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

Skeps

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.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Return of the red spider mite

GRRRRRRRRRRRRR!
They're back.

Spider mites are the peskiest of pests. There are two sorts of red spider mite, those which suck the blood of chickens and those which suck the life out of plants in the polytunnel. Neither red spider mite is red! Both are very destructive and an absolute pain to get rid of.

I first identified red spider mite in my polytunnel four years ago. These tiny arachnids multiply rapidly and in that first year weakened my Yardlong beans so much that I got virtually no crop.
One standard treatment for red spider mite is to import a biological control predator, but it's not cheap. I don't mind spending twenty quid if it gets rid of the problem, but not if it merely controls the numbers to come back every year.

In my ignorance I hoped the spider mites would vanish over the winter, but over the following two years they came back stronger each spring. Last year I'm pretty sure they got outside too as my whole bean crop was disastrous with the plants making no headway whatsoever.

So this winter I blitzed the polytunnel, spraying with Jeyes fluid (I had previously tried less aggressive solutions such as Citrox) and treating the wood with creosote. I also removed all possible overwintering homes such as bits of wood, support ropes etc. I've also been using the overhead irrigation regularly, as spider mite do not like humid conditions. The trouble is, these conditions encourage moulds too, which can be a problem when the vegetation in the tunnel inhibits air circulation.

All of this brought me success in my battle... or so I thought. My plants have grown well with none of the tell-tale signs of spider mite damage.
Luxuriant growth in the polytunnel

Growth trimmed back to allow air circulation

But then, a couple of days ago, I went to check if any of my aubergines were beginning to grow fruits and I came face to face with leaves that looked like this.
This mottled effect is caused by a
multitude of bite holes which
significantly weaken the plant and can kill it.
On very close inspection, for spider mites are absolutely tiny, I could just about see the pesky little blighters crawling along the stems.
Look very closely!


In preparation for this I had brought in some Pyrethrum, newly available as a group of producers clubbed together to pay the huge cost of getting it approved for use. I also made some rosemary oil earlier in the year, as this is supposed to be the active ingredient in some hideously expensive commercial sprays.

The pyrethrum is to be sprayed at seven day intervals. I spray it in the evening, after the bees and hoverflies have gone to bed, making sure to drench the plants and get right under the leaves. Fortunately I have caught it early so only need to do a small area of plants.
In the morning I turn on the irrigation to wash the leaves before the sun comes up and to keep conditions humid during the day.
But I am taking no chances. On the days I don't spray with pyrethrum I will use a weak rosemary oil solution. I am praying that my actions have a significant impact, as last year it was a tad demoralising.
If I don't see a change very soon the aubergine plants will go - they rarely give me a crop anyway, though I suspect that is because for some reason they seem to be extremely prone to spider mite.
Other plants which get hit are beans (I don't grow these in the tunnel any more), cucumbers and melons and, in a bad year, even the pepper plants. So far the tomato plants have seemed largely unaffected. Removing all the leaves below the developing fruits probably helps too.

Meanwhile, the harvest has started in earnest. Tomatoes are ripening and cucumbers are coming thick and fast. It looks like a very good year for melons too.

Cucumbers galore

Monday, 17 July 2017

I Need To Plan A New Hatch

We like to rear a few birds for the table, aiming for a couple of geese, half a dozen turkeys, a dozen Muscovy ducks and about 30 chickens a year.
Rather than buying in chicks or young birds, we prefer to hatch our own eggs and rear the birds slowly to table weight.

But this year we have been experiencing problems! Things have not gone as straightforward as we would have liked.



Geese
So we have ended up with one gosling from four nests. Goslings take forever to feather up, but ours is now starting to look like a small goose rather than a bundle of down, so fingers crossed it will make it safely through to Christmas 😀😋😋😋




The turkey hen on her new nest
Turkeys
Having sold quite a few young poults, we then experienced a couple of unexpected losses which has left us with three young birds. I don't know if it is just coincidence, but the survivors are all the silver strain birds.
However the turkeys had a Plan B, and seemingly a Plan C, for quite unexpectedly one or more of them carried on laying and a month ago the old hen started sitting. The eggs were due to hatch a few days ago - I say 'were' because, as you've probably guessed, something has gone wrong.
The old eggs - why did she abandon so close to hatching?
With just two days to go the hen moved off the eggs, but she has moved onto a clutch which mysteriously appeared in the other house. Inconveniently this means that if they hatch it will be when we are away and someone else is looking after the smallholding. It also means the turkeys won't be ready for Christmas, but that doesn't bother us since we have plenty of non-festive recipes for turkey!


Ixworth Hens
We keep a trio of Ixworth chickens (that's a male with two females) for the sole purpose of producing eggs for us to hatch and rear as table birds. We aim for three consecutive hatches in the incubator which gives us three batches of chickens following on from each other at monthly intervals.
We have been experiencing problems here too. For our hatch rate this year over four hatches has only been about 40%. One hatch was disastrous, producing just three young birds. Our most recent hatch produced ten birds out of 24 eggs.

We need to isolate the two hens so we can work out whether the problem lies with the cockerel or with one of the hens. My suspicion is that one of the hens is producing virtually no fertile eggs.




Elvis with her flock of growing ducklings last year.


Muscovies
Last year we hatched ten Muscovy eggs under Elvis, our broody hen. She did a brilliant job and we soon had ten fast-growing ducks. They have proved to be a very tasty addition to our diet and they produce plenty of meat too. After this success we obviously decided to follow the same plan this year. But Elvis had different ideas! She is getting on a bit now, being the only one left of the chickens which came to us with the smallholding when we purchased it, and just didn't go broody early in the year.
Instead though, one of the Muscovy ducks sat on her eggs (they reputedly produce lots of young without any intervention). Muscovy incubation is a long drawn out affair, 35 days as compared to 21 for a chicken. That's a long time to wait  to discover that none of the eggs are going to hatch, but that's what happened. Eventually I had to kick her off the nest. The eggs proved to be mostly fertile but had clearly perished at various stages of development.
No sooner did I kick this girl off the nest than another started sitting. Another chance. But I am sad to report that exactly the same has happened again.
Yesterday I took the eggs from under her and all nine eggs had fully grown young dead inside.
I need to look into why this is happening.

One very pi55ed off Muscovy duck

But I have hatched another plan. For Elvis eventually went broody. With my ducks sitting I collected a dozen Muscovy eggs from a friend and placed then underneath her. She has now been sat tight for ten days.
We will see what happens. Priscilla, daughter of Elvis, has also gone broody up in the stables and is now sitting on five of our own Muscovy eggs too.

Priscilla has to budge over as
one of the Cream Legbar hens
lays an egg in her nest

And finally the new brown Muscovy duck which we purchased earlier this year has not come out of her house for a couple of weeks, so maybe it will be third, fourth and fifth time lucky.

We will either have a lot of duck to eat or none at all. Let's hope for at least one successful hatch.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Soft fruit galore

Other things got in the way of this blog post, but we are having a great year with our soft fruit

Sunday 3rd July - Soft fruit galore

Sue started the job yesterday picking out the one cherry tree that we net. It was a bumper crop, which meant hours of removing cherry stones in the evening.























The picking continued all through Sunday as we methodically worked along the branches of first the gooseberries (thinning earlier in the year really worked as we had giant gooseberries), then the blackcurrants and the whitecurrants. The redcurrants need another week, but my efforts on the raspberry front are now being handsomely rewarded. There were strawberries too, though not the same bumper crop as the other fruits. Every year the strawberries disappoint. One year we'll hit the jackpot.

Overall though we picked and processed 29kg of soft fruit in a weekend. Not bad!
Blackcurrants ready to be bagged up in the freezer
ed Now ten days later and we are still picking raspberries. The summer fruiting canes will be finished soon and the plants are throwing up some very healthy looking shoots which will bear next year's bounty. It won't be long until the autumn fruiting canes are fruiting. It looks like I'll get some fruit from the two new varieties I planted this year - Joan J and All Gold.

The blackberries are, for the first time ever, dripping with fruit, though it will be a while before any are ripe. There are wineberries on the way too and the mulberry bush looks like it will produce enough berries for me to get some before Sue grabs the lot!
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