Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Ready. Steady. Grow!

20th January 2017
Christmas is over
Christmas is well and truly over for another year when the tree gets thrown to the sheep. As we had an artificial tree this year, I recovered the one which was about to go in the school skip. The Shetland sheep love a bit of Christmas tree and will spend the next week gradually stripping it of needles and bark.

21st January 2017
A pottering day. I finished pruning the apples and pears and moved on to the blackberries, which didn't get pruned in late autumn when they should have been. For now I've just cut back all the shoots which fruited last year and cleared some of the weeds from around the base. I am erecting new posts and wires when I get round to it, at which point I shall train the stems in hope of a better harvest. The blackberries and associated hybrids (tayberries, loganberries etc) have never really taken off, so this year I am going to put extra effort into them.

In the evening I met up with the Grow Your Own group for our annual meal. It was supposed to happen before Christmas, but I'm rather glad we left it till after.
A very nice time was had by all.

22nd January 2017
A late start today, but there was still a hard frost well towards the middle of the day. I took advantage and rotavated the bed where the garlic and shallots are due to grow.

Boris and Arthur keen to help with the plucking
Poultry executions
Then I'm afraid it was time for a few of the birds to go. The spare turkey stag was first and I got straight on with the plucking while he was still warm. This sounds a bit callous, but the warmer the body the easier the plucking. Hopefully the four remaining turkeys will settle down nicely now that there is just the one silver male.
Then it was a goose. I had only ever once dispatched a goose and that was a mercy mission, so I was a bit hesitant about this. However, it was actually fairly easy, nowhere near as difficult as some of the ducks are. Plucking, on the other hand, was an endless task. It seemed that the feathers had the ability to regenerate eternally. I left Sue to do the more delicate quills and down feathers while I got on with the next catch and dispatch, this time the spare old cockerel. I kept well away from his sizeable spurs, as these have been known to inflict deep wounds in the past! Again, cutting the number of testosterone-filled males down should help with the overall welfare of the flock, particularly with them all cooped up inside for at least another five weeks.

Finally, another four of the Ixworth meat chickens had grown plump enough for the pot.

23rd January 2017
Everlasting Garlic
I spent the first part of the morning jointing the chickens we dispatched yesterday.
The day started clear, but as the sun tried to break through it drove all the moisture out of the ground and into the air. A thick fog enveloped the farm for the whole afternoon.
I got on with planting the garlic and shallots. All the literature advises buying in special bulbs for growing garlic, warning of poor results and disease if you try to use shop-bought bulbs or dare to save a few from year to year. Well, maybe I just struck lucky when I purchased a few green bulbs from Pretty Fruiterers several years ago when I was down in The Big Smoke for a hospital appointment.
But those cloves have served me very well. I get juicy white bulbs every year which last right through into late winter. Come late January the strings of garlic cloves come back to life and cry out to be planted. I pick the best hundred or so cloves out and just poke them into the ground. The rest get given away or processed into garlic paste or powder.
Come midsummer, I'll be drying over 100 garlic bulbs.
Cost = about £1. Harvest so far = about 400 bulbs and rising.

24th January 2017
Crown fitting.
Tooth extraction.
Enough said.

I planned to travel North after the dentist to see a White-billed Diver, a high Arctic sea-dwelling bird which had somehow managed to end up feeding along a 5 mile stretch of inland Lincolnshire river for the last few days.
However, I had underestimated the impact of my dental work, so instead I headed home to sleep it off before spending the evening sorting my seeds.
Chitting begins
I did summon up the energy to set my New Potatoes chitting properly. They had already started of their own accord as I purchased them super early. These ones will be going into the polytunnel very soon to give me a fantastic early harvest.

25th January 2017
On a Cold and Frosty Morning...
We have had an excellent run of frosty mornings and today was no exception.
Still on the road to recovery, I decided to take the dogs for a long walk along the river. It was foggy again and we walked along in our own bubble of clear air.

I couldn't see the wild swan flock in the fields by the river today. I think they were there in the fog somewhere. However, one lone Whooper Swan was on the river bank and slid into the water as we approached. This is unusual for the whoopers, but I think it had lost its mate. It was calling quite dolefully.

Later in the evening the dogs, tired from their walk, took a well-deserved rest on the sofa, alongside Sue and Gerry.

26th January 2017
Today I compiled my seed orders for the year. The plans are done, the sowing season is upon us and it's all systems go!

27th January 2017
First seeds planted - chilli, aubergine and celeriac.
These three need a long, long growing season so I have taken to starting them off very early over a heated propagator. The seedlings will need some tender care during their early lives, but hopefully I will be reaping the rewards later in the year, when the fog and the frost are long forgotten.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

My whopper celeriac

Tuesday 17th January 2017
I took the dogs for a long walk along the Main Drain today. It took longer than usual as I just kept stopping to take photos. They are just snaps taken on the phone, but there are days when the unique qualities of our Fenland landscape really come to the fore.

So that was the morning taken care off. In the afternoon I started the task of pruning the apple and pear trees. Anything I've pruned gets thrown to the Shetland sheep who delight in stripping off the bark and with it hopefully any pests and nasty fungi.

I harvested one of my celeriac roots today too. I expected to find a crown of leaves with a missing root underneath, gnawed by the voles, or to have to pick most of the crop to get enough celeriac to be worth the picking. This is what has happened in the past and this year was celeriac's last chance.
But no! I harvested a real whopper. Even after I had trimmed off all the leaves, the side-shoots and the roots, there was still a sizeable root left. Success at last!

The plan was for a roasted medley of roots all from the garden. In the picture are parsnips and carrots  (already frozen), potato, celeriac, Spanish Black Radish, beetroot and a small winter squash.
These vegetables were to be an accompaniment for Seared Duck Breast with Blood Orange and Star Anise. This is all part of my new Tuesday cookery resolution.
The skies continued to delight all day

And after dark it was back into the kitchen for a spot of baking.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Operation Turkey Swap

Sunday 15th January
I swooped this afternoon and managed to catch onto the leg of one of the turkey stags. It didn't put up too much of a fight until I put it into the dog crate, when it did its very best to squeeze through the bars in the roof and to shake the cage apart!
The reason for all this?

A turkey swap was on the cards today. For five of our turkeys have survived Christmas, including our breeding hen who is now into her third calendar year, quite an achievement for a turkey.
It won't be long before they come into breeding behaviour, clucking and egg-laying for the girls, strutting about and booming for the boys.
As the fox got Terry the Turkey, our fine and friendly stag, last year we needed to bring in some new blood. Fortunately friends of ours also had some survivors of the Christmas period, so a swap had been arranged.

Off went a black turkey... and back came a silver turkey.

I put our new stag into a separate stable to the others, fearing that our one remaining boy might not appreciate a newcomer. It was almost dark by the time we got home and I left the lights off in the stables. I would check what was happening in the morning.

Monday 16th January
The two turkey stags have found each other. They have both crossed one stable wall to meet in the middle, but so far there has only been ostentatious displaying toward each other.

I left the two alone for a while as I went to finish pruning the gooseberries, a prickly task. With this job done I returned to the stables and spent a long time just watching the poultry. They seem to have come to terms with their ensconcement but it is good husbandry to spend time observing their behaviour.
One of the old hens was spending her time huddled in the corner and appeared poorly. Obviously, with bird flu in the country, I wanted to keep an eye on her and observe all her symptons. I went in to have a look and her crop felt enormous. I suspected an impacted crop, something from which our hens have never suffered. But then they are not getting outside, not scratching around, not pecking at the soil.
I mixed a couple of scoops of oyster shell into their food and resolved to just keep an eye on things.

I left the main job for the day until the evening, as it was a job for the kitchen. We were kindly given a dozen pheasants, a couple of pigeons and a few wild duck recently. Sue had skinned the pheasants, but I needed to joint them up before plucking and taking the breasts off the other birds.

Tuesday 17th January 2017
Firstly, the hen seemed a lot better today. She still doesn't look quite right but I am certain it's not bird flu, which is the main thing.
The silver turkey (need to think of a name for him once I get to know him a little more) has hopped another stable and the females have found him and started flirting. There was a little rutting between the stags but nothing too serious. The black stag will have to go soon though. It's just a matter of when we can find the time.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

A winter week on the smallholding

A fairly typical winter week on the smallholding.

Sunday 8th January 2017 - Poultry, Pruning and Pickling
The chickens have settled into the stable now

With the poultry inside and the sheep short of grass at this time of year, everyday feeding and watering takes quite a while. The geese and ducks empty their water buckets as soon as they are filled up, spilling it all over the stable floor, and I can't believe how much the geese eat. They don't usually get fed, having to survive on grass and a few roots thrown to them in the winter.
It is however, a good chance to worm them properly as I know exactly what they are eating. So today all the poultry (apart from those which will shortly go for the table) went onto medicated pellets. I used to buy the worming powder and mix it in with their usual food, but I have discovered you can pay someone else to do this for you! It works out about the same price and is so much more convenient.
The sheep are getting supplementary hay at the moment but their food of choice is sugar beet, which I buy in dried pellet form and leave to soak before feeding to them. They are getting a mangel wurzel a day too, which goes down very well indeed.

It was a lovely day today and blackcurrants were on the menu. Not the harvesting menu, but the jobs menu. They needed pruning and I planned on taking some cuttings too.
Sue and the dogs worked alongside me outside today, which was lovely. I got Sue sowing my mangetout seeds to go in the polytunnel before showing her how to prepare the blackcurrant cuttings.

- Freshly pruned and mulched
With those jobs done, it was back to the chickens, for some of the meat birds would be meeting their maker today. I get the hangman's job, not a nice one but a necessary part of self-sufficiency. I have said so many times before that nothing annoys me more than people who will only touch unidentifiable meat in frozen cubes.
The dispatch is quick and humane. As these chickens were to be jointed, we dunked them in hot water before plucking. 40 seconds at 160 Fahrenheit. This makes plucking ten times easier than doing them dry, but you don't get quite such a neat finished product.

Darkness comes all too early at this time of year so I retired for the evening. A nice cold beer and a warming bowl of Curried Pumpkin Soup did just the job.

With eggs back on the menu after a two month strike by the chickens, Sue tried her hand at pickled eggs. They will be ready for tasting in three weeks time.

Monday 9th January 2017 - Transplanting cuttings

By necessity I stayed on the farm all day, waiting for the parcel redelivery I had booked. It never came. Nice one Post Office!
It was another beautiful start to the day, though it wasn't long before the showers started and by the end of the day I was battling against sticky mud.

I started by taking flowering currant cuttings, though there wasn't much young growth to use. So I cut one bush right back. It should produce plenty of new material from which to take cuttings next winter.
Next on the jobs list was to move some willow cuttings which I set down last winter. They had done well, very well. In fact, they had done so well that I couldn't get the roots out! I had to remove all the cuttings around them so I could get at them with a spade. And so it was that I ended up transplanting all my buddleia, dogwood and privet cuttings from last year before I could tackle the willow.

As the sun set, I quickly cut a few handfuls of oregano, which I steeped in oil to make, surprise, surprise, Oil of Oregano. I shall be using this in a spray this year to try to avert the dreaded leaf curl which afflicts my nectarines and my mirabelles every year.
Unlike copper based mixes, it will not poison the soil and can be used even when the plants are in leaf. Whether or not it works we shall see.

Tuesday 10th January 2017 - Survived the dentist!
Another beautiful start to the day, only spoiled by the root canal treatment I was due for at midday. My dentist looks after me but it still doesn't make for a fun day.

I decided to drop in at my bulk potato stockist on the way home - I buy a few sacks for members of the Fenland Smallholders Club - but the gates were closed and there were no cars. On further investigation online when I got home, it seems their parent company may have closed the cash and carry side of the business. It is a shame when small local companies get incorporated into larger companies and then, several years later, quietly disappear.

My new year's resolution is to do a lot more baking and cooking using our produce. The visit to the dentist left me feeling a bit beaten up, but I didn't want a bad start to my resolution.
Anyway, I managed to bake a loaf and cook up a huge dish of Parsnip and Chickpea Curry. Later in the week I will knock up a cream of chicken soup, using the old hen we dispatched at the weekend, and a potato, leek and hock soup from the offcuts of a Serrano ham I purchased for Christmas.

Wednesday 11th January - Snow in the forecast
With snow forecast for later in the week, I took the chance to take down the brassica netting. The chickens and geese are in so, hopefully, there's not much to threaten the greens. Pigeons tend to avoid our garden.

Thursday 12th January - An Uneggspected find
Look what Sue found inside the old chicken when she was cleaning it out. These are eggs slowly forming in a queue.
The rest of the country got snow today. Somehow we escaped it.

Friday 13th January - A Recipe Refound
The day passed without incident, not that I am superstitious.
I did, however, find a recipe sheet which I thought lost. It was from my days as a vegan, over 20 years ago, and included my favourite recipe for home-made mincemeat, as well as a couple of other favourites of mine. I was well chuffed.

Saturday 14th January - A rat, more pruning and a new stretch of hedge
A rat has moved into the polytunnel. It is, I'm afraid, not welcome and now that I have moved the ducks out I have put poison in. Today the poison had gone down, so hopefully it won't be long before the rat is no more.

There was more pruning to be done today, redcurrants, whitecurrants and gooseberries. I do these on a different day to the blackcurrants as they are pruned to different principles, fruiting best on two year old wood and older. If I did them on the same day I would get confused!
Gooseberries are treated in exactly the same way as the currants, except they are considerably more prickly and time-consuming. I got ten of them done, but that's not even half of them since I took cuttings and drastically increased the number of bushes I have.

I took delivery of 25 bare-root Bird Cheery whips today and planted them in a double row. They should take well and will hopefully be providing shelter and food for birds in a couple of years time.

And lastly... I finally got round to boiling up the old chicken for soup. I boiled it a good long time, in case it was tough. The meat just fell off the bone and the juice I turned into stock.

So that was that. A typical busy winter week.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Poultry imprisoned for another 8 weeks.

Monday 2nd January
Difficult to capture with just the phone, but the thin crescent moon and Venus put on a great show in the early night sky over the house.

Wednesday 4th January 2017

Not unexpected, but today the Prevention Order was extended until the end of February. This is an attempt to prevent Bird Flu crossing from wild migrant birds into the domestic poultry flock.

Unfortunately it means that the poor ducks, chickens, turkeys and geese have to stay locked up for another two months.

They have actually settled down into their temporary accommodation now. The chickens are quite happen in the warmth and shelter. In grotty weather they don't do much when they are outside anyway, though I would like them to be scratching about in the veg plot unearthing all the bugs.
The turkeys have finally started coming down to ground level and the Muscovy ducks have started laying again. We are finding the odd chicken egg too, usually up on the hay bales.

Eggs again!

Now that the lock down is extended, I needed to move the three ducks out of the polytunnel and in with the chickens. They enjoyed their walk outside for all of about two minutes!
I had a big swap around in the stables too, moving straw to where hay was and hay to where straw was. In the process I found one dead rat, two young voles and a whole pack of mice.
Rodents are a bit of a problem when the birds are kept inside and I will have to spend a little time laying traps and bait in the stables to make sure it doesn't get out of control.

One of the older hens has something wrong with her foot, so it is probably time for her to be made into a broth! The meat birds have finally began to fatten up - moving them indoors set them back for  a couple of weeks - so we'll 'process' a few of those this weekend. The more we can thin down the numbers, the more straightforward it will be keeping them indoors.

Thursday 5th January 2017
Back at work today after Christmas. A bit of a shock to the system but I quite enjoy my job when the government is not telling us all that we're useless as a way of covering for its own ineptitude! The only trouble with working at this time of year is that there's so little time to get anything done on the smallholding.
This evening we were heading for the Cambridgeshire Self-Sufficiency Group's January meeting which turned out to be a very informative and entertaining talk on growing wood for fuel and coppice products. It was a chance to pick up some more Dexter beef from Paul (who played Santa in a previous post) too.

Saturday 7th January 2017
Hopefully the two lambs have come through. They are being nurtured in the stables, which is a bit of a squeeze what with all the chickens, ducks and turkeys in there too. Not only that, but today the geese were moving in, for with the lock-in extended their temporary accommodation thus far just won't do the job, especially once they start laying eggs and becoming more territorial. The mucky straw from the old shed went under the blackcurrants as a nitrogen-rich mulch.

And so today the stables underwent their third reorganisation. The lambs now have their own 'room' with one wall made of hay - an edible wall!

Seven of the chickens met their maker today. This should ease the overcrowding slightly. The old hen will hang for a few days before being turned into chicken soup. As for the others, we will take off the breasts, wings and legs. As they are not for roasting whole, they don't need to look perfect, so we dunked them in hot water for 40 seconds before plucking. This makes the job so much quicker, but you don't get quite such a clean finished product.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

2017 starts tricky.

I always had a sense that 2017 could turn into a very challenging year, but I thought this would mostly be caused by politics.
Well, it hasn't started off too well and Sue and I have had a difficult few days on the smallholding. You've heard of warts'n'all. Well this is the warts part. I don't want to linger over it, but a couple of the smaller lambs have run into trouble and it has taken all our care to get them past the worst of it. Hopefully we've turned the corner now, but things are still fairly critical for one of them.

So instead, here's how 2016 went out.

Monday 26th December 2017
Mr Rotavator hits the road again
At the back end of last season I had to order a couple of new belts for the rotavator. It took ages to get hold of them and today I finally got round to fitting them. I am not a very technical person, but the operation seemed to go smoothly.
It has just about been dry enough lately for me to be able to turn some of the soil, though when you hit a sticky patch the rotavator tines become clogged up very quickly and the job becomes untenably slow. Early morning frost helps the situation, but it's cold on the hands.
I managed to work over the area where the mangels grew last year (or rather didn't grow, as something ate them before they ever got going!). I'm using the area as a nursery bed for cuttings and young plants this year.
The Cutting Edge
Winter is the time to take hardwood cuttings. This process is amazingly straightforward and with a little patience can yield hundreds of free plants. I started with the privet hedge, which has now been in  a couple of years and is actually starting to look something like a proper hedge. I snipped off about 500 (yes, 500!) of the strongest shoots and set about turning each of them into a young plant.
All you do is snip the very tip off, just above a leaf node, and then cut just below a node at the bottom, leaving a cutting about 6"-8" long. The lower leaves are stripped off. It's not complicated and takes literally a few seconds for each one.
I haven't gone into every detail, but there's not much more to it. There are more detailed instructions available all over the interweb.
You then just poke them in the ground. Not every one will survive and you have to wait a year before they have established into small plants. But like I said, with a little patience and a little spare space I should have enough plants to create quite a lot of hedging in a couple of years time.

I was pushing for time to get all the cuttings in before dark. Not only that, but the ground was already frosting back over, which made for numb fingers. So this was not a great time for a rare bird to turn up in Gloucestershire, especially one which I had never seen in the UK before. But that's what happened. Fortunately news came through just too late for me to contemplate jumping straight in the car and getting there before dark. Instead, I tried to get all the cuttings planted so they would be safely in the ground. I was beaten by darkness so wheeled the rest into the polytunnel, where their freshly cut ends would be protected from the frost but it is not too hot to dry them out.

The rest of the evening was spent trying to find out more details about the Blue Rock Thrush which had turned up in gardens in The Cotswolds.

Tuesday 27th December 2017
Blue Rock Thrush Day
At 7.30am it was just getting light as I stood at the end of a cul-de-sac peering through the gloom at a tall hedge and a shed roof. It wasn't long before a whisper went round that the bird was in the garden, though it wasn't visible to us. The local residents had been warned of a possible large turn out, but behaviour was very good. Nobody went where they shouldn't, everybody was quiet and everybody parked away from the site and walked in.
After about 15 minutes the Blue Rock Thrush hopped up and sat in the low branches of a tree, just about on view to everybody. In this light it didn't look much, but as the sun rose more and more details could be made out. The bird periodically flew back to the ground, where it was apparently being fed pork pies! By the time it was fully light, there were well in excess of 100 people admiring this bird. The last twitchable one was back in 2000.
By now the slightly bemused residents were out and about. They took the whole thing well and, rightly so, were quick to appear with collection buckets for a local charity.

ed: At the time of writing, they have raised well in excess of £1000!

As the morning sun started to defrost the roof tops, the Blue Rock Thrush headed for the chimney stacks, possibly more akin to its natural habitat (the clue's in the name, though I don't think the rocks have to be blue)

It was a fun morning, bumping into loads of friends, but details of an eatery in the village tempted us away for a hearty cooked breakfast before we headed back home along the frosty roads of south central England.

Neil had the bright idea of popping into Deeping Lakes Nature Reserve to look at the Long-eared Owls which roost on an island. Great idea Neil. The fens were foggy!

I was back on the farm just before dark.

Wednesday 28th December
Disappointment for the dogs
Boris and Arthur have learned to associate a car ride with a trip to the beach, but today they were in for a big let down as the final destination was the vets. The cats came too. Nothing bad, just routine check-ups and collection of flea and worm treatment - always important on a farm
I finished putting the cuttings in the ground. They survived well in the polytunnel and hadn't even wilted.
Lots of privet cuttings!

After an unseasonably warm Christmas, the weather has turned distinctly chilly. Sometimes this is wonderful, when it is clear and still and crisp. But December ended cold, wet, grey and foggy. No surprises really, but weather for huddling up indoors and making plans for the coming year.

I've started using a to do list on my phone to plan out the year. I get daily reminders so I don't forget stuff. The only problem is that if a job doesn't get done it then shows up every day until it's done!

When I was going through my gardening plans, I realised that I am already late for sowing the mangetout seeds which will give me an early spring crop in the polytunnel. But the polytunnel is currently occupied by three ducks, with nothing on the horizon to indicate the Prevention Order will be lifted. I'll have to move them to the stables soon to share with the chickens and turkeys, as I want to give the polytunnel a thorough clean and disinfection. The late sowing of the mangetout is not a problem. It was at this time of year that I sowed them for this year's early bumper crop.

Lady Penelope and chick have moved back onto the farm.

A foggy walk along the Main Drain

Saturday 31st December 2016
A Trip Down Nostalgia Street
What better way to end the year than a birding trip out on my old hunting ground, Dungeness in Kent. The reason for our visit was a small bird known as a Stonechat. More precisely, a Stejneger's Stonechat (I spelled it, you can decide how to pronounce it). This bird has proven to be something of an oddity as it doesn't look anything like what people expected it to, but DNA testing yielded an unexpected identification. Either a mistake has been made or we still have a lot to learn.

There was an icy chill in the air on the exposed shingle landscape that is Dungeness. The bird showed okay, though it rarely came close. It was there for it's 55th day (it disappeared before DNA results suggested its identity, only to be refound a few days ago) so there was never really too much stress about whether or not we would see it.
I enjoyed my trip out in Kent today, seeing a few old friends from the area. I used to travel down here regularly when I lived in London. It is one of my favourite places. There were some classier though not so rare birds on the nearby RSPB reserve. A fine drake Ring-necked Duck (an American species) was the first I had seen for a few years and a Long-eared Owl at its daytime roost was drawing a steady stream of admirers. It certainly showed better than the ones at Deeping Lakes a few days ago!
Apologies for the shocking quality of the photos!

And so with trepidation into 2017. Who knows what it will bring.

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