Thursday, 18 August 2016

Mike's Hands

Mike and I celebrated his 52nd birthday this week. The celebrations were low-key; after all the animals were tended to, we threw a few logs on the outdoor fire and drank a bottle of champagne, a kind gift from Mike's employers. We discussed rams going to market, pheasants yet to be delivered to other shoots, ageing dogs, and that day's deer sightings. You know, the usual birthday banter.

It was a warm evening, and Mike had his sleeves rolled up. Looking at his hands and arms he sighed sadly. Mike is very self-conscious of the scars and grafts that crisscross his arms. I took a picture of them -

His fingers don't bend, and the webbing between them tears. He's always banging his knuckles and making them bleed, but he can't feel it. Sometimes his hands swell from lymphoedema and I rub them to try and disperse the swelling. Mike can only straighten his elbows as much as you see in the picture because the muscle is damaged from the burns.

And he can only rotate his arms this much. His pinky joints are hooked because the tendons tightened irreversibly. The skin on his hands is always dry and dirt stays in the creases of his palms.

It was a big step for him to let me photograph his hands.

Mike hates when people tell him he's brave. He says there's nothing brave about having an accident, and he wouldn't do it again - not even for charity. I tell him he's brave for how he's dealt with life after the accident. And that he's still a big pain in my ass, so he's not all that different from before the accident, scars or no. 

Eight years ago his doctors sat me down in a private room and told me he wasn't going to live. Now we're celebrating his 52nd birthday. Bravery, blind luck, or determination? Maybe some of each. 

Here's to your 53rd birthday and beyond.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Loosey Gooseys

The orphaned Canada Goose goslings have all grown up. We started with one gosling, but quickly acquired three more, all siblings from the same pair of Geese. Perhaps the geese were a young pair who hadn't quite grasped the responsibilities of parenthood yet. Responsibility no. 1 - Don't let strangers walk off with your kids.

Anyway, the goslings have survived, mostly intact. I say mostly because Ian put the goslings in an A-frame pen on the grass. The pen was tight as they grew and didn't allow the geese much space to stretch their wings. The wingtips of two geese didn't muscle properly so at the moment they can't fly. I checked the bones are fine, and turned the wingtips to fold in correctly. Over time, the muscles should develop and they will be able to fly.

It was time to release the geese into the wild to fend for themselves. Sort of. Semi-wild. I chose a secluded pond just below the goat house. The geese will be far enough away from the main ponds not to be shot at, and I can feed them every day after milking the goats.

We put a dog crate in the back of the ATV and loaded the geese for their short journey.

We carried them from the crate straight to the pond. By evening their natural instincts kicked in enough that they avoided me. When I checked on them, they all made for the reed cover, and hunkered down until I left. They eat the food I leave for them, but have made it clear they are wild geese now, and want none of the fuss we give livestock.

Oh, except the daily feeds. That's cool with them..

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Wildlife and Wild Boys

After nine weeks without a home internet connection, we are finally back on-line. Via satellite. It was our only option as we're too rural to reach any broadband connections. I've just finished a two hour cyber-binge, looking up all those random questions that come to me during the day. Nine weeks' worth. I now know what the Dover devil is, a good recipe for soap, current market prices for lambs, and who played Mrs Kotter in the 1970's show Welcome Back Kotter. (183.4p avg and Marcia Strassman respectively). Some of the answers are more vital than others, I give you that.

By looking at online photos of birds and birds' eggs, I also confirmed that a spotted flycatcher has hatched a brood of chicks in a tree hollow in our orchard.

It's at eye level so I can peek inside when the mother is out, presumably looking for flies to catch. Two of the three eggs hatched a few days ago-

The chicks are only the size of my thumbnail, 

This apple tree happens to be one of the trees that holds up my washing line -

While the flycatcher family has been in residence, I've been drying our laundry in the dryer or on an airer in the sun room, to keep from disturbing mother flycatcher.

The wood stove door remains open too. We still have at least a bird a day coming down the chimney, both fledglings and adults. It's school holidays so maybe the sparrows - it's always sparrows - treat it as a fun slide. Their activities are dislodging lots of creosote build-up in the flue. At this rate, they will have swept my chimney clean by winter.

The farm animals, on the other hand, are testing my patience. I split the ram lambs from the ewes and ewe lambs now. I only hope it was soon enough and there are no surprise babies in the dead of winter. (I'm already 1-nil with goats and surprise babies.). I normally castrate the male lambs at birth and, as I watched a youngster sniff and court an old ewe, I tried hard to remember why I decided not to cut them this year. Something about growing faster, less fat I think. An experiment.

So what happens when you separate pubescent ram lambs from their mothers, and put them in a field on their own, unsupervised by sensible old ewes? Imagine a playground full of 13 year olds with no adults around. Oh, and add a weak fence to that scenario, and "cool stuff" the other side.

Every damn morning those boys are the wrong side, in the neighbours' field, hanging out with horses (aka the bigger boys). The neighbours are great about it, and say there is plenty of grass to go around. I'm horrified and drive the delinquents back to their own paddock with my crook and some harsh words. You can see for yourself how many ways I've patched the fence -

Hurdles, cable ties, baling twine, logs, and an old hay rack wired into the fence. And while I'm patching the day's new hole and cursing like a drunk sailor, this is what I see -

They are just waiting for me to leave so they can start testing the fence for the weak spots, and push back through to the neighbours and the horses. Delinquents and recidivists. 

I'm moving them tonight to a field with a good fence. I will get in touch with the estate as they are responsible for fencing, and ask them to renew the boundary fence. The new field also has really good grass, so these boys can fatten up and go off to market. Ram lambs are too vexing with their testicles left on!

Pumpkin the wether (front) and horned ram lamb born January, to stay as my breeding tup. 
Both are good sensible boys. 

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Got Milk? Heck, yes!

We’ve had our Great British Summer – sunshine and 80F for three days in a row – and most of the young pheasants are in their pens in the woods enjoying it too.  Fledglings in the garden find new and interesting ways to put themselves in danger while learning to fly. I’ve re-nested (is that a thing?) a few blackbirds from the ground before the dogs found them and ate them.  

Four sparrows fell down the chimney over the past few days, so I’ve taken to leaving the wood stove door open. When I find them flap-hopping over the furniture, I just pop them out an open window. The morning bird song is still tremendous, so I guess the song bird population is doing pretty well this year despite all that.

We’re filling our freezers for the coming shoot season. Underkeeper Ian shot a muntjac deer trying to break out of a pheasant pen. The estate has let us keep the deer for our freezer (and beaters’ lunches). I put a goat in the freezer too – the female half boer goatling that came with my milkers. We’d sold her, but she came back to live with us. She wouldn’t gentle or tolerate being handled by humans, so she became meat.

With that one exception, our goats are a pleasure to handle and nearly as companionable as the dogs. The two does are giving milk, though I’ve left the kids on their mother. I only milk her out, about a pint, to relieve any pressure or balance up her udders. Kids and lambs both seem to favour one teat and a doe / ewe ends up full on one side, milked on the other. This can lead to mastitis, and certainly it’s less than comfortable for the mother. I swear you can see the sense of relief on a goat’s face when you milk out a full side, then rub teat cream on to soften the skin.  I brush them both after milking too. It’s an outdoor goat beauty parlour.

I enjoy the milking process but, with age and wear, my elbow and wrist joints hurt. Milking by hand every day doesn't give my joints any time to heal. I looked online for small portable milking machines but the only options I could find were a) still reliant on using one’s hand to pump or b) upwards of £1000 to buy. No kidding. (Excuse the pun.)

I started searching for a design that I could build myself. Preferably on the cheap.  Preferably something that runs on batteries as there’s no electricity in the goat paddock. And portable. But still cheap. I mentioned that, right?

I found Sherri Chekal at Windhaven Farm, a milking mastermind who designed just the thing by re-working a food saver pump. Sherri offers step-by-step instructions on her website to build your own portable goat milker. I was so thrilled to find her design and emailed her to thank her, and to point out her genius. Sherri's gracious response was "Aw shucks".

All I needed to buy was a syringe, some food-grade tubing, the largest Kilner jar I could find, and the Food Saver pump.  I scavenged pipe joiners from parts we use to build water systems for pheasant pens and sealed them in place with silicon. I was so excited to test drive my new milker that I didn’t even change out of my pyjamas that morning to milk the goats. Wellies on, and I was ready.


It worked!!

I milked the goats and saved my old joints. The goats didn’t mind the pump milker either. When I'm done milking, I bring the food saver pump home and plug it into a kitchen socket to recharge, ready for the following morning. Total cost? Less than £40!

At the moment, a litre of my fresh goat milk is being taxed every day by this little ewe –

She’s one of the twins born to the ewe with mastitis / tumors. That ewe had enough milk to feed one of the twins, but not both. I bottle fed the smaller lamb but left her to grow up with her mom in the flock.. The lamb knows that my milking time is her breakfast time, and she chases the Land Rover shouting for her share. Once she’s finished, she runs back to be with her mother and brother, so it’s the best of both worlds for her.

The goats have provided us meat, milk, cheese, a sense of achievement (building my own milker) and entertainment value. I provide them with the best husbandry I can, and occasionally with their favourite treats: nachos. They also like asparagus spears, banana skins, raisins, broad bean pods, and bread. But mostly nachos.

Ole goats!

Monday, 11 July 2016

Shearing Time & Show Season

The weather conditions finally allowed our shearer Matt to come and shear our flock: a spell of warm weather to raise the lanolin and no rain so the fleeces dried out on the sheeps’ backs.  Matt shears after lambing and before hay cutting. It’s all part of the family farm’s income, so wife Donna and children Llewelyn and Ffion came along to help. 

They are our good friends as well as our shearing team, and we know how hard they work year-round, so I put together a quick supper for afterward. I wish I could say it was homemade but Mike and I are very busy this time of year too, so it was grocery store pizza for the children and salad for the adults, plus wine to help with those aching muscles. Donna brought scones and fresh fruit for dessert. Kath, whose husband is the woodman on this estate, also joined our shearing team as she loves working with sheep.  Chores double as social time when friends get involved.

Donna and I vaccinated all the lambs and tended to any sore feet.  Ffion attempted to mark each lamb we finished with a dot on the forehead, but she’s only seven so a streak of marker paint anywhere from the neck up was good enough.

Matt started shearing while we vaccinated. We finished the lambs, and then assisted Matt. Kath worked the gate, Donna and I rolled the fleece.

Kitty oversees the proceedings -

I haven’t been to the wool depot to get bags so we stacked the rolled fleeces in the sheep trailer temporarily. The rolls made a comfortable seat when we were forced to shelter from a heavy shower.

Kath was a great gatekeeper but I forgot to tell her to be vigilant of Grumpy ewe. With only a few sheep left to shear, Grumpy saw her chance and blasted through a small gap in the gate. I shouted some choice swear words at Grumpy and threatened to go home and get the rifle (as I always do) but I went home and got sheep feed instead, and lured her back to the pen.

Bloody ewe.

Last week two of my ram lambs broke legs. One broke a hind leg at the ankle joint.  An easy repair.  After injections to bring the swelling down, I fitted a splint (“borrowed” on a visit to the dog vet) and set his leg properly. It’s stable and he’s walking alongside his mother, grazing and still milking. The ankle joint will fuse and he'll have a limp, but he will heal - just in time to go to ice camp.

The second ram was not so lucky. The break was at the knee joint in a front leg and it wouldn’t heal. The ram went downhill quickly, so we harvested him rather than let him die.  I necropsied the leg. The ram burst the synovial fluid capsule and the joint was full of infection the colour and consistency of McDonald’s Shamrock shake. That is an Injury of No Return.

Aside from the infected leg, the carcase was clean meat. However, this was a six month old entire ram I had kept for the breeding sales, and he was gamey – even though I tried to hide the flavour in a strong curry. Our loss is the dogs’ gain, and they have been eating raw bones and cooked meat scraps all week.

I finally got my shorn fleeces packed and sewn into their wool sheets, and took them to a wool buyer. This year I skipped the Wool Marketing Board depot and sold straight to an Irish trader for a better price and faster payment. The Wool Board is a middle man, and sends payment only after your wool is sold on the open market, minus their cut.  Yet another good connection made through my shearers.

It was my turn to help Matt and Donna this week. We’re into the agricultural show season where farmers bring their best livestock to show, be judged, and sometimes sold.  It’s the best advertisement for your product that you can get. A lot of effort is put into preparing sheep for show, and rather than watch your hard work go straight back into a pen and lay in muck, exhibitors put coats on their animals.

Donna tried to make these coats herself as they are expensive to buy. As she doesn’t sew, she tried to make do with iron-on hemming tape.  I offered my meagre sewing skills and machine, both good enough to hem sheep coats and sew heavy duty leg straps. I set up in her kitchen by the warm Rayburn.

July in Wales - of course the stove is still going!

Meanwhile, Matt and Donna headed down to the farm to groom the showing sheep. When I finished my seamstress duties, I watched some of their preparations.  Their Welsh Black sheep are a quarter of the size of mine, and can be lifted onto a grooming table.

It's a husband and wife grooming team, but they work in tandem on the same sheep. First, the sheep is combed to bring up the fleece -

Then the fleece is carefully trimmed using hand shears to show off the shape of the animal: a nice straight back, full legs, graceful neck-

Once trimmed, spray shine is applied to enhance the bloom and keep the farm dust from settling back into the clean fleece. Matt uses a wooden paddle to tamp the fleece and make it tight -

As a hill breed, a “tight skin” (good weather-proof fleece) is a desirable breed characteristic. 

Now the newly sewn coats can be fitted-

More finishing touches – plucking stray white hairs, putting linseed oil on rams’ horns, using a toothbrush to clean between the cleats of each foot – can be done before loading up in the morning.

It is a labour of love, as much as an opportunity to advertise your stock. And not without financial risk. Entering a few main classes in the big county and national shows can total £1000 in a season. I won’t be entering anything any time soon.

After my bit of sewing, I drove home and pulled into our drive to find this waiting for me-

The guys have started Canada goose hunting. 

The dogs are going to eat better than us this month.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Vermin Patrol Part 2: Ferrets

If you don't like the idea of traps, how about using a ferret instead?

This is the first time I've tried ferreting. The concept is simple: Find a rabbit burrow with multiple holes. Using little purse nets, cover every hole you can find. Pop the ferret under a net into the burrow and let her (females are best) hunt the rabbits. The rabbits run in fear, bolt out of a hole covered with a net, and get caught. Rabbits can be dispatched quickly (and turned into rabbit curry later).

I shadowed Winsor, a keen ferreter. He was hired to clear out some rabbit burrows undermining the formal lawns at the big house. Moles and rabbits create soil mounds and hollows when burrowing. Mounds and hollows are tolerated around the informal parts of the garden, parts that are mowed with a giant tractor or grazed by sheep. But, in the formal gardens, the soil mounds ruin the blades on fine cylinder mowers, upset the flat surface of a croquet lawn, and are generally unsightly.

Ferrets are of the mustelid family. Most mustelids in Britain are the bane of a keeper’s life: mink, weasels, stoats, polecats, even badgers.  Ferrets are unique as most can be tamed by feeding and handling (there’s always some that hold on to their independence and bite when handled.)

Unlike working dogs, ferrets aren’t trained. Ferrets simply follow their instincts to hunt, and rabbits follow theirs to run away. The ferreter's job is to set the nets and redirect the ferret when it emerges from a hole by popping it down the next nearest hole.

I spent most of my time in this position -

Face down under a bush setting nets. Or popping ferrets back into holes. There's not a lot of training required for the humans either. The ferret does all the work; the ferreter just adopts the laying down position. As far as vermin control goes, this is pretty low cardio.

We worked along the walled vegetable garden. There were so many rabbit burrows underneath the wall that I was surprised it hadn't fallen into a giant sinkhole long ago.

The ferreter and I worked the outside of the wall, and underkeeper Ian waited inside the wall. We set nets on both sides to block both ends of a tunnel. It's easy to hear when the ferret is on her prey: the rabbits make a rumbling noise stamping their feet and fleeing. Then, WHAM! out of the corner of your eye you catch sight of a rabbit bouncing about, the drawstring purse net pulled taut around it. The ferreter’s only other job is to despatch and gut the rabbit (and, in my case, make the curry later.)

When it works, it's magic. But the odds are in the rabbits' favour. No matter how many bushes you crawl under, there is always one hole left uncovered. Inevitably that’s the hole a fleeing rabbit will choose for its escape. No net = no rabbit = no rabbit curry for dinner. We caught 3 rabbits this time. We lost 5 more to an overlooked hole. 

Ferreting works best in winter, and by spring/summer we are back to shooting the odd rabbit when we see it. And rabbit salads instead of curry.

Monday, 13 June 2016


We stop collecting eggs from our pheasant hens this week – a welcome milestone in the keeper’s year as it frees up 2-3 hours every evening! There are still at least four more hatches to come out of the machines (one per week) but it means the hens can now be released from their pens, back to the freedom of the surrounding woods and fields. We still supplement their food with feeders dotted around the estate, which we top up as needed from our feed silos -

If you feed a lot of birds, these silos are a great system. Trucks pull up and “blow” food in by the ton, which we buy at much cheaper bulk rates.

Silo 1 has high protein pellet which we give to the pheasants while they are laying. Silo 2 has straight wheat, the pheasants’ staple diet. The birds prefer the pellet and protest the change to wheat by scratching the wheat out of the feeders and spreading it everywhere, looking for any hidden pellets. Sometimes birds will even chase the feed buggy. The guys make up funny bird voices:  “’Scuse me, Mister? You got any more of those pellets in there?”

You have to amuse yourself when you work long hours alone in the woods.

This season’s pheasant chicks are growing well. One rearing field is already full, and we’ve been preparing a second rearing field next to the house. To prevent disease build-up, we move the rearing sheds to a fresh area of the field. This is done using a telescopic handler -

The sheds have rings attached to their frames at all four corners so a strap can be fed through and picked up by machine.  The driver plops each shed in a line, one next to the other –

Then we add a plastic-covered shelter onto the front of the shed, like a little greenhouse for tender pheasant chicks so they can start to enjoy the outdoors and sun, without taking the full brunt of any drops in temperature or heavy rain showers.

The "used" half of the rearing field was ploughed last autumn, left open to winter weather, and reseeded in spring with a new ley of grass. This autumn, I’ll graze my ewes on the new ley to keep the grass down and flush them (ie give them a nutrient-rich diet) ready for the ram in November.

Our hatches have been good, but we’ve been watching the professionals all around the estate do a better job. The pair of swans nesting in the formal garden hatched a brood of 6 cygnets –

The swans look haughty and majestic gliding on the formal pond with the manor house as a backdrop. The more common Canada geese have been hatching broods on farm ponds.

Our rescued gosling and his (her?) 3 siblings are growing fast.  Geese broods usually graze grass; our goslings were raised in a house with pheasant chicks on a high protein diet. By their second week, they were so big that the pheasant chicks were trying to nest under them.

Goslings are pretty easy to foster. Their main role in life seems to be converting food into poop, but they are chatty and companionable. I like them better than pheasants, but don’t tell Mike I said that.

The swallow family in my porch is thriving too. Every year they occupy the nest above my chest freezers. This year I got smart and put old feed sacks on top of the freezers to catch the droppings. I didn’t really get smart: I saw our neighbour do it and stole her sensible idea.

There is even a nest of blackbird chicks I check on every day. The mum nested on the fence line at waist-height by the entrance to our pheasant chick shed. She’s hatched 5 chicks that both mum and Mike are very protective over. Mike parks his truck well back when he checks his own brood of pheasants every morning, so he doesn't disturb the blackbird family.

Once the laying hens are released from their pens, they can hatch some wild broods of their very own. 


n.b.- Dispatch from the Department of First World Problems 

Our internet supplier has closed down, which means we no longer have access to good internet. In fact, for the foreseeable future, we have NO internet. Eventually we will have slow internet, from the only remaining provider, but we don't know when. Our cell phone service is sporadic too. For now, I check my emails in the grocery store cafe once a week, when I've finished my shopping . If I don't post comments right away, or answer them quickly, I just wanted you to know why. 

Don't feel bad for me. It just means I can spend more time laying in my hammock with Tina the turkey and Dakota.