Monday 29 August 2022


Someone noticed that alongside the two boxes which came back from the abattoir were two sheep skins.

It is fairly easy to get the sheepskins back and to process them. You need a special licence from Defra to collect Category 3 animal by-products, but this is a simple process and only needs doing once. 

Then there are two options. The first is to return to the abattoir on kill day (as you usually take your animals in the day before) to pick up the fresh skin, then get it home and salt it immediately to prevent any rot setting in. Alternatively our abattoir were happy to salt the skin for us for a very small fee (£3 per skin) which meant we could pick them up at the same time as picking up the processed meat. This was nine days after we dropped off the live animals.

We then topped them up with fresh salt, getting right to every edge but not onto the wool side. The skins just need laying out on a surface. They don't need any special stretching or anything.

This is all Sue's department. When she is ready she will scrape any surplus fat off the skin - we have a special scraper but a knife will do. There shouldn't be much scraping to do if your abattoir have done a good job. Then apply a tanning mix which is purchased off the internet. There are three different stages to this, the last of which is an opportunity to soften the back or stretch the skin if you wish, but this is not vital. 

Scraping the skins.

You can send the skin off to a tannery to be processed but the cost is fairly high, especially if you need to pay return postage. You will get a really good result, but the homemade version is quite acceptable.

I'll add to this when Sue does the next stages.

Sunday 28 August 2022

Respect your Elders

Elder is one of my favourite trees. It has beautiful creamy flower umbels early in the summer which are a magnet for insects followed by deep purple berries, plates of juicy jewels which wild birds love, especially blackcaps. Maybe it's how the males top up the colour of their shiny caps.

When cut back, elder grows a multitude of dead-straight vertical new shoots which are perfect for lopping off and poking into the ground to become new bushes. Elder wood and leaves have a unique, indescribable smell which I love too. I don't know what the chemical is, but it's said if you poke a stem into a mole run it will drive the mole away - not that I'd want to do that. Elder twigs can be hung in fruit trees to deter insects and the leaves have long been used to keep flies away.

Elder is intertwined in folklore too, with strong links to witches.

But practically, the elder makes a great addition to the hedgerow, woodland or the forest garden. Where it is not quite so welcome is growing in the small space between my sheds and stable block. One has grown up and reached high above, up to about 20 feet tall. I left it as it was still doing more good than harm, but it has grown so much that the trunk is obstructing necessary repairs to the shed rooves.

So I was going to chop it right back and maybe even take it out completely until the turkeys had other ideas. They roost on the stable and elderberries have become their breakfast of choice.

The view from on top of the shed.
They are chopped elder branches on the ground below.

But with the berries finally ripe the easiest way to harvest them was to climb onto the shed rooves and dismantle the tree. Sorry turkeys!

In the early summer we use the flower umbels to make elderflower cordial and elderflower champagne, an excellent drink which tastes fantastic and packs a punch. The flowers are popular for fritters too, though we've always prioritised the alcohol.

We have plenty of elders splashed around the smallholding so every few years we harvest ripe berries too. These can be used for many things, though not eaten raw, but for us there is one product which is unique and trumps all others - pontack sauce.

Pontack sauce is a rich, aromatic sauce full of umami. It's like a fruity Worcestershire sauce and adds a wonderful depth of flavour to stews and slow-cook recipes. Like a good wine, it develops with age. The batch we made in 2017 is just coming to its best.

The downside to all this is that I now have no reason not to get on with fixing the two shed rooves. I also have a mountain of elder branches to process. They don't make great fire wood so most will be chipped and either spread on the perennial beds or added into the compost.

Nothing goes to waste.

Wednesday 24 August 2022

A moth named after not one but two birds

The Hummingbird Hawk-Moth. I've only seen these twice before, but the same day that I read they are popping up in many a garden this year and what should happen?

I first noticed it hovering around a verbena bonariensis plant in the forest garden, but ti quickly turned its attention to a flowering buddleia. In fact I had plenty of time to phone Sue and drag in the house to come and see it. Occasionally it darted off, presumably to another feed plant, but it kept coming back to these same few flowers.
It was impossible to get a picture with my phone. The things never stop moving and even if it did pause long enough, the wings just make the whole thing a blur. So I decided to pick one flower and wait to see if I could shoot a bit of video. Actual views were much better, but hopefully the video I've attached: 1 - works and 2 - gives a good general impression of our visit.

So if you've any suitable flowers in your garden, workplace, local park, wherever, then do keep an eye open and you might just be lucky enough to meet one of these little fellas.

Monday 22 August 2022

Locking horns

Warning, this blog post does contain an account of sending sheep off to the abattoir. I don't go into any shocking detail, but if you think of livestock in a cute, woolly way then you may not want to read this. However, this is all part of the process of keeping livestock with the aim of eventually turning them into meat. 

Lots of smallholders have taken the decision to sell their sheep flocks this summer, the drought and consequent lack of grazing undoubtedly acting as a catalyst for this decision. We've not lambed for a couple of years and have not been sending any to the great freezer in the sky either. 

But Rambutan our ram can't service the females any more as he is related to most of them. The older females need to go off for meat too as I wouldn't want to lamb from them any more and they will become unproductive. I don't mean that in a heartless way but it makes no sense to keep them until they get old and sick or die. I'm excited to see what the mutton will taste like.

Our decision to send some of our sheep off was delayed as both our local small-scale abattoirs closed down. It is increasingly difficult for any small local services to exist as the burden of regulation makes their survival impossible. So instead we have been asking around fellow smallholders to find out where they have been using, both for the kill and the cut.

Our two intact rams get along pretty well together. We keep a large wether (castrated ram) in with them and where male sheep are concerned three is the magic number for peace. But Rambutan and our new ram, Arnie, still like to test each other out sometimes.

A couple  of weeks back something happened to hasten our decision to wave goodbye to Rambutan. Occasionally in smallholding something completely left field happens. 

Early one morning my sleep was abruptly interrupted by Sue informing me that the two rams were locked together. That woke me up sharp! When I went to investigate, they had somehow managed to literally lock horns. It was like one of those interlocking metal puzzles, but imagine trying to complete one of those with a grumpy sheep on the end of each one.

An hour of trying to separate them was to no avail. However I pushed and twisted their heads, I could not unlock their horns. We were seriously beginning to wonder what the outcome of this situation was going to be.

Wrestling with rams is a bit tiring too, to put it mildly.

But there is a happy ending. Eventually out of desperation and needing to try a different tack, I oiled their horns and wrestled one to the ground. Of course, the other had to come too as they were in the sheep horns equivalent of a three-legged race.

As I virtually lay on one sheep and pulled the other round to be in line, suddenly they separated! No harm was done and both wandered off to munch on some dry grass. Both looked a bit sheepish! 

This incident hastened our decision to reduce our flock. We duly booked five sheep in with the butchers in the second week of September, the earliest they could process them for us, We then booked them in with the abattoir.

The way it works is that you either get them killed at the abattoir then transfer the carcasses to a local butcher for cutting or you get the abattoir to do the whole lot. The trouble with the latter is that, especially with a larger commercial abattoir, it's hard to be sure that you are actually getting all of your own sheep back.

Our plan was to get two sheep completely minced, to include the intact ram as he was likely to taste stronger than usual. We also wanted the fleece back from the ram to make a sheepskin. The problem with this plan would be ensuring that the correct sheep was minced. Also, Rambutan would be spending time in close confinement with the girls which might cause his hormones to start rising and potentially affect the taste. 

So after a little thought we rang up the abattoir to enquire if they could take two sheep sooner and mince them for us too. They were busy, but then said that they could take them in the next morning! Sue was due to go away that afternoon, but if I could take the two sheep in the morning this would make everything a lot easier.

So very early morning I  loaded Rambutan and one younger wether  into the livestock trailer for their last journey. On my own this was no easy task. Sheep have more speed and stamina than me, but I am more stubborn and have the ability to change my tactics in light of previous failures!!!

Once in, we drove the half hour to the abattoir. It is always a bit stressful towing a trailer, especially when you don't know what sort of space you will be asked to reverse it into at the end or how friendly the staff will be. The abattoir was much more commercial than those I had previously used. Lorries were already loading up with meat to take away and everybody seemed busy. 

Rambutan and nameless other loaded into the trailer.

A peek inside the holding pens.

To cut a long story short, I dropped off the two sheep successfully and didn't really even watch as they followed each other into their holding pen. Rambutan had been a bottle fed lamb and was a nice friendly boy, though his desire to 'play' could be a bit challenging when he put his head down and charged. I was a but sad to drop him off, but that is part of keeping livestock.

We pick the two boys up (in boxes) in a week's time, then we have our first go at sausage-making. That should be fun.

Wednesday 17 August 2022

The Drought Is Over

138.8mm of rain for Holbeach - that's us!

Last night it rained. Proper rain. More rain than we've accumulated in the last 4 months.

It's the first we've had for a long, long time. In fact I think it's only rained a few times since the beginning of April. and only once this summer.

[ed. I knew it rained a lot and the fields were full of standing water, but it turns out that on a wet day countrywide, Holbeach was the wettest with a staggering 138.8mm of rain!!!] 

Unfortunately there is an obvious pattern in recent years of all our rain saving itself up for the occasional deluge which surrounds uncomfortably long periods of aridity.

It's made for a difficult growing season (to put it mildly) and we've had to think about how much feed we need to bring in for sheep to overwinter.

In the veg plot, crop after crop has failed. Beans, sweetcorn, potatoes, onions, cabbage.... the list goes on. Those planted earlier in the year have mostly come to nothing and it hasn't even been possible to plant out any young plants sown in late April and May. For the most part the rain has come too late for another attempt at things. At least it's a good opportunity to empty the freezers and in reality we never go short of food.

The barley crop next door has been baled. Just look how dry everything is.

If temperatures of 40C and prolonged dry periods are to be a feature of our lives then I can only guess that plums are going to take over the world! Every single plum tree is literally dripping with fruit. Thank goodness we have several varieties which don't all ripen at once.

The forest garden has fared better as that is designed to be a sustainable system which can deal with weather extremes, though I've lost a few young perennials which were tricky to source in the first place.

The controlled climate of the polytunnel will give us some crops this year and I've a couple of new greenhouses too. We'll be living on squashes, peppers, aubergines and tomatoes.

I mentioned winter feed for the sheep. That's because we've already had to start dipping into it.

We are careful with our stocking levels and try to leave some paddocks long to prevent the worst excesses of drying out. But months of dry weather and a couple of intense heatwaves have left the paddocks looking a touch bare and scorched. We bought in our winter hay from a fellow smallholder a few weeks back - the first hay harvest was incredibly early this year, but we've already had to start topping up the sheep's diet, in particular the rams.

So it was fortunate that one of our local smallholders was having a clear-out and we were able to purchase a whole load of old hay and straw. Shetland sheep are not bothered about the quality of their hay so it doesn't matter that it's not this year's.

I've got more straw than I need for animal bedding so I decided to lay some of it onto all the veg beds which I've abandoned for the year. Sometimes it's best to cut your losses and start preparing for next year. The straw will protect the surface, keep in moisture and gradually rot down and be incorporated into the soil by the worms. Over the winter the ducks will sort out any slugs which try to use it as cover and will further fertilise the beds.

I might have a go at some straw bale gardening too, then let the straw bales rot down into the beds. I'm thinking especially about some of the potatoes.

Looking Back - Featured post


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

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