Friday, 19 September 2014

Oooooooooh, Saucy!

Sue has been getting saucy. At the back, from left to right, we have Pontack Sauce, Sweet Chilli Sauce and home-made Brown Sauce. At the front is Spiced Plum and Port Jam, a revelation in taste!
I was chopping down an elder bush, which has been somewhat smothering a fig sapling, and it seemed a shame to let the bountiful bunches of deep purple berries go to waste. So they appeared in a basket on the kitchen bench.
Sue dug out a recipe for Pontack Sauce. I must admit to never having heard of this before. I've certainly never seen it on the shelf in Tesco. It is in fact a traditional English spicy elderberry sauce, served with duck, venison or game. It can also be used added into stews and supposedly gives them a wonderfully rich flavour. It was, however, invented by a Frenchman, Francois-Auguste de Pontac (1636-1694). In 1666 he came to London and opened what was to become a trendy society tavern frequented by the likes of Danuel Defoe and Swift.
Sue used Hugh F-W's recipe, but you can find plenty of recipes on the net. The kitchen filled with deliciously spicy and rich aromas as the sauce was boiling down. I would tell you that the sauce tasted delicious, but it needs to store for at least two months to develop its full taste. Apparently it will last for years and just keep getting better and better. A bit like Sue!
Not such a traditional recipe up next. We have plenty of chillis from the polytunnel this year, so Sue decided to turn some of them into chilli sauce. As the chillis, chopped onions, vinegar and sugar boiled up, this did not look too promising, though the vapours it was giving off certainly had a punch to them! However, once it was whisked up it began to look like the real deal and it tasted, well, like sweet chilli sauce. But there's something special when you make it yourself using ingredients you've grown.
Third up, and definitely available in Tesco, came brown sauce. I remember when, to enjoy brown sauce, you had to tip up the thick glass bottle and tap, tap, tap the bottom until out came a dollop of rich, spicy sauce. But something has happened to brown sauce. It now comes in an upside down squeezy plastic bottle from which squirts a slightly runny brown liquid. You would certainly be hard pushed to detect the main ingredients.
So Sue started off with a pile of apples and plums, malt vinegar, Worcester sauce and a handful of spices. The cauldron bubbled and spat and the kitchen filled with the smell of good old-fashioned brown sauce. That night I had sausages (our own) liberally dolloped with brown sauce. Perfect! And you know what, I had to tap, tap, tap the bottom of the bottle to get it out.
Lastly on Sue's list of alchemy came her Spicy Plum and Port Jam. All I can say is wonderful smell, wonderful colour, amazing taste. A wine connoisseur would really go to town on this one, for it has layer upon layer of tastes, ending with a rich, exotic hint of dates. Certainly one to make again.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Keets progress

Of the 32 guinea fowl eggs which were shared in the corner of the chicken pen, 12 hatched on 31st August. This was a slightly disappointing number, especially as at least another dozen had fully grown chicks inside. I don't know what happened there.

But life as a keet (that's a guinea fowl chick) is tough. Within the first week they were down to ten and then, just when I thought that the weakest had succumbed, I went down one morning and could find only 8. I later found one dead under an apple tree.
I don't know if it's just coincidence, but the same day I unearthed, under the biggest chicken house, a nest of young rats. They did actually look rather cute, but no mercy was shown! I have also raised the house up onto tyres. If the space underneath is big enough, the rats won't burrow under and feel safe.

A cute nest of ratlets.

But the guinea fowl saga has dragged on and on. Not quite sure when they started sitting, as we were away on honeymoon, we had almost given up hope on any hatching from either of the other two nests. But then on Saturday a fluffy little chick appeared next to G'nea, G'nea, the original mother of all guinea fowl who had devotedly sat on a wonderfully concealed nest further down the land.

3 very little keets. Look how much smaller they are than the one from the first hatch.
We left her undisturbed and I expected that, by Sunday evening, she would be attending to a small tribe of keets. But yesterday morning Sue came to tell me that she had moved back to the chicken enclosure, but with only three babies. This was very disappointing, especially as I had actually sold half a dozen keets and was hoping to be able to take three from each brood.

Sue retrieved the rest of the eggs and tried putting them under the third sitting guinea fowl. She also found one alive, half-hatched. She placed that under the girl too, but she showed no maternal instincts towards it and by this morning it had slipped away. however, when she stood up she had another chick underneath her, so I am now waiting with bated breath to see if any others hatch.

Meanwhile, down in the chicken enclosure, all the new youngsters are getting to know each other.

Elvis with her latest family.
ed  Intriguingly tonight, there are nine guinea fowl roosting up on the fence. This only leaves two adults for three broods! My guess is that the three very young keets have been adopted by the hen who has brought up the other eight. Either that, or the weasel who has appeared on the farm (and is most welcome) has had them, but I doubt it as all three were fit and healthy a couple of hours before dusk.

double ed   All three still there this morning, plus four new keets from the third nest!

Monday, 15 September 2014

What a Nice Pear!

We finally have enough fruit to just about constitute a crop! An unlikely star has emerged this year, for at the far end of the orchard a little pear tree has been flourishing.

Pear Concorde
It's not unknown for a chicken or guinea fowl to spend a few minutes jumping up and down to reach the pears. So it was that the lowest three pears on this tree had little chinks missing from them. I thought that if the poultry were enjoying them so much, I had better try one. I got a real surprise. Not only were the pears ready to eat but they were completely without blemish and tasted delicious. I'm not sure if I should really divulge my secret, but the variety is Concorde, a cross between Conference and Comice. Well done to whoever came up with that idea!

Unfortunately, Sue has also discovered how tasty these are so it doesn't look as if this year's harvest of about thirty pears is going to last very long. She doesn't even usually like pears. However, there are a few gaps need filling in the orchard so I will most definitely be looking out for more of this variety.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Stop the Bleating

A big day for the sheep today. Movements, treatments and separations.
First the movement bit. For the last week most of the sheep have been at the far end of the land, the last area to be grazed before they come right back to the beginning and start over again.
Until now, moving them from one section to another has been a doddle, for they are always chomping at the bit to get to the lush grass in the next section. But the task today was to get them all the way back through the previously grazed sections, some of which are pretty lush and green again, preferably without lingering too long.

The plan was that half way along they would be lured into a pen of hurdles. For once, the plan actually worked, apart from the White-faced Woodland who, as usual, was on a different side of the fence to everyone else.
Once encircled by sheep hurdles, we closed the hurdles in until the sheep were squashed in with no room to escape or jump. For we still needed to apply flystrike treatment to those who had evaded capture last week. This simply involves spraying some blue liquid down their backs and around their bum. It needs doing every six weeks as long as there are flies around. Hopefully this will be the final treatment of the year.
The White-faced Woodland, eventually reunited with the flock.
So one of today's aims was completed successfully.

Next job was to separate the Shetland lambs from their mums. For two of our ewes came with twin lambs at foot. The black lambs weaned themselves a while ago, but one of them is still 'intact' and needed to be separated from the females. The black and white lambs have continued to suckle, though more and more infrequently. But this puts a strain on mum and she now desperately needs a break so she can build up her condition ready for breeding later in the year.

This mum needs a break from her lambs

It seemed a good idea, while the sheep were tightly penned, to lift up the lambs and carry them down to the top paddock. I started with the  intact one and boy did he wriggle! Luckily he has small horns now, so I was able to 'lead' him. But it sure did seem a long way and my arms were aching by the end of it. I went back for his brother, but not having horns I had to carry him all the way. Let me tell you, by the end I was feeling as if my arms were about to drop off. I decided to leave the other two till later in the day.

Then, for the rest, it was onwards to the pasture closest to the farm. The Shetlands followed Sue and the bucket all the way. The others decided to linger a while. This was much better than it being the other way round, for the others are much tamer and easy to catch if necessary. In the end, we went back to them and it was easy to drive them to their destination.

Some of the Shetland ewes in their new home.

Back to the beginning of the rotation.
The grass has grown back nicely.

One thing I had forgotten was that the flock were now right next to the Shetland ram and his wether companion. It wouldn't take long for his loins to be girded. One determined fence hop and he would be in with the flock, which I did not want to happen... not yet, otherwise I could end up with lambs in January. So we hurriedly drove the two of them back out of the pig enclosure, where they have been eating down the weeds, and up the land to join the two black lambs in the top paddock. Sue led with a bucket, I followed behind, moving them along and making sure they did not turn back.
I needed a break before attempting to separate the final two lambs from their mother, so to fill the time I planted the oak 'sapling', an operation which had been interrupted by stumbling across a hornets nest several days ago. In fact. I used the hole vacated by the destruction of the underground nest to plant the oak into. If it grows, I'll always think of those hornets when I look at it.
With my arm muscles rested, I quickly moved the two lambs. They were easy to catch having become the tamest of the Shetlands, but I had to carry them all the way, kicking and protesting as we went (the lambs, not me!) For there was no way they would follow me away from their mother.
I put them into the top paddock with all the other boys and they spent the rest of the day bleating pathetically. People had told me they would do this but in fact they weren't quite so persistent as I had expected.
The lads size each other up.

Everyone is now settled in to their new homes. Rotating the flock through the pasture will be simple again for the next five weeks, when it will be time to come back to the beginning again.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Stirring Up a Hornet's Nest!

No pictures for this one. Read on and you'll understand why.

Remember the wasps nests from last week? Well, the saga goes on. Not a single wasp had emerged from the first nest after Sue squirted nasty white powder into the entrance hole.
So yesterday morning I deemed it safe to dig a big hole about a foot away in which to plant the oak 'sapling' which I had rescued from someone's garden. (It was actually about 8 foot tall when I got there. I dug out as much tap root as I could, but I don't rate its chances of survival. Trees are best moved when very small and in winter.)
So, there I am digging away when my foot gently breaks through the ground with an unfamiliar crunching sound. I had broken through into the underground paper caverns of the wasps nest. Not really a problem, except that dozens of wasps were sleepily crawling around and beginning to emerge!
I didn't really take the time to look at them closely when I first saw them, but I could now see that these 'wasps' were massive, about an inch long. They weren't wasps, they were hornets!!!
I had just plunged my foot into a hornets nest!

I guess that at this time of year many of them must stay in the nest and tend the queen and the brood. Anyway, I felt a bit guilty about this, but I liberally dusted the new hole I had made with white powder. I stayed to watch as more and more of these remarkable creatures emerged from underground. I then broke up the nest with my garden fork. If you've never seen a wasp or hornet nest, they are amazing - a huge paper teardrop and inside a multi-storey conurbation, layers of perfect hexagonal comb. This nest must have gone down about two foot. It was amazing. Even to excavate that much soil must have been quite a feat, let alone to fill up the underground space with such a wonderful structure.

But I had come along and destroyed the whole thing then waged chemical warfare on the entire population! The more I watched them, the more guilty I felt. So, to justify my use of weapons of mass destruction, I took to Wikipedia to find out a little more about hornets. I found out that in late summer there will be up to 700 hornets in a nest, but that only the fertilised queens survive the winter to start new colonies.

I also read the following, which I have copied here:

Hornets have stings used to kill prey and defend hives. Hornet stings are more painful to humans than typical wasp stings because hornet venom contains a large amount (pkp,5%) of acetylcholine.

Hornets, like many social wasps, can mobilize the entire nest to sting in defence, which is highly dangerous to animals, including humans. The attack pheromone is released in case of threat to the nest.

In light of that, I would advise that you never use a garden fork to destroy a hornets nest, and if you do attempt such an act, at least make sure you are wearing full protective clothing!!!

The queen hornet, back in the spring must have thought she had died and gone to heaven when she came upon this location to found her city, conveniently close not only to an orchard, but to a small group of bee hives too.
More information from Wikipedia:


Adult hornets and their relatives (e.g., yellowjackets) feed themselves on nectar and sugar-rich plant foods. Thus, they can often be seen on the sap of oak trees, rotting sweet fruits, honey and any sugar-containing foodstuffs. Hornets frequently fly into orchards to feast on over-ripe fruit. Hornets tend to gnaw a hole into fruit to be totally immersed in its meat. A person who accidentally plucks a fruit with a feeding hornet can be attacked by the disturbed insect.
The adults prey on various insects as well, which they kill with stings and jaws. Due to their size and the power of venom, hornets are able to kill large insects such as honey bees, grasshoppers, locusts and mantises without difficulty or much effort. The victim is fully masticated and then fed down in the form of slurry to the larvae developing in the nest, rather than consumed by the adult hornets. Given that some of their prey are considered pests, hornets may be considered beneficial under some circumstances.

On balance, I think that hornets and their nests are amazing creations, but sadly there is not room for them here on my smallholding. Too many conflicts of interest.

Now all I have to do is find the source of the wasps which are still raiding the middle hive. I have tried following their flight path, but it comes to an end at the top of a willow tree. I'm pretty sure their nest is not in this, so they must be using it as a stopping off point before heading home.
If I do find the nest, I'll make sure I put a bee suit on before I tackle it!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Fog and a Short-eared Owl

Yesterday morning, the view from the bedroom window was like this...

The first fog of the autumn was a sure sign of high pressure. It soon cleared though and the day that followed was a good one. Firstly, we got the mower back, repaired. Even better, Errol is going to fix my Allen Scythe and my trailer too! Then remarkably I found another wasps nest, in the dyke. I was clearing some nettles when I started getting buzzed. Another lucky escape.

One of the guinea fowl keets didn't have such a lucky escape though. Late morning it was struggling to keep up with the others and by early afternoon we were down to ten. We started with twelve, so losses thus far are about what would be expected. The biggest surprise was that of the 20 eggs which were left abandoned, at least a dozen contained fully grown chicks. I'm not sure what happened there. Anyway, ten is enough and there are signs that the other two nests might be hatching soon.

As for the wasps, Sue donned her bee suit again and destroyed the nest (nasty powder puffed into the entrance hole). However, there is still a fairly steady stream of wasps heading into the middle hive. Despite introducing a new queen, I'm not optimistic about the colony's chances of survival. I've already found two wasp nests in three days. Chances of me finding any remaining nests are slim but I'll keep my eyes peeled.

Anyway, back to that high pressure. Hopefully it will mean that the next couple of days stay dry and warm enough to allow me to make headway into the grass which has now grown rather long. I have put the geese into the veg patch to nibble it down a little. They are well happy!

The high pressure extends right over Scandinavia too, and at this time of year that means birds! A large female Sparrowhawk shot low over the farm yesterday. I've not seen one for a good few months and I'm guessing it was a migrant. Could explain where the slow guineafowl keet went.
The Swallows are still with us, though they are out of the stables now and beginning to congregate at the tops of the Ash trees, chattering constantly. I reckon they're giving directions for the journey south.
When I woke up this morning, the garden was alive with birds. There must have been a dozen blackbirds in the Ash trees and a similar number of Great Tits - too many to be accounted for by our resident population. The first lapwings of the autumn were flying over too. But it was to get much better. For when I wandered down to check on the sheep, I took the opportunity to scan the freshly ploughed fields and up from a dyke, chased by a raucous crow, came a Short-eared Owl. A buzzard quickly got in on the act, chasing it into the sky as it flapped lazily over my head and over the farm. As it went over the chickens, quite high now, the swallows all rose to harass it. It's not often that these two species meet here, for the owl is an early one and the swallows will be leaving very soon.

With a bit of luck it will be another good winter for Short-eared Owls. I'll never forget the sight of three hunting together over the farm a couple of years ago.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Barcelona Beans

Barcelona have Messi, Neymar and Suarez up front. A ridiculous embarrassment of riches.

I have a similar embarrassment of riches. I have Borlotti, Rocquencourt and Cobra, plus Tendergreens, Canada Wonders, Pea Beans and Blue Lake - an embarrassment of beans.
They all grow well (as long as I am patient and leave sowing them until uncomfortably late in the spring). They all crop well. They all taste delicious.

I also grow runner beans, two types. I feel I should grow runner beans. Every veg patch has runner beans. I can't be a proper gardener if I don't grow runner beans. If you know your football, runner beans are my Fred. In the team, but nobody quite knows why.
To be honest if you put a runner bean and a French bean next to each other, I'd go for the French every time. And there's no risk of ending up with a mouthful of stringiness (even 'stringless' runners end up stringy if you neglect picking them, which I inevitably do when all those crisp, fresh French beans are growing right next door.)

I do like the flowers, though, as do the bees. So the runners survive in the plan, but just for drying and using through the winter.

The French beans
You'll have to excuse the long grass - the mower's broken... again.
The French beans fall into two categories. Borlottis, Pea Beans and Canada Wonder are all grown just for drying, for the beans inside the pods.

The rest are grown for the pods, to be eaten fresh or sliced and frozen for later.
Cobra beans are climbers, which crop early and heavily, but which are gone all too soon. Blue Lake are similar. There's nothing between them really, but I suspect that if I measured the yield carefully the Cobras would just edge it. Besides, they have wonderful black beans inside. The Blue Lake have white beans.
Then there are the Rocquencourts. Dwarf yellow beans which snap crisply and have a wonderful waxy texture. Even with a failure first time round (too cold, too dry, didn't make it past the slugs and rabbits), the second attempt which I netted has yielded several bags of beans for the freezer.
So that just leaves the Dwarf Tendergreens. These came in a mixed packet from Poundland or some such shop, so I wasn't expecting too much. In fact, I forgot about them until yesterday when I noticed bunches of beans hiding below the leaves. So I picked a few to try and they were disappointingly good, even the ones which had grown a little long and fat. I say 'disappointingly' as this leaves me with my Barcelona bean situation. A ubiquity of quality.

Then there are the broad beans and, just for the extravagance, the Yardlong beans in the polytunnel.

So, here's my team. The final eleven.

Borlotti Bean 'Lingua de Fuoco'
French Bean 'Canada Wonder' (kidney beans)
Pea Bean
Runner Bean Armstrong (red)
Runner Bean 'White Lady'
Climbing French Bean 'Cobra'
Climbing French Bean 'Blue Lake'
Dwarf French Bean 'Tendergreen'
Dwarf French Bean 'Rocquencourt'
Broad Bean 'Bunyard's Exhibition'
Yardlong Bean
Just don't make me choose one to leave on the bench.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

There's A Buzz Around The Place

Last week a strange package arrived in the post. A sealed, padded brown envelope... and it was buzzing!

Believe it or not, live bees actually get sent through the post. But this was not just any old bee. This was a queen, along with a small gang of attendants to look after her on her journey. They come in a plastic box, sealed in with candy.
Upon arrival, they are placed in the hive, but first contact with her new subjects will only be after they have eaten through the candy. This hopefully gives enough time for the hive to get used to the queen's pheromones and not attack her as an intruder.

You can just make out the queen,
marked with a green spot.
Ideally we wouldn't be buying a queen and getting her sent through the post, but for a while now one of the hives has contained no eggs and no brood. There are still, however, plenty of bees inside so it was worth saving. The alternative would be to unite it with one of the other hives to bolster up the size of the colony ready to go into the winter. But both of the other hives are doing very well indeed without reinforcements.
Twice Sue has tried to introduce frames of eggs to this hive, in the hope that the bees would make one of them into a queen - for remarkably they are able to do this - but neither time has it succeeded. This could mean that there is already a queen in the hive but she is not laying. If that is the case, then our expensive purchase of a new queen will not work, for she will be killed by the old queen. But Sue has searched and searched and not been able to find a queen.

It is getting late in the year to introduce a queen, but the colony would not survive much longer without new blood. Already it is being raided by wasps. Normally a strong colony can repel them, but as it weakens, so more and more make it past the bees' defences and into the hive to steal the honey. Sue has narrowed the entrance to make it easier for the bees to defend. It's like war. To further help the bees, for we are most definitely taking sides and intervening in this war, there is an array of wasp traps hung around the hives. They catch a lot of wasps, but there must be a nest nearby so we'll never catch enough of them.
There's also a new-fangled device hanging next to the hives. It's called a Waspinator! It's basically a mock wasp nest and the idea is that visiting wasps will see it and stay clear. However, it does not really work at this time of year if there is already a real nest in the area. The manufacturers do make this clear, but we've put it up anyway just in case it helps.

Here you can see various wasp traps hanging around the hives.
The grey bag hanging up is the Waspinator.
Last year I was fortunate enough to locate a wasp nest - just a hole in the ground from which emerged a steady flow of yellowjackets. Remarkably yesterday I managed to locate the source of this year's wasps. I actually had a lucky escape, for I was just about to start digging to plant an oak sapling when I noticed a hole in the long grass. Initially I thought it to be a rat hole, but then I noticed a stream of stripy black and yellow bodies crawling to the entrance and heading off to do their worst - either to the bee hives or to the orchard.

No apologies for the quality of the picture.
No way I was getting too close!
I'm afraid that, remarkable creatures as they are, wasps are not welcome here on the farm. So it was that at 5:30am today Sue donned her bee suit and headed toward the hole in the ground armed with a tube of white powder. A few puffs down the hole resulted in the emergence of a small gang of wasps, which is why we (Sue) were performing this operation at first light.

Now all we have to do is wait and see if it has worked. In a couple of days, Sue will be able to look in the bee hive again too. If all has gone well, there will be newly laid eggs. If not, we'll be heading into the winter with just two colonies of honey bees instead of three.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Sweetcorn decimated

Just a quick one. Thank goodness we harvested these when we did.

192 sweetcorn cobs in a wheelbarrow
For, although some of them had not had sufficient time to properly ripen, they certainly ended up better than these....

As predicted, the harvesting of the fields drove the rats across the dyke, with catastrophic results for the sweetcorn. Fortunately, they don't touch any of the other crops. Besides, they've started taking the bait I put down, so the problem should soon be eradicated.

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