Tuesday, 19 April 2016

First Hatch of the Year

It's that time of year. Our poultry seem to have nests all over the place.
Two of the geese are sitting on nests in the stable, effectively making it a no go zone for a few weeks. The others have therefore made new nests to lay in.

Our girl turkey started sitting on 1st April and is still there, in the flower planter at the front of the house. She may have timed it wrong for the tulips to still be open when her eggs hatch, which should be the end of this month.

Elvis doing what Elvis does best.
Elvis has gone broody again. She has been surrogate to many families over the years: chickens, ducks and even guinea fowl. So this time we have shut her up in the high rose coop with ten Muscovy Duck eggs. If they hatch she's in for a big surprise.

Then just yesterday Elvis's most broody daughter Priscilla, was found sitting on eggs on the hay bales in the stable where Rameses, our orphan lamb, goes at night. So we quickly swiped those eggs from under her and replaced them with a dozen eggs we had been collecting from the Ixworths, which will eventually give us some meat birds later in the year.

And so to the first hatch of the year, not a very successful one but it's a start. Remember that Crested Cream Legbar which started sitting in the most unlikely of spots under a pile of wood right by the garage door? Well her eggs were due to hatch last Wednesday. Somehow the 12 eggs we put under her to start had been whittled down to 7. I don't think it was rats and I almost wonder if, after sitting tight for so long, the laying hens don't occasionally snaffle one of the eggs, maybe the ones which have something wrong with them. But that's just conjecture.
Anyway, come Saturday I decided that something must have gone wrong. Maybe the cockerel which we got in was firing blanks. I put my hand under the hen, suffering several sharp pecks, and pulled out an egg. The intention was to crack it open to see whether it had ever been fertile. As I pulled it out though, I saw a small hole in it and heard it cheeping loudly! I quickly placed it back under her.
Later on there were two fluffly white chicks poking their heads out from beneath mum's feathers. We resolved to leave the new family until evening and then move them to the safety of a coop.
But that plan went awry when I found one of the chicks huddled under a lump of concrete several metres away from the nest. We resolved to move the family there and then. I picked up mum and left Sue to collect any chicks she could find and any unhatched eggs. It was a smooth operation and we were quickly shutting the lid on their new coop.
When we looked yesterday, there are only three chicks (one dead, probably the one which had wandered away). It's a start though and as long as some of the other hens go broody we will have a production line of birds going through the spring and summer. The two unhatched eggs (the seventh vanished) contained fully grown chicks when I opened them. What a shame.

Now I know this all sounds rather cute, but we have quite enough poultry birds at the moment, so all these new hatchlings are destined for the table. Poultry meat production is the one thing we've not been very successful at yet, hence the Muscovy Ducks, the Ixworth chickens and us keeping back a pair of turkeys.

The only poultry birds I've not mentioned are the Cayuga Ducks and the last remaining white duck. These live in the vegetable garden and spend most of the day snaffling slugs. They give us a couple of eggs a day at this time of year, but they are not productive enough to use as meat birds. We never got round to dispatching the drake who was born last year and it has caused trouble for us this last week as his hormones have been on overdrive. Drakes don't give the girls an easy ride at the best of times, but a couple of the ducks have really been suffering.
So this morning there was only one thing to do. Duck for dinner tonight!
This may seem a rather violent end to a cute post about chicks, but if you could see how he treated the girls you would have chosen exactly the same outcome. It is essential as a poultry keeper to be able to thin out the males as there are always more of them than are useful. No comments please!!!

Friday, 8 April 2016

Taking stock - an overview of the smallholding

When I don't post to my blog, it's usually not for want of anything to say but quite the opposite, that I've just been so busy that I'm exhausted, or that I've been working too hard to stop and take photos.
I usually try to pick out one thing to feature, but every now and then it is good to stand back and take stock.


We'll start with the peafowl. The great news is that Captain Peacock is still hanging around and coming to the poultry feeding trays. He seems to be paired up with our girl, so the eggs in this year's nest may just turn into little peafowl.
We took the decision a while ago to let our flock thin down naturally  to provide just enough eggs for us. For at this time of year we end up with mountains of eggs. Logic would have us cull the older birds but we're not in it to count the pennies, as long as things aren't ridiculously expensive. Losing the odd chicken to illness is not unusual as birds give up on life easily, but so far our flock has remained healthy. We only lost a couple of birds last year, so for now we will keep selling eggs. At least we have customers lined up.
The three Ixworths we got in to breed from are doing well in their separate enclosure. They are not the friendliest of birds though. Every time I go in there they panic as if  I'm about to slaughter them. Maybe they know they are classified as meat birds. But they still give us eggs. A dozen of those eggs are currently sitting under one of our Cream Legbar hens and are due to hatch in about a week.

The female has been sitting on her eggs for nearly a week now. It will be interesting to see how successful this is - it certainly beats buying in day old chicks at exorbitant prices and having to look after them as they grow bigger, noisier, messier and smellier!
Contrary to my April 1st post, we are indeed expecting her to hatch turkeys and not gookeys.

Muscovy Ducks
The 'two pairs' of Muscovy ducks we recently rehomed have split themselves into a trio and a lone male. He has separated himself off and lives with the Ixworths. The others wander more but spend most of their time with the chickens, even roosting with them in the large chicken house. They have started laying eggs, the first ten of which are currently sitting under Elvis - yes, Elvis has gone broody. Again! That girl is amazing.
Tonight we plan to move her and the eggs into a separate hutch.
Cayuga Ducks
We still have 5 Cayugas and one white duck. They spend their days waddling around the veg patch, hopefully devouring slugs. They are laying well.
Guinea fowl
Life has not been good for the guinea fowl. They have failed to breed for two years now - they need a hot summer to succeed. Their numbers have very gradually decreased to seven. Though this is quite a good number for us, it would be good if they could sustain their numbers. One successful nest this year would do the job. If necessary we may even rear some under a chicken.


We now have five adult sheep, Rambo and his four ewes. One of the ewes has failed to conceive for the second successive year, so we will probably have mutton at the end of the year. Last year's two lambs have done well this winter. So far they have been kept away from the other sheep for most of their lives (to keep the girl apart from her father, Rambo). But the arrival of six lambs (five rams have survived) means that Rambo will be on his own for a while and the others can all mix.
We'll not be buying in any commercial cades this year, as I don't want to take the risk that the grass is dry and we end up overstocked.
We've not had pigs for a couple of years now. Last year we had one which someone else looked after for us to keep his piglet company. It should be our turn to offer this year, but I'm not sure if we want another whole pig. Pork is fairly low down on Sue's favourite meat list and hopefully we will get more poultry meat this year (Ixworth chickens, Muscovy ducks and turkeys). It just means we won't get the bacon and sausage - which is why I'm not definite we won't end up with piglets again!
Sue looks after the bees. All things being well, two strong colonies have come through the winter. One colony is still pretty aggressive though, so there may be a change of queen later in the spring.
Sue has found a fantastic bee club who are very active and provide some excellent training. For four years we wasted our money belonging to the Peterborough group and then the Boston group who both did absolutely zero for their money. The West Norfolk and Kings Lynn group could not be more different.

How did I ever go so long without dogs? Arthur and Boris are doing great and very much enjoy their life on the farm. They've had a friend visiting from the city for the last few weeks, but he's going back home soon.
Gerry our cat continues to be a little star. He gets on really well with the dogs, especially Arthur. Now that it is springtime he is catching rabbits again. If he doesn't eat them himself, he brings them back for Arthur. Not only does it keep the rabbit population under control but it's free food for Gerry and Arthur. Angel, the other cat who we took on, is still alive and well. She never comes downstairs as she doesn't like Gerry.


Soft fruit
I underestimated how much soft fruit to grow so have embarked on a big expansion and reorganisation of the soft fruit area. Every time I see soft fruit for sale in the shops it causes me to take a very sharp intake of breath! I simply cannot believe the price. If we didn't grow our own, it would be a real luxury. Fortunately cuttings are easily taken so I have gone from 9 to 25 gooseberry bushes! There has been a similar increase in the currant bushes, with an emphasis on increasing the blackcurrants. We don't use so many whitecurrants or redcurrants.
I have moved the strawberry patch and it is now about ten times the size. I've also tripled the number of raspberry canes, quadrupled the rhubarb patch and increase the blackberries (including the likes of tayberry, loganberry etc).
Add to this that the soft fruit is all maturing and more productive now and we should do very well this year.
After last year's visits to the auctions, the orchard is now full. It has taken longer than I wanted to really start producing, but it can only go from strength to strength now. Apples, pears, plums, damsons, greengages, cherries, medlars and crab apples should be ours for the picking. But last year I was gripped by other peoples' tales of bumper apricot harvests. So this winter I have added five apricot trees as well as a few quinces and a hedge of mirabelle plum. The orchard has slowly spread into the chicken pen and into the veg plot.
After we moved in I planted several hundred native trees. I haven't lost too many, but they've taken longer than I wanted to get established, what with the exposed location and the long grass. I can't put the sheep in as they'd have the trees as well as the grass! I find that trees tend to really get going about three or four years after planting, which is hopefully where we have effectively reached now. As they develop, so the grass gets shaded out and the ground enriched with leaf mould.

It will be quite some time until I can effectively coppice or harvest firewood though. I have deliberately kept clearings where the grass can grow long, since this is the home of numerous voles and the feeding ground of kestrels and owls.

I am as up to date as I have ever been at this time of year. Most of my time at the moment is spent edging beds and rotavating. The earlier crops are planted, broad beans and parsnips sown, early potatoes planted and onion sets in. The garlic I planted in the new year is doing brilliantly and the shallots have finally started to grow away.
Rhubarb, lovage and asparagus have all suddenly started to appear from their winter dormancy.
There are seedlings galore just waiting for the soil to warm a little more and the threat of frost to recede.

I have also started a few small permaculture-type beds with fruit trees, bushes, herbs and other perennials. More on these later.


I have spent late winter and early spring increasing the number of garden buildings I have. Two sheds are already up (one for the geese to free up a stable) and a third is imminent. I have also discovered the wonders of traditional creosote, which I can still get hold of as a smallholder. The stables have been transformed and I'm moving on to the gates and some of the fences - when the weather turns back nice again.
Remarkably, I've also got the base for the greenhouse sorted out. I bought this a few years ago but it sort of got superseded by the polytunnel. Now that the base is almost sorted, it shouldn't take too long to erect. I'd forgotten how big it is. At 12 x 8 feet there is a lot of growing space in there.

Throw in a few wildlife patches which are developing nicely (but in a more controlled manner than before) and that's about it. My general overview of the smallholding.
It's still a lot of hard work but immensely rewarding. I finally feel as if we are close to where we wanted to be. Of course, there are always more projects on the horizon though.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Return of The Captain

My apologies if you've read about some of this before, but here's a quick resume for newcomers.

A couple of years ago a peahen appeared in Don's garden, across the road. He fed it every day and very gradually it became tamer, though always keeping a respectful distance. In time it started appearing over our side of the road, at first on top of Don's shed and under the roadside hedge. It took things very gradually, but in the end it started visiting the chicken pen at mealtimes. Now it spends a fair bit of its time around our poultry, though it still goes back to Don's most days for a feed there too.

Last year it even laid five eggs in the long grass behind the oldest ash tree. The poor girl sat tight on those eggs for an eternity. They were never going to hatch. She had never had the company of a peacock. But that wasn't for want of trying. She made the most delightful trumpet noises every day.

And so to earlier this year. We took some people up on an offer of rehoming some Muscovy Ducks, but they wanted to keep back a pair to keep their male peacock company. When I got
home I got to thinking. Would it be possible to get hold of a peacock from somewhere? It would make a  wonderful 50th birthday present for Sue (to go with her shed and lemon tree - smallholder's presents!)
I looked on the interweb and found that male peacocks go for about 70 quid each! More trawling and I came up with a young bird (so no full tail for a couple more years) for £30, but it was over in Derbyshire, quite a drive.
So a tentative enquiry went out on the Smallholders Facebook page. It always amazes me what people ask for on Facebook groups... and they always end up getting it. They even often then have the cheek to ask for it to be delivered too! And I always think "I wish I'd thought to ask for that".

Anyway, we were offered a fully resplendent male peacock for £30. We just had to wait until it could be penned. A week later and we got the phone call to come and pick up our peacock from a lovely couple down near Lakenheath. It took a couple of attempts to catch him, during which he shed a handful of tail feathers, but finally we had him. He was unceremoniously straight-jacketed into a feed bag and loaded into the back of the car, where he sat quietly for the entire duration of the journey home. We were now peacock owners, a privilege which in the past was reserved for royalty.

But what to do with him?

If we just let him go, he'd be sure to make a run for it. I had visions of him just running across the fields never to be seen again. So we had rapidly constructed a pen for him. It wasn't luxurious but there was enough space for him to pace up and down and he had a perch to roost on. We hoped to be able to catch the female and confine them together for a while. Once they had bonded we figured we'd be able to let them out and hope they stay around.

But the plan did not go well. Our peahen proved uncatchable. Any approach closer than about 2 metres and she would simply hop the fence and slink off. Poor Captain, for that was the name we gave him, spent his days pacing up and down in his pen while we procrastinated about what to do.

Eventually last week, almost a month since we got him, there seemed to be a relationship striking up. For the first time, instead of just simply gracefully wandering past, our peahen was hanging around the outside of Captain's pen.

So late in the afternoon the decision was made to open the gate and see what happened. The best outcome would be that she wandered into the pen and we quickly shut them both in together for a while to bond.
She approached the open gate, saw Captain for the first time without fence in the way, and thought strongly about going in... before turning around and walking away. But she had captured Captain's attention enough for him to tentatively approach the open gate. He thought about it a while and then he was through. Freedom! Open space!
This was it. The big moment. Possibly the last time we would see Captain, and maybe even the girl too.
Captain slowly headed up along the path through the orchard with our peahen in tow. So far things were going well. They were clearly showing more than a passing interest in each other. She was our lure, all we had to keep him from heading off into the big, wide world.
Captain carried on walking, up into the young woodland, further and further away until he reached almost the end of our land. The girl stayed with him and we were helpless. All we could do was watch and hope.
Captain wandered through into Don's field. Ahead of him lay a vast expanse of space. But then he turned around and headed slowly back toward us, lady peahen still in tow. Could it be that, after a brief exploration, he had decided to come back to where he knew?
But our hopes didn't last too long as he crossed into Don's field again and this time broke into a trot across the field, leaving the peahen behind him. He headed all the way back across the field to the roadside hedge.
My fear now wasn't just that he would disappear, but that he would wander into the road and meet an untimely and messy end. For the cars approach that bend fast and wouldn't be able to see him until the last moment.
I headed round to the other side of the hedge and successfully headed him off. I tried to push him back towards safety but he doubled back round and ran for it. Before I knew it he was through the hedge and wandering around on the road! If a car came round the corner now it would surely be curtains for him. He dilly dallied in the road but finally made it to the other side. He ducked under the hedge and that was that.

Goodbye Captain.

Never to be seen again. I thought he might stay around Don's house where there are more big trees, more shelter and a daily feed of grain, for lady peahen still regularly crosses the road and spends time over there. But nothing. Not a sign. Every time we saw Don we hoped he might have news. But nothing. What a shame. But it had been worth a try. What will be will be.

A week went by with no news. I was down to about a 10% (and diminishing) hope that Captain would some day return.
Then yesterday, while I was planting my onion sets, I thought I heard in the distance the call of a peacock. But it could be the female. She wasn't around on the farm and she does call, especially at this time of year when she is coming up to lay.
I put it to the back of my mind.
Captain was gone. It wouldn't be worth another try. Lady peahen would be on her own for ever.

In my last post I talked about how smallholding can turn round and bite you. I talked about that sinking feeling in my heart when I found one our lambs lying dead in the straw.
Well the opposite can happen too. So when Sue shouted to me yesterday I didn't know what to expect. I couldn't hear her over the noise of the geese squabbling. She shouted again. "THE PEACOCK'S BACK!"

And there he was. Captain. I instantly knew it was him by the large white patch on his rump where he shed those tail feathers. My heart leapt. What a lovely surprise.

Obviously lady peahen had been too much temptation for him. He had gone looking for a better life but returned here. What's more, the peahen was with him, very much with him.
We kept our distance and observed from afar, but they spent the next hour or so together around the chicken pens. Captain even went back into his old pen. Then later into the chicken pen, which meant that he is capable of hopping a 6 foot high fence. Good news for his survival prospects.

Now I don't know whether or not this is coincidence, but after I'd planted my onion sets I took the netting off the roof of the pen, leaving it open to the sky. I needed the netting to protect the onions from the inquisitive attention of the ducks. Surely he hadn't spent a week watching?

We left the pair to it and came inside. Later, when Sue went outside, they'd gone. I'm still not holding my hopes too high, for all sorts of things could happen, but I'm a lot more hopeful that we may indeed end up with a pair of peafowl.

This morning the peahen is sat on Don's shed. No sign of the male so far.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Happiness mixed with a tinge of sadness

Sunday Afternoon
The sun is shining and it's one of those beautiful spring days. Skylark song fills the air, trees are breaking into leaf. Everything is, as they say, perfick! Sue is creosoting the new shed and I am earthing up the newly planted early potatoes while the dogs chase each other round and round the veg plot. A few chickens know how to hop the fence and are pecking around and our turkey stag is in constant attendance, still all fluffed up and chest pumping - he inflates himself and then lets the air out all at once with an oomph! In the stables, the newborn lambs are doing well despite the constant protestations of the geese, two of whom have decided to sit on their nests all day long.
These are simple pleasures which make Sue and I very happy indeed.

But there's always a but! We have worked hard for this and there have been some difficult times too. Smallholding has a habit of throwing up the biggest challenges when you least expect them. We weren't brought up on farms and have had to learn quickly, for we are now responsible for many lives.

Monday morning
I headed out to the stable to give our orphan lamb, Rameses, his early morning feed. The sun wasn't yet up but there was a glimmer of light in the sky. As I opened the stable door I saw one of the other lambs just laying there on the straw. It wasn't moving. A wave of sadness came over me for there was clearly nothing I could do for this poor little lamb. It looked so peaceful and so perfect. It hadn't been dead too long and mum was still nuzzling it.
Young animals and birds are always at their most vulnerable in the first few days. The longer they survive, the stronger they become. We had thought the lambs were past the most dangerous period. All were feeding well and bouncing around their pens.

The dead lamb was the only girl. Mum and brother looked perfectly healthy. Spring on the smallholding is very much about new life and sometimes, just sometimes, that new life is delicate and nature takes its course. It doesn't upset us so much now as when we first encountered it, but I still have a heavy heart as I write 24 hours later. And we both felt guilty. Was our inexperience to blame for the loss of this young life? Was there something we should or shouldn't have done that would have made a difference?
My first thoughts went to our comical efforts the day before to castrate the young boys. I'll come back to this in a minute. Fair to say we didn't have much success but no lambs came to any harm. But that was my first thought. Had we inadvertently hurt one of them? But this was the girl, so it couldn't be down to that. All I could think was that she had somehow failed to get enough milk. She didn't feel particularly skinny, though a small lamb is just skin and bone anyhow. But maybe she hadn't fed and couldn't keep her body heat up during the night.
The surviving boy seemed to be feeding okay, but he was nudging mum's teats hard and more often than usual. I felt the ewe's udders. They felt really hard and a little lumpy. My thoughts went to mastitis, a not uncommon bacterial infection of the udders which can be serious for both lamb and ewe. But we had no direct experience of this. We felt the other ewes' udders and they felt softer.

Now, back to those efforts to castrate. If you're a bloke, you may want to cross your legs at this point! I know it sounds cruel but it really isn't. There's no knife involved. It simply involves stretching a small rubber ring over the lamb's scrotum and then letting it tighten. Time does the rest and the lambs really don't seem to experience any suffering. Male sheep do grow faster and bigger without this 'operation', but since we keep our sheep into a second year it would vastly complicate arrangements if all the young rams had to be kept away from their sisters and mums!
So, the rubber ring. Once it is closed, the two tiny testicles obviously need to be in the 'ballbag' on the opposite side of the rubber ring to the rest of the lamb. But that is much easier said than done, for every time we approached those little balls just kept disappearing! We tried on three different boys, but each time without success and we didn't want to stress the poor little things too much. So we aborted the operation and called for help.
A while back I started up a Facebook group for our Smallholders Club and it has been absolutely brilliant. One message from Sue and, within an hour, we had four offers of help. Otherwise it would have meant an expensive visit from the vet. Every vet call out adds about a tenner to the price of each lamb.
And so it was that yesterday afternoon a fellow smallholder with more sheep-keeping experience than us arranged to come over and show us how to do the deed. This, as it happened, was very fortuitous given the current mastitis scare.
Firstly he showed us how to apply the rings to said area. It really was quite easy. Where we had been going wrong was in sitting the lambs on our lap. They needed to be held up by their front legs (not harmful atall) so that gravity made everything fall, so to speak.
Very quickly all five boys were done.
It was then time to turn our attention to that ewe. James turned her over and felt her udders. He knew how to get milk out - this is quite tricky with sheep and needs experience to acquire the knack - but one side of the udder was very hard and virtually no milk was coming out. He too thought it looked like mastitis, so we called the vet. We have to think about our costs,  but at the end of the day the welfare of the animals comes first. Besides, losing a breeding ewe and having to bottle feed another lamb would not be cheap.

Today was not turning into a good day. The weather knew it, for yesterday's spring sunshine had been replaced by some decidedly heavy April showers. As we worked with the sheep it was, as Sue would say, stotting it down outside.
And when the vet came (a new vet who has just moved into the area, which is brilliant as our other vets are quite a distance away) it stotted it down again. Like Sue he came from the North-East and before I knew it they were talking clarts and yan tan tither - don't ask, I don't know.

The ewe, it turned out, did not have mastitis, but the vet was concerned about her hard udder and prescribed two injections of antibiotics just in case mastitis was developing. While he showed Sue how to administer this, I looked away! I don't do needles.
We showed the dead lamb to the vet and he confirmed that all looked healthy. Its stomach wasn't empty either. He informed us that deaths at three days old are quite unusual in lambs and that in all likelihood we had just been unlucky and that this was a "lie-on". You can work out what that means.

Everything else we had done was good. The pens, the straw, the feed. That poor little lamb had just got unlucky. We still need to keep an eye on the ewe and she needs another injection in a couple of days. Her lamb now gets a little supplementary milk from the bottle every time we feed Rameses. But hopefully all has turned out not too bad. All we need do now is await the vet's bill.

Tuesday morning
I've just returned from the stables after this morning's feed and I'm glad to say that all four ewes and all five ram lambs seem in good health. Later this week they will all be able to go outside and we've even been advised to try putting Rameses outside. Hopefully he will become a stealer - learning to grab a bit of milk here and there before the ewes notice. But I've a feeling he'll still be coming for his bottle feed for a while yet.
This morning the sky is clear and the blackbirds are singing again. I've been up since half past four and I'm hoping for a good day.
Last year the swallows returned on this date. The year before it was three days later. I'm watching the skies. If they make it back in the next three days they'll share the stables, just for a while, with the lambs.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Rameses, Son of Rambo... or The Rejected Lamb

What a day Thursday was! Photos have now been added to the post.
But all wasn't finished just because I'd written my blog post. At some time about one o'clock in the morning ewe number 3 went into labour properly. I was asleep in bed when Sue shouted up the stairs that it had come out. I had already had a really long day, but by the time I made it down to the stable things had developed further.

The third lamb from ewe number 2 was being rejected by it's adoptive mum. She was butting it away from her really rather violently. We just didn't understand. She had seemed quite happy with it for several hours, licking it, feeding it alongside her own and generally being a good aunty. But now the poor little lamb was clearly at risk.

To cut a fairly stressful story short, I stayed up all night keeping an eye on that lamb and trying to get one of the ewes to accept it, but at 6 o'clock on a very crisp morning I penned him separately and, after lying awake thinking about the day and that little lamb, I finally grabbed about 20 minutes sleep.

As we will now be feeding him every 4 hours and effectively have to take over the role of his mum, we have decided to name him. He is Rameses, son of Rambo.

Come 8 o'clock yesterday morning we were heading off to buy a bag of lamblac, formula milk for lambs.

Oh, I forgot to say that ewe number 3 had another one, so that was six lambs from three ewes in just one day.

It took quite a while for these two to get strong enough to feed.
I had to reduce the size of the pen as mum was inexperienced
and wasn't making it easy for them to find her udders.
The orphan lamb is laying in the hay,
but shortly after this I had to separate it.

Sue has taken on feeding duties for the moment - she really is very good with the animals- and all lambs are now doing well. They are a delight to watch as they gaily bounce around the pen on their gangly legs... when they're not sleeping.
I've managed to get back to gardening duties, spending most of yesterday rotavating while the soil is workable. I got the broad beans sown as well as broadcast sowing a corridor of marigolds and a sunflower patch. If it works it should look stunning come summer time.
The beds are ready for the early spuds to go in today and for planting out the onion sets. The soil felt warm yesterday despite an icy start so it's all systems go.
The veg patch early this morning.
The chickens have been banished from the veg plot, but the ducks and guineafowl are free to continue picking off the pests.

Yesterday was 1st April. Last year I seem to remember mischievously writing a blog post about growing gooseberry bushes by planting gooseberries the year before!
I promise there were no such shenanigans going on yesterday. My post about raising gookeys was all true. Honest!.

Friday, 1 April 2016


I guess it's no coincidence that Easter has become associated with eggs and chicks. Here on the farm we have eggs everywhere at the moment and some of the girls are starting to sit.
A few weeks ago we came across a stash of blue eggs laid by one or more of our Crested Cream Legbar hens. We removed some of the eggs and marked the others up with big black crosses. We do this whenever we find a secret stash of eggs. The girls keep laying in the same place and we know where to collect their eggs from. We just don't take the ones with crosses on.
A Cream Legbar hen sits tight.
Last week one of the girls decided to sit on all these eggs with big black crosses and not to budge. She had gone into full-blown broody mode. Not particularly wanting to hatch out a bunch of old blue eggs, we took the opportunity one evening to lift the hen, remove all the blue eggs and replace them with a dozen eggs collected from our Ixworth hens. Two weeks from today, with luck, we'll have a dozen Ixworth chicks being looked after by our Cream Legbar hen. These chicks are destined for the table.

All the poultry are laying eggs in abundance at the moment. We're getting plenty of chicken eggs, duck eggs, our first Muscovy eggs and three or four goose eggs a day. We really can't keep on top of them, despite Sue's best cake making efforts - they make delightfully light sponges.
I've managed to sell a few to people for hatching out, but we have no plans to hatch more geese at the moment. Instead it's giant fried eggs and boiled eggs like you've never seen before.
That's either a giant egg or a tiny woman.

But I've something even more exciting to report today. Our stag turkey has been strutting his stuff for a good couple of months now. He inflates himself and rustles his feathers like a giant pompous pom pom, huffs and puffs and even sometimes does a little dance. It really is quite an effort, but all to no avail.
For this year we have kept our stag well away from our turkey hen. This is because we wanted to cross her with one of our ganders.
This is a relatively new innovation and the resultant hybrid birds are known as gookeys. They are, apparently, much friendlier than geese but the meat is not so dry as turkey meat can be. It is slightly more gamey. I've never had the chance to try it, so thought that this coming Winter Solstice we'd give it a try for our celebration meal.
Other benefits are that they are much easier to pluck than geese and they eat insects and seeds as well as grass. They are also capable of roosting up high so they don't need overnight housing.
Traditionally the aim is to get the turkey hen to start sitting on her eggs on April 1st. The incubation period, bizarrely, is longer than both goose and turkey eggs, at 42 days. The birds are then ready for the table in 7 months. They are then hung for ten days and consumed on the winter solstice.

So far the plan is working perfectly. Our turkey hen has chosen to lay in a planter by the front of the house. We didn't even find the eggs for over a week, by which time there was quite a cluster of gookey eggs nestled in amongst the tulips.

As if by magic, today our hen started to sit. As far as I know there are twelve eggs under her, one for each month of the year.
We'll probably only raise one gookey for ourselves and will aim to sell the rest. They fetch a very good price, costing close on £80 for a roasting bird. As they are hybrids, the offspring are incapable of breeding which is why they are so hard to get hold of.
Presuming they all hatch and survive, we will be selling them at 3 months old (mid July) when they will be perfectly capable of foraging and looking after themselves. We are only charging £35 each for birds this age or £60 for two. If anybody is interested, please leave a comment at the end of this blog post and I will contact you.

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