Sunday, 13 August 2017

A Marrow Victory

That's mine, front centre, next to that very long courgette!

Under the umbrella of the Fenland Smallholders Club I run a Grow Your Own group. We meet up most months, taking turns to visit each others' smallholdings and all taking food along to share.

Each year we have a growing competition too and this year it had been decided we would have a go at marrows. This is not a vegetable I usually grow, instead tending to let my courgettes grow into false marrows before feeding them to the chickens - the Ixworth chicks have taken to making tunnels out of them.
I perused the seed catalogues over winter and opted for Long Green Marrow. I treated my seeds as if they were courgettes, but lost a couple of the plants along the way. In the end just two marrow plants survived and along with the courgettes I pretty much forgot about them until a couple of weeks ago when I happened to notice a rather fine specimen poking its head out from beneath the leaves.

Loading the marrow onto the car roof 😉

I turned up at the group today armed with my marrow and a tub of raspberry sorbet as the theme of the day was soft fruits. We always enjoy a bit of banter when it comes to the growing competition and last year it has to be said that I wapped everybody with my giant pumpkin, so I had a reputation to uphold.

Surely a courgette!
Steve's 'marrow' was already on display and it was certainly well endowed lengthwise, though a little lacking in the girth department. It also bore a striking resemblance to an oversized courgette! CONTROVERSIAL!
It then became clear that we hadn't actually decided the criteria by which the marrows were to be judged. We eventually went for weight and the weigh in was stressful with the first two coming in at just over 5kg. Mine was up next and I was overjoyed to hear that it came in at over 6kg. The rest of the marrows were clearly smaller, though a couple were very good lookers.

The prize? Gloating rights for the rest of the year.

The raspberry sorbet went down well too and was particularly well paired with a chocolate cake which somebody else had brought along.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Elvis to the rescue

For one reason or another much of our egg hatching this year has not gone entirely according to plan.
We tried to time it so that nothing complicated would happen while we were away on the Outer Hebrides last week, but the poultry had other ideas!
First there was the turkey hen who abandoned her eggs at the last moment only to sit on a clutch in the other house. Result: hatching due last Thursday, while we were away.
However, the turkey hen is still sitting. I coaxed her off the eggs yesterday. She is only sitting on five eggs and I would be very surprised if they hatch now. It was very late for her to sit, so the eggs may not have been fertile anyway. I'll give her a few more days sitting and then investigate the eggs if and when they don't hatch.

Then there was Elvis and her daughter Priscilla both going broody very late on in the season. With three successive clutches of Muscovy duck eggs failing under three different ducks, I grabbed the opportunity to put some eggs under the two hens. Their due date was this Sunday just gone, our first day back from holiday.

And guess what I found on Sunday morning.

By Sunday evening all twelve eggs had successfully hatched. Goodness knows how they can hatch under a chicken but not under a duck?
Anyway this is good news, as the only other option for hatching Muscovy ducks would have been the incubator and this is reportedly tricky. Not only that, but there is the hassle of raising the ducklings. With a good broody hen, all this is taken care of.

Then on Monday morning Priscilla was off her eggs in search of food and water. I noticed that one of the eggs was cracked and there was movement inside. Fortunately she went back on the eggs and as I write this I have just moved hen and four healthy ducklings down to a new home in the chicken pen. No pictures yet as they are still getting used to their new home.

Now, as cute as they undeniably are, you must remember that this is a smallholding blog. In about six months time these ducklings will hopefully be big juicy Muscovy ducks, known in the restaurant trade as Barbary duck. 😋

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Uists and Barra - The Secret Is Out

I am no stranger to the Outer Hebrides, the chain of islands that guard north-west Scotland against the ravages of the Atlantic Ocean. For their geographical position makes them prime territory for emergency landfall by lost American migrant birds. This same geography makes for a stunningly beautiful chain of islands, their Atlantic western shoreline dotted with stunning beaches, their leeward east coast more mountainous, a patchwork of lochans, moorland and rocky inlets.

My visits to the Outer Hebrides have thus far been limited to mad dashes to see some very rare birds. A long overnight drive, usually to the small port of Uig on the Isle of Skye, but occasionally to Oban or Ullapool. A ferry across The Minch. A mad dash to see the bird.
The ferry timetable usually necessitates an overnight stay on these wonderful isles and then it's time for the return journey.

Even with such brief visits, any twitch to the Outer Hebrides is much looked forward to since they have become my favourite place to visit in Britain.

Sue and I used to travel abroad almost every holiday (one benefit of teaching as a career), but since our decision to start a smallholding opportunities for holidays together have been limited. Once in seven years to be exact and that was our honeymoon.
So when a friend offered to look after the farm for a few days we jumped at the chance to celebrate our third anniversary with a few days away and I decided to reveal the secret of the Outer Hebrides to Sue, who has only been once before when I dragged her away from a boxing day meal to go and see a Killdeer! The weather that day was awful and it wasn't the ideal introduction to the islands.

We booked up a B&B that accepted dogs. This would be a great experience for Boris and Arthur.

And so last week the day came. We packed everything into the car and embarked on an 18 hour journey to our temporary new home. The dogs coped admirably with by far their longest ever trip. A few breaks for walkies, a couple of power naps for me and 555 miles later we were at the ferry terminal. It was a gorgeous morning and the ferry crossing was like gliding across a mirror. We had the whole doggy area of the boat to ourselves and the Calmac full breakfast was as good as it always is. It is something of an institution.

And now for the pictures.  The scenery was stunning, the people friendly and the weather glorious. The dogs had an amazing time and were absolute stars everywhere we took them.

We had an amazing week but it is nice to now be back on the smallholding, digging out two new ponds in the rain!
And I guess the secret of The Outer Hebrides is out now. Just don't tell anyone else or they'll all be going there.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

An even bigger carrot-billed monster bird

I had been gardening all day and not keeping my eye on any of my communication devices. So I was a little miffed when I came in for a bite to eat to discover there had been a Black Stork in Lincolnshire for over 2 hours earlier in the day. It had now flown off.

Not to worry, I would possibly have missed it anyway and it can take over 2 hours to get to North Lincolnshire from our little corner of the county.
It was at a place called Dunsby Fen and when I looked it up I was doubly miffed, for it was just the other side of Spalding, about 40 minutes away.

Then a message from a friend. Black Stork is back. I jumped in the car, not even pausing to leave Sue a note telling where I had gone - she would work it out - and sped across the bumpy fenland roads. Just over half an hour later I pulled up along a narrow country lane where two other cars were parked. I had a nice chat to two locals who told me every detail of how and where they had seen the bird and told me in which direction it had flown when last seen. Drat. There wasn't much time left and the bird could be anywhere now, with virtually nobody looking.

I decided to take a little drive around to work out the lie of the land. But just 100 yards down the road I passed a carload of birders who informed me that the bird was sat in a dead tree just around the corner. What a stroke of luck! I left a cloud of dust behind after hearing this unexpected piece of good news. It must have been less than a minute before I got to the only obvious dead tree in the area, but there was no Black Stork perched in it. Unbelievable. I scanned everywhere but to no avail. Shortly after, another couple of cars pulled up, birders who I knew. We were pretty much back to square one, though with a faint hope that the bird would fly back into the dead tree at some point.
But time was against up. The sun was going down and our chances of success were growing slimmer by the minute. Not one to give up, I headed off along a dyke in the hope of pulling a magic rabbit out of the hat.

Time to give up

By 9.15pm it was clear that we were on a loser, so I headed homeward hoping to get back to the smallholding maybe even before Sue got back from her band practice. She wouldn't even know I had been out! But she was home and had managed to work out the reason for my absence without any explanation. She knows me well.

But the story doesn't end there. I had a feeling the bird would be feeding back in its favoured spot the next day, but not wanting to get burned twice I resolved to wait for news before heading out. Besides, I wanted to visit a pond plant centre in mid Lincolnshire so figured I could combine the two into one trip.
I awoke earlyish the next morning to news that the Black Stork had left the dead tree (yes the same one it flew into last night - goodness knows what happened there) and was stood on the track. I completed the morning routines (chickens, polytunnel etc) before heading out, this time at a more leisurely pace. When I arrived there were a lot more vehicles than the previous night and 20 or so birders were stood on a small bridge with binoculars and cameras pointing down into the dyke. The bird must be showing well for nobody was even bothering to use a telescope.

I reached the bridge and there it was, a young Black Stork feeding by the weir as bold as brass, totally unconcerned by the group of admirers up on the bridge.

Spot the stork!

Apologies for mediocre quality images, but I was just using my phone held up to the binoculars and telescope
 In fact, the bird was so unconcerned by human presence that at one point it actually perched on my finger 😀

Thursday, 27 July 2017

An Inspirational Smallholding

During the summer months the Fenland Smallholders Club meets once a month at members' smallholdings. It is a great chance to see what others are up to and to glean ideas. In fact I often return from these get-togethers with my brain buzzing with concepts for future projects.

But the July meet was something very special. We visited the most charming and inspiring smallholding I have ever been too. It wasn't set on a big piece of land, but over 25 years the owners have created a true home from home, indoors and outdoors merging brilliantly, a whole treasure trove of areas and projects. There was everything from hydroponics to a yurt. And along the way a green-woodworking space complete with outdoor pole-lathe, a hog-roast pit, charcoal making, an outdoor wood-fired hot tub, a compost loo, chickens, ducks, bees, skeps, a pottery room, wool spinning and crafts, goats and more...

Most important though was the warmth and enthusiasm of our hosts, Belinda and Colin.

Here are some pictures. Needless to say, Sue and I returned to the smallholding newly inspired to push forward with fresh projects.

Indoors and outdoors merging perfectly

Green woodworking area - I want one!

Hot tub with a difference


The second best use for a bath I can think of - first is the hot tub

An easily cobbled together hog roast pit

The goats had a great playground

Two proud and happy smallholders

Time for coffee and a cake (or two)

The big charcoal reveal

Wonderful stuff

Who needs a house when you've got a yurt?

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

A carrot-billed monster bird drops in locally

Last week saw Arthur and Boris paying their second ever trip to the dog groomers.

I eagerly awaited their return, but early afternoon news came through of a Caspian Tern nearby. I have seen this species three times in Britain and wouldn't drop everything to go and see another. It is hard to catch up with, but an easy enough bird to see every couple of years if you are prepared to travel.
Having said that, Caspian Terns are most impressive beasts, dwarfing our native terns. They have a stonking great red bill. That's about all you need to know to identify one.

I hung around for Sue to return with the dogs and then we all jumped in the car and headed off over to Baston and Langtoft Pits. It only took half an hour and as we pulled up the bird was on show, just resting and bathing in shallow water. In fact, that's all it did for the entire time we stayed.

The bird was indeed impressive. It was the first for the Peterborough area for many years, so there was quite a turn out of locals. But the dogs and Sue soon got bored. Once they had shown off their nice new hairstyles to the locals (the dogs, not Sue!), we headed off to Deeping High Bank to take Arthur and Boris for a good walk.

  Before and after the groomer  

Monday, 24 July 2017

Cutting a path throught the swathe

There are still a couple of nests in the stables with young swallows leaning over the mudbrick edge, their bright yellow gapes wide open begging for food, but some of the others are now empty, their occupants fledged and taken to the big wide world. Every evening dozens of swallows gather over the smallholding, playing delightfully in the air and chattering loudly. They are joined by family parties of screaming swifts. It's a sign that nature's clock is inexorably ticking round.

This newly fledged young swallow was reluctant to join its siblings in the air.

The first combine harvesters have been in the fields, their distant chugging and clouds of dust signalling that harvest time is upon us.

When the crops are growing it becomes a bit trickier to walk the dogs along the field edges, so last week I decided to create a circular path around our land. I had been considering this project for a while but when it happened it was as usual very spur of the moment.

A nicely clear fence line and a new path for the dogs (and humans)

I needed to mow both sides of the electric fence, a major job which involves lots of walking and mowing up and down along the fence line, move the fence posts first one way and then the other. Thankfully it is a job that only needs doing a couple of times a year. I also wanted to replace a few of the posts.

But while I had all the tools out, the mower, the wheelbarrow, spade, post rammer, earth tamper... I decided to cut the new path, which meant completely moving the electric fence about 8 feet to one side. This way I could still leave a corridor of wild vegetation alongside the dyke.

The end result is brilliant. Most importantly, the dogs approve!

The new path gives a different outlook on the whole smallholding too. It takes us through previously inaccessible areas of young woodland and long grass, past the far sheep paddocks and along the side dyke, emerging at the back of the old pig pen and pumpkin patch.
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