Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Our first ever lambs.

It's been a tiring couple of days.
I would like to announce the birth, at 2:49 on Tuesday morning, of our first ever lamb!

And, half an hour later, the birth of our second ever lamb!

Before I carry on, I'd just like to say a massive thank you to the vets at Vets One Ltd in Crimplesham, West Norfolk. You'll understand when you read on.
Also, despite the angst, this is one of the most special things Sue and I have ever experienced. On our mantelpiece stands the motto "Have the courage to pursue your dreams". Moments like this are what that is all about.

But now a warning. This post contains images of birthing, so if you don't want to see the reality, scroll right down to the end. For, not unlike the current imminent royal birth, this has been an overly protracted affair.
This is also a long post with lots of detail for those who might find themselves in the same position as us. If you just want to see cute pictures, scroll right down to the end.

When we got him, he was supposed to have been castrated!!!

I'll take you back to last November, when we let Rambo in with the ewes. We weren't as methodical as we perhaps should have been about this. Most put a saddle of dye onto the ram so they know when the ewes have been covered. Most take the ram back out again so they can be fairly precise about expected lambing dates. Many have their sheep scanned so they know how many to expect (though there can be surprises). We did none of this but took a more laissez-faire attitude.

By late March it was clear that two of the 3 ewes were expecting. The earliest they could give birth, by my rough and ready calculations, was the beginning of April, going by an average of 145 days gestation. With any luck it would happen during our Easter holidays, one reason for leaving things a little later than many. Another reason is that I would prefer the lambs born when the grass is truly growing well. There's no hurry to get these lambs fattened, as Shetlands are a small native breed which really need to go into a second year.

We knew the signs of imminent labour - stargazing, separation from the flock, restlessness, pawing at the ground, lip curling. As soon as we observed these, we would bring the ewe down to the stables where we had a lambing block prepared.
So imagine Sue's surprise two weeks ago (while I had zoomed down overnight to the Scilly Isles) to find a lamb down in the sheep field. Unfortunately it was dead. Not nice, but part of real life smallholding. It would have been a very big lamb too.

Sue, with a little help from friends, brought the two pregnant ewes up to the stables and there they stayed, the still pregnant one and the bereaved. They would be happy with company and we wanted to be able to check on their health regularly.
Now, last weekend I began to think that the ewe which had given birth should be losing a bit of weight by now. If anything, she appeared to be getting bigger! The other one is so woolly that it's difficult to tell. It was then that Sue informed me that it was, in fact, the darker of the two which had already given birth! I was surprised to say the least. She had never looked as large as the other one and had certainly shown no signs of early labour whatsoever.

The bereaved ewe.
She took great interest in proceedings and clearly wants to be an aunt.

Onto Sunday morning. At 10:30 the paler ewe was flumped on the ground breathing very deeply. She was regularly licking her lips, getting up and turning round and pawing the straw. She was clearly going into labour.
We got the lambing kit out and read up on what to do. Timings in our literature were vague but this first stage of labour should, we reckoned, last anything between 4 and 24 hours. At the end of it, she would pass a mucus plug which would mark the start of going into labour proper, the delivery.
Up to two hours later a water bag would emerge, fairly quickly followed by, hopefully, the appearance of a nose and two front feet.
Note the timings.

From here we get down to the nitty gritty, including images. Just a warning...

By Sunday evening, not much more had happened. She was spending most of her time just standing and breathing very deeply. I stayed up till 1 in the morning, with frequent visits to the stables. I then set up camp on the sofa and set the alarm for 2:30. And for 4:00. And finally for 5:30. Still nothing. It was now 19 hours since she showed signs of first stage labour, but she still hadn't really stretched, yawned or bleated, all things which she should start to do as labour proper approached.
Sue went off to work but I decided I should swap my days and stay at home. It got to 2pm, now 28 hours since first signs, and I decided I should call our friendly farm vets for some advice. She (the ewe, not the vet) was showing no signs whatsoever of pushing and I was getting very worried. At the very least, I suspected we may be dealing with another dead lamb.
At least the ewe did not seem to be in any trouble, or tired, so it was agreed that I would just wait and see. The vets have a 24hour phone line so I could always call later in the evening.

Sue returned from work but things were still the same. It got dark. Things were still the same. I decided that I would just have to wait with her and watch. If nothing had changed by early morning, I would call out the vet, but she really did not seem to be in any great discomfort (the ewe again).

Then, at quarter past ten, 36 hours after the first signs, her water bag emerged. Before I could get a picture, she laid down and burst it. It was just like a dark red balloon hanging from her back end, about the size of a grapefruit. The bag, or another, then filled up with a watery substance and hung from her back.
I consulted the literature again, just to check, which was fairly vague but basically said that nose and feet should appear any time from now. An experienced ewe should give birth within an hour, a first timer within 2 hours. If it reached this time, "intervention" (going in to examine) should be considered.
Note the timings.

I settled down, huddled up for warmth on a straw bale. Sue napped on the straw. At half past midnight Sue went off to bed. She can not swap her work days and needed to sleep. I waited...and waited...

At 2 o'clock, almost 4 hours after the water bag had emerged, I reluctantly woke Sue and we decided we would have to call the vet again. The ewe was showing no sign of stretching or straining and a dead lamb inside her would lead to big problems for the ewe.
Katharine, who was on night duty, put our minds at rest telling us that it wasn't too unusual for things to take this long. She did advise that Sue (who has the smaller hands) roll up her sleeves and apply the lube though!
We had been on courses and practised for this. They use a dead lamb in a box and you have to feel for head, legs and feet to work out which way round it is. On the course we had been quite good at this. However, the box wasn't alive!!

I held the ewe, trying to balance being gentle with keeping her still, while Sue went in. Sue was only able to get her hand in. The cervix felt tight and hard. The results were inconclusive.
Another call to the vet and the possibility of ring womb was discussed - a condition where the cervix does not dilate, requiring a vet to intervene. We decided to give it another 2 hours before calling the vet back. Sue went back to bed and I settled in for a long night. It was cold. The sky was clear.

Not ten minutes later I was running up the stairs to get Sue out of bed. I don't know if it was her intervention which prompted action, but a hoof had appeared!
By the time we got to the stable, the ewe had actually started to strain for the first time. There still seemed to be just the one hoof showing and, if anything, it looked like a back hoof. It may be time for the lube again!
But then another big push by the ewe and all became clearer. It was a nose!
The rest happened quickly. The hooves. Half way out. And then out popped a tiny lamb. The umbilical cord broke. If the lamb was alive, we needed to be ready to break its bag and clear the mucus from its mouth and nostrils, as its air supply would be gone now.
Then it moved and wriggled and started breathing for itself. Mum turned round and straight away started licking her newborn lamb clean.

It tottered to its legs shakily before falling down again. Mum carried on licking it. Again it tottered to its legs and headed straight toward mum's udders before toppling into the straw. It bleated pathetically and mum answered in a much deeper voice. This continued for a while.

The anxious first time parents, Sue and I, knew that the lamb needed to suckle, ideally within 30 minutes of birth. The first milk produced by the mum is actually known as colostrum, a thick yellowish liquid which has twice as much protein as milk and importantly passes mum's antibodies on to the newborn. A lamb only has brown fat, enough to keep it warm for 2 hours. If it does not suckle by then, it will rapidly develop hypothermia and become weak.
In our time as smallholders we have learned just how very susceptible very young creatures are to becoming weak and dying. Nature is very harsh.

The baby was trying to reach mum's teats, but mum just kept moving around. For she was going back into labour with a second lamb. I wasn't surprised for she had been very fat and that first lamb was tiny. As she lay on her side straining, she was still licking the first lamb clean. Now there's a devoted mother!
The second lamb was larger. This one was black and a boy. Again, it came out the right way which was a relief to Sue and I. It was slower to move though so Sue wiped it's face with an old towel to clear the mucus away. Mum turned to lick it, but she had a balancing act now, for she was still tending to the firstborn. The second lamb slowly tottered to its feet before flumping headfirst into the straw. It didn't seem so lively as the first and was making no effort to reach mum's udders.

Meanwhile, the firstborn had found the milk! This was good news, but mum seemed to be spending more time with that one, even though the second born needed her right now. I was rubbing the second with a towel to dry it off. Mum helped, but kept returning to the first. She was besotted with it.

After 20 minutes the black lamb still had not gone anywhere near mum's udders. Every time it got underneath her, she would move or it would just nuzzle in completely the wrong place. Besides, the firstborn was already on the teat and it did not seem to know to look on the other side.

We decided to snip their umbilical cords now, so that it was done. One had snapped off quite short, but the other's was virtually dragging on the ground - a sure route for infection to enter the lamb. This operation was easily accomplished with a pair of sterilised scissors. We dipped the ends of the cords into iodine and rocked the lambs backwards so that the iodine did the job really well.
We mixed up some powdered colostrum. It doesn't contain mum's antibodies, but would at least keep the lamb nourished and alive for a while longer. We fed it from a bottle, which it accepted readily. In theory it's better to feed through a stomach tube so that liquid cannot enter the lamb's lungs, but we are not trained to do that and right now the most important thing seemed to be to get some nourishment into this vulnerable little creature.
The black lamb responded well and seemed to gain in strength. But still it could not find mum's teats. It was so tall that when it crouched under mum it did not seem to think to look up! The firstborn was showing the way, but it did not follow. Mum certainly wasn't rejecting the lamb, but she was still more preoccupied with the first. The second was going to have to show some initiative. I kept trying to put it underneath mum but it just wasn't getting the hang of it. Meanwhile every time I handled the lamb I was getting iodine all over myself.
Sue went back to bed and I stayed up.
There was still one stage of the labour to go, the passing of the placenta. If this doesn't come out it can spell trouble for the ewe. However, this stage actually went by the book. Not only that, but mum had the good grace to eat it too. If they don't, you're actually supposed to dispose of it by calling the knacker man. Ridiculous. I wonder how many people actually do. In fact all through the labour mum was very careful to get rid of any liquids or other substances which fell to the floor. I guess that in nature they would need to do this to avoid attracting predators. But it's handy for the smallholder too. It's also vital extra nutrition for the ewe.
Once the placenta was gone, I moved the trio to a mothering pen which had been carefully disinfected and had plenty of fresh straw.
By the time Sue had got up again and gone to work, both lambs were much drier and looking healthier. The black lamb had enjoyed quite a large feed and I felt safe enough to go to bed for an hour.
When I got up, both lambs were still looking healthy but the black lamb still had not found its food source. I mixed up more colostrum and it fed hungrily.
But I was concerned that mum's colostrum would be a much better alternative. Also, if it did not suckle then we would be lumbered with a lamb (however cute) to bottle feed day and night. Of course we would do it, but it wouldn't be ideal. I mean, imagine if I had to take it on a twitch!
I tried to get some milk from mum's teat to let the baby lick, but she really wasn't keen on this. But the baby seemed perked up by its latest feed. I left it alone and went to pottering in the polytunnel - always a good way to take my mind off things and a very comfortable place to be.
I returned about 40 minutes later and the black lamb was at least going through the motions of looking for milk, nuzzling underneath mum, even if it was at the front end!
I managed to reach under mum and hold her teat. With my other hand I held the lamb's mouth up to her teat. I don't know whether it thought it was the bottle or not, but eventually it latched on and started suckling. At last!

Of course, I didn't go back to sleep all day and I didn't get much work done, for I returned to the lambs every half hour or so just to check that they were still strong and healthy and feeding.

As I write, the lambs are now over a day old. They are, of course, the cutest lambs anybody has ever had. They have already had visitors and a steady stream of people are booked in for the next few days to come and admire them.
I will keep the pictures coming.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Sowing, growing and mowing...and just a little birding...and lambing...and no showers

I couldn't decide what to call this post. It could have been 'Sowing, Growing and Mowing' or 'My 500th Bird' or 'What No April Showers' or 'HELP! I've got to deliver a lamb'.

In the end I went for a mash up!

There's always something to be done here on the smallholding and April is no exception. There's sowing, growing and mowing to be done, and when that's done then there's more sowing, growing and mowing.
But yesterday was one of those rare days when there was actually nothing particularly urgent that I could be getting on with. The reason for this was the woefully dry April we've had - not one shower all month so far! Because of this, the sowing has ground to a halt. As so often seems to happen, forecasts of heavy rain have slowly changed to occasional light rain showers which have, in the end, never actually materialised.
So the plan for Saturday was to potter around in the polytunnel and possibly get the mower out later in the day.
That was until, just about to let the chickens out early morning, stunning news came through of a Hudsonian Godwit on the Somerset Levels.
So that was Saturday taken care of.

Hudsonain Godwit (3rd from left)
My 500th species in Britain
It was a big twitch.

I rolled back into the farm at 8 in the evening having driven a total of 461 miles and successfully twitched a very rare bird (the last gettable one was over 30 years ago!) This bird was for me more significant than most, as it was my 500th species in Britain, a goal which has taken me 17 years to achieve.

April is not supposed to be like this. I don't mean the complete lack of showers. I mean two trips to the Scilly Isles and a mad dash to Somerset in the space of less than two weeks. Anyway, I'm not complaining and I'm still relatively up with things on the farm.

Then last night we finally had some rain. Not enough to soak the ground, but enough to tempt me into sowing some seeds. Unfortunately I was due at the Green Backyard in Peterborough to further hone my skills at lime rendering the straw bale wall which we built a while ago. Sue was off to the Fenland Smallholders Meeting which was all about bees.
I say 'unfortunately' as it would otherwise have been a very good day to catch up with some of that seed sowing and potato planting which has been waiting for a little moisture in the soil.

I spent the morning sowing beetroots, carrots, turnips, mangel wurzels and fennel before reluctantly packing up ready to head off. It's not that I didn't want to go to the Green Backyard, far from it, just that sometimes the breaks in the weather happen at just the wrong time.

But all my plans changed as I popped in on the two ewes in the stables before leaving. The paler of the two was huffing and puffing and clearly going into the early stages of labour. (This was truly a great surprise to me, for reasons which will be apparent in hopefully my next post about the birth)Now I have delivered piglets and hatched all sorts of poultry (well, actually most of it was the pigs, chickens, ducks etc), but lambing is new territory for Sue and I.
All plans were cancelled so that we could be on hand if needed. This did at least mean that I could make the most of the opportunity and catch right up in the veg plot.

But I'm sure you'll want me to tell you about our first ever lambing experience. Well, it's now half past midnight and I am still on lambing duty. Our ewe is just sitting and huffing and puffing. I shall be checking on her throughout the night and if I think that the birth is imminent I have permission to wake Sue up!
I've a feeling it's going to be a long night.

Finally, as a contrast to zooming around the country in my quest to see new species of bird, I am delighted to report that the two tree sparrows continue to visit the feeders and to collect nest material. They are in very steep decline so it is a privilege that they they have come back onto the farm. The same goes for Grey Partridges. I was fortunate enough to get a glimpse of the two which currently seem to spend much of their time down near the empty pig enclosure. And this afternoon a Lapwing, yet another bird in steep decline as a breeding species, was displaying at the bottom of my land. Then tonight at least two Barn Owls were flying around calling. I managed to see one quite high up against the stars and another flutter into the hollow stem of one of the old ash trees.
I don't quite know what I'm doing, but I must be doing something right. Maybe, just maybe, it's small scale, integrated farming which is doing the trick.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015


"YOU KEEP AWAY FROM THE BIRDMAN, GRACIE," my father had warned me often enough. "Keep well clear of him, you hear me now?" And we never would have gone anywhere near him, Daniel and I, had the swans not driven us away from the pool under Gweal Hill where we always went to sail our boats.

The opening lines of Why The Whales Came, my favourite book by my favourite children's author, Michael Morpurgo. I've just started reading it with a couple of the children I teach. This, as you'll see, is a remarkable coincidence.

The first time I dipped Great Blue Heron, Britain's first record, on the Isles of Scilly back in 2007, I distinctly remember the waves breaking over Bryher - not just the beach but over the whole island!

The second time I dipped Great Blue Heron, I couldn't even see Bryher - the whole of the Scilly Isles were cloaked in thick fog. And that was just last Wednesday.

But when I disconsolately boarded the Scillonian III late afternoon last Wednesday, I didn't expect Bryher to be weighing quite so heavily on my mind all weekend. For on Thursday evening the Great Blue Heron, having given the run around to so many who had dropped everything to try to see it, was relocated on Big Pool, Bryher. This is that very same 'pool under Gweal Hill' in the book.

The pool under Gweal Hill, aka Big Pool, Bryher
And there the Great Blue Heron (henceforth known just as GBH) stayed, more or less, all weekend. In any other circumstances, I'd have been straight back down to the Scilly Isles, but circumstances colluded to keep me on the farm. There was no getting out of it. While those who take their twitching at a slightly more leisurely pace headed down to those famous birding islands to see this beast of a heron, only the second to cross the Atlantic and be found in Britain, I was at home, licking my wounds after my two previous misses and straining at the leash to get back down there.
The GBH was weighing heavily on my mind and it seemed inescapable. Everywhere I turned on the internet I came face to face with images of it.

Finally the time came. GBH had become personal. The first dip, back in 2007, had taken us by surprise. We really had expected to see that bird. Even worse was that the truly horrendous weather had us stranded on the islands and cost me a day's pay. It still stands as my most expensive dip (don't ask how much). Last Wednesday the bird was watched feeding in Old Town Bay all morning until 11 o'clock, just an hour before the Scillonian III was due to arrive with us on board. Had it not been foggy, we would have flown on and arrived in time. Had the tide not been up, the bird might not have flown off into the fog. Had we been differently placed at 2:40pm we might have caught up with the bird when it was briefly refound further up the island.

With this history, nothing was to be taken for granted. The overnight drive down to Cornwall was uneventful, if long, but we arrived with time to catch up on a couple of hour's sleep in the car. The Scillonian was leaving early today, which told me that there was something abnormal about the tides. The weather, at least, was gorgeous. No gales, no fog. Just blue skies.
A couple more hours sleep in the quiet area down in the belly of the boat and I emerged refreshed to news that the bird was still present this morning. But still I was taking nothing for granted. I had butterflies in my stomach and they had pretty much been fluttering around in there since Thursday evening.
The boat docked early and we formed an impatient queue on the quay to hop straight onto another boat. The Scilly Boatmen had a boat ready for us and we were soon chugging across to Bryher. Due to the low tide, we headed right out past Samson (a cursed island in Why The Whales Came, where none of the islanders dared to step) and round the back of Bryher.
By now, most of us had taken off our shoes and socks and rolled up our trousers, for we had been warned that this may not be a dry landing. In fact, there was another boat first, for we were shuttled across closer to the sand in a small rib. I didn't make the first shuttle, but didn't have too long to wait before I just about made it into the second rib (though by now any amount of time was too long as far as I was concerned).
No photos of this delightful scene, I'm afraid. The bird was all that I was thinking about. We jumped into the clear, shallow water, paddled to the beach and headed straight up the sand and across the island. Most of us were still barefoot, though a few thorns had some hopping along trying to pull on their shoes.

It didn't take too long until we could see the birders from the first shuttle rib lined up along the edge of Big Pool.
I ran up alongside them and there, on the other side of the pool, was the object of my quest. First views, through the bins, were enough to confirm its identity and get it on the list. But you should be able to tell from this account that it's not just about the tick on the list.

Great Blue Heron...My first view
After that I could relax and enjoy the sight. We had enjoyed a bit of an adventure to land on a beautiful island bathed in sunshine and now we were looking down the barrels of our scopes at Britain's second ever Great Blue Heron.

This was not a conventional twitch, as you can see! Look closely at the man in the light green coat.

We soon found a better vantage point and the bird even had the decency to fly much closer to us. Even just using my phone held up to the scope, I managed to get some half decent images.

This had, so far, been just about the perfect twitch. The GBH was more impressive than I had anticipated. It was most definitely beyond just a tick.
But there was the possibility of doing something else which I could not resist. For, with the tide so low, it was possible to walk from Bryher across to Tresco. So the trousers got rolled up again and we tried to avoid the quicksand and beat the incoming tide.

Soon we had crossed this:

No, I haven't yet learned to walk on water. In fact it was more like this when we crossed...

Once over on the other side, we walked the delightfully tropical paths which skirt Great Pool. Dan imagined finding an American warbler in this luxuriant growth. We emerged on the shores of Abbey Pool, where we were able to study the subtle plumage of a drake American Black Duck. (This one really is boring! But it's still amazing that it's come all the way over The Atlantic to settle here.)
We were more interested in checking out the swallows and martins, but we found nothing more unusual. We headed back to Great Pool to search for a Green-winged Teal, but to no avail. I was lucky to bump into an unexpected Wryneck, a nice bird to find and not a bird you see every day.

By now the time to depart the islands was approaching. We still had an inter island boat to catch back to board The Scillonian. We had to stop by the New Grimsby Inn for a salted caramel ice cream before waiting at the quay. The tide was coming in at quite a staggering rate and a small shoal of mullet were wheeling around in the clear waters.
Across the channel, the Bryher boat was somewhat more full than ours.

Happy birders waiting for the return boat from Bryher
 Our boat was a lot less cramped.

As we waited to depart, apparently the GBH flew from Bryher and passed right over us before dropping in somewhere near Great Pool on Tresco. We didn't notice it! Good job it didn't decide to do that earlier in the day, or we wouldn't have had quite such a relaxing time.

The Kingfisher dropped us at the quay just in time to board The Scillonian. A celebratory strong coffee and bacon roll before grabbing a bit more sleep ready for the long drag home.
There was time to drop into Marazion Marsh on the mainland, where a Great White Egret had the good grace to fly up out of the reeds, do a circuit and drop back in again. Just for us. A few miles up the road, a Ring-billed Gull was quickly located on Ryan's Field at the Hayle.

Then it was foot to the floor (minor diversion at Bodmin for Fish and Chips) and back to The Fens.
By 2:30am I was heading upstairs for a well-earned deep sleep.

In Why The Whales Came, the story develops to revolve around a group of narwhals which beach on the shores of Bryher. Now, if that happened I'd be straight back down there. It's not just birds.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Not So Great Blue Heron

My highlight bird of the week.
And no, it's not a Great Blue Heron.
If you're expecting photos of Britain's second ever Great Blue Heron, or even a thrilling description of the bird and its behaviour, then you'd better go find someone else's blog - someone who actually saw it!
No. This is a tale of woe, but quite possibly an unfinished tale. The story starts on 7th December 2007 with breaking news of Britain's first ever Great Blue Heron being found on the pools at Lower Moors, St Marys, Isles of Scilly. Great Blue Heron is the American version of our Grey Heron. The weather that weekend was horrendous, but we headed down overnight into the storm and crossed over to St Marys in the morning, more confident than usual that we would be adding a new bird to our lists. After all, the heron had found a perfect place to live, or at least to stay for a while. It was probably freshly in from America so would need a few days to feed up and regain its strength. And finally there was no way anything was going anywhere in this weather. The waves were literally crashing over the island and the buildings in Hugh Town were being pummelled, fresh seaweed being hurled up against their walls with every incoming wave.
Well, you've probably guessed what happened by now. No sign of the Great Blue Heron. Not ever. Never to be seen again. We trudged all over the island that day, getting pretty soaked, windswept and deflated in the process. To make it worse, the only way off the islands on Sunday morning was to get across to the heliport at Tresco, the neighbouring island. But there was no way that any of the boatmen were going to take us across, so we ended up stuck on the islands with a whole extra day to trudge around in our soul-destroying search. There was always a chance that we would get stuck, but at the time the priority was just to get across to the islands and see the bird. We could sort out minor details like getting back for work after that. Well, that was the plan and it all went rather spectacularly wrong. With the day's pay that I got docked, this entered the record books as my most expensive dip of all time.

Now, some seven years later, the pain of that miss has just about worn off. My life has changed a lot, but birds are still a big part of it. This Tuesday morning I was feeling pretty happy. For when I looked out of the window I found two Tree Sparrows, an ever rarer sight in our English countryside, dining at my feeders and even collecting nest material from the ground. These have been absent from the farm for the last two years, so I was thrilled by this sighting.

But the day was to take an unexpected turn. For that evening I came back from putting the chickens to bed to find my pager flashing and missed calls on my phone.
There was another Great Blue Heron in the country. It was on The Isles of Scilly, St Marys Island from the hide at Lower Moors. The exact same place that the first one was found. Not only that, but it was watched till dark feeding in the shallow waters of the adjacent Old Town Bay.
The timing was perfect. I was not due at work till Friday. Sue was going away this weekend, but I could be down to Scilly and back before she went. Perfect! Two hours later I was heading down to the outskirts of London to meet up with some birding mates from my old life in London and Kent. And by 6 o'clock Wednesday morning we were in Penzance ready for the almost 3 hours crossing. We would like to have flown, not only for speed and comfort but because we would get longer to see the bird. But the islands were enveloped in thick fog and for the third day running no planes were running so the only option was to wait till 9:15 and chug across on the Scillonian III.

We quickly had news from the island that the heron was still there and regular updates as we sailed towards our target through the fog had us feeling pretty confident that this time we would mend some of those old wounds and finally get to see Great Blue Heron in Britain.
But at 11am news came through that the bird had vanished from the bay where it was feeding and could not be relocated. This was worrying but not disastrous as there were about 70 people about to arrive on the island to help with the search. It wouldn't be too long before someone refound it .




Come half past two in the afternoon our mood was becoming somewhat less optimistic. We had about an hour left before we had to head back for the boat. Rich had to be back for a pre-wedding photo shoot (not something that's easily missed) and I really needed to get back to the farm. Overnight one of our ewes had slightly taken us by surprise and given birth. Sadly, the lamb had not survived the birth. The other animals needed looking after too and Sue would not be around to do it.
The thought of needing to stay on the island had not even crossed our minds till now.

Our undoing had been the tides, for the rising waters had clearly pushed the bird away from where it was happy feeding and the tide would not be going down again until after the boat had left the island! It was almost certain that the heron would return to the bay to feed in the evening, so with that in mind most of the travelling birders had decided to miss the boat and stay on the island, including half of our team. Rich and I were becoming pretty disconsolate when suddenly news came through that the bird had been refound in a weedy field further up the island. We ran back to the road and bundled into the first passing taxi. A five minute dash, out of the taxi only to be told that the bird had flown again.
We were firmly in headless chicken mode by now! We decided to head back to where we had just come in a bid to outwit the bird, but there was no sign when we got there. We met other birders with tales of poor views of two herons, one bigger than the other, one darker than the other, but it seemed no one had enjoyed great views. But right now any view would do! We had about 20 minutes left before we had to leave in the knowledge that while we were sitting on that miserable boat everybody else was sure to be enjoying protracted views of the heron as it returned to Old Town Bay to feed.

At that moment a heron flew toward us and dropped into an area at the back of the reeds, but try as we might we could not turn it into the Great Blue. There is no happy ending to this tale.

The time had come. We had to go. Ahead of us was a three hour chug across the sea, a five hour drive back to London and, for me, another two hours back to the farm. There was also the prospect of when we would be doing this whole trip again. In all likelihood we would be driving back on Thursday night if we had the energy. Not only would I be totally knackered, but the list of jobs to do on the farm would be mounting, I would have to ask favours of people and I would probably be in the dog house too!

And so to this morning. Amazingly the bird did not return to any of its favourite spots yesterday evening and, so far, it has not been found this morning. Rich's photo shoot may inadvertently have saved us from further misery.
I'm sure the story's not over yet, but as long as the bird does not reappear today it does seem like there is time for us to catch our breath and muster ourselves for the next attempt.

Meanwhile I am watching goldfinches and greenfinches on my feeders and hoping for the reappearance of the tree sparrows. I am anxiously keeping an eye on my pager too.

Edit: The 2 Tree Sparrows are still here.

... and the GBH has just reappeared on Bryher, another of the Scilly Isles.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Warning. Post contains rooed images.

I've not talked about the sheep for a while.
Well the grass has finally started growing and we may have lambs on the way. I say "may" as it's all a bit unplanned.
It all depends on Rambo really.

RAMBO... up close and personal
The one benefit of having to feed the sheep over the winter is that they will at least now follow a bucket, which make moving them much easier. Their wild Shetland instincts are still there and they won't stand for being touched. All, that is, except Rambo, who in just the past 2 weeks has suddenly decided to be friends.
He has needed a little training not to playfully butt me! This consists of me grabbing him by the horns and holding him for about 30 seconds so he knows who is boss. Gradually he is beginning to respond to my stern teacher's voice too.

Anyway, he now runs over to see me and loves a stroke under the chin. He also loves having his wool plucked. Shetlands are self-shedding. This means that their wool falls out of its own accord. For a while they look a right mess. When they start shedding their wool can simply be plucked, or 'rooed'.
So far only the wool from Rambo's neck has come loose enough to be rooed, but it makes a fine god-beard for me!

In fact, one of the lambs is moulting so fast that his wool comes out in handfuls. The other day I managed to catch him and pretty much sheared him in 5 minutes. The only problem is that I couldn't get to his rump end - they seem to start shedding from the head backwards so this end was not quite ready to come, even if I could reach it.
The end result is rather reminiscent of an advert for a certain well known chain of opticians.

Monday, 6 April 2015

An Easter Swallow

Yesterday was Easter Sunday. I haven't turned religious, but it marked the most important day in the calendar. It is not a fixed date but it is one which marks hope and new growth.
For as I was digging out a new pond, I happened to glance up just at the right time to see a swallow disappearing through the window into the stables. Before I continue, I'd like to do something very unusual and apologise for being wrong. It's not the apology which is rare, it's me being wrong! But I did say in a recent blog that the swallows wouldn't be back until later in the month. So the appearance of this single swallow took me somewhat by surprise. But when I checked up, they returned on 8th April last year, so three days earlier this year.
The morning had seen a large flock, maybe 50, of wild swans departing to the north, so it was definitely a case of out with the winter and in with the summer.
Last year six swallows returned together and alerted me to their presence with their excited overhead chattering. This year's bird is a lone bird, but it headed straight into the stable as if it knew where it was going and rested up there for quite some time before heading into the sky over the farm to feed up.

For reasons I won't go into (not to do with Sue), I am making myself scarce in the house at the moment and spending about 12 hours a day outside. I am achieving plenty. I have had some help too. For the guinea fowl have been putting a lot of effort into turning my onion bed into a very fine tilth.

I obliged them by planting all my onion sets today, 350 of them in total.
I have placed them in rows 10" apart (25cm new money). When I have squeezed the spacing in the past, not only do the onions come out smaller but hoeing down the rows is a nightmare, normally resulting in the beheading of at least a couple of onions.
I have spaced the Giant Stuttgarters at 6" apart to give them plenty of space to grow into fine specimens. The Red Barons are closer at 4" apart.

Needless to say, I've netted them all just in case the guinea fowl return!

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