garlicky nettle pesto.

Finely chop the garlic, pine nuts (or walnuts), salt and pepper to taste. You can do this in a food processor. Add the nettles, breaking them up as you drop them in, and the lemon juice and whizz until finely chopped. Gradually add the oil in a slow, steady stream, and process until smooth. Add the cheese, pulse briefly, and season to taste with additional salt, pepper, or lemon juice.

Stinging Nettle Gnocchi
Something a little different. Go on, give it a try! For this recipe you do need to use a floury potato (I used King Edwards), to avoid using too much flour in the recipe. It is possible to freeze the uncooked Stinging Nettle gnocchi (after they have been shaped and lightly dusted in flour to stop them sticking) for a week or two and then cooking them from frozen.

For the gnocchi:
600g potatoes, peeled and cut into even-sized pieces
150g well-washed nettle tops
2 egg yolks
Salt and pepper
120g plain flour

For the Sage Butter
75g butter
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced

12 sage leaves, finely shredded
A Little Extra Topping
50g freshly grated Parmesan cheese (or substitute)
Few chopped nuts of your choice

Boil the potatoes, drain and mash really well.
Put about a centimetre of water in the bottom of a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the nettle tops and cook for 5 minutes and then quickly cool them under cold running water. Tip into a sieve and squeeze out all the liquid with the back of a wooden spoon. Place in a food processor and chop finely then stir them into the potatoes.
Add the 2 egg yolks and season well.
The dough for the gnocchi
Add most of the flour and quickly mix it in. The secret of good gnocchi is to use sufficient flour to hold the mixture together but not too much that they become heavy. If the dough does not feel too sticky, break off a piece and roll it into a ball, drop it into boiling water to test. If after a few minutes it floats to the top without losing its shape, then do not add more flour. To shape the rest, break off individual pieces and roll them into a ball (about 2cm across) with floured hands, placing each finished one on a floured plate.

Nettle Gnocchi and Garlicky Nettle Pesto ready for the freezer
Drop half the gnocchi into a large saucepan of boiling water and cook until they have all floated to the surface. Leave them to cook for a further 10 seconds, then lift them out with a slotted spoon on to a hot plate lined with kitchen paper. Repeat with the remaining gnocchi.

While the gnocchi are cooking, place the butter, garlic and sage in a small saucepan and fry for 1-2 minutes. Divide the gnocchi between four plates, pour over the sauce and sprinkle over the parmesan and nuts. Serve immediately.
Instead of sage butter the gnocchi could be served with a simple tomato sauce or floated on a bowl of delicious soup, such as the recipe below.

Fragrant Nettle and Chive bread
Ingredients to make two small 1 lb loaves

100 g nettle leaves
 a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
 2 tsp unsalted butter
 2 heaped tsp finely chopped
 fresh chives
 500 g strong white bread flour
 2 tsp salt
 7 g (1 sachet) fast-action dried yeast
 270 ml  water
 salt & freshly ground black pepper

First wash the nettles thoroughly, wearing rubber gloves. Add the nettles to a pan of boiling salted water and blanch for 2-3 minutes. Leave to cool, roughly chop the leaves, season with salt and freshly grated nutmeg, and set aside until later.
Melt the butter in another pan, then toss in the chives and stir. The aim is not to cook the chives, just to warm them – this really brings out the flavour. Put the chives aside.
Combine the flour, salt, chives and prepared nettles in a bowl. Then add the yeast and mix in. Make a well in the centre. Add the water to the well and bring together into a dough with your hands or with a spatula. Turn the dough out on to a clean kitchen surface and knead for 10 minutes.
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a damp cloth and leave to prove until doubled in size
(60-90 mins). Turn the dough out on to a clean surface and knock it back. Divide into two equal portions, then shape it into loaves and place in two lightly oiled 1 lb loaf tins – or flowerpots. Cover and allow to prove again for 60—80 minutes. The loaves should come to just below the rims of the tins or have increased by two-thirds.
Preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F/Gas 7) and put a roasting tray in the bottom. When ready to bake, place the loaves in the oven and steam by adding cold water to the tray. After 20 minutes remove the loaves from the tins, then return them to the oven and cook for a further eight minutes, until golden-topped and the base of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.
Sweet Potato, Nettle and Chickpea Soup

This is a soup with substance, a filling bowlful of hearty satisfaction. Pepped up with the warmth of some aromatic spices it is perfect for those evenings when the sun dips a little too fast leaving the seven o’clock air with a surprising, biting chill.

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
A baking potato, peeled and diced
Two onions, sliced
As much garlic as you wish
Spices: cumin, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, star anise – take your pick
Lots of fresh nettle tops
A tin of chickpeas
Vegetable stock, about 3 pints

Fry off your chosen spices in a little oil until they in turn start to release their oils. The smell will change, just take care not to burn them else you will add a bitter note to the soup. Crush them in a pestle and mortar then add the garlic.

Fry the onion until soft then add the potato (both sweet and regular). Give it a little colour then add the spices and garlic before covering with stock. Leave to simmer until the potatoes are cooked then blend and pass through a sieve to remove and rogue crunchy spices.
Wash and pick over the nettles. Cook in plenty of rapidly boiling, salted water then leave to drain in a colander or sieve. Chop the nettles then add to the soup along with a can of drained chickpeas. Heat through and serve with nettle bread or gnocchi.
Some of the Veg Group enjoying a nettle feast.
Quote of the night "It looks worse than it tastes"!!!
Many were more positive though.

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