Thursday, 14 December 2017

Black Guillemot not coming out in The Wash

Tuesday 12th December 2017
Back To Cut End
Another go at the Black Guillemot today.
I was quite impressed with Cut End yesterday. It is reached by driving to Boston then turning toward The Wash. The country lane takes you to the banks of the River Witham, from where it is a bracing one mile walk to where the river emerges into The Wash. There sits a brick hide which provides shelter and excellent views of the river mouth and the sea.
On the other side of the river sits the fabulous RSPB reserve of Frampton Marsh.

As the tide rises, so the sea birds come close inshore. Seals bob up and down in the river mouth and parties of Brent Geese fly overhead as they are pushed off the saltmarsh. There may have been no Black Guillemot, but yesterday I saw four types of grebe and a Great Northern Diver all which came right into the mouth of the river.
If anything, despite the snow having thawed, it was colder than yesterday. But I decided to risk taking the dogs along. I knew they would love the jaunt along the sea wall but I was a bit worried they would be disruptive when we got there and that they might get cold if I stayed there very long.

As it was they were a delight. Boris had a wild run around with a Cockerpoo that he met and both dogs introduced themselves fairly politely to the half dozen or so other birders who were there. Boris was happy to mooch around along the seawall and on the rocks, while Arthur soon got cold and came onto my lap for a cuddle. I wrapped him in a blanket but he eventually ended up inside my warm jumper.

No Black Guillemot again, but two Red-necked Grebes were notable and a Marsh Harrier gave stunning views. Slightly more distantly a Slavonian Grebe spent most of its time under water and a Razorbill bobbed up and down on the waves.
After a couple of hours high tide had passed by and Boris too was getting cold. We headed back along the river to where the car was parked, back through Boston and home just in time to do the chickens' late afternoon feed.

The dogs didn't do much else for the rest of the evening.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Snow reason to worry

Sunday 10th December 2017
A touch of the white stuff
Snow brings out the child in people. I woke up at 7.30am and peered out of the window to see if the forecast white stuff had come true. It had. Outdoors was a winter wonderland and the flakes were falling thick and fast.
Then I remembered I am an adult with a smallholding. The sheep need hay. The poultry will need checking. It'll be hand-stingingly cold. Then the inevitable slush, and mud, and wet animal bedding.

The dogs were a little bemused and Boris went running madly in circles around the poultry pen.
The ducks and geese seemed completely unperturbed. The chickens were less keen. The sheep just brushed it off lightly.

I on the other hand nearly got frostbite in my fingers and decided to stay inside in front of the fire.

We were on the edge of the snow band and got off lightly. By late morning the snow had turned to rain and by darkness most of it was well on the way to disappearing.

Monday 11th December 2017
Dentist day
Only one thing weighing heavily on my mind today - my visit to the dentist.
To take my mind off it I headed out to The Wash to spend some time out in the elements. I was looking for a Black Guillemot which had been about for a few days, a rare bird in Lincolnshire. I would have gone yesterday as this one was a good candidate for the High Arctic form which would be a first for me, but I had been put off by the weather.
As it happens that had been a bad decision. In the end Boston had been snow-free and today the bird did not put in an appearance. Still, it took my mind off the dentist.

Walking along the River Witham to where it meets The Wash
The dental visit went without incident. I was so pleased when my new dentist said she could do the two fillings without the need for injections.

I got back onto the smallholding just in time to witness a glorious sunset.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

It's beginning to feel a bit like Chr...

Wednesday 6th December 2017
Poultry Explorers
The monster chicks are faring well. They seem to have massive crops, which allows them to stuff in even more food at once than I am capable of! A tragic and unforeseeable accident meant that sadly we lost two but it could have been worse as I found them in time to save two others.

At this time of year I let the chickens into the veg plot and the soft fruit patch. I like to see them scratching around or huddling together under blackcurrant bushes or asparagus fronds. They can't do too much damage as there are few crops showing above the ground. If I can I like to turn the soil so they can clear it of larvae and eggs.
The geese don't get to go into the veg plot yet, as they are adept at finding root vegetables and have a liking for parsnips in particular. Instead though they get the run of the orchard while there is no fruit to stretch up and pull off. They can be surprisingly intelligent in this regard. I have seen them yanking on branches to dislodge apples clinging on for their lives.

Nice to see the three new Silkies exploring

The older hens stick closely together with Cocky

The young Muscovies are getting big now.
They give the run around every night and often just won't go into their houses.
The bigger males will be 'going' in the near future.

Thursday 7th December 2017
A Christmas gathering with good people
I wish the Cambridgeshire Self Sufficiency Group were based a little closer to us, for they are a lovely group of friendly people. Sue and I get along to as many events as we can.
I don't do many Christmassy things, but we were keen to get along to their Christmas Get-Together. It is always worth making time to spend it with good people. There are not enough of them in the world.

Friday 8th December 2017
By the time I get back from work it's pretty much getting dark at this time of year. So I took the time to admire the sunrise this morning.

Saturday 9th December 2017
More Christmassy stuff
I don't know what's wrong with me, but Saturday saw Sue and I at another Christmas event, the Green Back Yard Christmas Fayre. I must be going soft in my old age

Maybe it's the early morning frosts and the icy, clear air going to my brain.

Before we went out, Sue put some lamb neck in the slow cooker along with a selection of our own dried beans and some of our vegetables. This type of food is just perfect for warming the soul on a cold, dark winter's evening.

I don't often do 'what we had for dinner' piccies, but here you go.

We got to The Green Back Yard in Peterborough just past midday. The air in town was somewhat warmer than on the smallholding out in the rural fens.
I certainly don't do Christmas consumerism but I did enjoy seeing some of the crafts. I got a few ideas to steal too.
A simple basketwork angel and a willow Yuletide tree decorated with greenery

Friday, 8 December 2017

A Siberian Waif

Monday 4th December 2017
A Siberian waif
Today I found the rarest bird to grace the smallholding since I moved here. Even more satisfying was the fact that it was in the patch of young woodland that I planted when I moved in.
I was walking the circuit of the smallholding with the dogs when a bird started calling loudly behind me. The call was clear but certainly not that of any bird species I would expect to encounter on such a walk.
I located the bird straight away, a chiffchaff. This small plain warbler is a common summer migrant to this country and one whose song and call I am very familiar with. I see chiffchaffs on the farm mostly in the autumn when birds migrate through.
Increasingly chiffchaffs winter in this country, though mostly in the south. Early December is certainly a notable time for one to appear here, but there was something special about this one. For as soon as I laid eyes on it that strange call made sense. The bird was pretty much plain brown (paler below, but importantly no hints of yellow or olive-green), even plainer than our usual chiffchaffs. Chiffchaffs come in a range of dull colours, but one so plain and brown would certainly come from quite a way east. Paired with the distinctive call this bird was undoubtedly a Siberian Chiffchaff. I played the call on a phone app just to be sure and it matched 100%. The bird even appeared to call back. The Latin subspecies name for this type of chiffchaff is tristis, which means sad, presumably because the call is a drawn out, monotone plaintive one. Unfortunately not judged to be a full species in its own right, but I have only ever encountered a handful of these birds in my years of birding. I have seen plenty of brownish chiffchaffs, greyish ones too, ones with odd calls too, but very few which so clearly match all the criteria for a tristis.
How fantastic that such a small bird can have made it all the way from Siberia to my farm! It should be wintering in the Himalayas but presumably fancied a bit of a flatter landscape.

For non-birders, just so you know just how plain the bird is! Not my actual bird, but a dead ringer, this one in Doncaster in 2009.
tristis 11 December 2009 Lakeside

I found the bird late afternoon and it was generally hanging about with two blue tits. I watched it for maybe half an hour, at which point it was time to give the chickens a few handfuls of grain to keep them going through the cold night. Darkness falls quickly at this time of year and presumably the bird went to roost somewhere nearby.
Interestingly, a Siberian Chiffchaff was also reported on the Yorkshire coast at almost exactly the time as I found mine and another was trapped and ringed on the Essex coast two days later.

Wednesday 6th December 2017
Tuesday was my six-monthly hospital visit to London, so I was unable to check if the bird was still present. Having been poked and prodded I stayed at home Wednesday and just mooched around the smallholding with the dogs. There was no sign of the Siberian Chiffchaff all day.

I did however come across this beaut of a mangel wurzel. I posted it onto the Smallholders Facebook page along with the message
I 💚 mangel wurzels

Thursday, 7 December 2017

A Pointless Twitch, a Solstice Tree and a Supermoon

Saturday 2nd December 2017
A bird in the bush...
An early morning start up to North Lincolnshire and a housing estate in sunny Scunthorpe. Why? To see a bird of course. A White-crowned Black Wheatear, potentially only the second ever in this country. Turned out to have come all the way from... its cage two roads away, where an 80 year old man kept a bewildering array of bird species, none of which belong in a cage.
It was not an entirely wasted journey as it was a good chance to catch up with lots of my loonier birding friends.

Sunday 3rd December 2017
Bit of a lie-in.

Overnight we lost one of the monster chicks. It was much smaller than the rest, so no surprise really. The others are going strong. They eat and drink constantly! Have now opened their pen so they can wander a little and meet the other poultry - they'll have to learn to stand on their own two feet a bit more.

And now for the big surprise. We have a Christmas tree, a real one, a 10 foot whopper of a one!
Well it was sold to us as a Christmas tree, but I view it firmly as a Solstice celebration tree. I don't do Christmas.
I'm not sure Sue will let me take it down on 22nd December though, or let me open my presents on 21st 😉
Even better we got it for a tenner straight from the ground and only a couple of miles down the road in our nearest village. A couple had recently moved in and wanted to convert an area over for their horses. Hence the need to get rid of the trees which a previous owner had planted as foot high post-Christmas pound-a-tree items from the local garden centre.

The journey home was a bit dodgy but we made it.

I have to admit that decorating the tree was actually quite good fun and it will bring joy and celebration to the farmhouse as the shortest day approaches. Here is the final product.

The day was capped off with excellent, cloud-free views of December's Supermoon.
It was too big to fit on my blog properly!!!

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

You CAN have your cake and eat it.

Friday 24th November 2017
Black Friday.
I don't often get political on this blog, but I am actually a person with very strong beliefs.
Here's my tweet about Black Friday.

Black Friday is so depressing. Is the whole world now indoctrinated to consume endlessly until the earth is completely screwed? Exponential 'growth' is not sustainable.

As I write this, I'm still getting promotional emails informing me Black Friday isn't over yet. It's Wednesday now!!! As if the concept wasn't bad enough in the first place.

Saturday 25th November
A Sliding Carrot Cake
Finally got round to making my solstice cake today. I don't do Christmas. Solstice is pretty much where it all came from anyway and seems a much more relevant celebration given my lifestyle.
The cake is a spiced orange rich fruit cake.
While in baking mode I made a carrot cake with some carrots freshly harvested from the veg plot.
For tomorrow is the Grow Your Own group get-together and I need something to take along for bring and share food.

During the day news came through of an interesting bird at Staines Reservoirs in West London. I decided to go for it first thing in the morning 'on the way to Lakenheath' where I was due at the get-together at noon.
So in freezing temperatures and a cold northerly wind I gingerly carried the carrot cake to the car, hoping it would survive the extended journey. It didn't even survive the walk to the car as the top layer insisted on sliding off the lower one.
There was only one solution to this. Just take one layer and keep the other for myself!
Seems you can have your cake and eat it.

Sunday 26th November
Lakenheath, via Staines!
Grow Your Own Group at midday in Lakenheath.
Just time to nip to London first to see a Horned Lark at the oh so salubrious Staines Reservoirs
and then Santon Downham in Breckland to see a flock of Parrot Crossbills.
At Staines we had to peer through the railings as the Horned Lark grovelled around quite distantly on the concrete bank of the reservoir. In the UK these are known as Shorelarks, a bird which appears in small flocks on our sandy shores every winter. They are a delightful bird worth a special trip to see every winter. But this individual was one of the North American races, a solitary bird on an inland reservoir. It is a potential tick in the future in the rapidly developing world of DNA and species assignment. But for now it was just a very nice bird to see. Apologies for the photo quality. It never came very close.

Then it was on towards Lakenheath for the Grow Your Own group get-together. I just had time for a short diversion into Breckland to Santon Downham where a flock of Parrot Crossbills had been seen a couple of times. I only had half an hour to spare so was lucky when, just a couple minutes after arriving, the whole flock flew noisily over my head. It was several hours since they had been reported.

They just carried on going over a clearing and disappearing over the trees, but fortunately three birds had split from the group and were perched at the top of some pines. They are like a cross between a Crossbill and a Parrot, hence the name. They snip whole cones off the trees to extract the seed with their secateurs like bills.

Then it was on to the get together and a very pleasant afternoon with friends. I started the group four years ago and it has proved most successful, but today I handed over the reins. I will still be part of the group but I have a couple of new ventures in development. More later.

Monday 27th November 2017
I can do cold.
I'm not a great fan of wet.
I've learned to quite like the wind - I think putting on a few stone in weight has helped with this one as it makes me more stable.

But I don't do cold, wet and windy.
So today I mostly stayed in and caught up with stuff on the computer, like my blog posts!

The chicks we got are still going strong. They have survived a few frosty nights now, so fingers crossed for them. They eat ravenously and make a lot of mess, so I think at the weekend I will let them out of their pen to wander more widely.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Monster Chicks

Wednesday 22nd November 2017
Sue returned home from work yesterday with 11 chicks!
They had come from the mass production unit I mentioned the other day and someone had brought them into school to show the children. Because of biosecurity, they cannot go back into the unit. I knew this was happening but wasn't quite expecting eleven.
Completely by coincidence I was actually reading a blog on rearing these commercial meat birds last night. They have a reputation for going lame, never moving and having heart attacks. It seems that if you want a decent breast on your chicken there is a price to pay for the poor bird. But this blog claimed that if they don't have constant access to food their growth will not be so obscene and they will forage, thus exercising their hearts and legs.

This seems like a perfect opportunity to experiment.
The only problem is that they are still young, only just feathered up, but I don't really have anywhere indoors to house them. I do not want birds in the stables at the moment as they would probably draw in and quite possibly fall prey to rats.
So these chicks had better be tough. They are going straight into an outside pen.

Where they have come from they were kept at a toasty 30 degrees C, so Fenland's late November weather will come as a bit of a refreshing surprise.

Thursday 23rd November 2017
The chicks survived a cold night and came out to feed and drink in the morning. Fingers crossed. They are very vocal and their cheeping is the first thing you hear as you near the poultry pen.

A word more on keeping meat birds. The Ixworth hens that we breed and rear for meat are ok, but they don't have much breast on them. Big legs though. I do wonder whether they are the best stock with regards producing birds for meat. They taste very nice indeed, but I suspect this is more to do with the way they are reared than the breed.
I'll see how these new monster chicks do and maybe even keep back a trio to breed up, but only if they appear healthy and mobile when kept properly free-ranging. If keeping a breeding trio is not an option, at least this will be a good opportunity to assess the viability of buying in commercial broiler chicks each year rather than breeding our own Ixworths.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

The Almond - A Tough Nut To Crack

Tuesday 21st November 2017

Almonds driving me nuts
I was making a gooseberry tray bake today which required ground almonds in the base and flaked almonds in the filling. As we grow our own almonds and harvested well over a thousand this year, I decided I should really try to use our own ones.
Almonds are one of the toughest to crack.
As an experiment, I shelled 150 nuts, which weighed 100g before shelling and yieded 35g of actual almond kernel! The recipe called for 150g of ground almonds and 50g of flaked. Alas, it made sense to purchase the ground almonds, though I begrudged paying £1.87.
I shelled another 100 almonds and did the flaked almonds myself. This is a job for doing in front of the TV with an efficient nutcracker.

The tray bake was lovely. It's always good to find a new way to use gooseberries. Pie, sponge and fool can get a bit tiresome but gooseberries are such a wonderful fruit.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Don't ignore the red light on the freezer!

Sunday 19th November 2017
A Prickly Job
While Sue was inside making medlar jelly, I continued the job of pruning the gooseberries. Today I was thinning out the top growth, cutting the leader branches back and cutting the laterals (side branches) back to two buds. Gooseberries form on old wood and where last year's laterals meet the leader branch. The cut back laterals will hopefully form into fruiting spurs in the future.
If it all goes well, I'll get plenty of large, easy to pick gooseberries.

This took me quite a while, but Sue was kept busy by an unexpected mini-emergency. The red warning light had been glowing on the fridge freezer for a few days, seemingly for no reason... until today, when a small puddle of water appeared on the kitchen floor. Somehow Sue managed to squeeze most of the food into the other already full to bursting freezers.

With those jobs done, it was time for a long dog walk along the river. We went further than we ever have before. I never understand how the dogs are happy to laze around all day yet they have such limitless energy when it suits them.

Raspberry management
There was still time for me to tackle the raspberry canes when we got back from the river. I just needed to tidy them up a little and to take out the old stems from the summer fruiting varieties. These are easy to identify as they have the remains of flowering stalks on them.
The remaining stems are those which grew afresh this year and will produce fruit next year.

Autumn fruiting raspberries are treated differently.
All their growth is cut back over the winter (best done later in winter) and their new canes spring up next year, fruiting later on in the same year.

The light was falling as I finished this job and I was interrupted by a strange squealing sound. The closest I could think of was the squeal of a rabbit when our cat has caught it, but Gerry and the dogs were inside. Maybe it was a stoat kill?
An unlucky blackbird
As I approached where the strange commotion was coming from, somewhere near the bee hives, a sparrowhawk exploded from the ground carrying a still struggling blackbird. The poor thing had probably just flown al the way over the North Sea only to meet an untimely end when it was looking for a safe roost for the night.

Monday 20th November
A New Car - sort of
A dreaded trip to the dentist. And bad news. My dentist has left and I have someone new. This is a lot for me to cope with.
When I made it home safe and sound, I decided to clean the car to take my mind off things. My car must have wondered what was happening to it. Layers of dirt and moss and lichen which had been protecting the paintwork from the elements were gently wiped away.
By the end I felt almost as if I had a new car!

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Winding down for winter

Monday 13th November 2017
A birdy day
The gorgeous, crisp weather continues.
I spent the day cleaning the chicken houses and liberally applying diatomaceous earth to keep spider mite and lice at bay.
After that I topped up the bird feeders. They've been empty for a while as I didn't want to be feeding the rats, but now that the annual incursion seems to be under control I can revert to feeding the needy birds.

Tuesday 14th November 2017
Thank god for Kevlar gloves!
Most of my day was spent pruning gooseberry bushes and I didn't even get the job finished. I was on my hands and knees clearing under the bushes and clearing the lower branches, many of which had drooped and started to root in the ground.
Last year we got very few gooseberries. Let's hope my efforts are rewarded this coming year. The rather messy looking cardboard you see on the ground is how I keep the grass down between the soft fruit bushes. It doesn't look too pretty but it is very effective and the soil underneath is kept in excellent condition. I mulch on top of the cardboard and it just disappears.
I had plenty of help from the chickens who enjoyed scratching about in the newly disturbed earth and litter. They do an important job clearing away bug eggs and larvae from under the bushes.
Rambo goes into action
For the first time today I actually saw Rambo getting it on with one of the ewes. Number 3 it was. We should really use a raddle, which I swear is a made up word from ram and saddle. It is basically a coloured marker so you can see when the ram has done his job. We don't bother with this as we are fairly laissez faire about it, but I have to admit it would be nice to know more precisely what to expect in 145 days time. Note for next year.

Welcome return of the Tree Sparrow
With the recent cold weather, winter bird numbers are starting to build up on the smallholding. There were 6 Reed Buntings today and 14 Meadow Pipits.
I was delighted to see a Tree Sparrow back and a Greenfinch (both sadly scarce birds now). Presumable they have already been lured by the freshly topped up feeders.

Wednesday 15th November 2017
Not much to see.
This was about as good as visibility got today.

Friday 17th November 2017
Fire in the sky
These days I have to dash home from work to take the dogs for a walk and give the chickens their afternoon feed. Today there was an amazing sunset, gone as quickly as it came. Unfortunately the phone battery went dead just as it was developing, but you get the idea.

Saturday 18th November
A New Dust BathHere's the special dust bath which I built the chickens. The paddling pool is full of dry sand with diatomaceous earth mixed in, so that when the poultry decide to use it for dust bathing it will kill any lice and creepy crawlies hiding in their feathers. Unfortunately the chickens don't quite know how to use it yet. In fact, Arthur is showing more interest.

Sheep moving day
Main job for the day was sheep worming which went very smoothly. After this we separated the ram lambs from the ewe lambs as the paddock up here is not large enough to keep five sheep going in winter time.
Maybe some good news for the turkeys
With this completed so easily, there was time to move the chicken pen. I thought this would be a four person job, but it was surprisingly easy (once I'd removed the ground pegs!).
This gives the Ixworth chicken trio some new ground to go on, but more importantly makes space for a new turkey enclosure. The turkeys will appreciate the nettle growth. They are about the only livestock which effectively deals with these.
My hope is that I might be able to let a couple outside the cage each day and that they will hang about because the other birds are still there. I can't do this at the moment as their housing is too close to the boundary fence and next door's dogs. It would be lovely to let them free-range again, at least in a limited manner.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

First Frost of Winter

Monday 6th November 2017
First proper frost
The first proper frost of the year. I got up early to see the sunrise. These clear, crisp winter mornings are one of my favourite times of the year.

A Silkie Swap
One of the Silkie hens which we purchased a few weeks back has started crowing good and proper. It can be hard to tell what sex birds are until they start either crowing and jumping on the girls or, alternatively, cooing and laying eggs

No problems though. The people we bought from were happy to swap for another and with them being a bit older now it was actually just possible to be sure what we were getting. When I saw the hens, I could indeed tell which was which - they had no wattle whatsoever and the cockerel had longer, shinier feathering in his tail.

The couple I was picking up from were incredibly chatty and I ended up staying over an hour. They had poultry everywhere - it is surprisingly easy to breed lots of animals or birds when you first start out, but you need an end plan.

Eventually I returned with not one, but two replacement silkies. Both black to go with the 'partridge' one we picked up last time. Hopefully they will settle in quickly and be going broody early next year.

The buzz of a brambling
On the wildlife front, 4 Whooper Swans were in with the swan flock this morning and another 7 flew over the farm. A brambling was buzzing from the birches, the first of the winter and a clear cold weather arrival.

Tuesday 7th November 2017
Medlar time
Rain promised. Never quite materialised.

The adult Shetland sheep in the furthest paddock.
I have left this paddock ungrazed for a yeat to give it a rest, so there's plenty for them to munch.

The medlars are just about ready now. They are an odd looking fruit, with the nickname of 'dog's arse' in French! They are inedible until they have bletted, which means that you need to wait until the flesh is bitten by the frost or softens until it resembles mushy apples.
Not really selling them, am I?
The tree is a good-looking orchard tree, quickly acquiring the look of an old tree and bearing wonderful white blooms in springtime.
When the medlar fruits hang on amongst the yellowing leaves, nothing could be more autumnal. But the chickens and ducks have started jumping up to get at the lowest fruits now. They are ready for picking. The medlar jelly that Sue makes is wonderful.

Wednesday 8th November 2017
Grey Wagtail!!!
Only the second ever that I've seen on the farm. Even better, it was darting around the drinking pool and new pond which I recently constructed, its tail lifting up and down as if on a pulley with an overenthusiastic campanologist on the other end. What a great start to the day. 

The end of the day wasn't bad either.

Saturday 11th November 2017
Look what I've grown. A brassica which has made it through to harvest and actually tastes nice! It has taken me several years, but I think I have finally narrowed my brassica list down to what usually grows successfully and what I actually like eating.

Next year I shall be growing: Red Cabbage; Scarlet Kale; Cavolo Nero; Calabrese; Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Romanesco. I shall not be growing sprouts, green cabbages or cauliflowers, which is pretty much the traditional list of brassicas grown by gardeners.

Carrots hanging on
I dug up more carrots today. They should really be out of the ground by now, but the freezers are full so they can take their chances. Covering with fleece has prevented 99% of the carrotfly carnage which destroyed previous crops. The voles haven't found them this year (it seems to be a poor vole year) and the slugs have only taken the occasional munch.

Other than that, it was just general tidying up of spent veg beds today. The ground is now wetter and colder and compacts easily so it's best to keep off the soil as much as possible.

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