Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Most of the month has been devoted to decorating and freshening up the house and gardens whilst making preparations for the growing season ahead. First job was to re fence the entire vegetable growing area as the poultry had managed to break in and decimate all the winter crops whilst I was concentrating on game keeping. I am starting to get tired of saying this year is the year but here I am saying the same thing yet again!
Things have gone quite well though and all the seeds have been planted for the first crops. I have decided to keep the carrots in the polytonal as it is clear to me from last years experience that it is possible for them to grow all year round with some planning. The first brassicas will be planted in the polytunnel as well to produce early crops and the rest of the outside area will be devoted to brassicas and leeks. Overall from the experiences we have had it should be possible to keep crops growing throughout the winter so this year is a very important one in that respect where I must concentrate on planting and planning ahead to ensure this. It is no good me complaining about paying for expensive veg over winter when I know I could have them growing in my own garden!

Brice with the new piglets

In the new arrivals stakes Bonnie won by a few days. On 22nd of March Debbie noticed her building a huge nest at about 10am. At around 1pm whilst passing between jobs the unmistakable squeal greeted my ears. I went around with Debbie expecting to find the first or perhaps second piglet born but no, Bonnie had delivered all her piglets in text book fashion, all 11 of them.

Amber with the new born piglets

I keep saying to people that we have such a special girl here. She performs so well and takes to motherhood so easily and has never really caused us any concern, indeed it was the way she handled her first litter that made us believe that keeping breeding pigs was something we could do after disastrous experiences with Tamworth’s. Her temperament is so good and she has never shown any aggression to us even when we check her piglets over. Obviously we can never trust any animal 100% but I don’t think we could trust any animal more than we trust Bonnie.
Sassy with her new born pups

Sassy had her litter a few days later and ended up with 12 pups competing for her 7 teats, unfortunately one of the pups died later. You can read more about the experience here. Both Bonnie and Sassy have settled down to their mothering duties and their young are all doing very well. In the coming months it will mean that we have a good few piglets and puppies to sell before I run out of money to feed them all!

Winter 2006-2007

Time has past so quickly and thankfully so as the winter really did seem to have a negative effect on my mood. How warm it was, yes the ever present wind seemed to be the same but temperature wise it was uncannily hot as far as winter goes. From a practical point of view it meant a great deal of mud around the place which tends to get even the most positive person down after a while. Trying to keep the animals in warm dry bedding was a nightmare and at one of the lowest points I was going to sell them all as I just didn't see that we could carry on like that for any longer.
Thankfully though just as the winter had been warm and so very wet, spring seemed to come early and the land dried out quickly much to our relief. It showed us that at winter time we really can only afford to keep the breeding stock and no others as the land just cannot cope. On the positive side the weather for game keeping was very nice indeed. For the first year in three I can't think of a time when I was standing thinking what on earth am I doing here in this weather. The only down fall was that with winter weather clothing on it was hard going in the heat.
Overall the shooting season went very well although it did take a lot of time up and didn't leave a great deal for spending time with the family once the holding work was done. Thankfully I have managed to rearrange the hours I work to make sure that I have a good amount of time to spend at home with the family whilst hopefully managing to keep the game birds on the estate.
The gilt weaners from Lady's litter late last year were sold as breeding stock and the others are now getting very near to going to the abattoir. I think I may have to wait until the beginning of May because of the limited space in the freezers after they were re-filled with the last of the boars from Bonnie's third litter earlier in the year.
Both Bonnie and Lady are again due litters but we have decided to try to have one litter from each per year now and that will be early in the spring and means we will have no fatteners to feed over winter. That will mean trying to keep Bonnie and Lady away from Malcolm for around 5 months. We will just have to see if it works out as I am not sure that it is going to work for them to be by themselves for that long? The girls I think will be fine as they will generally have some of their weaners with them for a good while but as for Malcolm I don't really know as he hasn't been by himself for any length of time.

Time for the pot

From a poultry point of view we need a good sort out as we have far too many of most breeds. The Norfolk Bronze turkeys worked very well and we enjoyed one of the stags for our christmas dinner having hung it for 10 days. It tasted fantastic although I must admit I thought initially that 10 days was a little long. Now I think I will take the view of why change the wheel if it isn't broken and do the same with future turkeys. Unfortunately the stag that we decided to keep for breeding was aggressive towards Debbie so he had to go which now leaves us with our pair of slate turkeys. The stag seems pretty laid back so we will see how he performs with his hen.
Eggs are starting to mass up now and are regularly being fed to the pigs. The main problem will be the feeding which is rapidly rising in cost even though we buy only wheat now. As they are all free range we haven't bought layers pellets for over a year as we found little difference except in our pockets. Over the next few weeks I will start sorting out the younger cockerels and drakes and see what we have but no doubt some of the hens will need to be either sold or put in the freezer.
The sheep and cows have settled together fine although at feed times the cows Hope and her daughter Glory have a distinct advantage with their horns which they use to nudge into the barley. Nothing serious just a little poke to get into a better position. We are pleased with the way the sheep have gained in condition and also the lambs from last year. We should have plenty of mutton and lamb for the coming year as we want to reduce the flock back to 4 for breeding this autumn which will mean 6 lambs and 4 ewes need to be sorted for the freezer at the back end of summer.

Mother Hope
and daughter Glory

The cows I am still undecided upon but am leaning towards processing them for their meat. For our set up and not having the time to be here full time because of work commitments I feel that breeding could potential cause a great deal of problems for us and that would not be fair on ourselves or the animals so again later this year I will make a final decision on what to do. There is the other option of them being grass cutters but realistically they would be very expensive to keep like that so I don't think that will be an option we will take.

Sassy full to bursting with pups!

Lastly we have had Sassy our Springer Spaniel mated with one of the local studs. The idea is that Debbie would like a bitch pup to train to retrieve birds on the shoots and help with rounding the pheasants up during the summer. Sassy has performed really well over the season and has such a keen sense of smell for the birds combined with her calm temperament it became obvious that she had good qualities to pass onto some pups. She is due next month and it remains to be seen as to whether she has her litter first or Bonnie!

October 2006 Winter is on it's way

October proved once again to be another busy month both on the holding and at work with the beginning of the new shooting season. I had thought I might be sitting here talking about how beautiful the leaves look on the trees, changing their colours to yellows and browns. However we have had our first taste of what winter holds with our first winter storms. Trees have been blown over around the area and there are only a few leaves left on the trees now but it is still hasn't diminished the beauty of the area. All the seasons seem to retain their beauty in their own way. Even during the bleakest winter weather the scenery is there to be appreciated.
We have managed to sell the gilt weaners that Bonnie farrowed back at the beginning of August and as hoped they have been bought as breeding stock rather than going to the freezer. The boars we shall keep for our freezer in the springtime. Bonnie has now joined Malcolm again after we deliberately allowed her to have her first season away from him, which should mean that her next litter will arrive in the springtime when they should grow well in the summer months.
The last of our freezer pigs have now been processed and we have plenty pork to see us over until the springtime which will take a lot of pressure off the shopping bill. Lady as well has farrowed her first litter and performed really well. She had 9 piglets but 2 died at birth cause unknown. However the 7 that survived have developed well under Lady's care.
We feel really pleased with the way our pigs have come on after the disappointment of the Tamworth's breeding experiences and we feel that we are now at the point where we can produce all our own pork products whilst also selling on some of the weaners and pork products.
We also bought our first cow at long last. She is a Dexter cow with a young Dexter heifer calf. We had seen some beautiful registered stock locally but felt that financially we just couldn't afford the prices so spent a lot less on Hope the cow and Glory her calf. We deliberately made sure we bought her having not been with a bull so that we can spend the next few years learning about keeping cows. Hope is only 3 so we have a few years to learn before we decide whether to go into the breeding of cows to produce our own beef. They have settle well although it is obvious that they have had little human contact and are still a little apprehensive to approach unless we take some barley down for her!
We have already had our first scary experience, which happened on the first afternoon they arrived. Our surrounding fields have young fattening steers and they all seemed to be socialising well. That is until the owner arrived with their feed and the steers ran off up the field. Hope didn't seem to like them all running away up the field and tried to jump the weakest part of my fencing. Thankfully she didn't manage to get across and I was able to re inforce the fencing, which has stopped any further attempts. The steers have now been taken away but it does leave me with a few anxieties for next spring when more will return. Hopefully by that time Hope will have settled more and see this as here home.
The sheep have arrived back after having been on a grass-cutting holiday, but what we have noticed is that the lambs are far from being in good condition. Some of this we think may be down to our lambing time which has happened in the middle of the grass growing season so that by the time they wean the grass is past its best whilst the other problem being that it has taken us until this year to actually bring the grass back to a good standard. Next year should be the first year when we have a large amount of good grass available, for the remainder of this year we have a source of hay, which should meet the requirements of the animals. With this in mind we have decided that this year we will not be inviting a ram to stay and will grow on the animals we have to provide us with lamb and mutton and take stock next year as to how to proceed. It may even be a case of us getting a smaller breed of sheep but I am loathed to do that as the Suffolk do provide a good carcass. I guess it all depends upon the grass next year.
The last of the broodies (fingers crossed) has hatched 7 chicks and poultry wise we are well and truly sorted for poultry meat over the winter. The game birds as well are just starting to get to the point where they are reaching their prime so no doubt I will be bringing all kinds of game meat home shortly.
The game keeping is going really well at the moment and I can't believe that is a quarter of the shooting season gone already. It has proved to be very frustrating as well as there are occasions when the birds are not where they are supposed to be, but on the whole I think I have done as well as I could for my first season. One thing is for sure I have learned a huge amount so hope that the next seasons give better and better results.
That is about it for October, time to really start making winter preparations as I have a feeling the bad weather is not too faraway.

Last of the summer time

September finally saw what I had been dreading in that the vegetables have suffered as a consequence of having so much to do over the month. The days have become very short compared to the long hot summer days when nighttime never seemed to want to come!
Unfortunately the tomatoes came down with what I think was blight so although we watered well for most of the season it probably lead to the nice humid atmosphere relished by the blighty bug. We have finished most of our bean and pea crops but neglected to save some for next year's crops so that is another lesson we have been shown.
Most of the winter crops have started to grow well outside and on a positive note I have managed to get the first of our winter carrot seeds to germinate before the cold weather comes. Over the next few days I shall plant the last lot so hopefully enabling us to have carrots over winter and up to spring.
The potatoe crops have produced a good 10 bags of potatoes, which should at least keep us going until Christmas but yet again it seems that for our needs I am not planting enough which is strange as we planted a great deal.
I get the feeling that because we eat so much veg instead of fast foods and tinned processed foods that we may never be able to produce enough unless we have whole acres set aside.
Perhaps looking at things now it is not so dreadful a situation as I first thought, as the crops we have lost have been quite minimal in the whole scheme of things. How I wish I could stop being such a perfectionist!
Bonnie's piglets have grown well and we separated her from then late in the month as she was starting to look thin. It does amaze me though how quickly she regains her condition without the piglets taking all the goodness from her. We decided this time to give her a good few months rest as the last thing we need is to have litters being born in the dead of winter, so for now she is in a paddock by herself and seems glad of her own company for now.
Lady our other Large Black is due piglets at some point in October, but we don't have an exact date due to this being her first litter. Based on our experiences with Bonnie it looks only a matter of weeks now and we shall keep a close eye on her for further signs of her nearing farrowing.
The sheep have been sent on their holidays before the ram comes in December. They have gone to a large paddock not far away to enjoy a few acres of virgin grass and it really has helped the ewes to regain their condition after looking after their lambs for the last few months. We are hoping it will also have a good affect on the lambs that have now joined their mums as we intend to start taking around half the lambs to the abattoir in December ready for the festive season. The smaller ones we shall leave until after the New Year so they have a little more time to grow. This year is also a little different as we shall be using a least 2 of the ewes to provide mutton as we kept 2 lambs from last year to become fresh breeding stock. We know that Lilly will be one of the mutton ewes after all her trials during the last two lambing seasons but haven't decided who the other one will be yet.
All the poultry are growing well and should be fit enough to get through the winter but it is starting to get to the point where they will need to be sorted out for who is being kept and who is going in the freezer. Obviously the cockerels will need to be done but we have a fair amount of hens now and perhaps their numbers will need reducing. The young ducks are the same as they are now approaching the point where the drakes are just about recognisable so they will need sorted probably next month.
Lastly the turkeys, it now seems we may have 3 of each or 4 stags and 2 hens. They are getting quite big now and with that quite defensive/ territorial, I don't know which. Especially with the dogs and cat. They just don't seem to like them at all and once one turkey starts to act aggressively the others all want to join in. By aggressive I don't mean anything major, however the opportunity to become something major is a possibility. It is a situation I will need to watch carefully as we did intend to have a breeding pair from them and the rest as Christmas turkeys but they may force a decision for me. Only time will tell.
At this time we are looking forward to the start of the new shooting season and the nearer it comes the more nervous I get. I know both myself and Debbie have put a great deal of work into the birds over the last few months but it will only be when they are driven on a shoot day that we will see for sure how they react. Maybe I shouldn't give up nursing just yet!

August 2006 More new arrivals

August has passed by so quickly, as usual a whirlwind of experiences good and bad. However before an update I think I should clarify some of the points I made about my work as an under keeper.
I have re read my entry for last month and I can see that it may read like that is it finished. However as with most jobs you have good times and bad times. Last month was one of those not bad times but just extremely busy. It had to be to make sure that in the future months the shooting season is successful. Both Debbie and myself have talked about this period over the last few weeks and feel that we can make some changes, which will mean that we are much more prepared for this time next year and the years after that.
This being my first year of game keeping, I had no idea how much it would affect our life but until we experienced it we never would. Now that we do we have come to the decision that we can accommodate all aspects of our life to include my game keeping as well. Saying that, as always it is a case of what will be will be. Things may happen over the next few months that mean the decision to work as an under keeper is taken away from us. For example I can see that the issue of Bird Flu rearing its head again with the migration of birds getting under way soon. So for now I can safely say that I hope to continue for quite a few years to come as an under keeper as the good times far out way the bad times.
1st of August was the date we had arrived at for Bonnie to farrow her third litter and she kept us waiting until the next morning. In all she produced 10 piglets, however 1 must have died when born which was discovered the next day hidden under the straw bedding and 1 died after getting stuck and having to be retrieved from Bonnie. So in total we have 4 gilts and 4 boars, all pedigree Large Black pigs. We are hoping to sell these as breeding pigs as to our knowledge we have the most Northerly herd in the UK based upon the information on the BPA site and Large black pig breeders site. You can read more about the experience here for now although when I have time I shall write an article about the experience.

Finally over!

Milk Bar's open!

It seems that our broody hens just don't realise that autumn is fast approaching and have continued to hatch chicks at a very efficient rate. Thankfully only 2 seem to be left who are on a total of around a dozen eggs between them. It doesn't seem that long ago that we had the fox visit and were worrying that we may be struggling for eggs and meat, but no more!
The bad news is that one of the Slate turkey chicks drowned in a bucket of water, probably overbalancing whilst having a drink, however the 3 remaining seem to be growing fast now. The Bronze turkeys continue to grow well and are part of the fixture and fittings of the place now. There seems to be at least 2 females amongst the 6 we have based on their displaying behaviours, which are a fantastic site.

Strutting his stuff!

Over the past 2 months we have hatched 20 ducklings in the incubator and they are now at the point of being kept in an outside run waiting to free range. They just need a few weeks to get used to the weather conditions and the other poultry before we will let them out of the run. Unfortunately our 2 new ducks decided to share a nest together when going broody which resulted in the eggs they were incubating being smashed probably as they were manoeuvring for position. Something to remember for next year after the same thing happened with the chickens. Nest sharing is a definite no-no!

Hello big wide world!

The veg plot has continued to be very productive and we are being treated to some wonderful produce. The winter crops have been transplanted outside and room is gradually being made available inside the polytunnel for further crops to be planted. Must admit though I get the feeling that producing veg all year round could be very difficult indeed. That is unless I make more land available or buy another polytunnel. Both options are not really viable from a time and finance point of view. We will have to see what happens over the winter and make decisions early next year.

Monday, April 23, 2007

July 2006 The great balancing act

July has turned out to be one big juggling act. As I thought last month it has been extremely busy with the pheasants arriving and looking after their needs whilst trying to keep everything going at home.
It has shown me very quickly that game keeping is something I could not think of doing long term, as the commitment to the birds is a fulltime job in itself and there are no short cuts to take. I will of course see this year out to the end of the shooting season, but will really have to think hard as to whether it is the right move to continue as the priorities at home have been moved down the priority ladder which is something I don't wish to happen for long periods. After all we have built up a smallholding lifestyle to have our needs and ourselves as the main priority.

(Feeding time at the pheasant pen)

That may sound quite gloomy but the reality is that I really do enjoy the work and get a great deal of satisfaction from it, just that the commitment seems too much for our preferred lifestyle. By the time all the work is done looking after the birds it leaves little time for anything else except to have a bite to eat, water the plants and grab a few hours sleep. Of course it won't be like this for long as the days grow shorter but this time of year is a special time where everything is flourishing and there is so much to see and do around the place. The kids are all off school and there is no time to spend on day trips or even just spending a few hours playing.
So for now I will carry on enjoying the experience and see what happens next year? At least I can say I have had the experience and given it a try something I may have regretted had I not taken the opportunity.
Around the holding more chicks have been born. It may sound bad but at the present time I have lost count of exactly what has been born although I can say that from 7 Peafowl eggs we now have 3 Peafowl following around their surrogate mother a New Hampshire Red. We did have 4 but I am thinking a buzzard ate one as I have seen one regularly perched near to our place. 4 Slate turkey poults were successfully hatched by one of our Light Sussex hens, whilst the 6 Bronze turkey poults are now free ranging around the holding. It seems that we may have quite a few stags amongst them but intend to swap some of the stags with friends who have other bloodlines.

(A STAGgering photo!)

Lambing season seems like a distant memory now as worming and trimming the ewes and lambs last week they seem to be growing very quickly especially the rams who this year we castrated to see if they grew quicker. It does seem to be the case as Whizzer the only entire ram who is going for breeding stock to one of our friends does appear smaller when compared to the other ram lambs. That would leave us with 8 lambs of which 2 will be added to our flock leaving 6 for the freezer. Sounds a lot but having 4 last years I notice we have nearly eaten all the lamb I processed in February so 6 lambs and 2 ewes for mutton wouldn't be a bad thing.
The 6 young weaners have now been separated between 2 pens now as they are rapidly coming up to breeding age, 3 gilts in one paddock and 3 boars in another. These should provide our pork over the winter and the boars I think will probably be going to the abattoir around October with the gilts late in the year. The last 3 of our adult gilts from Bonnie's first litter went to the abattoir last week and are now processed into the freezer.
Bonnie is still keeping us waiting at the moment in the field shelter and is due to farrow on the 1st August. She has found the heat had to cope with but the new paddock she is in provides a great deal of shade under willow trees and a wallow helps to cool her off.

(Bonnie cooling off)

Up until this year our gardening efforts have been unremarkable although we have had some successes. This year has been a great success up to now. I have employed some of the lessons learned previously such as watering regularly (yes I was that bad) and also used slug pellets for the first time and what a difference they have made.
I used the poly tunnel to start some crops off early and it worked a treat. We have been eating roast dinners for a while now using mostly our own veg, including sweet corn, carrots, and cabbage. I have a big crop of cauliflowers which are about a month away from providing more additions to meal times as well as mistakenly planting brussel sprouts in there too, at least we will have early sprouts!
The tomatoe plants are now providing us with all our tomatoes, as are the cucumbers and courgettes. Along with the other salad crops of rocket, spinach and lettuce we have white and red radish, spring onions, shallots and soon to be added sweet peppers.

(Success at last in the polytunnel)
I have planted a few pumpkins in the hope of having some fruit from them by Halloween but fear I have left it too late for this year time will tell.
Outside we planted a large amount of potatoes which all seem to be growing well along with those missed from last year. The peas and beans are also growing slowly but surely and our winter brassicas are growing well along with the leeks, so wintertime should see us with plenty of veg. I think that at the end of August/ beginning of September I will be planting more brassicas in the polytunnel to see what crop it will give over the winter and if successful will use the polytunnel to ensure we have veg all year round.
The fruit crops are also producing although need a few more years to be bountiful. The blackcurrants have provided a crop again although having netted them for protection after loosing large amounts in the past to birds I left them to ripen too much to the point that only enough fruit was left on the bushes to produce 2 large jars of jam. The liberated Rhubarb is thriving now and should grow well over the next few years. Having had an initial crop from them when planting I think we will have another crop before the summer has ended. The apple trees have a small crop on them, which is a bonus although they should start to produce well from next year. I will also be using runners from the strawberry plants to produce an outside bed as the crop in the polytunnel ripened early and finished a while back. An outside bed should mean strawberries for at least 4 months of the year instead of the glut we had in 2 months. The only thing missing is gooseberries, which hopefully will be sorted later in the year.
All in all a very productive time in the garden and with the animals. Slowly but surely we are adding to our list of own homegrown produce and I have to say it feels very satisfying indeed!

June 2006 The easy times are over

June will be the last of the easier months I fear! It seems to have gone in a flash and as usual so much has happened.
The sheep and their lambs are all on the summer field now and apart from the odd hobbler seem to be thriving well. At the beginning of June I decided to take a few weeks off to make sure jobs, which, needed done before the game keeping takes over my life were done.

Mum came for a 'working holiday'

As the sheep were doing so well and the weather was really treating us to some good sun burning temperatures I decided to shear the sheep sooner rather than later. All went well doing one each night until the penultimate ewe when I discovered small maggots on Rose.
We were really lucky; as I had thought her shearing was finished but saw a small area of fleece at the back of her udders. The kind of tuft generally I think nothing of. I clipped a small piece of fleece away not out of necessity but rather a cosmetic touch only to find what seemed like hundreds of small maggots bursting from where I had cut. Fearing the worst that they had eaten into her udder I cleared away the maggots I could see to find that they were infact living in between her skin and the matted piece of fleece. After a good clean and thorough shave the maggots were off and another big lesson learned. Luckily we have never had a serious case of fly strike but this experience showed us just how easy it can develop and how vigilance really is the most important protection as well as fly strike preventative spray.
We had 4 of the 7 porker gilts back from the abattoir during the month and filled the freezer to the brim. These are the first Tamworth Large Black cross pigs we have tasted and they taste superb. The bacon made from them is not as good as the pure Tamworth but is fine for us and after all Large Blacks are pork joint pig rather than reared for bacon.
Bonnie continues to grow well and is hopefully getting to her full-grown size or I hope she is as going in to stroke her recently she is some size now. Some of that will no doubt be due to the piglets growing but still she is some size now but as docile as ever. She is due to farrow at the end of July and shall shortly go into the field vacated by the sheep, hopefully farrowing in the field shelter and producing our first litter of pedigree Large Black pigs.
I think we have had a further three hatchings to our hens but admit I have lost count now as at times we seem to be over run with mother hens and their chicks. We had 2 hens sitting very close together and noticed that although one hen hatched out 3 chicks the other hen managed to steal them although she is rearing them well. No doubt she got tired of waiting as what seems to have happened is that other hens have been laying in the same area resulting in eggs having widely differing incubating times.
The remaining hen who was in no mood to move has had a fresh supply of Pekin duck eggs popped under her and all other eggs removed. We have also made sure that other hens cannot lay next to her to avoid differing incubation times. She is sitting on four eggs from 2 dozen we bought in after having no luck finding adult Pekin ducks to complement the two we already have. The other twenty eggs are being incubated in an incubator we recently bought. Up to now 18 of the 20 we have are growing but we shall have to wait until mid July to see how many are actually hatched.
During June we seem to have gone a little mad with our poultry plans as we also bought six Bronze turkey chicks some of which we hope to breed from after swapping stags and some who are destined for the table.
Also bought some peafowl eggs as Debbie has always wanted some and they are currently being incubated by one of our broody hens and lastly I bought some turkey eggs for another of our broody hens. The reason for the turkey eggs is that they are a different breed to the Bronze chicks we have and I found them very striking in their colour. They are sold under the name of Slate turkeys so we shall wait to see how they turn out.
The veg patch is really turning out fine up to now and we are regularly able to get small amounts of fresh veg in the form of salads for now but in the near future cauliflower and cabbage will be in good supply along with sweet corn, courgettes, cucumber, beetroot, peas and beans. Up to now watering has been maintained to the required standard, which proved to be the downfall last year and along with a change of heart should mean we have some bumper crops to come. The change of heart? Well quite simply I decided that after finding evidence of slug damage yet again this year despite our best efforts to use slug-killing pellets. I never have been a great lover of chemical use but as I said to Debbie what is the point of saying I use no chemicals and yet have no food for the table. Any gardener will tell you how much hard work is required and to see the effort wrecked almost overnight is soul destroying so slug pellets it has to be.
I remember during cold and wet days during early March planting potatoes with Debbie and thinking I really hope we have a crop off these after the time and effort of planting them and it is so pleasing to see that almost all of the potatoes planted are growing well in the paddocks. We should have enough potatoes for the rest of this year I hope and whatever we miss I am sure the pigs will find later on in the year.
Although we have had good crops from the strawberries fruit has been lacking a little. With this in mind I replanted some black currant bushes last year and most are nearly at the stage of their berries turning black so having learned from the previous two years I need to get them netted as the birds generally have a field day.
I also liberated a few rhubarb crowns and these are growing well although I think the first sticks cut when replanting them will be our only crop this year. Most pleasing from a fruity point of view is that we seem to be going to have a fair crop of apples later in the summer. I planted the 3-year-old standards late last year and although in the brochure it said to expect a small crop I didn't really think we would get much in the way of apples. We have in all about 5 different varieties specific to this areas climate and it looks as if they are happy with the weather up to now.
For now all seems well, hopefully next time we have a healthy Bonnie with her piglets and yet more new arrivals!

New Arrivals

As predicted May has turned out to be the season of new arrivals and there certainly were plenty of them. It has also been one of the wettest months for a long while, at times seeming more like winter weather than spring. When watching the weather forecast I guess we have been luckier than a lot of folk who despite having drought restrictions implemented have had a whole lot of rain for days on end. Hopefully that is the last of the April/ May showers now and we can get busy tending our suntans now!
During the winter months we seemed to have an egg drought for a long time as the birds decided to moult for an eternity, then come the start of the year we were engulfed with eggs. Too many to use up so the pigs enjoyed their fair share so as not to go to waste. 2 of the hens decided to go broody at this time, which didn't really affect the supply of eggs, however during May the majority of the remaining hens decided the time was right and now we are back to square one just when folk are asking for eggs. Seems to be either a feast or a famine at times! It means though that we have new chicks appearing at regular intervals so the ones we lost to the fox will be replaced.
We are quite relaxed in our poultry breeding trying not to get too complicated and letting the birds just get on with it. Up to now we have a total of 4 new chicks to 2 hens and should find that during June around 20 more should arrive. It is really nice to watch a mother hen and her chicks as at times they can be so comical trying to fight over one morsel and seem to thrive once taken out into the big wide world.

Some of the new arrivals

The geese as predicted last month all seem to be female as having sat on their eggs for over 35 days all the eggs have proven to be infertile. Just as well we bought some goslings from the rare breed auction and if the law of averages holds true we should have at least 1 gander from the 5. These are our first goslings and I have to admit they are the fastest growing birds I have ever seen. No sooner had they appeared to be comfortably residing in a dog crate in the kitchen than I had to build an outside run for them such was their rate of growth. That coupled with the amount of pooing they do meant it would have been impossible to keep them inside any longer. They are now off the light and seem to be thriving as well. Over the next day or two the run will come down and they can go free range around the place.

The goslings at around 2 weeks old

The lambing, which we had waited eagerly for was over with in 5 days which was quite considerate of them but really exhausting. You can read more about the experience here. Mums and lambs appear to be fine at the moment and the time has come to start thinking about shearing as the ewes are starting to look uncomfortable in the heat which is strange in that even though we have had so much rain the temperature hasn't really been effected. Either that or we are used to the weather conditions up here now!
With the rain came the weeds and boy have they shot away. Luckily the polytunnel has proved it's worth and together with strict watering is awash with fruit and veg. The only problem we have had is that the homemade propagator proved too efficient and cooked some of the seeds we put in there. Not a total disaster as I hope this can be used to our benefit over the winter months to come in providing some greens when if bought from a shop seem to be extortionate in price.
From a personal point of view we have had a good share of luck for many months now with not much going wrong, however last month we had our fair share again in that the main chimney started to play up big time with smoke gushing out of the roof making it look like the house was on fire, the 4th car in two years died and my internet connection has played havoc. One at a time I could deal with but all together meant a fair bit of strain on the family.
If it were not for friends offering help and advice then the pressure would have really been unbearable. The chimney acting up made life hard as the Rayburn uses this chimney and it is through the Rayburn that we cook, get heat and heat our water. However an email to an ACL member saved the day and meant that I had the confidence to sort the problem out myself. It also meant a huge saving financially as I was directed to links, which had everything I required, and at a very low price compared to what I could have found. The Rayburn is now working better than ever and a huge thank you goes to Jules and Martin Woodman for their help. Much appreciated!
The game keeping is going really well and pretty soon I am going to be really busy. I don't know if I could be any busier I guess it is just a case of organising things to fit around each other but no doubt it will get busier as this month we are getting all the pens ready for the birds arrival early in July. Up to now we have managed to balance things out pretty well and my main fear of the garden being neglected has so far proved not to be the case. As long as the outside garden is sorted with the first crops then everything should be fine. One slight problem may be that Bonnie is due another litter at the end of July but she has proven to be very good at mothering skills and nothing untoward is expected.

Bonnie taking it easy

That's it for now enjoy the sun and remember to try and take time out to sit and enjoy what you are achieving. One thing is for sure the work will always be there when you go back.

The Silly Season Begins

Firstly I would just like to say a big thank you to all the folk who nominated me for the virtual smallholder award, it really is something I am very proud to have been presented with although I must emphasis it is very much a team effort so well done to Debbie as well. Special thanks to Carolyn and David for hosting the virtual smallholder show and of course Tracey for producing the fantastic rosette's which have pride of place in our award-winning kitchen!

Ok last month the dreaded bird flu hit and panic was rife. Now a few weeks later I am sure I am not alone in thinking what was all the worry about? True any case of bird flu is serious and has some unthinkable implications to many, however I have to admit to thinking the response was incredibly calm from the authorities. Restrictions were put in place but lifted at the earliest opportunity meaning our first rare breeds show was brimming with all kinds of poultry.
I must admit to feeling rather apprehensive when returning to work after a few days off but everything was just business as usual. I think the turning point of feeling reassured came when the media were left concentrating on shots of the walkway where the swan was found, as there was no disaster to report. In fact after a week or so it was barely news worthy. A respite for now hopefully!
After over 2 years we have finally managed to arrange the pigs to our satisfaction. We had used 3 paddocks on and off over that time and this winter had proved that they were just not big enough to cope with the demands of the quantity and age of our pigs. During March we had moved Lady and Malcolm our pedigree Large blacks into yet another temporary paddock in readiness to introduce them to Bonnie our other pedigree Large Black sow. She finished weaning her latest litter at the beginning of April so off she went to meet up with Lady and Malcolm.
We knew there would be some friction when they met up but had presumed it would be between Bonnie and Lady, however Malcolm seemed to be the one not best pleased (3's a crowd and all that) Bonnie has always shown herself to be of fantastic temperament and despite Malcolm giving it the 'I'm the boss in here' behaviour she quite happily just explored the new paddock. It wasn't until he just wouldn't leave her alone pushing and nudging her that she must have thought 'enough is enough'. Being twice his size it didn't take much retaliation to have him squealing 'ok you're the boss'. It all looked rather dramatic but as predicted they settled with each other over the next few days to the extent that Malcolm and Bonnie decided to make love not war!

Bonnie and Malcolm make aquantance

Bonnie's litter of 6 were also rehoused into the trusty weaner shelter which for costing around £10 early last year has turned out to be a very good investment. It has now seen three lots of occupants and no complaints at all have been forthcoming. The latest occupants have found it to be a place to relax and chill from the stresses of modern day life.

It's a hard life!

At the end of April we finally finished fencing their acre field and let them loose expecting to see it turned into mud in no time, however they seem to enjoy rooting only in several certain areas leaving the rest as green as when they went in. It is so nice to see them roaming around the field and we hope that it can provide all they need for a few years to come.
Not much is happening with our 6 Suffolk ewes other than we are pretty sure they were all serviced. Udders are really starting to develop and by the size of them I wouldn't be surprised if 5 out of 6 were twins. I just hope that during May we have as successful a lambing time as we did last year both from our point of view and that of the ewe's welfare.
Last month I mentioned the geese, which we thought were a trio perhaps being 3 geese. It didn't really matter, as the eggs are just fantastic. Well surprise, surprise they have decided to go broody. A large nest has been built in the field shelter that we had hoped to lamb in and rather than 1 male sitting on them as we had heard happens all 3 of ours take turns and some times we find all 3 sitting at the same time. At least we will learn whether we have a trio or not for sure over the next month.
A few more of the hens have gone broody so hopefully the hens, which the fox enjoyed last month, will be replaced for free during May. Must admit I have a real soft spot for mother hens and their chicks. So attentive to those little bundles of fluff and the chicks seem to need only a chirp from mum to know what they should be doing, wish our kids were like that!
The polytunnel is bursting into life now and all in all things are pretty much on track with fruit and veg. Most of our first lot of seeds have been planted and are starting to rear their heads. The fruit trees are starting to burst their buds now and although they won't produce a crop this year at least this shows they have survived some atrocious weather conditions of late which all looks promising for the years to come.
Well next month should herald the arrival of quite a few new faces here so I think I had better get back to running around in circles trying to get things prepared!

Bird flu, life goes on

Although this is an entry of our life during March I guess I should start by mentioning that bird flu has eventually reared its head in the UK or more to the point in Scotland. I had imagined over the last few months that I would feel extremely scared and feared of what measures would be put in place but at the moment I feel no different. True the measures don't affect me but looking at the picture as a whole nothing has changed for us that I know of at this time. Life goes on very much the same, much as it always has and will continue to do until someone say's differently. I guess I should also say that any of these bring your birds inside rules would ultimately mean the death of all our poultry as I have no intention of keeping our birds in the manner beloved of the battery farms. To watch them rip themselves apart from boredom stuck in a confined area or suffer illnesses they have never had being free range and generally live a confined existence is something I refuse to do. This may seem like an extreme measure but everyone must make their own decision based on their own situation.
With regard my new career I have no idea what will happen maybe that is it finished before it actually starts or maybe after a few 'clear' weeks the restrictions will be lifted who knows what the future holds? What is clear is that once again Mother Nature has proved that it is she who is in control, not the human race. It often amazes me how as a race we like to appear so clever and yet it is the smallest of things which have us on our knees. I wonder if as a race we actually realise at some point in the future that we are not so superior after all and finally start to live alongside nature instead of £$%^&* about with her?
Ok rant over now, it's here so let's get on with living. March has proven to be one of the hardest so far for a long time. The beginning of the month heralded the white stuff and boy did it come down. We know each year it will come but the severity is something we can only guess at and prepare for the worse case scenario, which this year proved to be pretty severe for the first 2 weeks. Rather than recount the experience now you can read about it here.
The last 3 ram lambs are now processed and in the freezer and the skins of 2 have been successfully tanned. One failed to cure properly and criminally I just didn't have the time to sort the other. Honestly speaking the actual joints have tasted fantastic but for some reason the lamb chops failed to impress. It may sound stupid that they tasted of lamb but we have come to expect high quality tasting meat and this is the first time of any of our meat produce that we have said 'not as good as expected'. Strange being from the same animal perhaps it was my cooking!
Malcolm and Lady our pedigree Large Black pigs have now been moved into their own little paddock in readiness for the arrival of Bonnie to make our breeding trio complete. Once accustomed to each other we plan to let them have free range of an acre field next to their paddock. Bonnie should be ready to move in early April as the weaners are now eating and drinking independently. Thankfully Bonnie's physical condition remains good so all systems should be go soon. We have also decided against selling the weaners, as they are 'fat as butter' and should grow very quickly over the coming summer months, being ready for the freezer around August time.
The geese are finally free ranging around the smallholding now as I had kept them in an acre field more because of my inexperience in that I worried about them attacking myself, Debbie or the kids. Yes I know I am a softy but I am man enough to admit it! To be honest I need not have worried, as the geese are little gems really. They go about their daily business and seem fine with all the other animals and their eggs are delicious. Of course I have to have a full one to myself and they are probably the best eggs I have tasted, not having tasted goose eggs before now. One slight problem is that instead of a breeding trio we may actually have 3 geese. The egg count just seems to high, often 3 per day which to me says 3 girls but I guess we will have to wait and see for now I am just grateful for the addition of goose eggs to the menu.
And so we come to the only real down side of March. Trying to keep animals as free range as possible has meant that our poultry are totally free range and that means that the door to the hen houses are left open at night so that they can come and go as they please. It seems that a fox took advantage of the open door to our main hen house and killed 7 of our hens. Unfortunately on that night was a bad one for howling winds and rain, which meant we heard nothing. Even having been woken at 5am by the police looking for someone at a different address we never knew anything had happened.
I knew when feeding that not the usual procession of would be velocoraptors had made their way to the scattered corn but thought the wind had disguised my feeding round and being free range it wasn't totally unusual for some of them to be on egg laying missions in the barn. It wasn't until I left for work and drove up the track that I caught sight of one of the hens half way up a neighbours field and looking further up I could see there were more. On closer inspection heads were missing or throats were ripped open. A total waste. I can only imagine that the police coming down the track at 5am had put a stop to the carnage, as there were plenty of other hens to take from the roosting perches. Needless to say they are all locked up at night now except for the ducks who refuse to co-operate in any way.
Well that's it for March action packed again never a dull moment. I just hope that April doesn't turn into a nightmare but I guess that is just life good times and bad. One thing is for sure we will remain positive and meet the challenges head on. Best wishes poultry keepers!

Testing times

The unusually warm weather continued well into February but by the end of the month Mother Nature took her revenge with some really atrocious weather, but more on that next time.
The warm weather meant I was able to get a great deal of work done from the never-ending list. Pride of place was the construction of a homemade propagator using good old fashion pig crumb as a heat source! Although the polytunnel is quite warm it still doesn't achieve temperatures around the clock to ensure germination is successful and I would run the risk of perhaps having seeds germinate only to be cut down by the colder temperatures at night. I really do want to start off sowing seeds early to get a good start and hopefully carry on all throughout the year if possible.
Unlike most years I have sat down and planned how to do this and a large part of the plan being successful is to make sure that crops are sown and planted with the next crops being taken into account. I am planning to make good use of the polytunnel over the winter months and shall sow the winter crops to coincide with the summer crops being lifted, having hopefully provided good crops. Well that's the plan anyway!
I plan to start sowing seeds in the propagator mid March and further details of its construction can be found in the article pages here.
Bonnie and her piglets continue to do well and we are hoping to sell some on in March once weaned, as we really do need to let our paddocks rest for most of the summer in readiness for litters later in the year. Regarding litters these are probably the last of the crossbreed pigs we shall have as we will only have pedigree Large Black pigs from now on. I can however recommend Tamworth meat as a good all round meat product, just that the temperament in our experience has seen the pigs to be much more nervy and flighty than the Large Blacks. Just a case of personal choice I think.
On a more serious note I guess I should discuss AI or bird flu as is it's more popular media name. Mid February really did seem to me anyway to be a time when the issues surrounding bird flu hit fever pitch. On the little TV I watch the hysteria was at times very worrying and I would be lying if I didn't say I thought drastic rules would be implemented at that time. However at the present time things seem to have calmed down a little. Nothing like political scandals to push news items down the media pecking order! In reality I think I would be a fool to ignore what has happened and what could happen although that doesn't mean I agree with the scare stories and gossip mongering that has been regularly spouted.
At times I have been really angered by comments and reports by folk who appear so distant from the actual practicalities of living with the threat of bird flu on a day-to-day basis. The issues are something, which could have a dramatic affect on our lives to the point where it could affect our very way of life.
Like most country folk we have hens, ducks and geese and the main response to any outbreak appears to be to confine them in areas where they would have no contact with wild birds. Our birds being free range all their lives I think this action would be quite cruel on several counts. Yes the lack of freedom to go about their business would be bad enough, but what worries me is that the impression seems to be lock them up and everything will be fine. Well sorry I don't agree with this. I should say I have no problem at all with folk who make a choice to have their birds in enclosed runs if this is the way they wish to keep them, but I do feel that the likely hood of ailments occurring and with more regularity and spreading quickly cannot be denied.
Without a doubt pecking orders exist in most animal groups and having space to run away if needed is one of the plus points of free ranging. Having all the birds together with limited room well I think would prove very painful for some, as feather pecking or bullying is something I would think would be common.
Pigs as well have been linked to being susceptible and I have heard that unofficially people who have asked have been told that they would be better off indoors again segregated from the wild bird population. Better still a case has been reported of a cat that had died from eating an infected bird. It really does make me wonder where it will all end?
The threat of course could impact on my new career after all, no birds = no work= no money. I have had to be very realistic about the whole situation and have decided to work on a bank work basis for my old employers just incase the worst case scenario happens. Perhaps my nursing career hasn't finished after all.
So at the moment I find myself in a little nightmare scenario. Juggling two demanding jobs to make sure that whatever happens I should be financially secure, whilst at the same time trying to keep on top of the jobs around our place. Realistically if the threat remains with no restrictions imposed by the government then I shall have to continue like this until July/ August time when the pheasants and partridges should be free of the pens and classed as wild.
Any restrictions imposed before June and I am probably back to my nursing career which although not ideal would at least mean financial security. Bookings for shooting days are around half full for the forthcoming season which I am led to believe is normal and the work I am doing at the moment is all preparation work so my new employers are at least being positive about the situation I just hope that I can last the distance.

More risky business

I guess it could be said that we are well and truly into 2006. The festive season is but a distant memory and as usual work carries on.
Since writing mid January Bonnie did produce her second litter of Large Black Tamworth cross piglets. Three boars and three gilts. As seems usual with her it was textbook again although this time due to the time of farrowing around 6pm and the atrocious weather we shut the door and left her in peace. Checking in a few times to make sure everything was fine I discovered the placenta passed around 9pm. Although initially only seeing 5 we found that six had actually been born when we went to see the proud mum next morning.
Bonnie has again taken to motherhood well and all 6 are thriving to the point that at less than two weeks old they are trying to steal Bonnie's rolls at feeding time. We had hoped for a small litter as we have found that our paddock system really cannot support large numbers of pigs. Combined with my solution to boggy areas of throwing straw onto the affected areas this just added to the problem resulting in around 2 full weeks of work trying to remove all the wet straw from the living areas.
From springtime we will house Bonnie, Lady our new gilt and Malcolm our boar in an acre field and use the paddocks we have been using purely for the litters to grow in. This should give us plenty of room to rotate as and when required because the other important factor we have found is that the Large Black breed does grow what seems a great deal slower than the Tamworth breed. At times the two remaining Tamworth gilts look about twice the size of the Large Black gilts even though they were born within a week of each other, so even the negative affect of winter months on their growing rate can be put aside and more of a breed issue seems to be the case.
We don't mind this though as we have never been to strict on when the time is right to send them to the abattoir rather we judge by what the condition of the pigs are at the time and what is happening in our lives. We would much rather that they grow slowly and produce good quality pork rather than trying to force them to a weight quicker and eating joints of fat.
The ram has been returned after his holiday with our six ewes and hopefully we should have some new arrivals during May and June. We are planning to keep another two ewe lambs and probably use two of our ewes as mutton having recently been very impressed with the quality of meat from one of our older ewes. Ram lambs hopefully will be born and again be reared for the freezer along with any remaining ewe lambs.
I have thought about selling our lambs but to be honest I would rather that they were in the freezer for our own use as we as a family eat a very large proportion of meat products in our diet. To the point where even if we were lucky enough to have six excess lambs we would quite easily consume those over a year period as well as the pork, mutton and poultry. The thought of having to buy this kind of meat from elsewhere is just something I don't want to contemplate.
I think I should hang my head in shame for forgetting to mention Coco our new Jack Russell pup. We bought her from a gamekeeper before Christmas as a present for Amber our daughter. Amber has always asked for a small dog as she is on the petite side herself and can at times be overwhelmed by large dogs. I remember the first time she opened Dipsticks kitchen door to be confronted by Henry who is some size! Needless to say she closed the door pretty quickly.
Coco has settled into life here very quickly and from the first night has slept with Sassy and Flossy our other two dogs. To see them playing is a real treat and Coco gives as much back as she takes and has even taken to the taste of game birds I have finished breasting. If she would just stop piddling in the kitchen all would be bliss but being only 3 months at the moment there is still a lot of time to go and with the longer days coming more of her time will be spent outside anyway.
Work here has been just as busy as ever. Have nearly finished digging over the area in the polytunnel and I have also managed to move plenty of pig manure onto the out door beds. Our seeds have arrived and the seeds allocated in a plan. Must keep reminding myself sow small amounts and often. Watering or lack of was a problem last year and the year before so work has started on the water trickling system. I will leave this until later as I will write an article in the hope it is of use to others.
Finally to the new job. Beating season has finished now and what glorious weather we have had. Warm days up to a staggering 5 degrees and little wind to talk of. The keeper's days saw the departure of new and old friends for a few months anyway. Now it's time for the serious stuff!
I start my new game-keeping job next Monday and I would be lying if I said I was not apprehensive about this change. Nursing has meant I have really had a steady income and a secure job for many years but the challenges I found have gradually lessened to the point that I just don't feel any enthusiasm towards nursing anymore. My manager did however express a very good point in that by changing jobs now it may give me a good rest from the profession to evaluate how much it actually means to me.
For the new job I am going down the self-employed route, which is something I have no experience of and to be honest web site information leaves a lot to be desired. However I must admit that talking over the phone to people in the relevant Government departments has eased the financial worries I had. Never the less it remains to be seen whether this risk will work out in the long term.
Many rumours fly around the various countryside groups of shooting being banned, the current avian flu problems, which to many folk would make this career change, seem like lunacy. All I can say is that the opportunity to live and work in the countryside is just too much of a draw, just as smallholding meant we left a very good city lifestyle behind us over two years ago. We haven't looked back since moving and I hope I can say the same about game keeping in the future. I do though take a little reassurance from the fact that I could get a nursing job pretty quickly if the worst scenario did materialise.
Well I think that will do for January and I get the feeling that even though the last few months have been busy this is only the start. I just hope we can fit everything in!

Water on the brain

It is only the 16th day of 2006 and so much has happened already that I really should write an entry now otherwise leaving it later would probably mean writing a book. I left the last diary entry talking about my nursing career and how it had really started to get me down. Since that time I have been offered the post, as under keeper at our local estate and at this point in my life it is not a position I had to think about too much before accepting.
The job will include rearing the pheasants for the shooting season and looking after some of the duck ponds, which from June is really going to take up a lot of time. Very early starts and late finishes will be the norm, but having joined the beating team in 2004 I just feel that it is the kind of job that will only add to our quality of life. To have hundreds of acres of woodland and fields as the office is really something I could only dream of when I first came to live here. I am sure that I will have lots to say on this topic over the coming months but for now shall try not to bore folks with my excitement.
The ram arrived in December and is just about to be returning to his home, however we have had a few of the ewes suffering from what is locally known as pink eye. Cloudiness across the eye and weeping caused by a bacteria that apparently lives in hay bales are the main symptoms and once one has the condition the rest tend to follow suit very quickly. We have tried to contain the condition with eye ointment but to no avail. Although the treatment seems at times to make the symptoms better it just doesn't seem to want to clear up totally. So after taking advice from our vet we shall be having a visit whereby they will all have an injection into the lower eyelid, which should clear all cases and prevent the others from contracting the symptoms. Apparently it is a common ailment and hard to stop spreading as before the cloudiness is noted the bacteria has been passed on to the other sheep who all go head first into the bales.
The good news with the sheep is that all seem to have had a liaison with the ram so hopefully end of May early June should see some more lambs being born. Having spent a good deal of time with the sheep at this time I have been really impressed with the condition of their nails and having a good look yesterday expecting to be trimming a fair bit I was pleasantly surprised to find little needed to be taken off, and that should hopefully be them until after lambing.
At the start of the winter I made a big mistake, which has meant a lot of backbreaking work over the last few days. Our intention is that in the spring time we will move our adult pigs into a 1 acre field to live permanently unless farrowing when they will come to the paddocks nearer the house. However the paddocks became quite waterlogged and to remedy this I started to put straw in, which did seem to make a big difference for a week or so then the problem started to come back again so in went more straw. Thankfully the winter so far has not been that bad as far as rainfall so the straw has kept the paddocks in reasonable condition. The problem now is that all that straw needs to be lifted out as it creates a blanket which water finds hard to pass through and run off. Up to now I am about 2/3rds the way through removing the straw and moving the pigs around to better land but without any tractors or earthmovers this is being done by good old-fashioned wheelbarrow. A vehicle couldn't really do much due to the layout and the trees around the place and it does mean that the flowerbeds are getting a good dose of fertiliser and being mulched at the same time. Just hoping I have enough for the vegetable patch and poly tunnel.
We have taken delivery of our young apple trees along with a young plum tree, which are recommended for this area and the weather conditions and now they are planted we should hopefully get a crop in summer 2007. We have also just ordered our seeds for this year and hope that this year is the year when it all comes together on the vegetable front.
The main problem from the previous 2 years has been the time limitations to actually water as much as we should and consequently plants have withered and never returned to produce healthy crops but this year we have a sneaky plan to sort this. The idea of a large trickle watering system is something which has been gathering pace recently and this culminated in the purchase of 7 second hand cold water tanks which thanks to advice on ACL will be perched on a raised structure and feature 7 hose pipes leading onto the vegetable area which should mean that we can just turn a few taps to water the whole of the garden at once rather than spend hours trying to water them by hand. We are going to be building a collection system using our house roof and the barn roof to fill the 1500 litre capacity of the water reservoir with rainwater. The beauty of the system is that if we find we can collect more water then we can add to the reservoir of water. This will form the basis of another article, which should be set up before the end of February just in time for the snow!
We shall also be trying to use a smaller roof on the house to collect rainwater to provide the water for flushing the toilet again another project, which shall be used to write another article soon. Do I seem to have water on the brain at the moment?
Lastly we are awaiting the arrival of Bonnie's second litter, which is due on Thursday 19th January, but pigs being pigs they will come when they want to for now Bonnie appears to be in milk and is coping with pregnancy well. In some respects I am hoping that this will be a small litter as the breed does tend to grow very slowly and the last litter are not really at porker weight yet so space is pretty limited although by the time they are weaned and ready for the dreaded separation from mum the others should be ready to go. They are Large Black, Tamworth crosses so I am hoping that they will have the bacon qualities of Tamworth's and the roasting qualities of Large Blacks whatever the outcome I have no doubt that they will taste fantastic.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

A glimpse to the future

In writing the last entry for 2005 I could retell of the highs and lows we experienced throughout the year but I think now is a time for looking ahead to the forthcoming year. True so much happened last year and the experiences were never dull and seemed to be non-stop after a mostly uneventful February. What I do know is that the experiences where a great deal more intense in that the good times were amazingly good and the bad times were just that.
Overall a mixture but the time seems to be well and truly gone now where days just seem to blend into one with the same routine happenings of a 9-5 existence with bills to be paid being the priorities in life. That's not to say that we have forgotten what happened and the enormous amount of lessons we learned along the way. Strange how you often learn more from the bad times but equally the good times re-enforce that what you are doing suits you.
9 days into 2006 and plans are already being drawn up for the year ahead. A lot of building work to carry out on projects that we have thought about for a while now. So many that I am beginning to think that they may not all be completed this year, but will mean that at no point will I ever be bored or looking for something to do.
Several small extensions on the house should provide us with a small area to use as a utility room rather than our main entrance being the place where wellie boots are just kicked off still covered in mud. They do however provide an exciting obstacle course when you need to reach the bathroom! This should also help with a little more draught proofing as each winter produces what seems like howling gales coming through the old wooden door, not to mention the rain seeping in if the wind blows it in the wrong direction.
Out back hopefully a small conservatory area to benefit from the hours of searing sunshine we have each summer time! Seriously it will give more room to enjoy the views across the countryside and help to heat those old stonewalls. I hope to incorporate a solar water heating system into the fabric of the extension to provide hot water instead of needing to light up the Rayburn as it seems to go non-stop over winter and deserves a little holiday of it's own.
More piglets may be arriving soon and we will most likely end 2006 with 3 litters in total, 2 of which should be pedigree Large Black pigs. Although we have found them to be of a temperament that suits us over the Tamworth's they do seem to grow at a slower pace, although the Tamworth and Tamworth large Black crosses we have at the moment are being reared over the winter months, which we know will extend the growing time by around 3 months to a good porker size.
What seems to be true though is that no matter how long they take to grow the resulting produce is much appreciated by those who have tried them. To the extent that I cannot keep up with demand. But we remain firm in the view that the main objective is for ourselves to have the best quality pork we can achieve.
At the present time the ram is with the ewes and has turned their bums red, which should hopefully convert to some beautiful Suffolk lambs in May and June. We are very fortunate in that again the priority is our own consumption and the creation of our own home born flock. We have kept 2 ewe lambs from last year and shall hopefully add to them this year maybe even achieving the six that would in two years time complete our own home born flock. The ewes we are using at the present time are now 3 year old so may either be sold on or used to produce good quality mutton.
Last year we enjoyed the mutton produced from one of the flock and in some respects I personally found it superior to that of lamb meat. It does seem a shame that it is not something widely available to folk to enjoy but I would imagine that financially it would be a non-starter in a commercial setting. The ram lambs we had from last year are just about ready to be finished and should produce a nice carcass again. I think some folk will be wondering why we have kept them until now but we have had a great deal of varied meat products and still do in the freezer so there really was no point in finishing them earlier, rather let them put a little more weight on. Apart from needing housed separately from the ewes they have not really caused any problems at all as the cost implications of hay are not something we care to worry about.
Our poultry stocks for this year are at a level were we should have a healthy supply of chicken meat from summer onwards whilst eggs will hopefully seem like a never-ending supply. I may even look at selling regularly as even living rurally there always seems to be a demand.
We currently have a pair of luvie duvie pekin ducks who will take a while to produce anywhere near the produce expected from the chickens but we are happy to give them time to see how they perform over the year. After all it's not like we are desperate of eggs! The Embden cross geese as well remain tight lipped about what sex they are. I did buy them on the pretext that it was a trio but again time will tell and they should at least be coming into lay sometime next month. Hopefully no 3 goose egg days or else!
After last years disasters with the polytunnel I can now say with a little more confidence that it is there to stay as we have had a few gales over the last couple of months and it still remains quite tightly wrapped around the frame. This is one area for 2006 that I really need to invest time as most of my merge efforts have resulted in pretty poor crops. So this year shall hopefully be known as our year for veggies! We have started scanning different books and articles to hopefully have an organised system producing vegetables all year round. Nothing fancy just vegetables that we know we like and use a lot of, and the last bit on veggie growing for now not to plant a whole crop at once rather a little and often. The amount of cabbage for example that has been left for the pigs or composting has been disappointing.
Lastly and in some ways maybe a little premature, but being as excited as I am I shall include it here. I am hopefully within the next few days going to undertake a major career change from the part time nursing job, which, has over the last near 20 years provided me well and without which I could not be where I am today. That said and without sounding too depressing about health care in this country I am in the position now where I just can't take any more of the situation where money comes above standards of care. Too much beaurocracy, and too many pen pushers are not new concepts to most folk, the difference for me which stems from a good few years is that I feel it affects actual hands on care in an ever increasing way. Rest assured that many, many caring folk work their hardest to do their best, but my shackles are just getting too heavy to make a difference anymore and so it's time to jump ship and move to pastures new.
I shall end by wishing you all a hopefully fruitful 2006, jam packed with those good times and remember you only get one shot so make the most of it.

November 2005 nearly there now

November as usual proved to be a very busy month but rather than issues to do with the animals the issues centred around the hub of the house the kitchen. After nearly two years of Debbie trying and trying to make the concrete floor look half decent action was finally taken. A concrete floor has always been practical for our family what with kids Wellingtons and dogs footprints an expensive carpet or laminate flooring would be a case of throwing good money after bad. I have seen a few examples of how to make the concrete look better but painting over I think would just leave the problem for another day. No we needed something more lasting done once and that is it for year's, decades, no forever, if that is possible.
During the summer I used black slate tiles to address the concrete floor in the bathroom and the result was better than I expected and even the splashing from the kids in the bath and little boys doing what little boys do at the toilet meant a quick mop sorted the floor back to a really nice finish. So after trying a few stores Debbie made a decision to have natural slate tiles laid down in our main entrance (The Boot Room) and straight through to the kitchen.
Some of you will have seen me mention I had a little tiling to do but you probably didn't pick up on the pure frustration and utter desperation at some points of getting the job done. Not so much the actual tiling but the fact that our kitchen really is the hub of the house, which is, occupied almost 24/7 with different activities which all had to be accommodated when tiling. Not least that the tiling adhesive needs to dry and the sealer solution (2 coats) and polish (2 coats) all needed to be left from 3 hours up over to produce the result that is now much better than I imagined it would be if I do say so myself.
The result should also mean that that is it sorted for decades I hope. I certainly have no intention of doing anything else to it and if anyone dares to ask for my help with tiling well I am sure you can imagine the response so resist the temptation!
The last two months although physically hard have given me a great deal of time to think about things and I think it is slowing dawning on me that after nearly two years the actual set up of our home and land may be very much sorted to provide us with what we yearned for when we first came to Aberdeenshire.
We have made few changes to the actual house except for cosmetic touches and it works well for us. The only thing I suppose could be made better is the heating system which to be honest is none existent. That may sound strange bearing in mind we live where the winters are supposed to be artic like but for our needs the Rayburn cooker means we don't suffer a great deal! It provides the warmth for the kitchen in which we generally spend around 90% of our time in during the daytime throughout the year. It is also set up to provide all our hot water needs which it does too efficiently at times. The kids bedrooms are directly above the kitchen which is basically beams and floorboards so heats them fine just our bedroom where we could do with better heating this just means I've got an excuse for a cuddle though!!
The animals are pretty much sorted now although we have a distinct lack of eggs at the moment. We started with 6 hens 2 years ago and still have those but they are either just passed the moult or are just finishing motherhood duties. During the summer we did however hatch quite a few eggs of our two breeds and enjoyed our first chicken a few weeks back. Very tasty which is good news for the Light Sussex, yet to try the New Hampshire cockerels as they were the second and third batch but should be ready soon. So we know we have good meat birds but it would be nice if the point of lay young birds would start producing a few eggs there are after all in total around 40 young hens for egg laying. To be honest it is partly my fault, as I know that if I could get a light on in the henhouse to extend their day this would probably result in a good supply of eggs. Although pretty easy to do it's still a case of time, which by the time I get an opportunity to do this it will be spring and we will have an egg mountain not unlike the food mountain excesses we hear of.
Game birds are plentiful and hopefully at the end of the season I should be able to arrange for a great deal of duck, pheasant, and partridge meat for the freezer to supply us over the summer to the start of the next shooting season.
We have what we believe is the right amount of sheep for our purposes. 6 ewes and 2 ewe lambs for breeding. We are hoping to keep a few ewe lambs each year to eventually have our own reared flock of Suffolk's which still have not lost their appeal that is except for the ram lambs who seem to be getting to the age that they feel they can take on all comers. The breeding ram is due to be coming for his holidays within the next few weeks so I think that out of the 4 ram lambs the 2 biggest are going to have to go to the freezer leaving 'Little Fella' with a playmate for a few extra months.
As our orphan lamb 'Little fella' really has struggled to put weight on and I can see why so many are advertised for sale in the early months of the year as from this experience our orphan lamb really has struggled to keep up with his cousins maybe he knows something they don't. It does give us the slight headache of having to keep him separated from the ewes passed the point at which we expected all the rams to be in the freezer. The future will take the form of keeping most of the ram lambs for our own use perhaps selling a few, keeping a few ewe lambs to bring in new breeding stock and finally for the older ewes to provide mutton as our recent addition of mutton to the menu was a pleasant surprise in how good it tastes.
Lastly the pigs. Having had a baptism of fire over the last two years we have decided to carry on breeding pedigree Large Black pigs. Primarily based on Bonnie our original Large Black whose temperament has been superb as has her rearing skills. She has taken to our other gilt Lady and new boar Malcolm who as well are pedigree Large Blacks well not too large at the moment but by next spring summer time will be part of a breeding trio. Lady is very much like Bonnie and seems to enjoy the contact from us, Malcolm as well seems quite at home and together they should mean pork is readily available all year round.
Fruit and veg production I think is something I am going to have to work at and probably score a 'could do better' for this year. One of the lessons I have learned thought is that you can over plant things, which I found to my cost. This meant a few crops all matured at once leaving the impossible task of trying to use them in a very short period of time. Staggered planting I think is a key word for next year as is no overstocking. Believe it or not I managed to use half of a 60ft polytunnel to grow only pumpkins, and squash the later didn't even produce one fruit! I have managed to have a good think about what to grow and how to organise the crops next year so we shall just have to wait and see if I've learned from my mistakes.

Revisiting an old friend

Don't know if you know but before we moved here its fair to say I was a bit of a workaholic. I spent most of my time at work when in many instances I didn't really need to be just that I was very proud of what I achieved even though this put my family and social life down at the bottom of the list which I know isn't anything to be proud of but I suppose anyone that knows me knows that if I do something I do it 100% and no less. Well it was bound to happen sooner or later and last month just happened to be it, for one reason or another I found myself during most of October working full-time hours when for the past 2 years I have worked 2 days a week.
So what! I am sure some folk will say but bearing in mind all the work that needs carried out routinely each day then the work that seems to need sorted desperately then I am sure you get the picture as to how I felt.
One thing I did confirm to myself is that I truly believe the powers that be put a whole list of obstacles in our way to make us live the 9-5 exsistence, the powers that be will label this a 'productive person's' way of life. Wonder what that makes me! I suppose philosophically I have revisited an old friend and didn't like what I found and if nothing else it did remind me how lucky we are to be here.
On the smallholding front we have had the good fortune to have been offered the use of our neighbours field next door, around 3 acres of what would be described as unsprayed, organic pastureland in a property's details. In reality it is a jungle of thistles, docks, and ragwort. A prime example of what happens to land that is not well cared for so beware when you see this kind of land advertised.
Over the last week I have spent a full two days cutting the whole area twice with a flail mower to get the jungle chopped back. On inspection there is a good base of pasture although I think over the next few years we have a lot of work ahead to get the weeds under control. Fencing still isn't complete a full day was spent pounding in 85 posts no easy way to do this other than just get on with it. Today I have finished stapling the 5 strands of barb along one side and hopefully tomorrow shall complete the other side. The other two sides are already fenced thank goodness!
For this year we shall just use the extra land for the ewes we have now and see how it goes when the lambs arrive in May time before making any decision about the amount of ewes we shall be keeping. We were quite lucky this year as those ewes that lambed all had twins equal numbers of rams and ewes. We have kept two ewe lambs to start our very own flock and should in around 4 years have our own home bred flock of ewes keeping a few each year to maintain a good mix of young and old ewes for breeding. This year we shall be keeping all the rams for the freezer even though we can get around £50 each for them at the abattoir. The lure of the lolly just doesn't have the same appeal once you have tasted your own meat products!

August 2005 (winters around the corner!)

Sunday miracle

After the scares of the previous month August proved to be quite an anti climax. Well tell a lie we did have one emergency situation when the kids brought in an egg that was hatching but mum was nowhere to be seen and Dr Riddell had to perform a poultry version of a caesarean under strict guidance from the kids. It all ended happily with the chick eventually being sneaked back into the nest when mum was out feeding on corn.
(More can be read here )
We had several groups of visitors staying with us which although great in that everyone loves to feed the animals leaving me to carry on with jobs. It does get to the point eventually when you think can't wait to have the place back to ourselves. Not in a nasty kind of way as it is always great to meet up with family, but values and principles are different and can create a lot of work in trying to keep everyone happy because of the different lifestyles we lead and what might be right for you isn't necessarily the case for others.
Strange as it may seem but although we are thinking about next year in a broad sense, we are at the time of year were we seriously have to think about winter and start to get prepared now. Having survived 2 winters now we get the idea of roughly what is in store and there is nothing worse than not having a nice cosy refuge from the worst that the winter weather no doubt will bring. Generally the house is ok yes it could do with a lick of paint but generally everything is fine except for the bathroom and the flooring.
We bought the house knowing it had a shower and no bath, fine we thought showers are refreshing and you use less water. We soon realised however that we had an endless supply of hot water that could ease our aching bones, produced from the stove where as the shower was expensive as it ran on electric. Also it was a big cumbersome affair making the bathroom dark and small. Not very inviting on a winters morning! So late in August after many requests out came the shower and in went the new bathroom suite complete with bath of course. The whole room is transformed now much lighter and bigger and the kids love the bath although I have kept the shower fitted as an option. Much more inviting and if all kids are like ours it can be a chore to get them to get washed whereas now they seem eager to get in the bath. Slate tiles have replaced the sticky tile things, which never worked well anyway so all in all everyone is happy. Kids have a large bath and Debbie has a grand looking bathroom. Me hopefully I will get over the nightmares I have had with the plumbing, tiling and painting!
The problem with the flooring is that our main door leads into what we call the boot room which in turn leads to the bathroom on one side and the kitchen at the other. Through the years the concrete flooring which goes throughout has had a channel worn out of it, which conveniently allows rain, which hits the main door to trickle through the boot room and into the kitchen meaning over winter we can wake up to what seems like a stream in the kitchen leading into the boot room and outside. Having persevered with this the last two years with constant mopping I am hoping that during September that I can carry on the slate tiling from the bathroom through the boot room and into the kitchen which should solve the problem with a few modifications to the main door way.
To be honest the concrete floor has been very practical with muddy boots and the effect of 3 messy kids but it looks really untidy and scruffy which I know gets Debbie down. Its not that we are posh or think we are above anyone just that we can make it look a heck of a lot better for our selves. Watching Debbie try to mop the floor and having little impact makes me realise that just because we live in the middle of nowhere doesn't mean that a women gives up her feminine ways, infact it is probably more important to make sure they are attended to as we all like to feel good about ourselves.
Back to August! One of the orphan boars went to the abattoir Jake I am reliably informed was his name. He came back a whole 50kgs which I don't mind admitting impressed me for a 6 month old lad. I had come to the conclusion that the commonly accepted ages for porkers and baconers 6 and 9 months needs to be extended by about 2 months for ourselves due to traditional breeds, not being intensively fed etc but maybe not, only time will tell! Mind you the noise that Bonnies 9 piglets make at feed times I don't think they will reach 6 month never mind any later. Boy do they squeal I often think that their squealing would make, no does make such an efficient method of torture guess they just take after their dad Baldrick.
Anyway Jake went and Elwood is staying to breed with Bonnie later in the year perhaps putting the two together in Novemeber for piglets maybe early spring. By that time they will be the only two we have left apart from a new Large Black gilt who will be bought early next year to keep Elwood happy!
The sheep are pretty much sorted also in that of the original 7 ewes we had three are going as mutton to our freezer perhaps next month along with 3 of the ram lambs leaving Little Fella our youngest to later in the year as being bottle fed he has a little catching up to do. That will sort all the ram lambs leaving 5 ewe lambs 2 of which I have been told are being sold to our friends or maybe that is 3 shall wait for the orders to deliver who and when! That should mean that we have our 4 proven ewes to breed from again with 2 ewe lambs for next years breeding. That should also ensure that we have enough pasture for them to feed with no problem over the winter along with hay of course.
As far as the veggies go swings and roundabouts are the order of the day! We have loads of brassicas to ensure that we can have Sunday dinners several times a week no problem and plenty more growing away. I do think that perhaps come January we will be struggling but it has given an idea of what quantities I should be planting. The polytunnel for everything that went into setting it up both financial and hard work was I suppose a disaster in the amount of produce but valuable in the lessons learned.
Those who growing pumpkins and squash and melons will realise just how much they grow and totally overtake everything well it ended up at least ¾ of the polytunnel was devoured by massive leaves and not much fruit. Of the ¼ left the bean crops failed to germinate to give a decent crop, the mice managed to eat most of the sweet corn whilst we played hosts and as per usual the tomatoes suffered from me not watering them enough. As they say there is always next year though and plenty of lessons to put into practice and there are at least brassicas in there using the space up until we start again in February?
Next month really is an important month in preparing for the winter none more so in making sure that the house is sorted and the animals arrive at their final destination for winter, then I may be able to put on my slippers and enjoy some R&R in front of the wood burner waiting for the new year to bring its new challenges