Saturday, 28 November 2015

The killing month

November is the killing month. Animals have fed on the summer's bounty and the land won't sustain them all through the winter. It's time to thin down to breeding stock and anything which needs to grow for a second season. It's part of the cycle of seasons which rules our lives since we have chosen to live off the land.
So, in the last month I have sent a pig to the abattoir and helped butcher it, sent 4 Shetland sheep off, prepared 20 pheasants and 6 partridges, learned to dispatch, skin, gut and butcher a rabbit, been to a smallholders meeting about preparing chicken and curing bacon and hams and today I helped kill two of my sheep. Now, to many all this will seem unthinkable.
I always knew that I would reach this stage but it has been a journey which I would like to explain. And don't worry. I'm not going for shock tactics with the photos, though there will be some images near the end. If you're feeling uncomfortable with what you're reading then probably best not go any further! You don't need to come on the whole journey with me, but hopefully it will be interesting for anybody starting out in smallholding or thinking about it.
After all, it is all too easy to breed stock and end up with too many animals. Right from the outset you need to be clear what the animals are for and have a clear plan for 'the end' - that means waving goodbye to them, selecting an abattoir if appropriate, transporting them, filling in the paperwork, cutting the meat and having a plan for what happens to all the meat in the end. If your plan is vague, it's best not to let your animals breed, for you will end up with either a farm full of pet animals growing all too large and consuming a lot of expensive food or you will end up with freezers full of meat which you cannot possibly consume. Believe me, I speak from experience.

They may look cute at this stage,
but don't lose sight of why you're breeding your animals.
Otherwise you'll get more stock than you can look after, which is not fair on anybody.
Someone I know says that you should either keep and kill your own animals or you should be a vegan and that anything in between is not a viable position. I don't 100% agree but  do see where they are coming from. It may surprise you that I did actually used to be a vegan. I do believe that if you are going to eat meat then you need to face up to where it comes from and how it is reared. You need to reject mass production methods.

Smallholding and self-sufficiency sounds very idealistic and maybe idyllic. But it is hard work, not that I mind, and the smallholding side is not about keeping pets.
Even with something as cosy as keeping chickens, you soon come across the harsh realities of life and death. However well you care for birds, sooner or later one will become ill and you need to know what to do with it - and we're not talking an expensive visit to the vets here!
Then comes the point when you just can't resist allowing one of your broody hens to hatch out a clutch of eggs. It's all very cute until the chicks grow up and half of them (sod's law actually means it's normally more than half) turn into violent young cockerels fighting for alpha male position. The number of Facebook posts I see from people wanting 'loving homes' for unwanted cockerels, usually with names.
There comes a point when the cockerels have to be dealt with.
As a smallholder, I like to think that I raise my animals more humanely and more naturally than mass-produced livestock. But at the end of the day my guinea fowl, turkeys, geese, chickens, sheep and pigs are there for a reason and most of them will end up as meat.

And this is where we get to the nitty gritty of smallholding, the hard facts.
A pig or a sheep is fairly straightforward. You load it into the trailer one morning and drive it off to the abattoir, where you lead it into quite a nice little pen and then drive off. You don't need to know what happens next. It just gets returned to you neatly cut and packaged into joints. The most stressful part is probably getting it into the trailer in the first place, especially with pigs. My only advice it to come up with some sort of plan, give yourself time, be patient and, most importantly, be prepared to see the funny side of it when all goes wrong!

One of our Shetlands returned from the butcher.
The next step up the ladder, for most, comes with learning how to dispatch poultry. The killing, plucking and eviscerating (gutting) is the bit you don't have to do when you buy a chicken from the supermarket. You don't have to see the head or feet either. But most people are quite quick to get used to this, in the knowledge that their chickens have had a good life. You can still opt to send the chickens off to be 'dealt with', but this becomes a significant cost compared to the cost of rearing the bird. Probably only worth it for a turkey or a goose, or if you're selling the meat.
But there comes a stage when you end up with something which approximates the whole chicken you would buy in a supermarket or at a butchers. After that, most meat eaters would not baulk at what might be classed as the first steps in butchery, jointing the chicken.

The next step in our journey dealing with meat came with a friend offering us game birds left over from a shoot. A couple of weeks ago I was kindly given ten brace of pheasants. I was going to write a blog post called pheasants for the peasants, but I never quite got round to it!
Sue and I learned how to skin the pheasants from YouTube a couple of years ago. It's surprisingly easy. You don't even need to pluck the birds and you can get the breast and legs off without going anywhere near the insides. To be honest there's virtually no other useful meat anyway. This method is so quick that I managed to process all 20 pheasants I was given the other day in just a couple of hours.

From chickens and game birds, the next step up was last year's Christmas turkey - well, we actually ate it about February! I don't really do Christmas.
The broomstick method of poultry dispatch (no, we don't chase them round and round the yard with a broomstick) has made Sue and I very confident in dong the deed. Once you can do a chicken, there's not a lot different doing other birds. They're just slightly larger or slightly smaller.

So the journey so far has taken us from sending off our sheep and pigs to actually doing the deed and all the subsequent preparation ourselves with poultry.

But for me the biggest step is when it comes to dealing with mammals rather than birds. I sort of did these in the wrong order. I started by going on a pig butchery day a couple of years back. It was way too complicated, not helped by being led by a good butcher, but not  a good teacher.
A step backwards came last year when I picked up Daisy's carcass from the abattoir and drove it over to the good people at Cambridgeshire Self Sufficiency Group to be used for a sausage making demonstration.
Fond memories of Daisy... but the sausages were lovely too

I spent a day helping (aka getting in the way) Paul cut up and package our pig. I've never really struggled with sending animals to the abattoir. No tears have been shed, however much I respect the animals during their lives. I didn't struggle with picking up our sow either, even though she was very friendly to me and was still recognisable when the carcass came back.
You may think me heartless, or perhaps think I've become desensitised to all this. Yes, I've gradually got used to it, but I have never lost my care or respect for the animals. I am just matter of fact about it. Sue and I still say sorry to the animals before they go.

The next step was when our sheep went off last year. They made very disappointing weights, but we learned lessons and this year we were delighted with the weights which our Shetlands made.
Anyway, we had volunteered a couple of last year's sheep for a Fenland Smallholders Club lamb butchery day. Unfortunately in the end the carcass was somewhat overchilled and chances for us to have a go were limited. However, it was another step in my learning. It seemed a lot less complicated than a pig and, with the help of Youtube to refresh my memory, I would be happy to have a go in the future.

This year's pork when it still had a bit of growing left to do
And so to this year's pig. We didn't raise it ourselves, as we've formed a co-op with a couple of other smallholders. This means that the pigs, sociable animals, can be reared in a group without us having mountains of meat on our hands. The butcher we used to use went downhill quite rapidly last year with the loss of a couple of staff members. We were no longer happy with their service. However, if you get the abattoir butchers to cut your animals, the sausages are made from all the pigs which go through the establishment that week. This kind of destroys the point of rearing your own rare-breeed animals.
And so we went back to the services of Paul, a private butcher. This meant taking the carcass over to his and helping with the butchery again. We have been very happy with the meat and the sausages. I learned a lot more this time. Even better, Paul was able to turn half of our pig into smoked bacon and hams which have proved absolutely irresistible.

Thus far, as far as mammals are concerned, I had managed to stay well away from the killing part of things (and the skinning and gutting).
But last week another smallholder was sending a litter of rabbits on their final journey and had volunteered to show other interested parties how to do it.
(This is the point where you may want to stop looking at the pictures if you're sensitive about this subject matter)
The transition from feathers to fur
certainly makes a difference
to how it feels
So we headed down to Prickwillow in the heart of The Fens. Four furry rabbits were meeting their maker. I didn't actually do the deed on any of them. Sue tried but needed help. However, we did discover that the broomstick method worked even better on rabbits than it does on poultry! A karate chop to the back of the neck is another quick and efficient way.
Saddle of rabbit x4
The rabbits were large-breed and it really did feel different to killing a bird. However, when it came to the skinning and preparation, I was surprised by how very similar it was to skinning a pheasant. The skinned and eviscerated carcass was remarkably similar to a large bird, just with an elongated section in the middle. The jointing was very simple too. In fact, rearing rabbits for meat is a strong possibility in the future. The meat is not as 'rustic' as wild rabbit and is very lean and low in cholesterol.

And so to today. A couple of my older Shetland sheep had served me well but needed to go now before the winter. For the first time I was planning on not sending them to the abattoir. Instead I was going to home kill. Well, to be more precise, Paul was going to home kill them for me. There are rules about this. Firstly the meat has to be solely for the consumption of the owner. Also they still need to be dispatched humanely, stunned first.  I wasn't quite sure what to expect and approached the day with some degree of trepidation. But I felt that I owed it to my livestock to at least see what happens to them in their final moments. I feel this actually increases my respect for them when they are alive.
The ewe on the left and the wether below.
Both photos taken a while back.

Without going into too much gory detail, the whole process was not as traumatic or as messy as I had imagined. I'm sure some of this came down to Paul's careful handling of the animals, both while alive and once dead.
Bleeding out our Shetland wether
Obviously the most shocking part is the stun gun, which is basically a bolt to the top of the head. This is quick, humane and all totally above board and within the rules. I was surprised by how instant it was. It actually pretty much always kills the animal outright anyway. The next bit which I was dreading was the slitting of the throat to drain the blood. However, Paul was quick with a knife through the neck and the animals just slowly bled. The most disconcerting thing was that, just as with a bird (and the rabbits did this too) the muscles still keep on twitching so the animal is still kicking and twitching for quite a while. But rest assured, it absolutely is 100% dead.

The skinning was fascinating. This is the part where the walking, living animal which you once looked after suddenly starts to look much more like meat. Again, the process was remarkably similar to skinning a bird. It just needed a bit more effort. Paul was remarkably skilled at this and left virtually no residue on the skins.
Finally we were on to the gutting. If you've ever experienced the smell when a chicken is gutted, you'll understand just how little my nose was looking forward to this! However, Paul's careful knife work ensured that there was no leakage and the intestines and other bits came out remarkably cleanly. They went into a bin bag for disposal (more rules).

And that was that. The carcasses, as they most definitely were by now, were left to hang overnight. It would have been easier for me to get Paul to cut the meat on the same day and take it away, but I hadn't realised that before the fat 'sets' the whole carcass is remarkable wobbly. This means that any attempts at preparing the meat inevitably end up with difficult, messy cuts.
So I returned on Monday morning. Paul had already pretty much finished one sheep and had the pair of them finished in no time at all. I was really pleased with the finished product. One of the sheep had been an old girl who, although appearing very healthy, had steadfastly refused to put on any weight. I thought we'd just get a few scraps of mutton off her, but in the end she gave us some very nice cuts of meat.
The good thing about getting Paul to butcher our animals s that you get everything back. The bones can be used for the dogs, or for stock. The spare fat can be rendered down for the wild birds (with a pig, the flare fat makes a wonderful product called leaf lard). The liver, fresh as fresh can be, makes for a delicious treat. I am learning how to make tasty treats out of some of the other offal too. Again, I feel that out of respect for our animals we should use every part of the body if we possibly can.

So this time I planned to make proper use of the hearts -I have eaten these before, but just fried them up to see what they were like. This time I followed a YouTube recipe by the wonderful Scott Rae.
Here is the link and, despite our doubts, it really did make a tasty, nutritious meal.
As a little side dish, we had crispy lamb's tongue. You wouldn't usually get this back form the butchers, so I was keen to give it a try. To be honest, it wasn't too bad but I wouldn't call it a delicacy. I'll try it again though, or I'm quite sure that Boris and Arthur would not turn their noses up!

As for the skins, I would have loved to have turned them into sheepskin rugs for us but Sue and I just don't have enough time for this at the moment. It's quite a lengthy process. You also need a licence to do this, so of course we would not have tried it even if we did have the time. But we knew a friend who was very keen to take them off our hands. It will be fascinating to see the finished product.

Salting a sheepskin
So that's it. My journey from vegan to butcher! Well done if you've stayed with me the whole time and good luck if you're thinking about embarking on a similar journey. My best advice would be to find someone who can show you how to do everything properly and to never lose respect for your livestock.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

The South Holland Hood

And there was me thinking that life in the sticks was going to be quiet!

Last week, as I approached school, I spotted a policeman by the side of the road ahead of me. I quickly checked my speed. Just above what it should be, but hopefully, as there was a human at the end of the camera, I would get the benefit of the doubt. But as I approached further it bacame clear that this was no speed camera. In fact it was a STINGER!
I briefly felt guilty and tried to think what I might have done to warrant this contraption. I quickly considered the possibility of claiming four nice new tyres off the constabulary. Before I knew it I was past him. I slowly turned the corner, aware that all the parents from school were gazing on speculatively. Imagine the gossip if I had been stungered. I slowed down to a halt and watched as the policeman readied himself and flung the stinger out across the road to nab the car which had been coming along the road behind me.
For a small community, this sort of thing is pretty exciting stuff. I continued on into school and went about my teaching as usual, but come play time it was clear that a bit of a search operation was ongoing. There were police dogs barking,  a house alarm was going off, someone had been cuffed. We never experienced this sort of thing in South-east London, even if the sound of sirens was pretty much constant.

But that's not the end of it. Tuesday just gone I was heading off to help butcher a couple of sheep (another story) when, at the bottom of our road, I again briefly thought I'd been nabbed by a speed camera. I quickly realised that the camera was pointing the other way. I turned another corner and there, sat at the next junction, was another police car, and another parked up along a tiny road at the back of a field. Overhead whirred a helicopter.
It seemed that, whatever was going on, they had all exit routes from the village covered. I didn't think much more of this until I saw what was basically a wanted poster on Facebook. Somebody had been pursued all the way from Spalding after an assault. At some stage he had crashed his car and it was found abandoned in the village just down the road. Apparently, by the state of the car, it was unlikely that the wanted man had escaped without significant injuries. Maybe he's lying in a ditch somewhere.

After seeing a group of men with dogs and guns off my land a few weeks back, it's been quite an eventful month here in the South Holland Hood!

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Storm Arthur

What's been going on at Dowse Farm recently?
Well, we escaped Storm Abigail, but Storm Barny swept through with gusto one night. We're used to wind here on the fens though, so we've learned what needs to be tied down. We escaped Barny with just one dustbin lid blown across the garden and one raspberry support post snapped at the base. Easily fixed.
Anyhow, since when did storms have names in this country?

But we have been the only farm in the country to experience Hurricane Arthur combined with Hurricane Boris. The combination has kept us busy for two weeks now.

Arthur and Boris
Pinned down by Arthur
Gerry keeps an eye on the new arrival

A spot of team whittling
We're not up to anything naughty. Honest.
Don't be deceived by those innocent faces
Arthur is a feisty little chap
He's not really asleep
These are MY toys
Throw the ball.
Throw the ball.
Throw the ball.
. Wait for me. I'm coming too

Boris is our delightfully good-natured labradoodle. He's not featured on the blog for a while, but he has grown considerably and is loving life on the farm. But he has destroyed all of his toys. Even Fimble, his one time protector, has gone by the wayside.

So it was time for an altogether more long-term toy for Boris. We asked him and he requested a Jackadachadoodle!!!
That's the product of a Jack Russell/Dachsund and a Toy Poodle. We used to call these things mongrels. He's not going to grow very tall, which is why he's called Arthur Dog.

Boris likes his new little brother and Arthur likes his new big brother.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

An island of isolation in the fog.

I spent most of Tuesday on electric fence maintenance. One of the wooden posts had snapped at the base and I wanted to move the fence in a little from the edge of the dyke to give it some clearance from the overgrown grass.
During the summer I split the sheep field into 6 sections and rotate the sheep through them. But for the winter I remove some of the electric fence so they have two or three sections.

Now you may think that if an electric fence is going to kill you, it would do so with a short, sharp shock. But no. The sole purpose in life of electric fence wire is to tangle itself into a completely unfathomable knot so you are far more likely to die by long. slow torture trying to disentanlge it.

Of course my decision to spend most of the day down in the sheep field had nothing to do with yesterday's sighting of a Corn Bunting down there! Unfortunately today was even murkier than yesterday. I couldn't even see the house from down in the field, not for the whole day. I enjoy days like this, just working away at my own pace in solitude. I did hear the corn bunting in flight once, and I occasionally heard yellowhammer and reed bunting too, but spotting anything today was always going to be tricky.

I did however see this very welcome visitor, probably my favourite bird to visit the farm in the winter.

I didn't see it fly in. It was just there, perched on the tractor machinery which Don has parked at the back corner of my land. It looked massive perched there in the gloom, but just as I raised my phone to my telescope it flew off, bouyant on its long wings. I managed to find it again on the far side of Don's field, perched all fluffed up, but it really was sitting on the edge of the fog. Anyway, that explains the quality of the photo.

There's been a big influx of Short-eared Owls into the east coast over the last couple of weeks. I was lucky enough to see one come in off the sea a couple of weeks ago on the Norfolk coast. I was hopeful that this winter we would again have them on the farm and hopefully this one will stay for a while and maybe be joined by one or two more.

And back to that piece of tractor machinery sitting at the bottom of my field and a tale I forget to tell you. A couple of weeks back I saw a red landrover driving along the back dyke. This is not too unusual. The farmer at the back lets the shooters onto his land. I normally make lots of noise when I see them, just to annoy them. I start hammering something or clanging my shovel loudly. But this landrover seemed to be on our side of the dyke and when it continued across the bottom of my land and then pulled to a halt, I quickly headed down the land to investigate and challenge them.
As I headed down through the long grass and the young trees, I saw two blokes with shotguns and lurchers walking through the crop field next to my land. They called to me to alert me that they were shooting. Well, you can imagine my reply!!! I most certainly can't repeat it here. I started running towards the landrover, impolitely and loudly 'requesting' that they leave my land. Three guys were presumably waiting to shoot anything flushed up by the others. It was fortunate I was there, as I flushed up a small covey of grey partridges and a couple of pheasants from the long grass which I leave deliberately for wildlife.  I'm fairly sure that had I not been there these would have been subjected to a volley of bullets, right over my land and with the sheep there too.These people think they can do whatever they want wherever they please. I wonder too whether their intention was hare coursing, to drive the hares over my land and into the short grass of Don's field next door.
Anyway, these idiots obviously knew they were in the wrong, for once they realised I wasn't friendly they rapidly jumped into the landrover and scootled off back across the field, picking the other two up as they went. What a shame I couldn't get close enough to get their number.
I ran back to the house, hoping that they would come back past along the road, but alas they headed the other way.
So that's why the tractor machinery now blocks the gap at the bottom. Not that I think the same people are likely to try that again.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Visiting Birder Finds New Bird For Farm List

Sunday dawned foggy. Really foggy.

We drove the sheep to the abattoir, an operation which we now have down to a tee. The secret is to get there for about quarter to eight (they are open for taking in livestock between eight and nine). Straight in, straight out. No pressure reversing the trailer in front of others. No waiting impatiently while others try to reverse their trailers!

We were back on the farm by just after eight. Today we were having visitors, a birder friend and his wife. Not many of my birder friends have been to the farm. If they're passing this way, it's normally because they're off birdwatching. But when birders do visit, it normally coincides with a good find on the farm. And often as not it's not me who finds the bird!

As we wandered down the land, Stuart was asking me about the birds we get on the farm. "Corn Buntings?" he asked. "Not here I replied. About a mile over there though," I said pointing into the gloomy distance.

You can guess what's coming, can't you. Within a couple of minutes we heard the call of a yellowhammer - not common on the farm in the winter. A small group of buntings were flitting along the line of young trees down by the far dyke. There was clearly a pair of reed buntings, one or two yellowhammers and a fifth bird, chunkier. Without optics, I was even ready to call it a redwing. We needed the birds to call again and, as they took off across the field, they duly did. Stuart called it. Corn Bunting! You couldn't make it up.

My first farm tick since two young gannets passed through on 11th October 2013.

Number 107 for the farm.

Anyway, I think my visitors enjoyed their visit. It's nice when someone visits who really gets what we are doing here. We certainly enjoyed the company

And once our visitors left I was straight back down to the bottom of the field, but all I could find were skylarks and meadow pipits. The fog had come down again - it was quite dramatic rising up from the fields and rolling across the landscape. I drifted in and out of gloom.

The trees I planted a few years back are finally starting to have an impact.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Halloween Eyes

Halloween brought with it some sad farewells.
Forgive me if I sound a little matter of fact about it, but smallholding has taught me to deal with losses, planned or not, alongside the many joys which it brings to me. This doesn't mean that, on the inside, my heart does not feel heavy.

I've not mentioned it before, but George has really not been himself for a while now. I won't go into it, but he sadly passed away on Saturday morning.
Here's to George.
George and the girls arrive in the back of my car.

We now only have one goose left with a name. That's not a bad thing.

The two baby guinea fowl which we rescued have not been growing well either. We originally saved three but one passed away at only a few days. But the remaining two unfortunately developed problems and it had reached the point where it would be cruel to let them grow up. I seriously doubt that they would ever have made it on their own anyway. It just wasn't to be.

The final halloween departure was more planned. Last year's Shetland ram lambs have been booked in to the abattoir for a while now. Two are sold and one will be making its way into our freezer. Along with them goes one of their mothers who is past her prime now. She is going to someone as mutton.
We loaded them into the trailer late on Saturday so they could settle down before the journey. I took one last photo.

Those eyes! Good job it wasn't Halloween. ... oh, wait a minute.

When the sheep go away, it always feels as if winter is truly on its way. Taking any livestock through the winter is a much bigger deal than merely keeping them for the summer. Natural food is short in supply, the weather can be seriously challenging and water can be hard to supply. So it's wise to thin down the livestock in preparation. They have fattened up on the summer's bounty, but now it's time to thin down, batten up the hatches, light the fire and plan for spring.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Operation Rampant Rambo

Since becoming smallholders we have learned one very important thing about moving sheep. It is easier to move the whole lot and then take the ones you don't want back again. Try to move just one or two and they'll just keep trying to return to the flock and have you running in circles all day long.

It's a bit like that old puzzle where you have to get a fox, a chicken and a bag of corn across a river safely.

So Friday 30th October was to be Rambo's lucky day!
For a few weeks now he has been pacing up and down, round and round, generally making a mess of the roadside paddock. He has also begun dismantling the shed I provided for him to shelter in as well as doing his best to knock the fence posts out.
It is that time of year when certain urges make Rambo behave in a very macho way. He is still soft as anything with me, still loves his chin tickled, but he has been known to attract the neighbours' attention by persistently head-butting anything which is fixed enough to provide decent competition.

On Thursday morning, I was somewhat surprised to find Rambo sat in the vegetable garden. He is no jumper (though his fleece might be, one day) so I patrolled the paddock fence until I came across a Rambo sized hole in it. The electric fence wire (which operates on trust, rather than using a charged battery) was pulled all over the place in a tangle. Evidently Rambo, probably while headbutting one of the fence posts to smithereens, must have gotten his horns caught up in the wire. He had also, evidently, managed to extricate himself from this situation without causing too much damge to everything else. I opened the gate to the vegetable garden and Rambo duly followed me back into his pen. For Rambo has the self-confidence to act on his own. He is happy to follow me, rather than the other sheep.

As it was, the sheep needed moving on Saturday anyway.
Four of them had a little journey to go on ;-)

Given our rm's impatience, while Sue was out on Friday I commenced operation Rampant Rambo.
I'll explain how it all worked, but first you'll need a highly precise, detailed diagram of the battlefield.

Step 1 - Lure Rambo into the pig pen.
Shut the gate.

Step 2.
Lure all other sheep out of sheep field and into central corridoor.
Step 3
Construct a ridiculously complicated system of pens
to separate the sheep you want from the ones you don't.

Step 4.
Let the sheep you don't need back into the sheep field.
Step 5 (not pictured)
Realise that the two young lambs can't stay with the ram.
Repeat quite a bit of steps 1-4.
Step 6
Let the four breeding ewes back into the sheep field... again
Step 7
Lead the rest of the sheep down to the roadside paddock.
Try not to let them stop and eat too much of the edible hedgerow.
Step 8
Hurry them all along.
Step 9
Throw them a couple of mangel wurzels to help them settle in.

Step 10
Release the Rambo!
Step 11
Rambo's job.

Looking Back - Featured post

Storm Arthur

What's been going on at Dowse Farm recently? Well, we escaped Storm Abigail, but Storm Barny swept through with gusto one night. We'...

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