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.

1 comment:

  1. It all sounds like yours and Sue's hard work is paying off John! This is a wonderful post, especially as I've been reading your blog posts from the beginning and have found it all so interesting. I'd love to hear more about the wildlife areas too, if I was to have a smallholding one day then this is one thing that really interests me in encouraging and helping to offer habitat for wildlife. Mostly just birds and butterflies, both of which have species that are so threatened in England now, but I'd love to hear more about it. Boris and Arthur are cute too! Emma


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