Monday, 24 April 2017

Ahhh Spring!

Since I last posted, spring has come to England. The thorn hedges are covered in white blossom and grass fields are covered in white lambs. I've heard a cuckoo in the copse of trees behind the house, my favourite indicator of spring. There are blackbird fledglings in the garden. Mike and I have been productive too, and here's what happening on the farm-

We are halfway through lambing and kidding -

We have 11 lambs so far. I didn't scan the ewes this year - we lambed so late the scanner man had already left the area when our ewes were far enough along for scanning. So, I'm flying a bit blind this season. Six of the seven ewes that have already lambed had twins. Grumpy hasn't lambed yet; she only ever produces a single. She doesn't like to put herself out too much. However, she's still motivated enough to give me the stinkeye when I check the ewes -

Grumpy's favourite hang out - by the food trough

The dry weather has been ideal for lambing, but it's not been a perfect season. One ewe has mastitis. A few of the girls are suffering with twin lambs disease, which is essentially keitosis brought on by a nutritional imbalance. I keep the newly lambed ewes and babies in the garden, on lush grass and close by so I can watch for signs and treat them immediately. Two lambs have died, but in novel ways: one died as the birth sac didn't break so he never took a breath. A dopey ewe laid on another one and killed it. These are common enough occurrences, just new to my lambing repertoire.

Another not-so-thrilling addition to my repertoire this year: reading glasses. I had to put reading glasses in my lambing kit for the first time! All the instructions on the medicine bottles are so small and my arms are only so long. Getting old is an arse ache.

The smaller doe goat kidded on Friday night -

Both kids are bucks, so don't get too attached.

Kidding is much less fraught than lambing. Goats don't suffer with anything like the same problems at birthing as sheep do. And goats eat up the brambles as fast as they can grow. They are clearing the paddock of weeds and allowing the grass to recover, benefiting the sheep and saving me the hassle of mulching or spraying. Golds stars for the goats!

On the poultry front, the three turkey hens are laying now. Last year's stag turkeys have gone in the freezer. Enrique sadly came to the end of his breeding life. He was too old to eat or keep, so he had a respectful burial. He has been superseded by Enrique Jr.

Day old partridge chicks arrive next week. Mike's first hatch of pheasant eggs - 10,000 of them! - is due to hatch two weeks from tomorrow. We had so many trays of eggs prepared that we ran out of room to store them before they went into the incubators -

Out of desperation, some trays were stored under the tables. At dog feeding height. One morning the door to the hatching room was left open and the pack ate about 100 eggs between them before we stopped their raiding party. (The kennels took some cleaning that evening!)

Bird flu is still a concern, but no new cases have been reported in some time. Vets tell us that the warmer weather kills off the virus responsible, but we remain vigilant. We've curtailed the free-ranging poultry in our garden. The turkeys are allowed to range free during the day, but Mike built me a large chicken pen to contain the chickens' wanderings and to protect this year's vegetable patch -

We reused the gate from our old lockup tool cage. Mike built the pen over a derelict area in the garden, full of nettles and once used as a refuse pile. The chickens' activity is disturbing the roots of the weeds so they can't grow; their scratching is dislodging bits of rubbish which we can pick up and dispose of. (They even uncovered an old half pint milk jug, which makes a great little flower vase.) The pen can be taken down and moved later, when the chickens have cleared the area and deposited their special fertiliser, and used to grow vegetables in the future.

Gold stars for the useful chickens too, then!

I managed to find a second hand greenhouse last year, so now I can finally grow my own tomatoes and peppers. I dismantled it over winter, removing the glass but leaving the metal frame intact, which I moved whole -

I guess I must have dismantled it on laundry day, as I seem to be wearing a dress with riding trousers.

I've rebuilt greenhouses before, and learned some hard lessons. So, here are my top greenhouse tips for you: Use a Sharpie marker to label the glass before you remove it. It makes reassembly so much easier. I numbered the side panes and lettered the roof panes (A-Z), left to right and top to bottom.

Pick a system that works for you. Include the broken or missing panes in your numbering system so you can organise replacements before you rebuild your greenhouse. Write these things down, (though maybe use a more sophisticated method than I did -)

Well, I already had the Sharpie marker to hand...

Once all the parts were in my garden, I built some footings for the greenhouse. It's aluminium and light, so compacted soil and recycled railroad sleepers are enough to support it -

Once the base was level all ways, I trimmed the ends to fit with my chainsaw. Then, I popped the glass back in and gave it a clean -

Ready to grow tomatoes!

I also borrowed a mini-digger from the builders working on the estate. I don't have a trailer big enough to tow it, so had to drive the digger 2 miles back to the house. At the digger's top speed of two miles an hour, of course.

But, with a digger, I managed to remove old stumps, turn the compost, level a new area of vegetable patch, and fill a trailer with the goat muck heap and spread it on a field to be ploughed in as a soil enhancement. In one afternoon!

I saved my back and a couple days' work, and all it cost was a paltry sum, a couple dozen eggs, and two hours' of my time on a scenic digger ride via the estate logging tracks.

My off-farm work has changed a bit. I've taken on a job for the forestry department, running a trap line to control the grey squirrels on the estate.

One of my traps, with occupant

It takes a couple hours a day to check all the traps, but pays a lot better than pub work, and I can take a dog with me for a bit of training at the same time. This estate produces wood for commercial sale and squirrels affect replanting. The government pays the estate to control the grey squirrels.

I still do one shift at the pub on a Sunday, because my co workers are lovely and I need to retain some social skills. Plus, the kitchen lets me take home all the leftover meat and potatoes on Sunday, which feeds all the dogs for at least their next two meals. They sure love roast potatoes!

If it sounds like I'm working hard, let me come clean and say that I took a two week vacation to visit my sister in San Francisco, just before lambing started. She thoroughly spoiled me and we did not a jot of manual labour.

When I returned, my husband had a surprise waiting for me -

Yes, Of course it was a German Shepherd puppy.

I've called her Cheyenne - Chi for short. No, we didn't need another dog and no, she can't replace my old Dakota but she is a lovely girl in her own right. Molly the spaniel is back on nanny duties and all the others are helping with Chi's socialising.

Spring is a time for babies, so what's one more in the grand scheme of things? Those roast potatoes just have to stretch a little farther now. 

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

New Post on the Way

Sorry, guys. We have had an exceptionally warm, dry spell of spring weather and we're working like the dickens to take advantage of it. So, I haven't been indoors on my computer blogging; I've been outside on a mini-digger, eh..digging. And lambing of course-

We have 7 so far: 6 girls and a boy. There are only 8 more ewes to lamb. And both the goats still to kid.

I promise to put up a longer post, with lots of photos and updates, before the week is out. Thanks for hanging in there with me!

Monday, 20 February 2017

Dakota 2004-2017

Dakota's health has deteriorated over the past week. She lost most of the use of her back legs, stopped eating, and likely was succumbing to late stage spleen cancer (both common GSD problems). This morning she was put to sleep, before she could suffer. Yesterday morning, she accompanied me for one last (very slow) walk, to feed the lambs -

Her ashes are coming back to be spread in the orchard where all the dogs play. I put her collar on my bedpost so she can still sleep next to me every night.

She was a good, loyal, loving companion. I miss her so much already.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The End of the Season and The Start of the Outbreak

Shooting season is over for another winter. As is usual, I've lost a few dog leashes and broke another walking stick. I wore out the seat of my remaining pair of wool pants and had to borrow a pair of Mike's old breeks to see me through the last weeks. I managed to tear those on barbed wire.

My hands and face are also cut up from climbing over barbed wire fences, and from the industrial strength brambles that grow here, but they're healing fine. The rough cover wears bald patches around the dogs' eyebrows too. Quincy's are the worst this year. We share a tea tree salve from the doggie first aid kit to help the healing.

Other post-shoot season jobs include checking the dogs' condition. I run them through the sheep weighing scales, and give them appropriate doses of worming meds. They have been munching on all sorts of half-decayed animals they find in the woods, and even carp remains that the otters leave on the banks. So, worming is a must.

I bring home lots of shot pheasants to fill our freezer, and the dogs' bowls. Pheasants (and deer) are making nothing on the open market. The game dealer takes our shot birds away but, this year, only gave us a few dozen oven-ready birds for the clients each day in exchange. We try not to waste anything, even if I only cook up pheasants for dog food..

I was kindly invited to shoot as a client on another shoot this season. It was a fancy shoot with morning coffee in the grand estate house, being chauffeur-driven to each peg (where one stands to shoot), and fed canapes and champagne by liveried staff between drives. I'm a confirmed introvert, but did my best to be a good guest, to add to the good conversation and to put a few birds in the final bag. But there is a saying: You cannot drink the keeper's beer and the boss's port. It's hard to straddle the class system, to be a worker one day and a gun the next. My introverted self was relieved to return to the beer side of life, with my dogs for company.

I did shoot a bloody good hen on the last drive though, to the applause and hurrahs of the other gentlemen. A good shot is always a pleasure.

So, as workers, we were all glad to see the end of the season. It's not that we don't enjoy it, but continuous wet winter days and lack of sun makes us look forward to spring.

A few of the beaters in our break room, enjoying a sit down after a long day's work

There is a dark cloud hanging over this coming season before it even starts. An outbreak of Avian Flu has hit the UK. It's the H5N8 strain, harmless to humans but lethal to birds. Migrating waterfowl are passing it on to wild and farmed birds. A pheasant farm in the north of England lost 10,000 birds to the flu and will likely go bankrupt because of it. The carrier birds show no symptoms but an infected flock just drops down dead.

The first few weeks of February is normally our holiday time, the break between the end of one shoot season and the start of catching up our breeding stock for next year's season. At the moment, Mike is holding off on catching any stock. A pheasant in the woods is classed as a wild bird; a pheasant in a pen is classed as farmed. Catching birds inevitably causes them initial stress, the biggest factor in a bird getting sick. A late chick is better than no chick at all.

Our normally free-ranging chickens and turkeys now have to be penned in by law. They must be fed inside a shed so wild birds don't eat from the same feeder. Same with the birds' drinking water. We have a population of wild birds in our garden that feed from bird feeders. I have continued to feed them, to prevent them moving on and contracting the virus. But there's a zero tolerance policy on Canada geese that take up temporary residence on our ponds.

Our chickens, in their free-ranging days, helping themselves to goat feed. 
They always check to see if I've forgot to close the lid!

Biosecurity has been increased: no visitors to come in or out without using a virucide foot dip. And traceability: every visitor has to be logged in, and must write where they're going to next after leaving us. Even if we take all the right steps, any outbreak within a 5 km radius of us means all our stock will be automatically culled.

We attend the lectures and webinars given by our poultry vets, to keep up on regulations and information that changes on an almost daily basis. Most vets feel that the worst will be over in 6-8 weeks, when the migration cycle ends. I hope they're right.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Old Dogs, Old Tricks

There's only two weeks left of the pheasant season. The dogs have worked hard, been invaluable, and have enjoyed themselves thoroughly. And I enjoy working with them. In case you wondered, my job, as far as the dogs are concerned, is to drive them to work, carry the birds they find, and dish out big helpings of cooked dinner. I don't like to brag but, yeah, I'm pretty good at it.

If the dogs had opposable thumbs and a driver's license, I would be obsolete.

Before the season started, I worried that I didn't have enough dogs to spread the load on shoot days. I didn't take extra work on other shoots, which I do most years, because I though I would be under-dogged. However, Molly has recovered so well from her knee surgery, she's been able to do a full day's work picking up birds. And she's a pleasure to work.

And I'm very pretty...

Gertie is only a year old, but she's been out in the field a few times this month. It was just to give her some experience, but Gertie impressed me with her confidence and desire to please. She's always looking at me, waiting for the next command-

Next season is going to be wonderful with these two on the team.

The old dogs, Podge and Pip, have been out picking up too. They are past the training stage, and well into the "I know what I'm doing. You just worry about driving and making our dinner, mum." stage. Field trialers (those who train working dogs to compete at a very high standard on simulated game days) claim that after around 6 years, a field trial dog is often retired as it knows its job so well, it stops taking directions from its handler.

What is a drawback in a trialing dog is a blessing in a working dog. Pip and Podge know from experience when a bird is wounded, or where it will be likely to hide. Each has followed enough blood trails to recognise the scent, and remembered pulling birds from the security of thick brush, fallen trees, or even rabbit holes, so that's where they look. They mark falling birds, accurately estimating the distance they need to go before trying to pick up the bird's scent.

They also know they are not as quick as the younger dogs, so each has come up with a solution: Get a head start on your competition -



Podge sits ever further away than Pip does; I'm sure it's because Podge knows she has shorter legs than a retriever.

I'm certainly not going to tell them off for doing their job -

They never complain about my driving or cooking.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Group Photo!

The gang's all here, except for Hadley Bubbles - she's off to the left eating an apple, and hasn't quite got the self-control to sit still for a group photo yet.

In other dog news: I'm sad to report that Hazel, companion to Jazz and Tinker, passed away this month.

You may remember we adopted Hazel as a failed gun dog (c.2010), and our re-homing angel Julie offered Hazel a forever pet home. Hazel lived a long life as a house dog with a family that loved her, threw loads of tennis balls for her to fetch (Hazel's favourite game) and took her on daily walks on the beach. Hazel died happy, at a ripe old age, from natural causes.

Friday, 16 December 2016

9 More Sleeps 'til Christmas

I finally got around to getting our Christmas tree last Sunday. I joined Mike on his morning feed rounds, which passes the tree plantation, so I could make use of his off-road buggy to haul out the tree. Molly, his regular feeding partner, wasn't keen to share her front seat-

Being able to choose and cut a Christmas tree from the estate's plantation is a great perk of the job. Mike defers to me to choose our tree. I cut it down and loaded it in the buggy -

 while Mike fed maize by hand to the pheasants -

Pheasants love maize, probably for its high energy value. Mike broadcasts handfuls as he walks along feeding rides (areas). The pheasants stick around, scratching the soil and picking at the maize. A good feed keeps them at home.

Molly and I used the time to do a little training: sitting steady while pheasants fly over us out of the hedgerows.

Our training goal is: alert but steady. She's pretty good at it.

I cut the tree on Sunday, but it was Thursday before it was up and decorated with lights and ornaments. I managed to do a little bit each day, whenever I could scratch together a free half hour.

It is a nice tree, even without the decorations, and fits the space just right. It's even got a job after Christmas - we recycle Christmas trees to put in the flushing points (i.e. where birds fly out from on shoot days) to build up the natural cover that has died down from repeated frosts and wind.

The house is beginning to look more festive, inside and outdoors. A few leftover ornaments put in vases make centrepieces for the Christmas dinner table-

Festive Chicken tablecloth!

The fallow deer skull by the back door gets a few lights and an evergreen wreath -

Very Saturnalia-esque, don't you think?

The front door has a wreath with lights too. The guys say they can see it through the woods, just on dark, when they are finishing their evening feed -

My first store-bought wreath, and I really like it.

The mantelpiece just has a simple green garland with a few lights for decoration, and Cecelia our stuffed red squirrel, of course. I had some leftover red yarn so I knitted her a little nisse cap -

Nisse are the little people of Scandinavian folklore. They protect the farmstead and bring luck if well-treated. Besides the cookies and milk for Santa, and the sweet feed for the reindeer, I will have to leave a bowl of porridge for my squirrel nisse this Christmas eve. I can use all the luck I can get when lambing season starts.