Saturday 29 April 2017

Wool Day

There's been a bit of a sheepy theme lately - understandable as it's lambing time - so I'll carry on with it.
A bit out of order here, for the week's new lamb took priority, but last Sunday saw us at the Fenland Smallholders Club Wool Day.

Club members demonstrated wool crafts including needle felting (kept Sue quiet) and peg looming. I list these two as they are the ones where something recognisable can be achieved with the least skill level!

Our peg looming did not progress much
over winter, but Gerry has become impatient
waiting. At least he seems to have already
given it his seal of approval.

What fascinated me though was the demonstration of natural wool dyeing. I had no idea that by using different fixing chemicals (known as mordants) you can get different shades from the same plants.
Dyeing the wool was a surprisingly quick and easy process and the natural dyes give such wonderful colours.

I am now formulating plans for a dyer's garden!

Meanwhile, back on the farm, our new lamb has discovered its very own sheepskin rug on which to keep warm!

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Badger Face drops a surprise lamb

The two Shetland ewes with the badger-face looks are not the most prolific of ewes. Between them they produce an average of one lamb a year! But for the moment they can stay.

This year is running true to form with one very fat and the other clearly not pregnant. We have never seen either of these ewes give birth, They show no signs of early labour whatsoever and yesterday was no exception. No nesting behaviour. No lip curling. No sky gazing. Nothing.

I was at home all day and was checking regularly on the sheep as the fawn girl has been looking likely to go into labour for the last week or so. As an aside, every time we bring her into the stables she settles down and nothing happens. Maybe we are just being anxious 'grandparents'.
So at 11 in the morning all sheep were fine and dandy. Nothing to report. I came in and worked on Monday's blog post for a while, uploading photos from the phone which takes forever, and when I went outside there, in the paddock, was a newborn lamb, already pretty much cleaned and suckling well. It must have just dropped out!

My first sight of our newest lamb. She is a beauty.
With rain in the forecast and several cold nights ahead (the chickens have been doing a great job of undoing my potato earthing up) I decided to bring mum and daughter into the stable. Fawn ewe has come in too for some adult company. Besides, I am sure her labour is imminent now.
Bemused by the behaviour of the other lambs

Monday 24 April 2017

Lambs, Broody Poultry and a Grasshopper Mangetout Guard.

I am beginning to wonder if we are ever going to get any rain. Every forecast of drizzle just fizzles away to nothing. I have even had to use the hose pipe on some of my newly sown beds.
This happened in April once before and I really struggled to get anything to germinate. I seem to remember it then rained every day for about four months. The year was a total wipeout.
On the plus side, I'm sure that won't happen again. When it finally does rain the soil will be delightful to work.

I left you with two lambs and a ewe with a yucky membrane trailing out of her back end.

We spent all of the Easter bank holiday worrying about her, waiting for infection to set in. But she just kept eating and was feeding the lambs well. The advice from a couple of vets, kindly offered for free, was just to keep watching, but when it got to the fourth day, with the bank holiday coming to a close, we had decided to swallow the expense and to call the vet in.
Late afternoon on Easter Monday Carol Ann from next door came round to offer a homeopathic cure - nothing ventured, nothing gained. As we tried to catch the ewe the membrane dropped out! It had simply not detached as it should and there was nothing more complicated to worry about. What a relief, for apart from that it had been a perfect Easter holiday.

The sheep are not the only ones with spring babies on their minds. All three turkey hens are sharing a nest, two goose nests are currently occupied by three geese and we have a Muscovy duck sitting tight in one of the duck houses. Add to that the clutch of Ixworth chicks we are rearing and the next lot coming along in the incubator and that's going to be a mighty lot of cute baby birds around the smallholding in a few weeks time.

It will provide us with a lot of tasty meat towards the end of the year too. Yummy!

Things are going pretty well on the growing front too. We already have rhubarb, asparagus and now turnips and mangetout on the menu. I have been working hard on looking after the soil, turning compost, cultivating and weeding. I am reshaping a couple of the beds and the chickens really appreciate the turfs I throw to them. Long term it creates a little hillock in their pen where they can dust bathe when it is dry and head for high ground when it is wet.

It's not often we have a bonfire, as not a lot goes to waste here on the smallholding, but there's not much use for old pallets and rotting fence posts, so an impromptu fire happened last week. We got rid of several year's worth of clutter and it was a good opportunity to incinerate some old raspberry canes and some apricot leaves afflicted by peach leaf curl. Sometimes burning is the best way to get rid of pests and diseases.
Looks like the trees we put in last year 
should give us our first ever apricots this year.

I have been letting the chickens out into the orchard when I am able to keep a close eye on them. It is lovely to see them enjoying the great outdoors again and hopefully all restrictions will be lifted very soon.

Sue has done a brilliant job with the polytunnel mangetout (she planted the seeds and bought the grasshopper to guard them against attack). The first pods are already appearing.

Saturday 15 April 2017

The Perfect Day... almost

Yesterday was just about perfect.

It started with two swallows chattering in the stables. These two birds spent the day air-dancing over the farm. One of the little owl pair sat on sentry duty outside their nest hole.

It ended with two beautiful black lambs delivered in record time.

In between I worked the soil and sowed the first outdoor carrots, turnips and spring onion. Then came the rain to water them and prepare the soil for working the next veg beds. I moved into the polytunnel to sow more carrots, transplant seedlings and pot on some of the faster growing young tomato plants.

Along the way I discovered a secret stash of chicken eggs.

In the evening, Sue cooked up a tasty lamb dish accompanied by the first fresh asparagus of the year, a real treat.

Today has been more testing. The mother ewe still has a trail of membrane hanging from her back end. Though she and the lambs seem healthy enough, we are worried for her. Two phone calls to the vets have left us just keeping an eye on things, so that's what we are doing, but it's a very worried eye.

Baa Baa Black Sheep

There is only one subject I can possibly write about today... this year's first lambs, delivered late last night, Easter Friday.

Our Shetland ewes do not have names, but the first mum of 2017 is the fawn girl, the fat one at the back with the big udders!

We moved the ewes away from Rambo the ram about a week ago and put them into the stables. But after a few days it was getting a bit stuffy and there were no imminent births, so we let them back outside into the small paddock up by the farmhouse. We have been resting this paddock so the grass was nice and green.

Yesterday the fawn ewe was spending most of her time in the small shed. Apart from clearly being the largest and her udders being enormous, she showed none of the other classic signs of being in early labour. No teeth grinding. No star gazing. No lip curling.

Yesterday afternoon we decided to bring her back into the stable, along with the non-pregnant ewe for companionship, but penned separately. We guessed she would probably give birth some time over the weekend.

At 10 o'clock last night I headed out to lock up the chicken houses and to check on the ewe on the way. I peered over the stable door and in the torchlight could see a dark, wet ball on the ground right below the ewe's back end. I ran to get Sue. "Sue, you might want to come out to the stable!"
With the lights on, we could see a freshly born, all black lamb, still basically a wet bundle of wool. It was just taking its first breaths, which was a relief.

Mum's instincts kicked in straight away as she started licking her newborn and giving it reassuring deep baas.
We dimmed the lights and left mum and baby boy to get on with it. There was clearly at least one other lamb to come out and it would probably be half an hour or so until anything else happened. Sue headed back in and I headed down in the darkness to shut away the poultry.

While I was at the chickens, I could hear much loud baaing. I don't know how you judge it, but it sounded like contented baaing. So I took another peek in the stable on my way back to the farmhouse and there on the straw was another black lamb, gangly legs in all directions.

It had certainly been a quick labour.

Both lambs were quickly up and mum's licking soon had them looking clean and fluffy. Instinct quickly led them towards mum's udders where they were doing all the right things - kneeling down and butting away at the milk sack, though for a while one of them was trying to get milk out of the hay rack!

There was not much for us to do apart from take photos. We snipped the umbilical cords and sprayed on iodine to prevent infection. Mum was happy to let me handle her lambs but I resisted the temptation to fuss them, giving them back to mum as quickly as I could for there was bonding to be done.

The only thing to do now was to check back in a while that the third stage of labour, passing the placenta, was going smoothly.

By midnight there were still two bags and a trail of slimy skin hanging out the back of mum. We went to bed and I set my alarm for sunrise.

When I put the lights on in the stable, mum was standing and both lambs were looking very healthy. It took a while for her to turn around, but to my disappointment there was still a trail of messy stuff hanging from her rear end, though it had clearly progressed from last night and was hanging much further.
Ideally the placenta would have been completely expelled (and probably eaten by mum) by now. Not to panic though. A quick google and we decided to leave it a while until a civilised hour when if necessary we could call the vets for a little advice.

And that's where we're up to now. It's 6.30 in the morning and I am tapping away at the keyboard and downloading photos while I wait to go back out and check on the fawn ewe and her two black lambs.

By the way, we have a boy and a girl.

Wednesday 12 April 2017

Hooray! The First Swallow.

I've been anticipating their arrival for a while now but this evening, as I relaxed in my living willow chair with a cold beer and the two dogs, admiring another glorious sunset, I heard the familiar call of a swallow overhead.

I swear they call either to say hello for another year or with joy at  the completion of their journey. There was just one swallow, but more will arrive over the next couple of weeks until we reach five or six pairs.
This moment I look forward to every year, for it really is a great time of year symbolised by the return of these joyful birds from their amazing migration.

It cheered me up greatly, for it had started badly with me having to put one of the guinea fowl out of its misery. It had a damaged leg and wing and was getting more and more sickly. We just have three left now and with no breeding success for a few years it is looking like these comical characters won't be gracing the farm for too much longer.

There was mixed news though this morning, for one of the Muscovy girls was flopping around last night, seemingly unable to walk. I put her to bed but was expecting the worst this morning. Instead, out she came right as rain.

The incident did make me consider whether two Muscovy females is enough though, so today I collected a third, a chocolate brown girl. She really is very pretty (for a Muscovy duck).

Sue and I worked outside all day today. Sue spent much of the day on the mower while I concentrated on taking the tops off a few willows which were in danger of becoming too big to handle. It was a gorgeous spring day. The Shetland ewes are back outside for the moment - it was getting stuffy in the stables and they were not showing any signs of going into labour. They appreciated the willow cuttings which I threw them.

Over in the veg patch, the Morello cherry is out in blossom and the honeybees are doing a great job of turning those beautifully delicate flowers into nascent sour cherries.

Today spring was most definitely in the air.

Sunday 9 April 2017

A Springtime Catch-Up

No blog posts for a while. I won't apologise. It's not through laziness but through business.
It really is all go on the smallholding at this time of year. Dawn till dusk working the soil, sowing seeds, mowing lawns. Then there are baby animals imminent and chicks galore waiting to hatch. Plus all the routine work.
So instead of my usual day by day post, here's a catch up across the smallholding.

Firstly, the weather. April has been warm and sunny, a perfect start to the growing season. We could do with one night of rain now though!

The 'Family'

Gerry has caught his first rabbit of the year and is now catching at least one daily. He sometimes brings one back for the dogs, particularly Arthur our young jackadackadoodle. It was just such a gift that caused the first ever brief fight between him and Boris who has finally realised that fresh rabbit is actually quite a tasty treat. They quickly made up.

I'm sorry if anybody reading this is feeling sorry for the cute little bunny-wunnies, but I find it hard to feel sympathy for an animal which takes great delight in digging up my freshly planted garden shrubs and flowers. Besides, it saves on the animal feed bills.

Boris and Arthur have been enjoying the life of Riley lately. I discovered a supplier of knuckle bones who sell a whole sack full for under a tenner. These should keep the dogs busy for quite some time.

Most delightfully, a year and a half into his life, Arthur has finally realised how much fun it is playing with a ball. He bounces around with sheer joy at his new discovery.

The farm fowl are all back outside now, albeit with a few restrictions in place. The geese make regular trips back into the stables to lay. They are sharing two nests this year.
We collected the first 60 eggs or so as they are Sue's favourite egg for eating and we managed to sell quite a few of them, which will have gone a long way to offsetting the costs of feeding the geese while they were imprisoned inside.

Caught in the act by The Silver Stag

The turkeys are laying too. Again we collected the first couple of dozen eggs, but the hens quickly started sitting for long periods. Currently two nests are set up next to each other and two birds seem to have settled on them. I will be very happy if they hatch any young. We would like to keep about six for meat, but any more than that should be fairly easy to sell as chicks to fellow smallholders wanting to rear them.
In the same pen, the Muscovy Ducks are creating a sizeable clutch of eggs too. Last year, letting the duck hatch out her own eggs proved unsuccessful whereas Elvis, our broody hen, managed to rear all of her ten successfully. So that is the plan again this year. I would like to get two batches hatched out over the year as the Muscovy Ducks are the tastiest of birds, as well as being rather charming inhabitants of the poultry pen.
Last but not least we have started the cycle of hatching out chicks. These are collected from our trio of Ixworths and will be raised for the table. The first hatching only delivered eight healthy chicks, which was a bit disappointing. We have started collecting the eggs for the second batch in the incubator. Hopefully this lot will do better.

The chickens were absolutely delighted to go back outside. I herded them down the land to their pen and they instantly set about dust bathing and scratching around. Their egg production has gone right up again too and it is lovely to have them attending to my every move as I dig in the veg garden.

Last years ram lambs tucking into a nice piece of willow
Just going by their tummies,
it's looking like a 3-2-1-0 again this year.

We have brought the four Shetland ewes down to the stables in readiness for lambing, which was due anytime from Friday onwards. Hopefully we won't have to wait too long.
Rambo has settled in with the three wethers (last year's male lambs, no longer 'intact') but he likes to show them who is boss occasionally. There are enough of them to share the hassle and they have enough space to escape it.

Yesterday we went to a sheep day run by Mick at CSSG. We had a fantastic day and it was great to finally be properly shown some of the techniques which we have so far just been using common sense to achieve. We haven't been doing anything dreadfully wrong, but I know I will be more confident from now onwards.

Sue's department. She is very happy with how the two colonies are faring at the moment. They have come through the winter strongly and the queens are laying well. One hive already has a super over the brood box where the bees can make honey for us. The second hive should have enough brood in to extend upwards this week.
All around us the rape is in flower. There seems to be more this year than ever. Probably something to do with subsidies and not a lot to do with need. This means that the bees will be well fed but their honey will need taking off and processing quickly before it sets like concrete.
At least we now have the tools to cream the honey which stops it setting solid.

Fruit and Veg
Pruning is finished, moved, new bushes and canes are planted and mulched, blackberries are tied in to new supports and the raspberry beds have had an overhaul. Mr Rotavator has done a brilliant job tidying up the strawberry beds. Leaves are unfurling and buds are bursting. We should get bumper crops of everything this year.
The fruit trees are coming into blossom and the weather has been good for pollination.
We have already harvested mountains of rhubarb and we managed to sell a fair amount which made a small contribution to the coffers. We don't charge much, but I would rather people enjoyed it than it went to waste every year. Rhubarb plants are dead easy to grow, even easier to propagate and they shade out all weeds. The perfect crop!

We have had both mowers out and they are both still working. The veg patch starts to reveal its plan once the top is taken off the winter grass growth and the beds are cleared and worked.

Veg plot
The soil is warming up and drying rapidly. Working it is a delight at the moment and I have been working hard to get all the weeds out and prepare the beds for planting. Broad beans, early potatoes, parsnip seeds, garlic and onion sets are in the ground already. In the next week there'll be a lot more crops being sown.
The garlic is doing well.
I have now sown parsnips down the rows.
These two crops always do very well together and
the garlic is out before the parsnips take over the space
If we don't get any rain very soon I'll have to consider watering just so that the young seedlings don't wither and die before they can get their roots deep enough.

The early potatoes in the polytunnel will be ready soon and the mangetout are rapidly growing. I am anticipating the first flowers and pods very soon. My second sowing of carrots has germinated well, unlike the first and my turnip rows are already shading out the weeds.
The polytunnel is full of seed trays at this time of year, young plants being raised either to go in the tunnel beds or to go outside later.
Today I start making my rosemary oil which I am hoping will be my chief weapon of destruction when it comes to spider mites this year.

Birdlife on the farm
Our winter visitors have all but moved on now and we are still awaiting the arrival of most of our summer visitors. Every evening I anticipate the chattering of swallows in the skies above the veg patch but as yet they are still not back.
Our resident birds are taking full advantage of the early start that braving the English winter gives them. The Little Owls are back in the hollow Ash tree again and the Pied Wagtails are back under the pallets. Crows, Woodpigeons, Blue and Great Tits are all nesting in the Ash trees while Blackbirds, Stock Doves, Song Thrushes and Robins hide away in the ivy which clambers up the trees.
A pair of Linnets has appeared and I am very pleased to see Greenfinches occasionally visiting the feeders, though the Tree Sparrows are not around so far this year.
It's been a good spring for Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers which continue to frequent the feeders, both near the house and the feeding station I have set up down in the young woodland.

Looking Back - Featured post


Ten years and a thousand blog posts! Enjoy. Pictures in no particular order.  

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