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

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.

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
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.

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!

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Mon Amur!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday 6th July 2017
It had been a lovely evening with the Cambridgeshire Self Sufficiency Group. Good people, good food and an interesting talk on water conservation and making your own borehole. Out of decency I had set my phone to silent and hadn't even looked at it all evening.

As we pulled away a call came in but I couldn't take it, then I noticed 46 messages on a WhatsApp group. I quickly scrolled through and in amongst the usual banter there was mention of an Amur Falcon somewhere in Cornwall. AMUR FALCON!!! My mind went into a scramble. What time could I be there? Was there anything I needed to reschedule? Should I take Sue home first? What was the bird doing? When was it last seen?

The race home was tortuous on twisty fenland roads which I didn't know. I had managed to confirm that the bird was at Porthgwarra, at the far south-western tip of Cornwall and that it had been observed for a couple of hours before flying off, hopefully to roost somewhere locally.

Before I continue, a word or two about Amur Falcon.
Amur Falcon breeds in East Asia and migrates in large flocks through India to South East Africa. So for one to turn up here is quite a feat of poor navigation. But it's not unheard of. They have occurred several times in North-west Europe and there was an infamous one in Yorkshire for 32 days in 2008. Yes, that's right, 32 DAYS. It was a first for Britain, yet no twitcher knowingly saw it. For throughout its stay it was identified as a Red-footed Falcon (of which Amur Falcon used to be considered the Eastern race) and few birders made the detour to see it, even when we all passed very close on our way back from a Brown Shrike at Flamborough which was a tick for many birders. A couple of days after it was last reported it was reidentified from photos. There was a large crowd of twitchers, me included, stood around the next day rueing the missed opportunity.

So you see now why last Thursday night I was in a bit of a frenzy.

I dropped Sue at home, made a few quick preparations and jumped back in the car. It was 23:40 and I was keen to eat into the 380 mile drive before tiredness set in. It would be getting light from about 4.30 in the morning and people would already be out looking for the bird before I could even arrive.
The drive down to Cornwall was thankfully clear of incident. I had to stop for a power nap at one point - I set my alarm for 16 minutes time and was out like a light. Next thing I knew the alarm went off, I tilted the seat back up and turned on the engine. It's amazing how such a little amount of deep sleep can refresh you.

At just gone 5am the sun was rising as I passed The Hayle Estuary. There were just a few miles to go until Penance but I just had to stop and take a picture. Here's why.

By half past five the sky was light and I was completing the last short stretch of the journey along the steep-banked, twisty lanes of the tip of Cornwall. I took the turn to Porthgwarra - the falcon had been along this stretch of road last night. Every available parking space was taken up, but there was not a birder in sight. I had no news so presumed people must have spread out across the valley to search. Falcons can take a while to wake up in the morning, especially those which specialise in a diet of flying insects, but I was beginning to wonder if the long drive had been a speculative effort too far.

I turned around by Polgigga quarry and headed back into the village to park up safely and responsibly. It was only a few hundred yards to walk back. I threw a few provisions into my bag in preparation for a long day away from the car or any shops and marched back along the road.

As I approached the turn to Porthgwarra, through a gap in the hedge I saw a hoard of birders suddenly appear along the lane and plant their tripods down right by the quarry where I had just turned the car around. I quickened my pace as it was obvious they were on the bird. It crossed my mind that the bird must be somewhere close to where I had parked my car, for I imagined that views would be distant across the field.
But as I arrived there was the bird sat totally unconcerned at the edge of an elder bush right by the small quarry, no more than 30 yards from the assembled crowd of onlookers. Well, that was easier than I thought.

Looking tired and dishevelled,
I looked through my scope and there it was

I honestly thought I'd never see an Amur Falcon in this country.

And relax.

The bird was facing away from us and the air was still misty. Its feathers looked tatty and it was struggling to keep its eyes open. It looked tired and dishevelled, not unlike myself!

It didn't take long before somebody worked out that there was a better view from the field on the other side. Over the next hour the Amur Falcon slowly dried off and woke up. The long line of twitchers were joined by a herd of cows as the farmer drove his tractor into the field and dropped off their silage breakfast. Farmers are a funny breed. A hundred or more strange people in your field and you just get on with your normal early morning routine as if nothing was any different!

I was surprised to see Number 32 hadn't made it the night before.

As the light improved and we approached slightly closer, the bird started preening and looking much more alert. It dropped down lower in the bush and then, again, deeper into the bush.

At this point I decided to try to crack the journey home. I would have loved to stay in Cornwall and spend the day birding, but I had arrangements for later in the day back in The Fens. Of course, I would have stayed all day had the falcon not shown, but there was no need to let people down if I didn't need to.

I needed another 15 minute power nap at a services on the way back, but I pulled back onto the smallholding before 4pm, 16 hours, 760 miles and one very special Amur Falcon under the belt.

Bemused locals awake to strange scenes

Monday, 10 July 2017

When your companions begin to smother you

The title of this post is NOT a subtle hint to Sue. It's actually referring to pot marigolds, nasturtiums and borage. For these plants are wonderful companions to other plants in the vegetable plot and they randomly appear all over the place every year. But it's important not to get too attached to them, for they are still a plant and still compete for valuable resources. They all grow exceptionally well on my soil and, if left, will swamp the intended crop. So it is important to be firm with your companions, keep them in their place and kick them out when they start to get too much of a foothold.

Friday 1st July
The first cucumbers of the year. They'll be on tap now for a few months.

Look carefully at this picture of the geese and you'll spot a very young gosling, for Golly the grey goose stayed sitting on two eggs while the rest ventured outside. I held no hope, but one day a little bundle of yellow feathers poked its head out from under her.
Sadly this gosling has already succumbed. At three days old she took it out and I was relieved that the others accepted it. It successfully joined the flock and was very adept at keeping up with mum, who protected it well. So imagine my sadness when one morning, having watched it follow mum into the stable the evening before, mum came out of the stable without it. I found it dead down a small gap between the tyre nest and the wall. So frustrating.

Main job for the day was to weed the sweetcorn and the pumpkins for they were in danger of being swamped by self-seeded nasturtiums. Most have got their roots down and are growing fast enough to avoid significant slug damage, but a few of the sweetcorn needed replacing as they had been starved of light and withered. This is a reason to grow more than you need and hang on to the spares until you're absolutely sure they are no longer needed.

Saturday 2nd July
An extremely busy start to the weekend. The most important job was to catch all the sheep to worm them and apply treatment against fly strike (hence the blue crosses on their backs). We have become very efficient at this now so it didn't take long. A few years back this would have been a whole morning's task. As a reward for their cooperation, I moved the sheep onto new grass. In the picture below you can see the contrast between the grazed area they moved from and the new area of long grass. They always head straight for the clover.

Next up were the Ixworth chickens who needed their wings clipped. One of the hens had taken to hopping onto her house and over the fence and I didn't want her 'befriending' the other cockerel.
This is a simple and painless operation.

Once the animals were tended to, we turned our attention to the crops. The garlic has succumbed to rust, not helped by the fact that it has become overtaken by weeds so there is no air circulation. This is not too much of a problem and I had delayed harvesting until we got some rain in the hope that the bulbs would swell more, but under all those weeds it was getting too hot and sticky, a perfect environment for things to start rotting.

After a couple of hours in the sun, the garlic bulbs were looking much better. I'll let them dry out for quite a while before processing them to be stored through the autumn and winter. The best ones will be saved for replanting in late winter.
Part of the reason for the mass of weeds was that I had sown parsnips between the garlic rows. These two grow very well together, but this year the weeds came through too quickly and I couldn't hoe or pull them for fear of losing the tiny parsnip seedlings.
Clearing unwanted plants is very easy unless you have to pick your way around others.

Finally, a few images I snapped as I was taking a well deserved break.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Animal Escapades

Getting a bit behind, so here's a week's worth.
Another week's worth tomorrow.

18th June - Collect hay while the sun shines

A couple of early morning trips to a local field to collect hay for the winter. Such a wonderful smell!
The afternoon was the monthly Fenland Smallholders Club at the wonderfully named Hooters Hall, where we met friends and learned about the butchery room and the wool room. Sue had a go at spinning, not very successfully.

20th June - Baking hot
The day of the dead swallows. I've already posted about this.

21st June
I'm gradually getting more into moths. The hot weather and an open window at night mean that the landing wall becomes a bit of a moth trap.

One family of swallows has managed to escape its death trap clay oven nest. The chicks are very exposed to predators on the floor but better that than being baked alive. One has already fledged and the others look very close.

25th June 2017 - A Summer Outing
The Grow Your Own group summer trip out today. Hindringham Hall over in Norfolk.
The hall itself was beautiful, surrounded by a moat complete with family of Black Swans. The gardens were nice, but not stunning. A nice place to spend a couple of hours, but not quite as grand as the entry price might suggest!

We returned home early evening to find the four sheep missing from the top paddock. The gate was open and there was no sign of the sheep. A bit of a panic as thoughts went through my head of sheep rustlers or our sheep munching their way through the local fields. I systematically covered as much ground as possible but still no sign, not until I reached the sheep field proper where there were now thirteen sheep instead of nine!

It was quite an escape act, but more remarkable was how they had found their way there. They must have travelled along the dyke and cut through the electric fence!
At least they were all present and correct.

26th June 2017 - Lucky to make it to the end of the day alive
Well, today I got stung by a bee, head-butted by a sheep and zapped by the electric fence. Smallholding can be a hazardous occupation.
A very swollen ear
The bee sting came from nowhere. I was observing Sue's hides from a distance when one of the blighters dive-bombed kamikaze style straight at my left ear. No warnings, no buzzing around the head, just an instant sting. And it hurt.

Next up was the discovery of lamb poo in the orchard. These are the lambs which have only recently escaped the top paddock. Then, twice in the space of fifteen minutes, actual brown lambs in the orchard doing their best to strip the bark off my fruit trees.
Sue wasn't around to help, but I needed to round up the sheep and send the two brown lambs back to the top paddock. It crossed my mind to use this opportunity to wean them off mum, but it is a little early so I caught her too. This is when, as I lifted her over a sheep hurdle, she flung her head back into mine. Sheep skulls are very hard.

Finally back up at the top paddock, I turned the electric fence back on only to receive a thumping great shock from the metal hurdle I was leaning over. Unbeknown to me, the sheep had moved it into contact with the electric wires. These are the worst shocks, for the metal hurdle ensures you get a good full blast of electricity.

I decided to take it easy for the rest of the day and do something more gentle, so I put the small chicks out into a cage on the lawn. Their first fresh air, their first view of the big wide world, their first taste of real grass.
Lady Penelope quickly came to investigate and then settled down in attendance for the afternoon.

27th June - Why Did The Cow Cross The Road?
After yesterday, I stayed late in bed which seemed the safest option.
I was woken by the dogs barking. This is usually caused by the phantom intruder, but this time their was actually a reason for their warning. At the farm gate there stood a woman in full golf attire. It would be quite a shot if she had lost her ball over here, for we are a good couple of miles as the crow flies from the local golf course.

Turns out there was a cow in the road and she thought it might be mine. Many of the fields round here are rented out and I knew that the owner of the cattle lived over near Market Deeping. A cow in the road is not unheard of, but is obviously fairly hazardous. As I threw on some more appropriate clothing the phone rang - the local police trying to find the owner of the cow. Then a Facebook message from a friend who had driven past earlier and noticed... you've guessed... a cow in the road. Word certainly gets around quickly.
To cut a longish story short, I eventually tracked down a number for the owner and left the cow and traffic control in the capable (?) hands of the local PCSOs.
For what it's worth, the cow had simply been curious about the hawthorn bushes on the other side of its fence and was now happily munching its way through them, totally unconcerned by the passing traffic or the attentions of the police.
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