Thursday 30 November 2017

Winding down for winter

Monday 13th November 2017
A birdy day
The gorgeous, crisp weather continues.
I spent the day cleaning the chicken houses and liberally applying diatomaceous earth to keep spider mite and lice at bay.
After that I topped up the bird feeders. They've been empty for a while as I didn't want to be feeding the rats, but now that the annual incursion seems to be under control I can revert to feeding the needy birds.

Tuesday 14th November 2017
Thank god for Kevlar gloves!
Most of my day was spent pruning gooseberry bushes and I didn't even get the job finished. I was on my hands and knees clearing under the bushes and clearing the lower branches, many of which had drooped and started to root in the ground.
Last year we got very few gooseberries. Let's hope my efforts are rewarded this coming year. The rather messy looking cardboard you see on the ground is how I keep the grass down between the soft fruit bushes. It doesn't look too pretty but it is very effective and the soil underneath is kept in excellent condition. I mulch on top of the cardboard and it just disappears.
I had plenty of help from the chickens who enjoyed scratching about in the newly disturbed earth and litter. They do an important job clearing away bug eggs and larvae from under the bushes.
Rambo goes into action
For the first time today I actually saw Rambo getting it on with one of the ewes. Number 3 it was. We should really use a raddle, which I swear is a made up word from ram and saddle. It is basically a coloured marker so you can see when the ram has done his job. We don't bother with this as we are fairly laissez faire about it, but I have to admit it would be nice to know more precisely what to expect in 145 days time. Note for next year.

Welcome return of the Tree Sparrow
With the recent cold weather, winter bird numbers are starting to build up on the smallholding. There were 6 Reed Buntings today and 14 Meadow Pipits.
I was delighted to see a Tree Sparrow back and a Greenfinch (both sadly scarce birds now). Presumable they have already been lured by the freshly topped up feeders.

Wednesday 15th November 2017
Not much to see.
This was about as good as visibility got today.

Friday 17th November 2017
Fire in the sky
These days I have to dash home from work to take the dogs for a walk and give the chickens their afternoon feed. Today there was an amazing sunset, gone as quickly as it came. Unfortunately the phone battery went dead just as it was developing, but you get the idea.

Saturday 18th November
A New Dust BathHere's the special dust bath which I built the chickens. The paddling pool is full of dry sand with diatomaceous earth mixed in, so that when the poultry decide to use it for dust bathing it will kill any lice and creepy crawlies hiding in their feathers. Unfortunately the chickens don't quite know how to use it yet. In fact, Arthur is showing more interest.

Sheep moving day
Main job for the day was sheep worming which went very smoothly. After this we separated the ram lambs from the ewe lambs as the paddock up here is not large enough to keep five sheep going in winter time.
Maybe some good news for the turkeys
With this completed so easily, there was time to move the chicken pen. I thought this would be a four person job, but it was surprisingly easy (once I'd removed the ground pegs!).
This gives the Ixworth chicken trio some new ground to go on, but more importantly makes space for a new turkey enclosure. The turkeys will appreciate the nettle growth. They are about the only livestock which effectively deals with these.
My hope is that I might be able to let a couple outside the cage each day and that they will hang about because the other birds are still there. I can't do this at the moment as their housing is too close to the boundary fence and next door's dogs. It would be lovely to let them free-range again, at least in a limited manner.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

First Frost of Winter

Monday 6th November 2017
First proper frost
The first proper frost of the year. I got up early to see the sunrise. These clear, crisp winter mornings are one of my favourite times of the year.

A Silkie Swap
One of the Silkie hens which we purchased a few weeks back has started crowing good and proper. It can be hard to tell what sex birds are until they start either crowing and jumping on the girls or, alternatively, cooing and laying eggs

No problems though. The people we bought from were happy to swap for another and with them being a bit older now it was actually just possible to be sure what we were getting. When I saw the hens, I could indeed tell which was which - they had no wattle whatsoever and the cockerel had longer, shinier feathering in his tail.

The couple I was picking up from were incredibly chatty and I ended up staying over an hour. They had poultry everywhere - it is surprisingly easy to breed lots of animals or birds when you first start out, but you need an end plan.

Eventually I returned with not one, but two replacement silkies. Both black to go with the 'partridge' one we picked up last time. Hopefully they will settle in quickly and be going broody early next year.

The buzz of a brambling
On the wildlife front, 4 Whooper Swans were in with the swan flock this morning and another 7 flew over the farm. A brambling was buzzing from the birches, the first of the winter and a clear cold weather arrival.

Tuesday 7th November 2017
Medlar time
Rain promised. Never quite materialised.

The adult Shetland sheep in the furthest paddock.
I have left this paddock ungrazed for a yeat to give it a rest, so there's plenty for them to munch.

The medlars are just about ready now. They are an odd looking fruit, with the nickname of 'dog's arse' in French! They are inedible until they have bletted, which means that you need to wait until the flesh is bitten by the frost or softens until it resembles mushy apples.
Not really selling them, am I?
The tree is a good-looking orchard tree, quickly acquiring the look of an old tree and bearing wonderful white blooms in springtime.
When the medlar fruits hang on amongst the yellowing leaves, nothing could be more autumnal. But the chickens and ducks have started jumping up to get at the lowest fruits now. They are ready for picking. The medlar jelly that Sue makes is wonderful.

Wednesday 8th November 2017
Grey Wagtail!!!
Only the second ever that I've seen on the farm. Even better, it was darting around the drinking pool and new pond which I recently constructed, its tail lifting up and down as if on a pulley with an overenthusiastic campanologist on the other end. What a great start to the day. 

The end of the day wasn't bad either.

Saturday 11th November 2017
Look what I've grown. A brassica which has made it through to harvest and actually tastes nice! It has taken me several years, but I think I have finally narrowed my brassica list down to what usually grows successfully and what I actually like eating.

Next year I shall be growing: Red Cabbage; Scarlet Kale; Cavolo Nero; Calabrese; Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Romanesco. I shall not be growing sprouts, green cabbages or cauliflowers, which is pretty much the traditional list of brassicas grown by gardeners.

Carrots hanging on
I dug up more carrots today. They should really be out of the ground by now, but the freezers are full so they can take their chances. Covering with fleece has prevented 99% of the carrotfly carnage which destroyed previous crops. The voles haven't found them this year (it seems to be a poor vole year) and the slugs have only taken the occasional munch.

Other than that, it was just general tidying up of spent veg beds today. The ground is now wetter and colder and compacts easily so it's best to keep off the soil as much as possible.

Monday 27 November 2017

A Fifth of November Pumpkin Harvest - but nothing to remember, remember.

Wednesday 1st November 2017
Scritch Scratch
There's a rodent in the kitchen. Heard scratching in the wall then scuttling in the ceiling! Happens at this time every year, but sounds a bit big. Maybe not a mouse. I've put Gerry up in the loft and laid poison in the boiler cupboard.

Dramatic sunset over the smallholding tonight.

Saturday 4th November 2017
The no-rear pig
Rain! Lots of rain.
This year it has only rained about a dozen times but each time we seem to get a month's worth at once.

I picked up half a pig from a farm along a very wet country lane out toward The Wash. With just the two of us and not wanting to get into trying to sell the meat, keeping a couple of pigs just gives us too much pork. So for the moment we are happy to support other smallholders and let them do the hard work!

Sunday 5th November 2017
Pumpkin harvest
No Fireworks, just a quiet day on the smallholding
I cleared the pumpkins ahead of the forecast frost and laid them out in the winter sun to dry off a little before they come inside.
The harvest is disappointing this year. Too much leaf growth and not enough fruit formation.
They have been very slow to form and to ripen too. Another four weeks of summer and it might have been a bumper harvest. Anyway, there's enough for us and some for the chickens and sheep still.

While I was in that area, I chopped down some of the amaranth plants for the sheep. They love them.

Amaranths aka Callaloo

A wander around the perimeter path and I spotted a patch of scotch thistles. These are relatively easy to control manually but they just keep appearing. In the end I cleared well over 300! I am constantly amazed how the sheep, albeit gingerly, manage to nibble these plants. I sustain mortal injuries even looking at them.

There were 17 Whooper Swans in the far field today too. The Mutes have set up camp on this side of the river, so I can even scan through them from the conservatory. Unless it gets much colder, the whoopers won't stay. They'll continue on, probably to the feeding centre at Welney.

Another dramatic sunset. They are magical at this time of year.

And finally, a lazy end to the day.

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Not a hawfinch in sight

Saturday 28th October 2017
Not a hawfinch in sight

We've had some beautiful clear days recently and some amazing skies.
I've spent a lot of time outside trying to get hawfinch on my farm list. There's something of an unprecedented irruption of these giant-billed finches at the moment, but despite days working outside not a single one has flown over the farm while I've been looking.
There has however been a good arrival of winter thrushes with redwings and fieldfares streaming in across the fields in their hundreds. There have been impressive numbers of starlings and woodpigeons too. In amongst them I've had the odd good bird, a few redpolls, a couple of yellowhammers and quite a few skylarks. There have been more chaffinches than usual with arrivals from Scandinavia finding the old ash trees to their liking. But not a hint of a hawfinch. 
I have listened and listened and listened to recordings of hawfinch flight calls. Remembering bird calls is not a strength of mine, but as I work in the garden my ears are on constant alert for their weak call.

Job for the day was to build a shelter and dust bath for the chickens, though it took longer than  it should have due to a certain amount of sky staring!
The finished job is somewhat basic but it should do its job. I've used old polytunnel plastic which I scrounged so if the winds do their worst I can easily replace it.

Sunday 29th October 2017
An extra 3(!) hours in bed
The clocks went back overnight so I celebrated with an extra three hours in bed!
A little owl was clearly thrown by the change too as it spent most of the morning sat in full view sunning itself. I hear the little owls most days but very rarely see them outside of breeding season.

The weather this half term has been amazing so we made the most of it with a walk along the river late afternoon. I was thrilled to see not one but two kingfishers. There is hardly anywhere for them to perch as the drainage board have cleared the banks, so I was surprised that even the one has stayed.

Monday 30th October 2017
A new swimming pool... for the ducks
More mowing, for the grass is still growing thick and fast.

Then I hand dug a new pond for the three ducks who now live in the spare veg patch. They have found my wildlife pond and wrecked it, so I am giving them a purpose built luxury pool. I will bar access to the wildlife pond with a willow weave barrier.
I would move the ducks, but they have an important job of slug clearance. Slugs have been a real problem this year so I am keen to turn the soil and expose them to the birds as much as possible this winter. In fact I managed to rotavate the cuttings area today. I dug up the privet cuttings which I started last winter. About half had made it through which was good. I have replanted them into the freshly turned soil and there is now space for this year's cuttings.

Tuesday 31st October
I'll spare you the usual rant about the waste of pumpkins. Or the one about since when was Halloween such a big celebration on this side of the Atlantic.

Sunday 5 November 2017

A bumper pepper harvest

Tuesday 24th October 2017
Still mowing
Crazy as it seems, I've been doing a lot of mowing this last week. The weather in our part of the world has been unbelievably mild and dry so the grass is still growing fast.

Wednesday 25th October 2017
A quick trip to the beach
A trip to the beach. With high tide falling mid morning, there was no avoiding it and the limited beach space made for perfect socialising conditions for the dogs. Boris really isn't that bothered. He is completely obsessed with the ball and rolling around in wet sand. Arthur on the other hand is desperate to meet every single dog he sees.
There were children everywhere too as it was half term. At least they are getting out in the fresh air, though we did hear one mother telling her child not to dig in the sand as it was wet and dirty! eh?
We didn't stay in Norfolk too long as it was absolutely packed. With the dogs tired out we returned to the smallholding and ventured into the polytunnel, which has all gone a bit overgrown.

Bumper pepper harvest
I would love to use the polytunnel to hold crops over the winter, but unfortunately I will soon need to clear everything out and thoroughly clean everything to keep the spider mite and blight down next year.
Today's task was to harvest and sort out the pepper plants. They were slow to get going this year and I forgot all about them. But peppers and chillis seem to thrive on neglect and Sue and I had soon collected a bumper crop.
Most notable were the lemon chillis - we will have enough for the next few years! The paprika chilli had done well, but the Jalapeno looked suspiciously like Cayenne - this often happens with chillis.
The sweet peppers had succumbed a little to the mice and slugs - in fact they are both partial to the hot ones too - but fortunately there was enough for everyone.
The Sweet Bananas were especially prolific this year and the long twisty Turkish Corbaci peppers made an attractive change from the more familiar bell peppers.

We cut the dried up angelica stalks too. They are hollow, so they have become the latest addition to the insect hotel, which is gradually getting filled with a rich choice of bug habitats.

Saturday 4 November 2017

Chicken Fried Lice

Sunday 22nd October 2017
Rounding up the meat birds
***Warning*** This post concerns itself with the slaughter and processing of chickens for meat. It's up to you if you choose to read on.

While we were in animal moving mood, some of the Ixworth chickens have now passed 24 weeks old. Time to move up to the stables ready for...

24 weeks may not sound like a long life, but commercial chickens are kept for as little as 7 weeks.
In fact Sue was talking to a chicken farmer recently who rears meat birds for Aldi and Morrisons. They are reared inside and they are used for 'processing'. They go off at 4 weeks old!
That's why we choose to rear our own birds.

Whilst the economics of this are clear, the ethics are much less so. It's not how long the chicken lives that gets me, for I am not sentimental about it. But it is the quality of their life. As little exercise as possible, as much food as possible and bred to produce so much breast meat that they can hardly waddle around, many succumbing to lameness.

In order for our birds at Swallow Farm to have a longer life we have to sacrifice the large breast. Ixworths produce much more leg meat instead. We could keep them longer, but the danger is that the meat turns tough and the skin goes rubbery. Besides, we do have to take feed costs into account and as the birds grow larger they take up more and more housing space too.

Anyway, back to moving the birds. Catching them during the day would be a nightmare. Ixworths are naturally quite a wary bird, especially once they have seen one or two of their mates being caught and carried away. So instead I pick them out of the chicken house once they have gone to bed. They are much more docile then although they still manage to shuffle to the impossible to reach corners. I managed to catch ten this way. The other two I caught by surprise the next morning.

While I was doing this, Sue was cooking up and straining crab apples ready to make crab apple jelly and toffee apple jelly.
There's always something to do here on the smallholding.

Monday 23rd October 2017
A day of disgustingness
We rear our chickens thinking ahead to killing day, for killing and plucking, gutting and butchering takes quite a while.
So the eggs go in an incubator about 7 months before a school holiday.

We have become very efficient at this process now. We don't relish it but it has to be done if we want to eat chicken.
I do the killing. dislocating their neck using the broomstick method. This is quick and humane and pretty much fool-proof.
One of the meat birds ready to be plucked
The bigger birds which we will have as a whole roast chicken we dry pluck, but this is fiddly and not practical for all of the birds.
The rest we dunk into a huge pan of water. Temperature and dunking time are important. We dunk for 40 seconds at 61 degrees Celsius. After this, the feathers virtually fall off. The reason we don't do this for the best birds is that it does slightly spoil the appearance of the skin.
Any birds not being kept for roasting are jointed (Sue's job), vacuum packed and frozen.

To do ten birds took us a long morning. (Two got lucky and went back to the chicken pen to grow on a bit more)

As I often say, smallholding is not always glamorous.
As if killing and processing chickens is not unglamorous enough, we had two extra irritations to cope with today. Sometimes the chickens have a few lice on them. They don't seem to show any distress, but obviously it's better if they don't have them. The dunk and pluck method kills them all quickly, but when we dry pluck some of the lice choose to crawl off the chicken and onto the plucker! Sitting down in the living room when the job is done and feeling lice crawling over your skin is not nice, not nice at all.

Obviously the welfare of our birds is important to us, so I have now built a covered dust bathing area for the chickens, with a plastic paddling pool filled with sand and diatomaceous earth, which is the best product for killing all manner of creepy-crawlies.

There's more disgustingness though.
For the Muscovy ducks which are inhabiting one of the stables (because they are persistent wing peckers) had a guest to dinner today. When I opened up the stable door, there was a rat brazenly feeding on their grain. We expect the odd rodent or two after harvest time but I don't like to see then in with the poultry during the day. This is one of the reasons why I don't like to keep the poultry indoors.

So the Muscovies have been moved out. How we cope with the wing-pecking I haven't worked out, but separation is not really an option any more.

Wednesday 1 November 2017


Sunday 22nd October 2017
Sheep moving day.
Near the beginning of August Rambo has to move away from his ewes. This year he moved up to the farmhouse paddock with this year's two ram lambs (known as wethers as they have had the chop - not actually achieved by chopping anything off!). He has actually been quite calm, for sometimes at this time of year he will be headbutting everything in sight. This is the reason why the wooden fence posts in this paddock now have the protection of an inner electric fence. He has single handedly destroyed the sheep shelter too.

But today was Rambo's big day. The day when he went back in with the ewes. All we had to do was to separate this year's three ewe lambs from the adult ewes and to separate Rambo from the wethers. The operation went fairly smoothly- the only problem was that at some point Rambo would need to pass the three ewe lambs and we would need to encourage him to ignore them! Easier said than done.

As you can see by the photos, everything was soon sorted. With Rambo introduced to the ewes today, it means that the earliest possible lambing will be mid March 2018. Our Easter holidays start at the very end of March, so hopefully lambing will happen while we are not at work.
Two years ago three ewes lambed within 24 hours of the earliest possible date. But Rambo must have slowed down a bit for last year we had to wait a couple of weeks and one ewe was a whole month behind the others.

Let's hope that this year lambing is a bit kinder to us and is over quickly. And let's hope that Rambo produces the goods.

Looking Back - Featured post


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

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