Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Shetlands head off

For two nights in April 2015 we sat up in the stables. One of our Shetland ewes was in labour and she was taking her time about it.
It was our first lambing and it was a stressful experience, but a truly amazing one too.

The two lambs grew quickly and were soon meeting the rest of the outside world.

... including our new puppy, Boris

The reason for this reminiscence?
Well these two lambs were never going to become pets. Today, after 17 months growing up on the farm with us, it was time to send them off to you-know-where (when the livestock trailer makes an appearance, it's often bad news for someone!)

There was a tinge of sadness as they were the first lambs we had raised from birth, but we know they had a good life here.

We keep the Shetland lambs into their second year as they are a small breed and don't really get very big by their first winter. But the benefit for us is that they are a hardy breed which can survive the winter without much help. Being small, they present few difficulties with lambing. As they cost us very little to keep, they are perfectly suited to our needs. They are gradually enriching the grassland and they are a great way of managing it. We get the additional benefit of some very, very tasty meat. As they go off in their second year, the meat is officially classed as hogget.

edit (Wednesday 30th) I just picked up the lambs from the butchers (all packaged up in boxes.) They came in at 16.5kg and 16kg. I'd have liked a little bit more, but they were quite compact little sheep. Anyway, good things come in small packages.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Angry Angus comes to the farm

Monday 21st November 2016
Until this weekend I only knew one Angry Angus, a farmer in a little place called Break on the Shetland Isles. But another Angry Angus, the first officially named storm of the winter, was supposed to sweep in and cause havoc on Sunday night. It seems we missed the worst of it, but Angry Angus was in no mood to depart and today we got his rain.

So I stayed inside and put up some kitchen wall units, a task which would have been somewhat easier had the wall not been bowed.

Tuesday 22nd November 2016
Angry Angus just won't go away. He woke me up in the night with his huffing and puffing and rain battering against the window, so another day of inside jobs. I did drive over to Coy Bridge to check for wild swans in amongst the Mute flock. There were seven Whooper Swans accompanying 36 Mutes.
I took the dogs with me, as they've not been getting much exercise - Boris refuses to go outside in the wet! I let them out and we went for a walk along a couple of new dykes, that was until a hare broke cover and bounded out of a field past the dogs. Off they went! There was no stopping Boris and Arthur's little legs have never moved so quickly.
Inevitably the hare got away. There was never a chance they would actually catch it, but I wasn't impressed with them ignoring my commands to come back!

All in all Angus was a bit of a damp squib. But he has left the soil heavy. Another year when I didn't get it turned before it was too late! Too much twitching in October.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Getting the lambs ready for a journey

Monday 14th November 2016
Boris was a bit under the weather today. I think he got stung by nettles yesterday. Arthur and I stayed in and looked after him.
Tuesday 15th November
It's a time of clearing and preparing the soil for next year. I never get this achieved when I'd like to in late autumn and then the ground usually becomes too wet to work except when there is a heavy frost.
But this year the ground is, for the moment, drier. Anticipating removing a lot of dead and dying foliage, I decided to turn all the compost heaps today and to move any well-matured compost from the bottom of the heaps and place it on next year's potato beds for the worms to work in to the soil.
This was a pretty big job, but it was a good day for it.

Came across a couple of dead rats in the compost heaps.
Good to know the poison is working.
There aren't many around, but they have been more persistent than usual this year.

Boris stayed inside for the morning, but Arthur kept by my side until he rediscovered the joys of digging for voles. After lunch Boris came out and between them they managed to catch one.

Darkness comes soon at this time of year. We'll get the peg loom out soon to pass away the long winter evenings. But today there was international football to watch - that was until we really were plunged into the past when the electricity went off. It made a couple of attempts to come back, but I missed most of the goals. It made me think about what people did in the past. Winter must have been a lot harder than it is now.

You can just make out the lapwing flock as it wheels round over the distant copse.
Thursday 17th November 2016
It was nice to see a sizeable flock of lapwings wheeling around the fields today. As they turned back into the sun they gleamed white. It must have taken at least ten minutes before they finally decided it was safe to land.

Friday 18th November 2016
A forage around the garden to find the ingredients for a couple of cauldrons of soup. The leek plants are looking good and there is a whole bed of self-seeded parsley which brightens the place up at this time of year. So a leek and potato soup was definitely on the cards. The Grow-Your-Own group are round tomorrow evening, so I'll use the opportunity to use up some pumpkin too. The sage has thrived this year so a Pumpkin and Sage soup should do the trick.

Saturday 19th November 2016
A welcome significant frost and a reminder to turn as much of the soil as possible so the frost can get in and kill off some of the nasties.

The evening gathering went very well and we managed to come up with some exciting plans for 2017. More about those later.

Sunday 20th November 2016
Main job today was to worm the four sheep in the top paddock and to get ear tags in the two Shetlands which are going off next week. The wormer is just a precaution, but it has a six day withdrawal period on the meat (the minimum period between administering the medication and slaughter) so needed to be done today.
The two Shetland lambs were born and reared on the farm and have always been pretty tame as far as Shetlands go. The two commercials were cade lambs from the rare breeds farm and have been interacting with humans all their lives. So getting them penned was easy. We draw the hurdles in around them until they are pretty much pinned in. This makes administering drugs (just a liquid which is syringed into their mouths) and putting in ear tags very easy. Most importantly it's efficient, stress-free for us and the sheep.
With the ground turning sticky the commercial ewe who's been up here all the time had picked up a large clod of mud between her toes which was causing her to limp a little. This was a good opportunity to remove it - there was actually a stone inside it - and she is much happier now.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Rambo's Romantic Supermoon

The problem with this time of year is that when I'm at work there's barely enough daylight left to throw some food at the chickens morning and evening, so some days there really is nothing to report.

Friday 11th November 2016
News today that Leonard Cohen has died. I feel genuinely sad at the loss of such a thoughtful and gentle mind. There are way too few of them around.

Saturday 12th November 2016
I topped up the bird feeders today. I've had to move them as they were too close to the new conservatory, but hopefully the birds will get used to them soon enough. I'll have to start a conservatory list now.

Sunday 13th November 2016
A big day for Rambo. For today he was allowed back in with his harem of ewes.

First we had to move out the condemned, up to the top paddock. These are the two Shetland lambs from last year (now hogget) and the two commercial cade lambs which we bought in from the rare breeds farm for fattening up.Separating them from the others was a little tricky but we sorted it out in the end. I had forgotten that I had failed to fix up the electric fence a few weeks back, so had to hastily perform a bit of jiggery pokery to get it wired up and working.
The timing was good as Rambo's temporary pen was beginnning to get a little muddy with the recent rains and his impatient pacing up and down.

With that achieved we took the dogs out for a long walk as it was a sunny winter's day. A skein of geese flew over the farm as we left and a waxwing trilled from the orchard - sure signs of winter. Along the Main Drain the kingfisher was surprisingly still present up by the bridge, despite the fact that the drainage board had cleared the banks of all vegetation.

As dusk approached the moon rose - a Supermoon! Tomorrow night was supposed to see it at its very best, but it would actually be at its fullest sometime tomorrow morning. Anyway, with heavy cloud forecast for tomorrow, I thought I'd see what we got tonight and it really was quite impressive, especially when it first came up. Even more impressive when a Barn Owl flew in front of it and perched up on a post alongside the sheep before continuing to hunt over our land. It's the first time I've seen one since I was handed the injured bird over the farm gate about a month ago.

Overall today was just about perfect, a day filled with simple pleasures.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016


4th November 2016
The new potting shed is up
We have gone up in the world! We now have a conservatory. It's a bit early to start off the tomato plants, but I will be moving the lemon tree and the lemon grass into it soon.

A chicken lost
On the smallholding, we lost one of the oldest batch of meat birds today. It had picked up a nasty thigh injury a couple of days ago. I have no idea what caused it, but had begun to hope the chicken might survive it. However I hadn't seen it eat since I noticed the injury and it gradually withdrew from the other chickens.

Late bird news
With winter making a good attempt at levering out the autumn, I was rather hoping that my birding might settle down for a while. But late on Friday afternoon, too late to get there, news came through of an American Cliff Swallow at Minsmere. The last one of these I saw was in 2000. As I was making plans to head over to Suffolk for first light, a photo appeared on a Facebook page showing a pristine Eye-browed Thrush somewhere in Northumberland. I need that!
But I have to say there was initially a strong suspicion of a hoax. The photo was just too good. This sort of thing has happened before. As the evening progressed, the sighting seemed more and more real until eventually the location was revealed, Bolam Lake, up near where Sue comes from. Problem was Sue was away for the weekend.

5th November 2016
Remember, Remember the Fifth of November - I'd rather not!
The alarm went at 1:40am.
I took the dogs out for a walk, let out the geese and opened up the chicken houses. Not ideal, but there was nothing else for it. I needed to be on site for first light as if by some miracle the thrush had stayed overnight, it could easily disappear at any point.
I drove through the night and through some pretty atrocious weather. All my instincts told me the thrush would be gone come daylight, but it was still worth the risk. The fact that I've not seen one yet shows how difficult they are to catch up with.
A storm had clearly swept through overnight. The road was a river of leaves.
I was first on sight and the park official was somewhat surprised to see me there when he turned up in the faint first light to open up the gates to the car park.
What followed was a whole morning standing around braving the intermittent showers. It wasn't just me. Many of my twitching friends were there. By midday we had given up hope. Long way to go for a social chat. It was a nice park though.
I was back home before dark. No harm done, just a day lost and some petrol money.
Many of my other friends had a much nicer day in a sunny Suffolk watching otters and the Cliff Swallow. That's the way it goes.

6th November 2016
Pumpkin day
I was not keen to repeat yesterday's early start, so decided to wait for news on the Minsmere Cliff Swallow. It did show first thing, but flew off straight away and never came back.
Instead I spent the day cutting up pumpkins and turning them into soup. Pumpkin and Sage, Curried Pumpkin, Thai Pumpkin, Creamy Pumpkin and Nutmeggy Pumpkin Soup. The reason for so much was that a few of the larger pumpkins had slight blemishes and would not last much longer.

7th November 2016
Dewy-eyed Sheep
Last year Rambo went in with the ewes on 1st November. Our aim is for lambing to occur during our Easter holidays. As we keep the lambs into their second year, there is no rush to get them born in the cold midwinter. This year Rambo will have his day two weeks into November. We will move out the sheep which will be going off this year as they could do without the stress. We'll bring them up to the top paddock and feed them on nice things for a while.
So today I moved the sheep one enclosure closer to the farmhouse. They love moving onto new grass. The grass growth has only just slowed down with the dip in temperatures and the first frosts, but there is still plenty for the sheep to eat.
The very good news is that all the sheeps' eyes have cleared up completely now without the need for any intervention from me.

One of the grey geese has a big swelling at the base of its beak. We had one like this before which eventually died. Whether it was anything to do with this I did not know.
It is certainly not worth calling out the vet, but today I managed to catch the goose. For all their bravado, they go very placid once you have managed to catch them. The swelling was very hard but I massaged it and it seemed to go down a little. I continued, applying as much pressure as I dared, and eventually a large ball of half chewed, tangled grass came up into the goose's mouth. I'm not sure if the problem will reoccur, but at least now I know how to deal with it.

We are always gaining experience, but there's still so much to learn.

8th November 2016
Encouraged by our recent visits to the beaches of North Norfolk, I decided to take the dogs for a long walk today. I took them right down to the end of the land and along the small dke known as the Lambert Drain. This leads across a couple of fields to the South Holland Main Drain. Boris and Arthur were loving exploring new sights and smells  and I was having a great time too. I really must make more time for this sort of pleasure.

Of course I took my binoculars with me. With the change of seasons there have been birds everywhere lately and I was over the moon to hear and then see a kingfisher shooting along the river. It was a new bird for the patch, though it is extremely unlikely I will ever be able to see it from the farm and get it onto the garden list. Same goes for the Little Grebes which swim around but never fly! Even the moorhens have only ever wandered as far as the farm once.
Boris, Arthur and I continued along the river to the bridge, stopping to pick out four wild Whooper Swans in with the winter flock of Mute Swans. From there we headed along the tiny back road where we did not encounter one vehicle and then back across the fields. Eventually we got back to where we started. We just had to negotiate our way back across the dyke at the bottom of the land. This was easier for Boris and myself, with our long legs, than Arthur, but he managed it on his own in the end.

9th November 2016
I woke up to the news that Trump had triumphed. What with that and the Brexit vote, I think I might just stay here on the farm and do my best not to interact with the outside world! (Apart from twitching).

Back at work today. For one reason or another I've not been there much recently.
When I arrived back home, I got out of the car to open the gate and I could hear Waxwings trilling somewhere above my head. These birds don't come every winter, but numbers are looking good this year. It's still a privilege to have them on the farm and they probably won't stay long.
My arrival scared them off, but I soon relocated them perched atop one of the roadside trees next door, dropping down into the hawthorn hedge to feed. There were 22 altogether.

A family flock of 12 Long-tailed Tits joined them in the same tree at one point. These have been around for a couple of days but are far from regular visitors to the farm.

I watched the Waxwings till they flew off presumably to roost as the light was fading and the temperature was plummeting. Winter is getting a toehold and I am looking forward to it.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Muscovy Ducks - From hatching to plate.

The ten Muscovies hatched by Elvis back in early May reached 25 weeks old this week, which was very bad news for them.
They were reared for meat and I was determined not to keep putting off the date of their dispatch. If you leave birds too long, the meat goes tough. Ducks can, in fact, be dispatched as early as 9 weeks old, though ours were way to small at this age. Goodness knows how you'd have to keep them to get them to any sort of weight by this age. From then till 16 weeks they grow pin feathers which make plucking virtually impossible. But from 16 weeks onwards they are fair game. Kept free range as ours are, they really reach ideal weight anytime from 24 weeks of age.

We could send them off to a fairly local butcher to turn them into tasty duck joints, but it costs about £4 per bird plus the petrol there and back twice. I don't really look forward to dispatch day and it is a lot of work, but it is part of this hobby / lifestyle.

But there was a slight problem. For the young ducks had grown as large as their parents and I was no longer sure which was which! The adult drake was fine, a large grey and white beast, and one of the adult ducks was the only all white bird. But the other duck was black and white, one of four black and white girls.
I began to think that I SHOULD HAVE PUT A RING ON HER!

But my problem was solved by this blog. For I went back to the photos of when the Muscovies arrived and was able to match the precise pattern from the photo to one of the ducks.
One of those looks like the picture!

So on Friday night we put the three adults into the big chicken house and then herded the other ten up the garden and into one of the stables so that catching them the next day would be easier and less stressful for all concerned.

Three of the Ixworth chickens were ready to go too, though when I went to separate them off only two were obviously bigger than the next batch. I decided to leave the third for a while.

So Saturday morning came. I wasn't looking forward to it. No-one enjoys killing animals, but I strongly believe that people are too distanced from their food these days. Hence the waste, the fussiness and the lack of any food ethics. Convenience is a much over-rated quality.

It didn't take long to dispatch a dozen birds, though the male Muscovies were more difficult with their thick necks.

Next step was plucking. A while ago I purchased a plucking attachment to go on the drill.

The birds need scolding in water at a fairly precise temperature - we have a large pot specifically for this. If the temperature is too cool or the scolding time too short, then the feathers do not come out easily. Conversely, too hot or too long and the skin breaks when the feathers come out.

You can scold birds even if you're not using the plucking device. It makes plucking much easier but it is hard to keep the skin perfect. But this was the first time we had used the rubber finger attachment. A little experimentation was needed. One drill went too fast, one was shaking itself to pieces in the vice. We ended up using the cordless drill hand-held. I held the drill as firmly as possible and Sue offered up the birds. Feathers flew everywhere!

Where we had scolded a little too much we reverted to hand plucking.
We hand plucked the chickens too, for they were our first birds specifically bred for meat and we wanted them to be special.

We don't bother with hanging chickens or ducks. We know they are not old and don't find they need it. Besides, with the weather as it is at the moment there are still far too many flies around.
Next step was the butchery. The chickens and the male ducks were to stay whole, for roasting. Sue has become the expert at gutting and preparing these.
There is not much more on a duck than the breasts and legs and we don't have the freezer space for all the empty carcass space, so I processed the female Muscovies, taking off the breasts and the legs. I've got quite good at this and can do it leaving virtually no meat on the bone. Any scraps which were left were greatly enjoyed by Arthur, who relished playing the traditional farm dog role. Boris, on the other hand, was not interested in the least, turning his nose up at the scraps.

It took both of us much of the day, but we eventually finished processing the dozen birds. From hatching the eggs to butchering the birds it's a long process. It'll probably work out no cheaper than a good chicken from the supermarket, and that's definitely without factoring in our time. To tell the truth I don't even work it out. As for taste, there is no comparison between a cheap supermarket chicken, whichever misleading terminology they use to describe its rearing, and a properly free bird. Sue and I both find that supermarket chicken tastes of not very much, maybe even a bit bleachy. But to be honest the chickens we've eaten recently of our own have been tough as old boots, rubber boots. But that is because we postponed eating them for too long and they were not bred for purpose.

Today's chickens were not huge, but certainly did not disgrace themselves either. But the one we roasted up tasted very nice indeed. It was juicy and tender and actually tasted like a chicken should.

If we really searched and paid a proper price for a chicken, we could probably find chicken to buy of a similar quality. But we have done this all ourselves and there is something very special and very honest about that.

Finally, luckiest fowl of the day were the turkeys, for I had been planning on dispatching one of these too. They have reached a very good size and make for quite an imposing flock now. However, we just ran out of time. Besides, they do need to be hung for about a week and Sue was due to be away then.
As I put the finishing touches to this post the weather is just turning cold so it won't be long until we are making the difficult choice of which turkey goes first!

Friday, 4 November 2016

Boris goes back to the beach

This time it was Brancaster beach.

You'll have to excuse all the photos being of Boris. Arthur was there too, but Boris somewhat stole the show.

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