Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The birds and the bees... and the sheep

The first honey of the year
complete with new labels.
Sometimes I don't mind getting wet, for once you're really wet through you stop noticing it and just carry on. But today I feel like staying dry, so I'm staying indoors. Besides, in the past week of warm, dry weather I've totally failed to mow the lawns so the soaking would come from the bottom up.
Why have I not mown the lawns? Priorities.
March and April are all about getting seeds sown and young plants raised. But come the second week of May, when the soil is warmed up and the danger of frost is passed, it's all about getting all those little plants into the soil so their roots can delve and explore and nourish. Stuck in seed trays or modules the plants just stop growing or, even worse, wither up and die if you accidentally miss watering their tray on a hot day.

Fortunately we have a rather well-timed week off school in which I can hopefully catch up with everything I've fallen behind with (mainly because I've been scooting all over the country chasing rare birds).

It's not all been about the vegetables though. There's been action on the sheep front and plenty of news from the poultry pen, most of it a bit calamitous, but not all.
So here's a run down of what's been going on.
Rambo shorn - a shadow of his former self.
24th May
The ewes and Rambo came down to the paddock near the house, briefly meeting the lambs on the other side of some sheep hurdles before the lambs went down to the big sheep field all on their own. The lambs were delighted to see their mums again and started bleating loudly. Their mums pretty much blanked them, fearing for their udders which are beginning to dry up now.
The reason for the swap was that Carl the shearer was due in the morning.

25th May
I managed to get all bar one (sorry for the pun, if you noticed it) of the sheep penned in with relative ease. They still come to investigate a bucket, but I wasn't quite quick enough to sneak round and close off the hurdles. One of the ewes made a dash for it. Never mind. It wasn't long before I had her penned in too. The secret with sheep is just to move them into smaller and smaller areas, remembering to bar (sorry!) their way back to the previous place. And never try to move a loan ewe. Easier to take the whole flock, separate the one and then take the rest back.
Carl arrived from his previous job and I was quite proud that I had the sheep so well penned and ready for shearing. Shetland sheep are sort of self-shedding, but they look a right mess while this is going on and some are too late for the warm weather. Two of my girls, the ones who had multiple lambs, were pretty much self-shorn already.


Shearing went well. Carl is amazing with the sheep. Strong but gentle. Even Rambo didn't put up too much of a fight this time. I got Carl to check and trim their feet too. For an extra £1 per sheep it's worth getting it done. As it was he didn't charge me for this and was not even going to charge for the two ewes which just needed a little tidying up. I paid him the whole amount though as he deserves it.



Last year we sold the wool to some spinners. They were very, very happy with it and we recovered the cost of shearing. This year we are planning to learn how to do peg looming so will keep as much wool as we need for ourselves. More on peg looming in a few weeks.

26th May
The exertions of the weekend were still telling on my body. I used to be able to do overnight drives seemingly with no effect but as I get older my body demands considerably more time to recover. So today after work it was a rest day, a lazy evening pottering around enjoying the smallholding, just taking stock of everything.
I did get the car serviced and MOT'ed today. It's a dangerous time of year to be without car (rare birds don't hang around waiting for the car to be fixed) so I was glad to get it done.

27th May
Only 3 eggs today! That's a pretty poor return. But it happens sometimes. The spring egg glut has happened and several of the hens have chicks or are sitting on eggs. Some of the hens are getting older so are less productive. The others have just gone on strike and we have a very sudden drop in egg production. This is not unusual, but inexplicably the timing seems to vary year on year. But I seem to remember this happening last year.
I should keep records, but I've never been good at that sort of thing. I like to be more inefficient! Organic. Creative.
Anyway, I sort of suspect the crows which now nest in the old ash trees. There's only one pair but they hang around the chicken pens a lot. I know they sometimes go down for the wheat and I've seen them take duck eggs when the ducks have decided to lay on the ground outside. What I'm not sure about is whether or not they have the audacity to enter one of the chicken houses and take the eggs. I can't believe that we could lose this many eggs and never catch them red-handed though, so  suspect it's more about the chickens than the crows.

Meanwhile, in the big chicken house where our Muscovy duck has inconveniently made her nest and been sat for the last five weeks, today we had the first cheep cheeps of a little duckling. Hopefully by tomorrow they'll all be hatched and I can think about where to move the young family for safety.

IT'S THE HOLIDAYS! I have eleven days off work.

28th May
A somewhat challenging day today.
Sue took the first honey of the year off the bees. Despite the proximity of a giant rape field, the bees actually seem to use a variety of sources of food. However, the presence of even some rape means that the honey is likely to set hard as a rock. Left in the frames in the hive, it quickly becomes irretrievable, so timing is crucial. It needs to be taken off the bees when it is just capped. For non beekeepers, the bees store the honey until it reaches the correct consistency and then cap it off with wax to prevent it drying out any more.
Sue's bee-keeping skills are developing fast now (thanks to the excellent West Norfolk Beekeeping Group).
Today she managed to mark one of the queens. Finding the queen is tricky so it is useful when you do find her to trap her in a queen cage and dab her with a bright colour. But it's a bit daunting handling the queen when the whole hive centres around her. This was the first time Sue had performed this delicate operation.
She also removed drone comb. This is the brood cells which will produce male bees and is where the varroa mite can really get a hold in a hive. Since the drones are pretty useless it is best to remove. Sue feeds it to the chickens who very much enjoy pecking out the juicy drone larvae.

I said today was challenging. That's because I was trying my best to work in the veg plot despite the unwanted attentions of Sue's angry bees, who were even more grumpy than usual as somebody had stolen their honey and interfered with their queen!

I resorted to wearing a hat with a veil over. I'm pretty good at ignoring the attentions of inquisitive bees and can even tolerate them landing in my hair. Usually they find their way out again. I find I just have to freeze still for about a minute. Then they go away but I remain frozen, for after a few seconds they always come back, just to check.
However, once in a while you get a complete nutter hell-bent on destruction. You can tell by the buzz. They go for the face or land in your hair and start burrowing and buzzing fiercely. If they're in your face the best thing is to run for it, but they pursue with vigour. In your hair I reckon you've got a 50/50 chance of getting them out before the sting goes in!
One of Sue's hives is way too aggressive. They have been since the back end of last autumn and things haven't improved. Unfortunately the queen will have to be replaced. A new one, specially bred to be peaceful, will be brought in and should then produce calmer offspring. The bees which remain should calm down too.
This is why there are no photos of the bees. I used to be able to stand right next to the hive while Sue had them open.

Anyway, in the face of such challenge I still got quite a lot done outside. Most of the outdoor tomatoes are now planted. The main varieties are Roma and San Marzano (both Italian plum tomatoes for sauces), Gardener's Delight and Outdoor Girl, a new variety I'm trying which is supposed to do well even if the weather is not ideal.
What sort of harvest we get from the outdoor toms is unpredictable. If they come good we will have tons. If blight strikes we could get none. And if the summer is dull we could have lots and lots of green tomatoes.

The other job for today was to sow the kidney beans, variety Canada Wonder. I've sown these direct, but if they don't come there's still time to resow them in modules. They are interplanted with Perpetual Spinach, a new crop for me.

29th May
Sad news. No sign of the Muscovy duckling this morning. Mum has moved the nest and the remaining eggs are all over the place. Maybe it was a mistake letting the chickens back in to roost last night.
I've closed the house off now and the girl is back on her eggs. The chickens will get a shock when they try to go to bed tonight, but I have laid on alternative accommodation for them if they find it.

Today was a perfect day for working outside but all I could get done was picking out and planting French Marigolds (tagetes). These act as a wonderful insect deterrent. I've planted a load of them in amongst my turnip and swede sowings to try to deter the flea beetles which destroyed the first sowing. I plant them between tomato plants too. They keep off whitefly. Then I just dot them around the place as a general defence against insect attack.
The other type of marigold is Pot Marigold (calendula). This is a pretty good companion plant too, though tagetes is a stronger deterrent. Calendulas are more hardy though and self-seed everywhere, appearing every spring almost in weed proportions. Fortunately they are easily pulled or transplanted to where I want them.
My work was interrupted though as today was the Smallholders meeting. I so wish they would consider evening meetings but I've made my point and it's not been taken. It was tempting to carry on working on the veg patch but fortunately with holidays coming up there's not too much pressure. Besides, today there was a visit to a smallholding I'd not visited before. It's always good to visit other places, though invariably I come back full of new ideas and jobs to do. There was a very informative talk on building a pole barn as well as the chance to catch up with my smallholding friends.
I also managed to pick up a copy of The Polytunnel Book for £1. This is my polytunnel bible. If I had to recommend one book, this would be the one.

There was just time after the meeting to take a small diversion on the way home to Paxton Pits where a Great Reed Warbler had been singing for about a week. These are like one of our regular reed warblers (small boring brown birds which sing from reedbeds) but a mammoth version and they don't sing, they holler! As it was, our Great Reed Warbler was having a very shy day. We heard a few loud calls but it wasn't in the mood for climbing to the top of the reeds and belting out its song. We left with a 'heard only' record.
Today was a good chance to try the car out too. The braking had been a bit shaky before the service and the garage had replaced something on the anti-roll bar. However, the problem seems to have got worse! Over 60mph it feels like the car has a wobbly wheel and breaking requires a firm hand on the shaky steering wheel. It'll have to go back in. Let's hope a rare bird doesn't turn up while I'm carless. Over in Denmark a Sulphur-bellied Warbler has turned up. It's so rare I can't even begin to explain. If one of those turned up here while my car was in the garage I think I'd just start walking.

30th May
Today I released the turkey family. They've been incarcerated in a very luxurious stable since their birth for their own safety. Mum led them all around the smallholding. Terry the Turkey would have been so proud if he were still around.






Early evening I decided to try and put them away for the night. After a couple of failed attempts, I managed to get them into one of the new sheds which has been kitted out in readiness. It's pretty nice in there.

The rest of the day was spent planting out my brassicas. I've abandoned the idea of using carpet underlay to stop root fly laying its eggs in the soil. Firstly each collar provided a cosy home for a slug with a handy local food source (my cauliflower seedlings). I sorted this out, slugs chopped in half, slug pellets scattered (I use the organic ferric phosphate ones, though I still try to minimise their use) but today I found half of the surviving plants dried up. The underlay obviously hadn't let through enough water. So that was it. Collars abandoned. Luckily I only really needed about a third of my caulis to make it through and the ones which have survived are looking very strong. There are more on the way as I sow them in succession. This means I can fill the gaps and that they will not all harvest at once.

Today, along with the cauliflowers, I've planted Romanesco, Calabrese, Cavolo Nero, Scarlet Kale, Red Cabbage, Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Cabbage January King.
They're all under netting and I've interplanted with marigolds and hyssop as companion plants.

This is a concerted effort at finally growing and harvesting brassicas successfully. If it fails I might just give up.

31st May
And so to the last day of May. A welcome rainy day, for I was starting to get worried about the young plants and seedlings outside. The water butts are filling up nicely.
Two surprises when I let the birds out this morning. The first was a robin inexplicably encaged in one of the broody hen runs. Quite how it got in goodness knows. I released it. That was good act number one.
The second was to find a very small gosling stuck in the feed trough near one of our Toulouse goose nests. Fortunately the grey geese are not quite so aggressive in their defence and I was able to gently pick up the little gosling, which felt cold, and place it next to mum on the edge of the nest. When I looked later it was gone, so I presume safely tucked in underneath mum again.
Not such good news from our other sitting mums-to-be. No sign of any ducklings under the Muscovy, despite the first one hatching three days ago. And no sign of any Ixworth eggs hatching under the other broody hen either.
To compensate for the various failures of our broody hens and ducks, we have placed 18 Ixworth hen eggs into our new (second-hand) incubator. It'll be more work for us to raise the chicks but we should have a greater success rate.

Every time we use an incubator we have a power cut. I don't think it's the fault of the incubators! It's just the poor rural infrastructure which means that every time it rains or is windy the power cuts out. Today we had two and the second lasted three hours. Hopefully it won't affect the development of the eggs.

So that's it. May has flown by and tomorrow it's the official start of meteorological summer. Bring on the rain!

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