Saturday, 29 November 2014

Winter's on its way.

The last few autumn leaves are still clinging onto the trees, but a couple of morning frosts in the last week are a reminder that winter is not far away.
While the thistles have already died back to spiky rosettes, my mahonias, which look so exotic, are looking their best as they come into flower. Mahonia is a very important bee plant, for our honey bees will still occasionally come out on warm winter days and there will be very little for them to forage on. Without plants like mahonia, they will just be using up energy worthlessly.

Gerry, too, has been getting into the spirit of Christmas, bringing home plenty of presents. I'm not sure who these presents are for though. I suspect they are peace offerings for Angel, who has never liked him since she moved in, despite his most patient efforts. Maybe it's because we had Mr Charlie Brown, a friends puppy, in the house a couple of weekends back, but something has persuaded Angel to be slightly more tolerant of Gerry of late.
Anyway, I went into the kitchen this morning to find a poor vole curled up next to a large tuft of grass.
Gerry often pounces into the grass and brings everything away in his mouth, vole, grass and all. This sort of gory find is not unusual, but I was somewhat surprised to then come face to face with these presents placed just inside the patio doors.

It seems Gerry had a very busy morning and it wasn't his last catch of the day either.
On the plus side, he has been catching voles since he moved onto the farm and there certainly still seem to be plenty around!
There are still plenty of kestrels, barn owls and little owls around.

Monday, 24 November 2014


At the last count, 110 people like me.

Well, to be a little clearer, they 'liked' my Facebook post when I announced that I'd managed to cross an octopus and a parsnip to create Octoparsnip.

Of course there were various suggestions for marine life/vegetable crosses... I'm sure you can make some up of your own.

There were also plenty of people who had managed to grow similarly monstrous parsnips. Some attributed this to stones in the soil, but stones in my veg plot are rarer than hens' teeth.
They also say that too much goodness in the soil causes root crops such as carrots and parsnips to split, though I've also read that this old belief has been scientifically discredited. Who knows?

My suspicion is that maybe I just didn't dig deep enough. I can't remember whether I just churned the surface with the rotavator or dug deep with a fork. Not that it really matters, but a conventional parsnip is certainly easier to peel.

Mind you, I can grow them conventional too.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Naans, Parathas, Santa logs and Pumpkin Soup

Flatbreads ready!
Courtesy of Blokes Baking group.
I belong to the Fenland Smallholders Club which provides me with an excellent excuse to spend time with fellow smallholding friends.

As a part of this, a while ago I set up a Blokes Baking Group and last night we were attempting to make naan breads and parathas from scratch. I had the idea of buying in a takeaway curry (minus the flatbreads) to accompany our efforts.
At the last minute we decided to break with tradition and invite the Widows of Blokes Baking along too.

In fact, everything was a bit last minute. I didn't even look up recipes for Indian flatbreads until the evening before, by which time it was too late to buy authentic ingredients such as chapatti flour and ghee. Ask for these in Holbeach Tesco and you'll invariably be met with a very puzzled look! Not to worry, I could make the ghee and the flour could be substituted. On the plus side, they did have Indian lager on special, so multiculturalism is alive and well in these here parts.
The only other ingredient I was short of was garam masala, a mix of spices commonly used in Indian cookery.
I was lucky enough to find some of this on the shelves, but baulked at the price - £1.75 for a little jar. You've got to be kidding! So instead I took a photo of the ingredients and ground my own when I got home, all from whole spices. The result was a fragrant and spicy powder which did an excellent impression of garam masala. So that's another product I won't be buying in the future.

So, back to the Blokes Baking. One of the naan recipes used yeast and a double rise. If we started this process at the usual time, we would need to eat at about 10pm. So I did all the prep work before the others arrived.

Bring on the feast!
I found the recipes on Youtube - search for Titli's Busy Kitchen for some excellent recipes. They are even accompanied by some very clear videos and Titli is definitely a character. Alternatively, you can just click here.

The Blokes now work well as a team, so we divvied up the bread-making duties. Dave took responsibility for the Aloo Parathas and was most impressed when they puffed up on the hotplate. Phil took the plain Parathas, which involved a little origami to create layers in the bread. I took on the Naan breads. A keema naan stuffed with minced Shetland lamb from our very own fields and another naan recipe topped variously with nigella seeds, chilli and coriander.
We had the oven, the grill, the griddle and a couple of heavy frying pans on the go. In all we produced nineteen breads! And just as the last naan was going into the oven the takeaway delivery arrived. Perfect timing.

What followed was a feast of monumental proportions enjoyed in very good company.

Then it was up bright and early (well, Sue anyway) to make a giant pot of pumpkin soup for the monthly Smallholders Meeting. This wasn't quite in our plan, but we were asked at ridiculously short notice. No harm done anyway.
The Smallholders meeting was to be a series of demonstrations of Christmas crafts by fellow smallholders. Decorative glass painting and Christmas wreaths were not really my thing, but were still much appreciated. But what did impress me were these:

Simple to make from logs cut at an angle, some of these will certainly be guarding our door this Christmas. They may be my one concession to Noel festivities this year!

And on the plus side, when Santa comes down the chimney this year, he can stay on the fire!!

Sue and some of the other smallholders start their Christmassy creations.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Lean pickings

"But I don't want to go"

I am still learning about smallholding every day, but over the last couple of weeks I've learned a big lesson about keeping sheep. For the time has been and gone for some of them to go on their final journey. Along with the sheep I bought from the Rare Breeds Centre went the small Shetland ram who for some reason had avoided the snip when he was little.

The plan was that eight of these would go to the butchers and be sold on as meat. The Shetland lamb and Number Six (who was always the runt of the pack) I was to just get 'processed' at the abattoir and then they were to have a special role being used at the Fenland Smallholders Butchery Group for Phil to teach us how to butcher our own lamb. It's not as violent or as gory as it sounds. Back to that later.

I had been a little worried about the size of the sheep this year. I didn't get them till it was very late and they seemed to take an age to really begin growing. On top of that, the grass has been nowhere near so lush as in previous years. I also somewhat rashly ended up with a few too many sheep. Don't worry, it's not as if they are skeletal or even skinny, it's just that they didn't seem to have grown to such bulky proportions as last year's lambs.

So I was expecting that they might come in a little under the 16-18kg I was hoping for. Maybe 13 - 15 at the lowest. As for the smallest two, I thought they might make about 10 and 12kg.
Well, how wrong I was! When I picked up the first batch from the butchers, only two of them came in above 10kg. The smallest was less than 7kg!

This was disappointing to say the least.
Firstly, I would have to let them go at half the price I was hoping for and hope that people still wanted what I could offer them. On the plus side, at least it would be nice lean meat.
Secondly, it was embarrassing that I had not managed to properly fatten up my lambs.
Thirdly, I still had a flock of Shetlands and it had become clear that I would not be wanting to carry so many sheep through the winter or through next year.

The Shetlands enjoying a frosty morning last week.
Fortunately I was still able to sell the lambs as meat, though I made no money on them. That doesn't really matter as they keep the grass under control and I enjoy keeping them. I probably still ran out about even on them. I decided that the second batch of four (my butcher is a small, traditional butcher and cannot handle 8 lambs in one week) could go off this weekend anyway. I would be fighting a losing battle trying to fatten them up at this time of year when I still had other sheep to look after.

I was feeling a little down in the dumps about things when on Wednesday evening Sue and I turned up at Phil's holding onto our two skinny rats. But some time in the company of friends did wonders, or was it the couple of beers we supped down the pub afterwards?
Cutting up a lamb carcass was considerably more straightforward than I expected. My last attempt at learning butchery left me completely befuddled and feeling out of my depth - probably shouldn't have started with a whole pig. Also the bloke was a good butcher but a terrible teacher!
We had a very enjoyable and educational time at Phil's and I will certainly be having a go at my own lamb butchery in the future, at least those which I intend to consume myself.

Two of these have gone now.
And Doc (foreground) is moving up nearer the house to fatten up.
So that's that for the moment. The commercial sheep have gone. The Norfolk Horn ram who started black and ended up white with a black head, has gone. Houdini the White-faced Woodland who was seemingly impervious to electric fence, has gone.
I am left with just Shetlands. But my aim is to separate four of them and fatten them up for about February. Then, next year, there will most definitely be a different Sheep Plan. There will be considerably fewer, that's for sure. I may slim down the Shetland flock even further and keep them as special meat just for us.

In a moment I am off to pick up the second batch of lambs from the butcher. They were the largest out of the group, so lets hope that they at least make double figures and a little bit more with a bit of luck. I'm certainly not setting my hopes too high though.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

First Frost Winter 2014/15

Well, I'm back!!!

The blog has been on a birding break for autumn. While it's been away, I've been to Shetland for a week (exciting birding with such waifs as White's Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat, Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Myrtle Warbler, Swainson's Thrush), Barra (Outer Hebrides) for a day trip (for a Scarlet Tanager which hid for 7 hours and only came out for half an hour - luckily just as we arrived), Cornwall (another day trip and a big 840 mile dip), Cleveland (another dip), Norfolk... Oh, and I've spent some time on the smallholding too, mostly gathering in the harvest.

I guess a quick catch up is in order.

Well, this morning we had the first frost of the year. With only one light frost during the whole of last winter, some of the poultry were clearly puzzled by their water being frozen!

Frosty fleeces.
Fortunately the Shetlands are well adapted
for tough conditions
Some of the sheep are almost ready to go off on their final journey. They've certainly been doing a good job of munching down the grass. I've moved my Shetland ram (really must think of a name for him) in with four of the Shetland ewes. The two who had twins last year are getting a rest. The White-faced Woodland continues to escape and has been moved to the top paddock to keep the two girls company. They do like to boss him about.

Is it Boxing Day yet?
With Christmas (yes, I've mentioned the 'C' word) looming, the turkeys are growing fast. They have proven to be very likeable characters, much friendlier than we expected. I'm sure that won't stop us enjoying one for Christmas dinner though!

I can't remember how many guinea fowl keets there were when I last blogged, but it's been a difficult time for them. Some very wet weather back in September made survival of the chicks a very precarious affair and we came out of that with just 7 youngsters. When they were big enough, mum stopped going into a hut for the night and took them onto the fence, which resulted in another two disappearing overnight. We then had the nightly ritual of catching the remaining five and putting them in with Elvis and her fast growing chicks. Just a few days ago I took the decision that they could fend for themselves at night. Unfortunately yesterday I found another one perished so we are down to four. It all sounds a bit sad, but it wouldn't be right to confine the guinea fowls. Of all the birds we keep, they behave the most like wild birds and in the wild four survivors would be plenty enough to sustain the size of the flock. It just means that we don't get to sell any and that guinea fowl will remain be a special treat on the menu.

I mentioned Elvis. Our faithful broody is now the last of the original chickens which came with the farm when we purchased it. She has successfully reared another clutch of chicks. They have grown well and are remarkably bold. In fact a couple of them hop up into the feed bucket even when I'm carrying it around!

Another hen was determined to have her own chicks too. She tried several corners of the stables before eventually managing to keep secret a stash of 18 eggs. But she was disturbed on the night the chicks started hatching which resulted in the loss of a couple of new born chicks and the abandonment of the unhatched eggs. However, she has come out of it with 5 healthy chicks (there were six, but one got stick under an overturned dish and Sue only discovered this unfortunate mishap when it was too late.)

And lastly the bees. They have finally gone to bed after staying out very late this year. Hopefully the weather won't trick them into coming out again and they can reappear stronger than ever in the spring.

So here's looking forward to 2015!

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