Sunday, 21 May 2017

A Hutton Alert!

Wednesday's forecast - cats and dogs
Last week we finally got some rain. Well, not just some rain but a WHOLE BUCKETLOAD. Quite possibly more in one day than we'd had in the previous two or three months.

As a result, the grass has started growing like mad (good for sheep, bad for maintenance - especially with the ride-on needing to go in for service but not likely to be even looked at for a few weeks), the weeds have gone berserk and there are slugs everywhere.
But I'm not moaning. The soil is beautiful to work, weeds practically jump out at the slightest tug and all the vegetables and flower beds are making rapid progress.

Add to that being past the last frost date (just watch what happens now!) and we really have entered a new season.

And with this came my first ever Hutton Alert on my phone. I didn't even know what a Hutton Alert was, but it came from the Potato Council so I guessed it was something like a Smith Alert, though these never come before mid-June.
There has been a problem with Smith alerts for the past two years. A Smith Period is supposed to be a period when conditions are ideal for blight to strike potatoes and tomatoes. It is, in theory, possible to take precautionary action by spraying. However, for the past two years blight has struck my potatoes way in advance of any Smith Period being notified.

So it was no surprise to learn that the rules have changed. A Smith Period is two days where the temperature stays above 10C and humidity is at least 90% for 11 hours or more on each day. The Hutton Criteria radically reduce the humidity element to 90% for 6 hours each day.
The problem is that my Maincrop potatoes have only just poked their heads through the ridges I carefully mounded up for them and already they are facing the risk of blight. I think that maybe I'd just rather not know. I don't spray anyway, as drenching the upper and underside of every leaf is totally impossible. Instead, when the weather is warm and muggy (in effect a Smith Period) I watch my potato leaves very carefully and take the tops off if blight strikes.
I guess this year I will keep an eye out when the weather is warm and slightly muggy (A Hutton Period).
Never good - the first signs of blight on potato leaves
I grow enough potatoes that even if blight strikes early, as it did last year, I still get enough spuds to last us through the year. Key to this are Second Earlies (Charlottes, Kestrels) which should still produce a decent crop before blight strikes and which store well enough through the winter.
If we get a good year then the geese and sheep do very well for potatoes too.

In addition, I grow a few First Earlies in the polytunnel, direct in the soil. In fact, just last week I harvested the first of these. I could have harvested a little earlier but I wanted a good crop so they go through till the first of the outdoor grown spuds are ready.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Lamb Surprise!

No, it's not a recipe!

I got home yesterday to find these in the top paddock.

We were very worried for this ewe. Over a month ago we brought her into the stables as she appeared to be showing a few signs of early labour. But once in the stable, all signs stopped so we let her back out again.
Since then two of the other ewes have given birth (it seems so long ago now) and our pregnant ewe has been back into the stable three times. Every time, she has settled back into a normal routine.

A sheep's cycle is just 17 days, so when that period had passed by we started to wonder what was going on. Worst case scenario would be a dead lamb inside which could well lead to very serious complications and quite likely the death of the ewe. We had now reached 31 days since the first ewe gave birth and 45 since the first possible due date. Very worrying.

I really wanted to move the sheep out of the top paddock, since four ewes and three lambs meant the grass was getting very well grazed. Last week I bit the bullet and moved the two ewes with lambs at foot down the land where they settled in very nicely. They enjoyed a munch on the hedge along the way.

We left the pregnant ewe up at the top with the non-pregnant one for company. We were getting increasingly worried for her as first the three week mark then the four week mark went by. There seemed to be no perceptible changes in her size or the appearance of her udders or back end. But at least she showed no signs of distress or illness.
We asked a few other smallholders for advice, but no one had much more to add that we didn't know. We decided to just observe for one more week before calling the vet for further advice. On top of all this, I was aware that the shearer will be coming over soon and that I didn't really want one sheep left unsheared.

The weekend was very much taken up with baby birds and with gardening. Nothing in particular seemed to be going on with the sheep.

So it was quite a shock when I arrived back from work about lunchtime yesterday and glanced into the paddock. There was our ewe and she was nuzzling a tiny lamb. It took a few moments to sink in what had happened and a few more moments for me to spot the second lamb. They were both cleaned and feeding well, but mum had not yet passed the placenta. I had only been away about three hours.

I snipped the umbilical cords to stop them dragging on the ground and sprayed them with iodine to prevent infection getting in. Then I just stood leaning on the gate and watched for most of the afternoon. I had been fearing the worst so this was very, very good news indeed.
Even better was that both sides of her udders seemed to be working well, for last year we had to call the vet out for this ewe as her udder was fine on one side but hard and hot on the udder (sorry!)
I have put the newborns inside for today, only because we have some very welcome prolonged heavy rain and I don't want them getting a chill. But tomorrow they will be back outside and hopefully bouncing around the paddock on their gangly legs.
They are both boys, so there is one more job left to do in a few days time. Blokes, cross your legs now.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

FREEDOM!!!!! The trials and tribulations of poultry keeping.

Avian Flu Restrictions Lifted
The poultry are free! Restrictions are lifted. They can stretch their wings, explore, scratch around wherever they want (but NOT in my veg plot!)

The chickens helping me clean up the land, fertilising as they go.

The geese hatched their eggs with impeccable timing to tie in with the end of the avian flu restrictions. So yesterday they took their four goslings out on their first ever excursion from the stables. Four goslings from four nests is not the greatest of returns, but is completely typical of geese. They sit tight for weeks on end, only to abandon their nests as soon as the first goslings emerge, whichever nest that might be from.

Focus not sharp, but I was risking my life approaching this close!

Unfortunately two goslings were lost before they left the nest - just sad little bundles of yellow feathers left in the nest. Sadder still, one of the four which was waddling around yesterday was presumable squashed in the nest last night, so we are down to three.

And then there were three
Life expectancy for goslings is not good. In past years we have lost them to crows, in water buckets, behind piles of wood. Even with seven adults looking after three youngsters, their chances are still not good. If they can, they will find a way to expire! The strongest and luckiest survive.

The alternative would be to keep them in the stables. This would be safer for them but the practicalities of food and water would be very messy, even if it were possible for us to get into the stable without being set upon!
The only other option would be to remove them from the parents and set up an enclosure with a heat lamp in the same way that we rear the meat chickens which we hatch in the incubator.

Anyway, any geese that do make it through will be considered a bonus. In previous years we didn't really mind, but now that we have tasted one of them we are keen that some survive! I know that sounds a little harsh, but that is an inherent part of smallholding for self-sufficiency.
The geese have to earn their keep. They achieve this partly by mowing the lawns, though they do get a little messy at times, and in part with their bounty of eggs which feed us handsomely for a couple of months with quite a few left over to sell.
If we fail to rear any goslings to adulthood, I think we will buy in some geese later in the year specifically for meat.

A Disappointing Hatch
Since I've already mentioned the meat chickens, I should mention that our last incubator hatching was disastrous. Three out of sixteen eggs hatched successfully, which is a woeful percentage. Next time we'll go back to the recommended humidity level. We had upped it on the advice of others and it didn't work.
Humidity levels in the incubator are very important as it affects evaporation through the shell and the size of the air sac which develops at one end of the egg. From memory, if the air sac is too small then there won't be enough air for the chick to breathe before it can break free. Too little humidity and the shell and inner membrane can be too tough to break out of.

We are now collecting Ixworth eggs as quickly as they can lay them to get another batch going in the incubator.
The first batch of eight birds are doing well now. One developed a bad leg and couldn't stand for a while. I thought we would lose it but it seems to have made a good recovery.

Perky Turkeys
In one of the other stables, the two turkey hens still have poults to look after. Unfortunately we have lost two - all part of natural selection - but the remaining five look very strong and healthy. (But so did the other two until they went rapidly downhill).
I am just urging them to grow, for every day they survive their chances get better.

Finally there are the Muscovy duck eggs. One duck has now been sitting for 34 days. Muscovy eggs have an unusually long incubation period - 35 days. So tomorrow is D-day.
We have tried to put Elvis onto another dozen duck eggs but she does not seem so broody this year and I'm not sure she is ready to sit. Maybe she is just getting too old for all the hassle. I would far rather hatch ducklings under a bird than in an incubator as the rearing is taken care of for me and ducklings seem more hardy outside than any of the other young birds.

Egg Thief!
Finally on the subject of poultry, at this time of year our egg production always seems to plummet. I have been in the habit of finding excuses in the weather, but I have slowly come to suspect the crows which, for the last two years, have nested in the ash trees. The drop in eggs seems to be closely correlated to their nesting.
So yesterday I loosely covered the entrances to the chicken houses with grates and hey presto! Seven eggs. Crows are super intelligent and will eventually work out that the new arrangement is not a threat to them, so I will hang some old CDs over the doorways. Apparently this is an effective deterrent and doesn't bother the less intelligent chickens who just blunder straight through the obstruction.

So that's it. Successes and failures. Life and death. Smallholding in a nutshell.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Tales of the turkey clan and more

After a straight drive of almost 12 hours I arrived home from North Ronaldsay very late at night, so there was no time to pop in and look at the four new turkey chicks (known as poults).

In the end three female turkeys ended up sitting together on three loosely organised clutches of eggs. We weren't sure how this would turn out. The geese engage in this same sort of communal nesting and they are pretty useless at it! Last year we just had the one turkey hen who sat tight on her clutch and successfully hatched all 18 of her eggs.

So nothing could have pleased me more than to find one of the turkey mums roaming around with ten fluffy little chicks in the morning. More than that, there were five more under one of the other hens.
However, the mums were struggling to keep control of their inquisitive chicks, who were getting trodden on by an overly attentive stag. It wasn't really his fault, as they were buzzing about everywhere.
A couple of hours later and all the new poults were up and about, with two hens trying desperately to keep an eye on them all. Sadly a couple had not quite made it cleanly out of their eggs, but still there were thirteen chicks, each and every one a bonus for us.

My intention was always to bring them down to the warmth and security of a stable, but I didn't want to intervene before all viable eggs had hatched out. In the end though my mind was made up for me when the Muscovy ducks started picking the poor chicks up by the leg and shaking them around, perhaps confusing them for frogs.
I hastily collected them all into a bucket, captured one of the hens and carted them all off into the stables. I transferred the Muscovies to the chicken pen too, all except the duck who is sitting tight on  her own clutch of eggs.

The rest of the smallholding is flourishing too, with the lambs going from strength to strength and the mangetout in the polytunnel yielding a sizeable harvest.

I put some of the turkey poults up for sale and had sold eight of them within a couple of hours. This would leave us five for meat later in the year and the sale would make a contribution toward the upkeep of the turkeys.

Two days later three more fluffy little bees were trying to follow mother turkey around down in the turkey pen. But the last hen had come off her nest which still contained another dozen or so eggs. I think these were quite possibly laid after the turkeys started sitting, so whether or not any more will hatch is doubtful.
Anyway, I scooped up the three chicks and introduced them to the rest in the stable. The hens were quick to take them under their wing. The other hen went straight back onto the nest, but as I write several days after this event there have been no further hatchings.

Back in the house, the first clutch of meat chickens have been growing rapidly. They really do get very messy and smelly and soon stop being cute. It was time for them to go into an outdoor building under a heat lamp. During the day, in dry weather, they go into a giant cage on the lawn.
The geese are sitting tight on their nests too. They should hatch any time soon - it's difficult to know exactly when they started sitting. The two Embden ganders stand guard and make entry to the stables a little precarious, but they know I am the boss! Very occasionally one of the geese comes off the nest to stretch her legs and take a dip.

The laying hens seem happy now they are outside. I have been letting them into the orchard (still a fenced area and part of their controlled range, as restrictions are still in place for a little while longer) and it is lovely to watch them able to behave so naturally.

Further down the land the ram lambs have been causing me headaches. One of them learned to put its head down and sweep aside the electric fence with its horns. It didn't take long for it to teach another the same trick. So I would find them on the wrong side of the fence, happily munching away at my trees. A short chase and straightening up the electric fence would sort it out, but then one morning they were back on the wrong side of the fence within minutes. Time for them to go in the old pig pen, now well on its way to becoming a fully grown nettle bed. The Shetland sheep don't eat the nettles while they are growing, but I ventured in with the weed thwacker and they were more than happy to munch at the wilting stems.

Self-shearing can make you look
a bit silly for a while!

Their Houdini instincts mean that they will be going on their final journey a little earlier than originally planned, along with the third ram lamb who seems to have escaped the attentions of his castration ring. This of course makes things complicated when it comes to grouping the sheep.

They will probably go off in midsummer, once they have fattened up on early summer's fresh grass (assuming we ever get some rain and it starts to grow a bit faster). I have decided not to buy in extra sheep for fattening this year. The grass is slow to grow and I want to give the pasture paddocks a  chance to grow a bit lusher this year and to give longer breaks from grazing.

Wool Day inspired Sue to get back to the peg loom.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Swifts, Harbingers of Summer

If one bird really says summer to me it's the swift, just about the last of our summer visitors to appear.
A party of four were scything through the air over the sheep paddock this morning, my first of the year. Despite a day which struggled above 10 degrees with a chilling northerly wind, the swifts still screamed "SUMMER".
It's amazing how quickly the seasons pass. For I am now sowing the tender vegetables, the sweetcorn and beans and with that the rush of sowing comes to an end so soon after it started. There are still a few lesser crops to sow and some succession sowing to be done, but for the next month the emphasis is on getting seedlings into the outdoor beds and keeping those beds weed free.
So, in honour of the swift, I present "Swifts" by Ted Hughes

Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialize at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ And they’re gone
On a steep

Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries. Gone.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening

For air-chills – are they too early? With a bowing
Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
Then a lashing down disappearance

Behind elms.
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come --
And here they are, here they are again
Erupting across yard stones
Shrapnel-scatter terror. Frog-gapers,
Speedway goggles, international mobsters --

A bolas of three or four wire screams
Jockeying across each other
On their switchback wheel of death.
They swat past, hard-fletched

Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,
And are gone again. Their mole-dark labouring,
Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy
And their whirling blades

Sparkle out into blue --
Not ours any more.
Rats ransacked their nests so now they shun us.
Round luckier houses now
They crowd their evening dirt-track meetings,

Racing their discords, screaming as if speed-burned,
Head-height, clipping the doorway
With their leaden velocity and their butterfly lightness,
Their too much power, their arrow-thwack into the eaves.

Every year a first-fling, nearly flying
Misfit flopped in our yard,
Groggily somersaulting to get airborne.
He bat-crawled on his tiny useless feet, tangling his flails

Like a broken toy, and shrieking thinly
Till I tossed him up — then suddenly he flowed away under
His bowed shoulders of enormous swimming power,
Slid away along levels wobbling

On the fine wire they have reduced life to,
And crashed among the raspberries.
Then followed fiery hospital hours
In a kitchen. The moustached goblin savage

Nested in a scarf. The bright blank
Blind, like an angel, to my meat-crumbs and flies.
Then eyelids resting. Wasted clingers curled.
The inevitable balsa death.
Finally burial
For the husk
Of my little Apollo --

The charred scream
Folded in its huge power.

Sorry for the sad ending, but that description in the first half of the poem just captures the swift so evocatively.
Before we know it they'll have screamed, careered, fed and bred and be speeding their way south again, taking summer with them

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Weekend plans ambushed by Red-winged Blackbird

It's a long bank holiday weekend. Midweek rain means that I can finally get on with planting the Maincrop potatoes and sowing vegetable seeds.
I spent Friday evening rotavating the beds and was up for an early start on Saturday. This weekend should see me catch up with all my jobs. The vegetable beds are starting to fill up outside and the polytunnel is full of seedlings waiting to be planted out when we are safe from frost and chilly weather.

Midnight, Saturday.
I pick up four other birders in a car park just outside Carlisle. It's taken me four hours to drive here and there are only seven hours to go.

You may have spotted a slight gap in the timeline here and just maybe a little change of plans for the weekend.
For just as I was burying the seed potatoes early afternoon, news came through of a RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD on North Ronaldsay, the northernmost of the Orkney Isles.

There has never been a wild Red-winged Blackbird in this country, or even on this side of the Atlantic. To be honest, I didn't even know what it looked like, never having been to North America.

The original tweeted image from the finder
So the plan was:
Drive overnight to Gill's Bay (just left of John O'Groats).
Catch the Sunday morning ferry over to Orkney.
Fly from Orkney Mainland over to North Ronaldsay (last 5 seats secured on the scheduled flight at 5 in the evening, but efforts being made to secure a special charter flight to get us across quicker)
See the bird.
Stay overnight in North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory.
Fly off North Ronaldsay 8 o'clock Monday morning.
Get the 11.30am boat back to mainland Scotland (second on the standby list. If not, the 4.30 later in the afternoon.
Drive back 600 miles, via Carlisle.
Arrive home about midnight Monday, hopefully.

So that's the Bank Holiday taken care of!

The never ending Average Speed cameras through Scotland did their best to bore me to sleep through the night and by Inverness I was starting to regret the early start on Saturday morning. I had driven for nine hours straight so was relieved to get a couple of hours sleep while Dan drove the last couple of hours into the hinterland.

This was to be my sixth visit to The Orkney Isles and the boat across the Pentland Firth is only a one hour hop from the Northern tip of Scotland. There were several car loads of birders doing the same thing as us, all the usual faces who turn up at such events.
We were the fourth car off the ferry. We had managed to secure a charter plane from Kirkwall airport but we had enough time spare to stop off and admire a stunning summer-plumaged White-billed Diver, only my fourth ever of this species and definitely the smartest. It was barely 10m offshore.

From there it was on to the airport and straight through onto the Loganair plane, a sturdy Islander aircraft which had us in the air and flying over the assorted low lying islands that comprise the Orkney archipelago.

We came in  for a smooth landing about midday and were met by the Observatory staff ready to take us to the bird in their Land Rover.

I went in the open back and was quickly reminded that some of the Orkney Isles make The Fens feel like a sheltered valley. There was most certainly a chilly easterly breeze.
A few minutes later we were dropped by a farmhouse where there was already a small gathering of birders who had taken the quicker but more expensive route flying from down south.
The bird was still present and was feeding in a distant iris bed. It was never viewable while it did this.

As each new group of birders arrived, one of the observatory staff would gently work through the iris bed and the bird would fly high into the air before heading over to a derelict outhouse, often choosing to land on or behind a squadron of orange-red gas cylinders. Initial views were brief but sufficient to establish its identity (I had by now seen images and had a chance to do some research).
The red gas bottles, so attractive to the Red-winged Blackbird

The bird quickly hopped down behind the gas cylinders where it was totally hidden from view. After about five minutes it flew up over the building and into a small iris bed behind a wall, again out of view. Another ten minutes and it then flew up onto wires before heading back to its favourite iris bed.
Somehow the bird managed to look a lot bigger in flight than it did when perched.

We then had a longish wait until the next plane load of birders came in and the whole cycle was repeated. This way the Observatory staff managed to keep disturbance to the bird to an absolute minimum but everybody who had made the long pilgrimage got to see it.

By late afternoon those who had flown from down south had headed back off in their small planes. We huddled in a garage opening taking shelter from the biting wind and were eventually rewarded with some more prolonged views.
I am no bird photographer, but did manage a record shot. Excuse the quality.

There was time for a little more birding on the island, which included inching our way along a lane past a very attentive bull and getting a shock as I accidentally flushed a greylag goose off its nest.

A typical Orkney beach, this one next to the observatory

I took advantage of a lift back to the observatory as the adventure was starting to catch up with me. I wandered around outside admiring the North Ronaldsay sheep with their incredibly cute and fluffy lambs.

North Ronaldsay sheep and their lambs feed by the observatory building
The North Ron bird observatory is an incredibly welcoming place and we enjoyed a drink of Orkney Ale in the bar before our evening meal of... you've guessed it... North Ronaldsay mutton. Sue and I are spoilt for native breed hogget and mutton, but it was still a delicious and very welcome hot meal. Today's influx of birders made for a great evening in the observatory, but by 10pm I was fast asleep in my bunk. I didn't stir until someone's alarm woke me up at 7am. We had an hour to wake up, pack, tuck into a hearty breakfast and get to the airfield.
Breakfast was delicious - proper bacon, proper sausages and lovely eggs - just like being back on the smallholding.
Check-in at North Ronaldsay airfield is not quite so stressful as other airports these days. We carried our bags out to the plane, climbed onto the plane and strapped in for the return journey.
There was time for a little exploration on Mainland Orkney, though news of a possible Ruby-crowned Kinglet on Cape Clear Island, off the south-west coast of Ireland, had us hastily considering a fairly major diversion to our route home. Unfortunately it came to nothing.

We managed to squeeze onto the late morning ferry and were soon speeding back towards England. The bank holiday traffic was nowhere near as bad as expected. Twelve hours after disembarking the ferry I pulled up back on the farm.

1300 miles. 2 planes. 2 ferries. 1 first for Britain RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD.
The twitching year is under way. Who knows where it will take me next.

While I was away, 4 turkeys were born but the pregnant ewe still refuses to give birth. Next weekend I will catch up with my planting... Or maybe not. You never know what might come up 😉
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