Sunday, 30 August 2015

Two Little Ducks - Quack Quack

Just over a month ago one of our ducks went missing. Shortly after, I noticed that there were only ten guinea fowl roosting on the fence at night (there should be 12). Now there are only 9 guinea fowl every night.
So what's been going on? Do we have a case of poultry poaching? Or maybe a fox has been sneaking in? Are the birds getting ill?
There's no evidence to support any of these theories.

But there is this:

To be honest, they didn't come as a total surprise. I rather suspected that Mrs Duck had taken herself off to sit on eggs and we did occasionally see her when she made brief forays to the food tray. She always disappeared off towards Weasel Ridge, which is somewhat overgrown at the moment, but it took me three weeks to locate her on her nest.
Once I knew where the nest was I waited for her to go for food and then was able to count nine eggs. Unfortunately only two have reached duckling stage, but that doesn't really matter. For when I let the birds incubate au naturel it is just really to keep the birds happy. Any offspring are a bonus and we always end up with significantly fewer young birds than if we took them away from nature and protected them in pens.

The chances of these two making it to duckhood are still slim, for there are many threats. But for the moment we will just enjoy their cuteness, watching their little clockwork legs whirring round at a million miles an hour to keep up with mums and dad.
And just so you don't get too attached, if they do become big enough they will be for the pot. We can't keep every cute animal we have as a pet. We are, after all, a smallholding and not a zoo.

As for those guinea fowl I mentioned, I've found two sitting on a loose pile of eggs (so many that they keep rolling out the sides) in the comfrey patch and one hidden under a rough patch of sage.
Let's hope we have more success than last year when only two made it through the autumn rains.

For now, I'll leave you with a couple more cute duckling piccies.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Today I brutted my laterals and pruned my plums

I read on Facebook the other day that someone was harvesting their cobnuts. Is it time already? I checked my spreadsheet of tasks to be performed through the year (yes, I know, it's sad) and there were the words "brut laterals on cobnuts". I remember typing this, but never actually got round to finding out what it meant. I had decided to leave it till I needed to find out... which brings me to today.
Basically the laterals are the sideshoots. Brutting means snapping them and letting them hang. I'm not sure this is a technique used on any other crops, but it has its own word. By snapping the 'twigs' half way along this year's growth, it stops the tree producing more growth and instead makes it produce more flowers, more nuts next year.
It also has other benefits such as opening up the tree and increasing airflow. It will be interesting to see the results next year.
One of my freshly brutted cobnuts
As I performed the brutting operation, I was surprised to see next year's catkins already beginning to form, even before this year's fruit is fully ready.

Tiny catkins already forming along the laterals
 My other job today was to attempt to prune my plum trees and cherry trees. These fruits must be pruned before the sap is withdrawing, otherwise they are very vulnerable to disease. Silverleaf disease is bad news for plums. The job had been delayed a week while I waited for an order of wound compound to arrive. I've not used this before, but it is essential when pruning stone fruits to seal up the cut ends of wood. I don't know why, but I was expecting a powder, so when I opened up the small tub I was surprised to find a gloopy substance which I swear is just a mix of mud and rubber. Anyway, it seemed to do a good job of sealing the wounds and now that I have it I can take more care when pruning other trees too.
The pruning is mostly just taking out damaged or crossing branches, opening up the middle of the tree and balancing the tree, I took the opportunity to remove and shorten some of the drooping branches which would struggle under the weight of a good harvest. The aforesaid good harvest seems totally unpredicatable when it comes to plums. Trees which did brilliantly last year had not a plum on them, whereas others such as my Imperial Gage were literally dripping with fruits.
At least I have a few varieties, so there will always be one or two trees which produce well.

These plums are still too firm to pick.
I'm keeping a close eye on them though so I can get them before the wasps move in.

One tree which produced fairly well last year was one of my Victoria plums. However, half of its branches seemed devoid of fruit and were adorned with treacherous thorns. I presumed that a few shoots had risen up from below the graft, but the source was hidden by the tree protector.
However this year the spiny impostor was rampant. It has formed a lovely looking tree, but the Victoria Plum part of it is right in the middle, amply protected by the spiny forest.
So today I removed the tree protector, intending to lop off all thorny interlopers. But what I found was worse than I thought.
The plum tree proper is the small stem on the left!
The main trunk of the tree led up to thick, spiky branches. The Victoria Plum was coming a poor second. I decided to leave it be. Maybe we'll get a surprise crop in the future, but what? Sloes? Bullaces? Mirabelles? Or just a nice looking tree.

Friday, 28 August 2015

More about Ixworths

The Ixworth chicken breed was unsurprisingly developed in the Suffolk village of Ixworth. Perhaps, more interestingly, it was developed by the same person, Reginald Appleyard, who developed the Silver Appleyard duck. He was clearly quite a talented poultry breeder, if a little unoriginal in thinking up names for his breeds.
The aim of developing the Ixworth was to produce a bird which not only laid a good amount of eggs but one where the cockerels grew quickly a made good meat birds. Today we call this an all-rounder.
The breed was finally developed in 1939 and became popular in war time and post-war Britain.

But then came the arrival from America of mass-produced food which unfortunately included chickens. Meat breeds were developed which reached kill weight in half the time. Eggs were produced by different breeds.
By the 1970s the Ixworth breed was almost gone. The public had got used to cheap, tasteless white meat from mass produced birds and insipid eggs from battery farms. Convenience and cheapness had taken over from quality and any concerns for animal welfare. This applied to pretty much all food. You can understand it after times of austerity and with lifestyles changing so quickly, but the trend has unfortunately carried on. There is slightly more awareness about the issues now, but overall people have become totally distanced from the origins of their food. I know somebody in their mid-twenties who didn't even know you had to dig to get potatoes out of the ground!

One good product of the 70's was The Good Life. Good old Tom and Barbara showed us another way. (Was that too may goods?) I don't know how much this influenced me in my youth, but there is now a significant minority of us who prefer to balance the conveniences of the present with some of the values and qualities of the past. Of course some of us are more stuck in the past than others.

And so re-enter the Ixworth. This once seemingly perfect all-round breed was thankfully not forgotten by everybody and is now making a comeback. It is still a rare breed, but is gaining popularity among smallholders.

I managed to get a cockerel from a different source to my two young hens to avoid weak, interbred stock. This trio of birds have now been introduced and are getting along very well. Once the hens reach point of lay, I will start collecting their eggs, as normal. But come next spring I will be placing their eggs under any willing hens in the main chicken pen, with the aim of hatching them out and raising them for meat.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Poultry merry-go-round

The two white hens have moved to the turkeys' pen, the turkeys have moved up to the white cockerel's stable, the white cockerel has moved to where the four cockerels used to live and the four cockerels have moved to... the freezer!
All this happened a week ago. For as a smallholder I seem to be constantly moving animals from place to place.

The two white hens are in fact Ixworth hens and when they are big enough they will be laying eggs to be hatched under our broodies to be raised as meat birds.

This cockerel will be a more permanent resident
than some of the others, so we'd better think of a name for him.
The white cockerel is slightly older and came from a different home. He is an Ixworth too and his job is to look afer the two girls and make sure their eggs are capable of hatching.
So there we have our breeding trio. They will be kept in a separate pen to the other chickens so their offspring are pure. Hatching them under broodies will not only keep the broodies happy but it saves Sue and I having to look after them inside. And when they hatch they can wander around with all the other hens until they are big enough to go in the freezer, for Ixworths make an excellent meat bird.

The turkeys came to us a few days old, which meant keeping them in a box with a lamp for heat until they had enough feathers to go outside, which coincides with the time that three of them are pretty much too big to fit in the box comfortably. It also unfortunatley comes several weeks after they begin to create quite an odour! They go out during the day for a while first, like hardening off plants, and then they went into their own pen down with the chickens.

The turkeys in their hardening off pen.
 (and Sue) (and Boris on the outside, when he was little)
But turkeys like to roam, so they quickly learned to hop the fence and wander around the farm. This home too was a temporary one for them, since again they quickly get too big to be put away every night in a chicken house. They barely even fit under the door. But it gives them a chance to get used to their surroundings before they move up into the stables, where they can roost safely every night and free-range during the day. In the evening I simply lead the gangly creatures back to their stable.

The turkeys explore their new accommodation
That brings us to the four cockerels. The law of Sod states that when you hatch eggs there will always be plenty of cockerels. But the law of Sod also states that you will have to keep them quite a while until you know for sure they are cockerels. (The Crested Cream Legbar male chicks were different to the girls, but they didn't make good meat birds and the young cockerels were very 'boisterous'.) So you end up with macho young cockerels upsetting the balance of the chicken pen, challenging the older cockerels and harassing the females. Therefore we separated four of them off a while back until they were big enough to ... well.... let's just say that their moving on was well timed for the great poultry merry-go-round. Their dispatch was swift as Sue and I have become pretty good at this now and Sue soon had them processed and in the freezer.
Five years ago we were city folk and wouldn't have had a clue how to do all this. We have moved on a long way since then.

As I write, the Ixworth trio are now together. For a couple of days they were in adjacent pens so they could get used to each other but when we opened the door, they settled together instantly. The hens follow the cockerel everywhere and he takes care of them.

Meanwhile one of the black ducks has disappeared. To be more precise, once in a blue moon she appears for food early in the morning before wandering off to disappear again. I think she has hidden herself on Weasel Ridge somewhere. If all goes well, she will appear one day soon with a line of ducklings waddling along behind her.
And on the same theme there are now only ten guinea fowl on the fence at nights. I found the other two yesterday, hunkered down in the comfrey bed. Let's hope they do better than last year, when between all of them they eventually only managed to rear two young. If only they would incubate earlier in the year so the chicks weren't so vulnerable to Lincolnshire's early autumn weather.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Don't worry, bee happy!

As I write, the sweetcorn is still intact. I have however caught my first field mouse of the autumn in the polytunnel traps, plus two voles (short-tailed field voles to be precise). There was a single rat dropping in the polytunnel too and there is the familiar smell of rodents in the stables.
But on the whole it does not seem that we have suffered the sort of invasion which previous harvests have catalysed.

This morning is a beautiful morning and I'm off to see a Red-footed Falcon just up the road at Willow Tree Fen. Boris is coming along for his first ever birdwatching trip. Let's hope he behaves.
When I get back, I'll be planting up some of the plants I've raised this year and I'll be rotavating, for two days of significant rainfall have been welcome and have left the soil in perfect condition for planting, weeding and turning.

The veg garden is looking just about at its best now. The flower mixes are floribundant (no it's not a real word) and the grass is verdant. I even managed to mow it all before the rain came.
It is important to me not only that the veg plot is productive, but that it looks beautiful too and that it is a haven for wildlife, especially beneficial insects. I have plenty of space to produce more than enough to satisfy Sue and I, so devoting a few beds to easily grown flower mixes doesn't compromise anything.

The one drawback of attracting so many pollinators into the veg plot is that, just occasionally, our paths cross. Sue's bees can be a little tetchy at times, a little on the defensive side. They normally go straight for the head and end up tangled in your hair. There is then a choice to be made. Try to extract them risking a sting to the crown or to the hand, or hope that they get bored, manage to extricate themselves and fly off. The latter is not quite so easy to do in reality when you can feel a bee crawling on your head and hear its angry buzzing in your ears.

But last week, taking the first course of action did not work either. I was actually planting some bee-friendly plants, anise hyssop and verbena bonariensis, when the attack happened. A single kamikazee bee which had clearly got out of the wrong side of the hive this morning took exception to me. Seconds later I felt a familiar sharp, painful sting in my finger.  have to say, the actual sting doesn't actually hurt too much. It's more just the initial shock. But my reaction to bee stings is more the worry. For within an hour or so the swelling begins. It starts at the location of the sting and then creeps very slowly. Last time a sting on the top of the head resulted in a swollen cheek bone. This time, a sting on the middle finger, by the next day, had become a swollen hand.
It wasn't helped by the fact that, two hours after the first suicide attack, the same happened again! Another sting on the same finger. 

I posted my picture on Facebook and all my non-beekeeping friends were horrified. There was even talk of anaphylactic shock and epipens, which I considered an over-reaction to a fairly normal occurrence. 

But I did start to think. I know that different people tend to react differently to bee stings. Last time Sue got stung it was just above the eye and I had to spend the next week persuading everybody that I had not hit her, such was the swelling! She spent most of the week sporting a rather oversize pair of sunglasses.
I seem to suffer a similar reaction to Sue. No real pain apart from the initial sting, but a delayed swelling which spreads and looks rather shocking. Oh, how could I forget the itching. Intense itchiness which comes and goes for no apparent reason. Indescribably itchy.

I decided to take to the interweb for advice. Not always a wise move when it comes to medical matters, but I just wanted to know if this swelling was indicative of an allergy to bee venom and if the next step could be anaphylactic shock. The interweb was unusually unhelpful, leading me round in circles and not really giving an answer. So I took to one of the beekeeping Facebook groups.

The comments I received from actual beekeepers were most helpful and put my mind at rest. It seems that many people have a similar reaction to bee stings. Although not the normal reaction, and probably indicative of some level of allergy, it is certainly not unusual either. It seems I am about as likely to suddenly stop breathing as anybody else. Unless symptoms change or get worse I have little to worry about. More than that, several people said that after a few more stings my body would probably get used to being stung and the reaction would die down.

So today I shall be doing some more planting and if I get stung I shall take consolation in the fact that it's probably part of my journey toward immunity... hopefully.
At least the swollen hand took my mind off the pain I was already suffering all down my arm after I foolishly tried to change the angle of descent of a branch which fell the wrong way when I was up a ladder dismantling a willow tree which had outgrown its allotted space... but that's another story. Let's just say that the heavy rain we've had has allowed me to find the chinks in the repairs I made to the gutters!

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Sweetcorn at risk from a plague of rodents?

Every year I give you a photo of a huge combine harvester looming out of the dust and rumbling past the edge of our garden. Well not this year, for the air was still and the combine was for some reason much quieter.
Before I knew it, the wheat field next to us looked like this.

 The very next day it looked like this.

Nowhere to hide

Last year this spelled curtains for my sweetcorn crop. We quickly harvested what was ripe, but the rest got devoured overnight by field mice and/or rats, which flee the openness of the freshly cut field dodging the watchful eyes of kestrels and buzzards, and head straight onto our farm.
A kestrel and a rook captured in the skies above the
newly harvested field. Rooks are uncommon on the farm.
Last year five traps in the polytunnel caught five field mice the morning after the straw was baled up. It's not nice and they are beautiful creatures, but I have to do something to protect my crops. So two days ago had me rushing about setting mouse traps and laying rat poison (if you hit them hard straight away, it saves much bigger problems later on and minimises the amount of poison getting into the ecosystem).
This is not pretty stuff, but it is part of the reality of rural life.

So this morning I rushed out to check the traps and to check my sweetcorn, for it has been slow this year and none of it is yet ready for harvest. Just one vole in the polytunnel, which may explain the nibbled carrot tops I found yesterday and so far no damage to the sweetcorn. We'll see what happens over the next couple of days. Fingers crossed.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Cherry Plums from the Edible Hedgerow

One of the first things I did when we moved in was to plant an edible hedgerow, more for the hedgerow and the birds than for its harvest. It's only a token hedgerow really and doesn't go far towards making amends for the miles and miles of missing wildlife corridors and habitat which farmers have destroyed over the years to accommodate their bigger and bigger machinery. Mind you, here on the fens there probably never were too many hedgerows, just dykes, but a few hedgerows wouldn't go amiss.

I don't intend to lay my hedge as it doesn't need to keep livestock in or out, but I did prune it heavily for its first two years to encourage a nice bushy base.

So now, approaching its fifth winter, my hedgerow has flourished. I even think it had nesting sparrows in it this year. If not nesting, they certainly made extensive use of it.
For the first time it is keeping up to its promise of being edible with a good harvest, several kilograms, of cherry plums already and more to come. The blackthorns are dripping with sloe berries and there are elderberries and rose hips too. We'll have to wait a while longer for hazelnuts and wild pears and the blackberries never got established.

I've since planted the same length of hedge and more again, so in a few years time we'll be overflowing with hedgerow fruits.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Onions galore

It's been a good year for onions. This could be due to the weather we've had, or it could be that I've finally learned how to grow them properly. Probably the former.

Early April and the onion sets are all
neatly laid out. They'll be netted just
until the roots take hold properly.
Back on 6th April I planted out two rows of Giant Stuttgarter onion sets, three rows of Red Barons and a row and a half of Sturon. A few shallots had already been in the ground since just before Christmas. I always buy onion sets as opposed to growing from seed. 350 onion sets cost me just £4, so at just over a penny an onion, why not take the easiest growing option?
The guinea fowl perform the final soil preparation, fine tilling.

I used to grow my onions mixed in with carrots and beetroots in an effort at companion planting, but it wasn't very convenient and never seemed to work tremendously well. I'd always get onions, but nothing special. Last year I devoted a bed to just onions, but I made the mistake of not keeping it weeded. To be precise, I took out selective weeds but decided to let a few nasturtiums grow in amongst the onions. Well before I knew it the nasturtiums had smothered the onions and created a warm, damp microclimate under their canopy. The onions did not like it and many of them started to rot.
So this year not a weed was allowed. The onions thrived, despite the relatively cool and certainly very dry early summer. Some bolted in the dry conditions, about one in six. No matter as Sue will use these ones to make her delicious onion marmalade and chutneys.
The late July deluge seemed to help them swell further. Don next door always folds the tops over on his onions, all the same way like regimented soldiers. I wondered if I should do this, but the interweb says that is an old practice which can encourage rot to enter at the bend. So I left mine. Most of them fold themselves over anyway and once the majority have done this, another week or so for the bulbs to mature and then they need to come out of the ground.

Onions drying in the sun.
The basket contains the bolted ones,
ready to go into marmalade and chutneys.
Last week I decided it was time to uproot them and lay them out on the soil so that the sunshine and warm winds could really get to work on the drying process. They managed to get three days outside but showers forecast for yesterday afternoon found me moving them inside to the polytunnel, where I came up with an ingenious way of hanging them through the slats of my greenhouse staging.
Hopefully the onions will cure well
in the polytunnel.
They won't need long in there before they are ready to be strung or hung up in onion bags. I'll be keeping a close eye on them though, as I have so many that they are a little crowded on the racks. I'm pretty sure that there is enough air circulation in the polytunnel and that the warm air will cure them quickly.

Now here's a link to some proper advice about harvesting onions. It's American, but the principles are sound.

I'm off to find a way of ridding the house of the smell of onions when Sue starts making the marmalade.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

You can take chitting a little too far.

We're well into the summer holidays now. A gratefully wet end to July has turned into a so far cloudy but dry August.
Sue and I have been having a massive clear out. It began with a plan to move the fence by the stables and put in a new gate. Then I decided to take out the two twisted willows which probably looked nice when they were planted but have now outgrown the available space, casting deep shadow and filling the gutters with leaves and seed frass. As usual, what looked like a spindly trunk from the ground turned into a towering, colossal lump of solid wood when I was perched precariously up a ladder!
There was, however, a good view over the veg patch.

This is not the best time to cut trees, as they are green and heavy with sap and the leaves rather act like a sail if the slightest breeze gets up. This has two effects. Firstly, the trees starts waving around everywhere, with me clinging to the the trunk.

Selfie taken up a tree.
You'll be pleased to know this will be my last
selfie for a while since I have managed to
drop my phone and crack the screen.
The crack goes right across the selfie lens.
Sure is a long way down.

Secondly, when it eventually decides to topple, it completely ignores all efforts you have made to get it to fall the other way and goes whichever way the wind takes it. A hint here. Do not try to divert its fall once it starts going - you will only end up with a very sore arm for quite some time, as the ligaments / tendons all the way up my left arm can still attest a week later! I now also have to carry out some minor repairs to the guttering and roof. You may guess why this needed doing.
The worst of it is, there is still one towering stem to cut down, but until my arm is fully mended and we get a perfectly still day, I shall be leaving it where it is. I will also leave those repairs until I know whether there are any more to add to the list.
On the plus side, the sheep go mad for the willow branches. They strip the leaves in no time and then get to work on bark stripping with amazing efficiency. If my plan works, I shall have some very curly and fancy bean supports next year.

So, back to the clearing out. The stables have been transformed, I now have a proper workshop and Sue has a bee room to store all the accoutrements of bee-keeping. We have a pile of stuff to go off to the tip - mostly things which had been in storage for 5 years and long forgotten or junk which was too large to go in the bins and too useless to be upcycled.

I also came across two bags of stored potatoes from last year. For a couple of months now we have been enjoying a bumper crop of spuds from this year's harvest. In fact we managed to go right through the year for the first time, which is why we had two sacks still in storage.
Here they are!

These could be the inspiration for
 a couple of children's cartoon characters.
Sue and Boris, for scale. As you can see, Boris is a big boy now.

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