Sunday, 31 December 2017

A New Year Clear Out

Saturday 30th December 2017
Poultry thinning
The Muscovy ducks are so big now that, despite recently waving goodbye to four of them, there is barely room in the poultry houses at night. They are eating me out of house and home too. They are now 20 weeks old, they have had a good life, but it is time for them to go.
The final batch of Ixworth chickens which we breed and raise for meat are going too. Ideally they would have grown a little more, but we really need to thin down our stock levels for winter.

So today was operation catch. We tried to take them out of their houses in the morning, but several escaped past us. Most were successfully transferred up to the stables though and the last few we caught when they went to bed in the evening.

Tomorrow we are demonstrating how to dispatch and process the chickens and Muscovy ducks (and probably a turkey too). When we began smallholding we really didn't know how to do these things and there is only so much you can learn from YouTube. None of the smallholders in Fenland Smallholders Club (FSC) seemed confident enough to demonstrate, though they should all know how to humanely dispatch a chicken as you never know when you will need to do this.

In the end it was Mick from Cambridgeshire Self Sufficiency Group (CSSG) who showed us 'the broomstick method'. (Don't worry, it does not involve chasing a bird around and clobbering it with a broom handle!)
Anyway, we were very grateful to Mick for sharing his experience. It turns out he used to be active in FSC before a rift and that it was he who had previously shown many of our club members how to do the deed. What a shame they weren't so willing to share their knowledge with the newest batch of novices.

So this is precisely why I offered the opportunity for people to come along and join in on our poultry dispatch day. We plan to teach them humane dispatch, wet and dry plucking, gutting, skinning and jointing. How much we have learned since those days when we knew nothing!

In preparation for the day we needed to have some 'here's one I prepared earlier' birds, so four chooks and four ducks got their marching orders today. It was good to run through how we will demonstrate and explain tomorrow.
Plucking the ducks was, as ever, the task which took the longest. They have endless feathers in endless layers.

We finished plucking the ducks just as darkness began to shroud the stables. Then it was inside to make a couple of loaves of bread for our guests to dip in their soup tomorrow.

Sunday 31st December 2017
What better way to end the year than a good communal activity. We had four people come along to our poultry processing day, which was a good number. Everybody got to have a go but nobody had to wait too long.
Hopefully they all learned loads and will be more confident chicken keepers because of it.

Sue explains dunking for wet plucking

A bit messy this one.
We are drying the chicken and duck feet. Apparently the dogs will love them. Waste not, want not.

And that, as far as 2017 is concerned, is that.

I have big plans for 2018.
We at Swallow Farm wish you a Happy and Fulfilling New Year.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Luckiest Turkeys... for now

Wednesday 27th December 2017
The Deluge The final figures will probably show a slightly drier year than average. But in truth, most of our rain in 2017 has come in about twelve days. It has been a year of long dry spells, then periodically we get "a month's worth of rain" in a day, as the weather commentators say.
Just in case we were falling behind our allotted average, we had fifteen hours of constant rain last night, pretty much from dusk till dawn. Next door's horse paddock was looking more like a lake.

During the day the temperature plummeted and we now live next door to an outdoor ice rink.

Two traditional Christmas dinners in a row were very nice, but a third would be stretching it. So today I cooked up my first ever risotto, using up a small pumpkin and half of what remains of the turkey in the process. It was rather yummy and not a sprout in sight. There is a great website for turkey recipes at so the turkeys who think they got away with it when they spent Christmas day alive and well may still be in for a surprise!

Thursday 28th December 2017
The Luckiest of Turkeys
Not only have the turkeys survived Christmas, but they also have a new home. The old pig enclosure is too ramshackle now to ever hold pigs again and just fills up with nettles, presumably thriving on the enriched ground. The only animals on the farm who will enthusiastically eat the nettles are the turkeys, so this seemed like  logical place to move them to. The other advantage of this plan is that we get back a substantial lump of the orchard and the turkeys are further away from our boundary with next door. Hopefully I can let one or two out occasionally and they will still hang around the vicinity if the others remain in the cage.
The turkeys have moved in next to the trio of Ixworth chickens

The orchard is much more open now

The turkeys have settled in quickly
Friday 29th December 2017
I have been sleeping a lot lately. My guess is that I've been fighting off some sort of virus. But yesterday I had more energy. It was the first time this holiday that I have spent most of the day working outside. And today I awoke at 4am and just didn't feel like going back to sleep. I dressed up warm and headed out to the stables. The ground was sparkling and flurries of snow were falling from the sky. For we have entered another cold spell.
Main job for the day was taking Arthur to the vets for his vaccinations, but before that I wanted to clear the stable area. In a couple of days time we are showing several other people how to dispatch and process chickens and ducks and we need a tidy covered space in which to do it.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Meet The Real-Life Grinch

Sunday 24th December 2017
Much as I enjoy kneading bread dough, I would make a lot more bread if I had a machine to do it for me. We used to have a bread machine, but I didn't like the blocks of bread it made. But I have now gone and got me a proper food mixer and it makes kneading a cinch. It does a better job than I can by hand too.
So today I knocked up this multiseed nutty bread for a special breakfast tomorrow. I don't know what's happening tomorrow.

Monday 25th December 2017
I don't do Christmas but unfortunately everybody else does, which means that nothing's open and the TV is rubbish. Two reasons I don't do Christmas. The first, I don't believe in any of the Christian stuff. But then nor do most of the people who do Christmas. In fact, I wouldn't mind betting there are a fair number of people who don't even know what they are supposed to be celebrating. The second, it has been completely taken over as a means to indoctrinate young children with commercialised consumerism, the must-have society. It is the ultimate weapon of consumer capitalism.
And the grown-ups have already been indoctrinated. The social pressure to take part in Christmas is huge.

What's craziest is that the whole thing stems from pagan solstice celebrations such as exist all over the world. It stole many of the traditions from those ancient festivals. Yet now, try to celebrate solstice instead and you are considered some sort of weird outcast. I don't do superstitions or rituals of any persuasion, but if I am going to celebrate for any reason then it will be the passing of the seasons.
I grow my own food. I rear animals. I wonder at nature. Christmas has no relevance to my life. The passing of the shortest day is hugely relevant.

Having said all that, the turkey meal still happens and some presents are still exchanged, as I am not strong enough to totally resist all pressure. But this year our most special meal, with friends, was on solstice night and I even dared give a couple of presents for solstice.

The dogs took advantage of the lie-in that was on offer today though.

With the stuffed turkey in the oven, we ventured out along the river with the dogs. The weather was not the perfect winter weather demanded for Christmas day. Instead it was cold and windy with rain threatening. Fortunately the elf hood that I bought for Sue came in very handy, as did Arthur's Christmas jumper. Arthur loves dressing up.
Then it was time for the dogs' presents. It would seem that the dogs have somehow become indoctrinated into the ways of Christmas.

Sue was well-pleased with her Secret Santa present, an egg collecting apron (and even more with the fact that I managed to make her look tall in a photo!)

But in the end it was all too much for everyone.

Tuesday 26th December 2017
Boxing Day. I didn't go to the sales. I didn't go to a football match. I most certainly didn't go fox hunting.
We did go for a walk along the River Welland. And I did watch Jurassic World.

So that's it. Christmas done for another year.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

I'm Not A Pheasant Plucker

Friday 22nd December 2017
I'm Not A Pheasant Plucker
I have previously made my thoughts about shooting perfectly clear. I'll just say wannabe aristocrats terrifying and blasting a helpless quarry! That should give you some idea!
I wouldn't be allowed to rear my sheep only to release them into a strange woodland, have them chased out into the open and then shot so that a few people can have a right old jolly in the countryside. So why is this an acceptable way to slaughter gamebirds?
A few genuinely wild birds taken to supplement a country dweller's diet might be more open to debate, but that is not what we are talking about.

Anyway, the people who do the shooting can't even be bothered to show enough respect to their 'quarry' to actually take the time to prepare it and eat it. And so, every year, a load of pheasants come my way and I am very happy to accept the free and tasty meat which they provide. In no way does my accepting this gift promote or support the shooters, but at least the birds didn't die for nothing.

Sue is in charge of skinning and taking off the heads and feet. We had a dozen brace to process and this is by far the quickest way to do it.
Once they are processed this far, they begin to look like supermarket carcasses, but they are not yet cleaned.

It is then my turn to finish the processing. I take off the legs and the breasts. Doing it this way means that you don't need to take out the insides, which is a messy and smelly business. Hardly any meat is wasted as the wings are really not worth processing and Arthur is most willing to accept any scraps which I pull off the processed carcass.

Saturday 23rd December 2017
Get Stuffed!
The year has come round so quickly, for on 23rd December 2016 I was writing about how we went to see Santa to show us how to bone out and truss a turkey.
Well guess what.

Paul is a veteran butcher who is always happy to share his time and his skills. He is brave too, for going within several feet of Sue when she is wielding a freshly sharpened knife is not for the feint-hearted.
Paul was involved in the smallholding movement way before The Good Life was screened and is a goldmine of information. Time spent with him and his wife is always most pleasurable and enlightening.

Monday, 25 December 2017

A Solstice Tree

Last week at the Green Back Yard Christmas Fayre I was inspired by this:

Tuesday 19th December 2017
My Own Solstice Tree
So today I embarked on my own tree, for solstice of course, not Christmas. I don't do Christmas.
First step was to harvest the willow and sort it. I needed about 30 rods for the verticals and some thinner but long ones for the weaving.

I then tried to figure out how to actually make the thing. I cut a silver birch branch, choosing one that was straight and nicely white and pushed it in the ground. I then used a brooder ring to mark the circle and set about poking the willow rods into the ground all around it. There was a fair bit of trial and error to get all the rods to the same length and the ground got muddy as I worked round the tree but I ended up with this (the tree, not the dog):

I was very pleased with my afternoon's work.

Wednesday 20th December 2017
Natural decorations
I do the construction, Sue does the decoration. And a fine job she did of it too. By noon on Wednesday our solstice tree was adorned with ivy, rosemary and conifer sprigs. Colour came with a splash of hawthorn berries and a dash of class was added with artichoke and teasel heads. The whole was topped off with a star of allium seedheads.

Thursday 21st December 2017
Happy Solstice!
So this is it. The shortest day reached. The sun rose at... well, it was misty most of the day! I was busy in the kitchen all day since I'd invited the Grow Your Own group over for a special solstice celebration meal and I was really pushing the boat out, as you can see from the menu.

The evening went very well indeed. The food was delicious with the soups and the roasted butternut being the stars of the show.

From now on the days get longer.
Hopefully the chickens will realise and start laying again very soon.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Dispatch Day - Down To Earth Smallholding

Sunday 17th December 2017
Bad news for the Muscovy boys
Back in early August Elvis hatched out these little beauties.

They grew quickly and for a while were a bit of a pain as they kept nibbling each others' wing feathers. But that has mostly sorted itself out as they have arranged themselves into friendship groups and go into various houses of their own choice every night.
They are now almost 20 weeks old, which is pretty bad news for them. Firstly, they are getting big and putting pressure on housing space. Secondly, the drakes will be harassing the females soon. Most importantly, their pin feathers will have grown out so plucking will be slightly less impossible now.

And so today we bade farewell to the four largest males. I pulled them straight out of their roosting house to save chasing them around the smallholding. Dispatch was quick. I always say sorry to each one before the deed.
We like to take the time to prepare the big males properly. A whole roast Muscovy duck is a very special meal. But plucking takes ages. They have three layers of feathers.  When we do the females we will just take off the breast, legs and wings which is a much quicker process.

While we were at it, one of the turkeys had an unlucky day too. I chose one of the young stags as they have started strutting their stuff recently, challenging the old breeding stag. Again I took the time to dry pluck it carefully and it will now hang for a few days. On 23rd we will be taking it over to Paul (the butcher from CSSG) who is kindly showing us again how to bone it out ready for stuffing.

Monday 18th December 2017
A glorious sunset today. These clear days leading up to Solstice provide us with some stunning skies.

Friday, 22 December 2017

An Influx of Tree Sparrows and First Bewick's Swans for a few years

Saturday 16th December 2017
An Arrival of Tree Sparrows
Absolutely amazed to see at least 19 Tree Sparrows on the feeders today. Up till now we've had between 1 and 6. I spent most of the day just watching them through the conservatory window, though when I did venture outside there seemed to be more in the hedgerows. Whether they have come from locally or from across the sea is a matter for speculation.
Unfortunately there was a rat under the feeders too - this is always a danger of feeding the birds. I shall be placing a couple of bait boxes in the area. They should keep the birds safe and I am hoping to move away from poison bait. There is a powerful trap hidden inside the boxes.

The compelling view from the conservatory window

Tree Sparrows mixing it with House Sparrows

The feeding station
Tree Sparrows feeding on the ground. But how many can you see?

Sunday 17th December 2017
A Sharp Frost
A very sharp frost. We are in a spell of colder weather which is most welcome.

Shetland sheep are tough cookies
One of the new ponds looking very wintery
I love how the copper beech hedge retains its leaves through the winter
The Tree Sparrows were still on the feeders today, though numbers seem to have dropped a little.

In the back field, swan numbers were up from 26 to 39. They are mostly Mute Swans but recently there have been three Whoopers mixed in with them too. On closer inspection today there were five Whoopers, but more unusually the herd had been joined by three Bewick's Swans.
The swan herd in the fields at the back of the smallholding

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