Dream or Nightmare? THE BIG LEAP.

THE VERY BIG LEAP
October 15th 2010
Our smallholding life begins!
We now have 18 chickens, a pig called Daisy and 5 acres to look after. HELP!!!
L We still can’t sell the house in London and are still paying for the house we rented when we relocated. 3 sets of bills plus feeding the animals. For the first time in our lives we are spending a lot more than we are earning.

J
The countryside is amazing. I know we will never tire of the views across the vast expanses of The Fens, the dramatic skies, sunsets to die for. When it all seems too much and overwhelming, I just stop, lean on a fence and breathe in the wonder.
 


L The place is crawling with rats and mice ... not just normal countryside stuff ... mice in the walls, on the worktops, scuttling around in the ceiling, dying rats on the lawn, mouse and rat s**t everywhere.

J Unable to use our kitchen for the first 6 weeks for hygiene reasons, we have explored all of the local eating out opportunities. Not quite London standards! Feels a bit like stepping back about 40 years. All very quaint though, and all part of the charm of our new lifestyle.

J We’ve persuaded the neighbours to stop putting poison down for a while. I suspect it’s just feeding the rats as most of them seem immune to it.

L 3 of the chickens have died. The cockerels (we were kindly left as many cockerels as hens!) fight all the time. We don't know what we're doing!

J The neighbours seem friendly. On our second day, Don was mowing our meadow with his tractor and Dave was mowing our lawns.
L The house leaks like a sieve.

J The place is finally feeling clean. It was left a dump, inside and out. Dog biscuits and animal feed all over the place, the uncut grass full of bits of mesh, wire, pots, bricks, you name it...
L The thrill of having up to 3 barn owls roosting in the stables and hunting over our farm was marred by the finding of a dead bird in the grass near the compost heap - their favourite place for hunting. I do so hope its death wasn’t caused by the poison that’s been so liberally put into the ecosystem here.

Is our boundless optimism enough to overcome the reality?

Have we bitten off more than we can chew?

THEN THERE’S THE BIRDING
At times a welcome distraction for me, at times a most inconvenient obsession, I confess to being a twitcher!
26th October - finally got round to taking Sue to see a Glossy Ibis at Welney. It probed the muddy fringes seemingly unaware of the passing traffic.
29th October - LIFER!
An overnighter to Cornwall to be greeted by foul weather and no sign of the American Bittern. Ended up getting muddy and soaked exploring the fields to the amusement of local farmers. Then... BAM... up flies the bird only to disappear over the hillside before anyone could get any decent views. Two days later we made the return journey for better views.
3rd November - A Cattle Egret only 10 miles away at Guyhirn was a welcome distraction for a while, though it stubbornly refused to approach any closer than about half a mile.

Meanwhile, three arrivals from much closer had arrived in the form of three delightful little kittens, to become known as Ollie, Charlie and Gerry. They were from a farm and were supposed to be feral, a vital tool in our battle against the rodents.
We were expecting hissing and flying claws. This is what we got.





5th November - another LIFER, amazingly my 9th of the Autumn.
A Harrier in County Wexford, Ireland,  had been identified as a Northern Harrier (aka Marsh Hawk), yet another bird this Autumn to have made it all the way across the Atlantic. A short day trip to Ireland was in order, my third visit this Autumn. This time we obtained excellent views. As always when birding the Emerald Isle, we were able to enjoy the bird untainted by the usual array of spreadsheet tickers who couldn’t tell the arse end of a chicken from the front!
The morning of the 10th November saw us at Hollingworth Lake in Greater Manchester watching a Pied-billed Grebe, the first I had seen since 1997. Not many of these have been turning up recently, so for many it was a welcome lifer.
Amazingly, on 26th November, I found myself watching another Northern Harrier, this one on the North Norfolk coast, a strip of our shoreline which holds nostalgic memories for most birders and which always pulls in the crowds, testament to its natural beauty and birding pedigree.
In the face of a biting wind at Thornham Harbour, the harrier floated across the saltmarsh in the company of a hen harrier and several local marsh harriers. We made the most of our day in Norfolk with a trip to Wells Woods where the Bullfinches had attracted three chunky Northern Bullfinches. Though not a separate species, these birds clearly come from different climes. Intriguingly, we also heard a strange trumpeting Bullfinch which has been attracting interest and speculation amongst the locals.



Into December and winter had well and truly bitten. The freezing weather continued. All hopes of even beginning ground preparation were by now abandoned. If it wasn’t as hard as rock the soil was sodden, slippery and heavy. Mornings were spent carrying warm water to the pig and chickens, using a mattock to break the thick ice.
However, the crisp freshness of the air somehow felt very right, a necessary part of nature which completes the annual cycle. It had, too, brought some very welcome surprises to the farmland. The weasels were being seen more frequently and a stoat put in an occasional appearance. Five Roe Deer were a regular sight in the fields, and now their tracks could be clearly seen in the snow almost right up to the house. The tracks of rabbits and hares were ubiquitous too. They may be fluffy, and the hare may be an unusual sight in some areas, but I’m afraid neither is particularly welcome at the moment unless they can learn to only eat the grass and leave the trees and vegetables alone!
Now that the rodent problem was under control (applying basic common sense like making sure all animal feed was out of reach) it was safe to stock up the bird feeders. As well as the usual agile blue and great tits, a twittering party of long-tailed tits passed through the garden and a large charm of goldfinches was now in regular attendance. More unusually, a couple of tree sparrows had moved into the hedge with the local chirpy house sparrows. These are one of the farmland species which is becoming increasingly hard to find, so I was delighted when they started to regularly visit the bird feeders. However, on 3rd December all the bird action was at the far end of my strip of land. Up to 300 skylarks had gathered to feed in neighbouring fields and linnets and meadow pipits had moved into the meadow and wilder parts of the patch. As I scanned through them, I noticed a distant Common Snipe in flight. I kicked the snow from beneath my feet as I trudged to the end of the land to try to see where the snipe had gone. By now, the little water in the dyke was all but frozen solid, but then, to my joy, a snipe erupted from a muddy patch. I expected it to rapidly take flight across the fields, but this one didn’t seem to want to go far. From my first views I suspected, but could hardly believe, that this bird was in fact a Jack Snipe. These cryptically camouflaged birds are notoriously hard to see when on the ground, only flushing up at the last second. As I tried to get another view, the bird again flew up and this time fluttered around my head and again landed not far away in the dyke. It was a Jack Snipe! I was elated. One species of snipe was good, but two on the same day was unbelievable. I left the bird to feed in peace, aware that it was the harsh conditions which had driven it here and that it would be on the edge of survival. Two days later, I again walked along the dyke and this time both species of snipe were there together. How fantastic!
By now things were beginning to look up. It was frustrating not to be able to make advances with preparing the ground and I knew this would leave me too short of time to achieve everything I wanted in the next growing season.

However, we had managed to keep Daisy alive. In fact she was looking very healthy and was happy to show me who was boss when I ventured into her pen to feed her. I put it down to over exuberance in the face of food, for if I had only learned one thing it is that a pig has a one track mind... food. It is not running out with that spring in its step and smile on its face to see you, the faithful owner who ventures out in all weathers to attend to its every need. If a total stranger appeared with food, I would be forgotten.


I was also beginning to understand how chickens think and what they need. But we had not yet had one egg and I hadn’t yet brought myself to do what needed doing with the excess cockerels we had been left. Anyway, although not an expert, I had been uncomfortable with the way the chickens were housed. Their housing had no perches, fencing was not secure, and the deep litter system seems to have been an excuse for never cleaning out. Too many cockerels clearly stressed the hens and the cockerels alike.
To this end, I had selected six lucky hens to live together in a new coop. They seemed happier away from the cockerels and they could be moved onto new area of lush pasture every couple of days.
But, as we approached Christmas, STILL NO EGGS, not even one.
We had now found local sources of animal feed and bedding and had found a farm which sold straw in bales which don’t require a fork-lift truck to move them.
I had also picked up some tuition work to pay for the three sets of bills we were still paying, as well as the equipment I had to invest in to get things up and running on the farm.
The house in London had still not sold and was becoming a millstone round our necks, which was a shame since we began to resent it, even though it had been a house we had been very fond of. We could afford a little patience, but markets were crashing, house prices were shaky and all our money was in bricks and mortar.
LIFER!
A busy Autumn migration to satisfy my twitching obsession had continued long into the icy winter as straggler birds from far away continues to get swept up in storms or driven along unfamiliar flyways by icy weather conditions. So it was that on 17th December I found myself meeting up with Mick, my long time birding buddy, to head down to Devon in pursuit of an Eastern Yellow Wagtail. Now, let me tell you about Eastern Yellow Wagtail. Basically, if a pale, grey-toned Yellow Wagtail appears anywhere in this country in late Autumn, it is probably not one of the birds which regularly summer in this country, even in my garden. They should all have left for sunnier climes by now, so it is probably a bird from much further East which has got lost on a long journey and ended up here, thousands of miles away from any of its kind. In fact that’s pretty much what brings all the rarest birds here, and I will drop everything to see them if I’ve never seen one in this country before. It may seem a bit crazy, but I’m one of a surprisingly large group of (mostly) men who share this obsession.
Anyway, back to the Eastern Yellow Wagtail. As I say, it probably was one, but it’s not even definitely a different species to our common Yellow Wagtails, and they can look very similar indeed. So we might be travelling a couple of hundred miles each way to see a bird which I get in my garden every day in the summer. However, what made this one so different to the other likely candidates was that someone had a feather! That meant that scientific bods could do clever things and know for def where it came from and what it was.
To cut a long story short, we saw the bird, it was surprisingly different to our Yellow Wagtails in the flesh, and we very nearly got stuck in Devon for a couple of days as the snow came down as if we were entombed in one of those delightful snowstorm toy thingymejigs.

24 December 2010 - Christmas Eve
We opened our first present - an egg laid by one of our own hens! Three days after the winter solstice, can they really know that the days are getting longer already???
So, dream or nightmare?
Well, there were points when I would have said nightmare, but as we snuggled by the fire on New Year’s Eve and looked forward, the future seemed full of promise. Plenty more challenges for sure, and the novelty will wear off a little, but 2011 will hopefully be the year when all the risks and hard work start to pay off and we move a step closer to achieving the vision we have.
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