Monday, 8 February 2016

End of the Shoot Season and New Babies Arrive

Dakota inspects the game cart

Shooting season has ended for another year. We had the Beaters' Days last Saturday and Monday - a chance to say thank you to the staff that work on the shoot. They bring guns, or young dogs in training, or old retired dogs whose minds are willing but can only cope with a slow walk in the woods these days. The quarry is pheasant cocks only, as we will be catching up the hens to lay eggs for next season. Lots of birds came over my head but only three birds fell to my 28 bore. They went in my freezer. After the shooting is over and the dogs are dry and warm in their beds, we ate and drank and cultivated hangovers we could regret the next morning.

In theory, these next two weeks are a rest period, limbo between the end of the shoot season and the start of catching up season when we build pens with one-way tunnels in to catch pheasants for our laying pens. (The caught birds lay eggs for the next 4 months or so, and when we're done collecting and hatching eggs, the parent birds are released back into the woods.) In theory, it's a fortnight holiday for the keeper and his wife.

But not really.

My Christmas presents have lambed. One ewe has produced an enormous ram lamb on Burns' Night -

We call him HEED (which is "Head" in a bad Scottish accent). He's got potential as a future breeding ram on the farm, so only his tail gets ringed. I told him so, I guess that's why he's smiling in the photo.

The other ewe produced two nice polled (hornless) ram lambs-

The storms that hit New England are battering us now, so I made lambing pens in Mike's egg washing shed. It's one of my better makeshift animal houses. At the moment, the flood water is rising and threatens to soak the lambing shed.

If that happens I will transfer the ewes and lambs to the horse trailer for dry safekeeping. I can park that on higher ground.

The scan man came to scan the rest of my flock, due to lamb in April. He tows a trailer kitted out with an untrasound machine. The ewes line up and they're marched through swinging gates. The scan man checks the sheep and counts the number of water bags with his ultrasound, then shouts out "Single!" or "Twin!" above the howling wind and I mark the sheep on their backs - one dot for one, two dots for twins -

Accurate scanning is an art form. My job is neither skilled nor difficult. 

My job just requires warm clothes and a spray can of coloured paint.

And the grand total? 12 twins, 7 singles, and two barreners (no lambs). It's about a 140% return. We are down on last year but no triplets means no lambs to bottle feed. That's one less job come spring.

Speaking of babies, we have added another dog to the pack. Meet Gertie -

She is Molly's niece (Molly's brother is her father). Molly's luxating patella has become progressively worse, so she will have an operation to correct it soon. However, prognosis is unknown. If she can't work, Molly will be Mike's companion and truck dog. She will be trained to walk to heel and sit steady when birds are flying. Right now Molly spends her days in the truck with Mike, and evenings playing with Gertie. She's cool with life. -

It's how I roll...

In case Molly can't work, Gertie will be my next picking up dog, and Dulcie's (now 12 years old) eventual replacement. Gertie is still small enough to ride around in my boiler suit while I do my morning chores to meet the other animals on the farm. -

Tinker did her first season this year, out of necessity rather than readiness. She's not as steady as she needs to be, and working only encourages her over excitement.  She's also not built for the outdoors: she has a thin coat that isn't weatherproof, and she won't put on weight easily. She's so fast, even in the thick brambles, that I had to buy her some dog armour because the thorns were tearing her up -

The pink stuff on the inside of her legs is goat teat cream. If I slather it on thick enough it stops some of the sharp thorns from penetrating her skin, and it's antiseptic for good measure. None of these measures stopped her slicing her toe pad open last week, which put her out of the working line up for the end of the season. If I can't slow her down, she's in danger of really hurting herself. Short of tying an old tire to her, it will just take patience and more training to steady her. 

Our dear friends Fergus and Theresa in Cornwall fell in love with Tinker when they stayed in the summer and want to adopt another spaniel. They have a sprocker called Ruby, which was our present to Fergus for being the best man at our wedding. We may let Tinker live as a pet and do cuddling for a living in Cornwall, instead of hard work.

The winds and rain won't let up, and I have to do my rounds to feed and check that no animals are floating away. There's a home grown chicken in the oven, a loaf of fresh bread cooling on the sideboard, and a batch of goat's cheese in the fridge. After my chores, I think I will put on my slippers and spend the evening knitting in front of the fire  -

With two spaniel pups in the house treating everything as a toy, I can't find a pair of matching slippers. but I have found a right and a left, so that will do.

Friday, 18 December 2015

The Harvests are In

I have finished canning batches of pear and apple chutneys made from the abundance of fruit from our orchard - an entire cupboard full. I bottled some pears this time too, as I thought it would be a treat to have warmed pears in February.

I also made my first batch of goat's cheese. It tasted like a halloumi, and it was especially delicious fried and eaten with chutney. And it was so easy: add the cheese starter (in this case, shop-bought). Wait for curds to form -

Place curds in a cheesecloth and hang it to drain, separating the whey from the curds -

When the curds drained, add and bit of salt and put into cheese molds. Hey presto: Cheese!

Or so I thought. Turns out it was a case of beginners luck. After tasting my second batch, made using a home made cheese starter, I took that second batch straight outside and fed it to the chickens. Even the chickens pecked at it half-heartedly; I think they only ate it to be polite. The dogs happily ate the whey from both batches. Dogs are pretty catholic in their tastes.

While we were harvesting, portents in nature signalled a hard winter to come: the roe deer rut was very early, Kitty the horse grew an extra-thick winter coat, Just in case, we have filled the horse trailer with small bales of hay, and stacked a surplus of hard feed for all the animals in case we get snowed in -

Dai the goat went to Ice Camp (i.e. the freezer) and once his mother was tamed enough to be hand-milked, I have been collecting almost 4 litres of goat's milk a day. Thankfully it freezes well. There is a good and varied market for goat's milk, from people with eczema to dog breeders weaning puppies. I will use the bulk of it for rearing extra lambs and making cheese - or more chicken food if I can't get it right. Apparently a dairy must be scrupulously clean to make good cheese. "Scrupulously clean" is a lot to ask for in a house with eight dogs, a gamekeeper and a shepherdess living in it.

Almost all this year's meat chickens are processed, plucked and keeping Dai company in the meat freezer. We harvest them a few at a time as they get big enough, and that spreads out the tedious work of plucking too. None of the turkeys made the Christmas table this year, and will probably have a reprieve until Easter. Tina the turkey says we can have goose for Christmas dinner and like it.-

What Tina says goes around here. She's very bossy.

Christmas has followed quickly on the heels of harvest, and when harvest chores were finished, it was already time to cut a Christmas tree. I found a little one in the tree plantation, perfect for our cottage -

Pip and Molly came along this year; both are on rest with bad knees. Pip tore her other cruciate ligament a month ago and has had a second operation! They explore while I cut down the tree and carry it to the truck -

It looks lovely with a few lights and decorations on it -

Flanked by full dog beds, of course.

With another dog operation to pay for, we decided to limit our gift giving to each other. One present each. Mike bought me two pedigree Horned Dorset ewes, which are in lamb with FIVE lambs (so that's technically seven presents). I bought Mike a dozen ex-battery brown laying hens. Mike and Ian turned our old coal bunker into a proper chicken house with perches and ventilation -

It looks pretty good in the corner of our orchard. And, because it's plastic, it won't rot or allow red mites to breed. Nice work guys. do you get in to collect the eggs?

Another job for Underkeeper Ian

A trifling design fault to be worked out later. So I'm told.

We have three shoot days before Christmas, and pheasants to pluck most days. We're shooting tomorrow so I'm off to make casserole and cakes for thirty hard-working shoot staff. I'll have to ask Ian to collect the eggs for me.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

First Day

Well, sort of first day. Our shoot season officially starts on Saturday, but we always have a stir-up day, a sort of full dress rehearsal, a few days before the first proper shoot day (i.e. day that clients have paid for). Today is the day, and it's not going exactly as planned for me.

I had a 12 hour shift at the pub yesterday. It is really difficult to find an extra 35 hours in a week, but the regular pay check has been a great incentive. As I wasn't home until midnight, Mike and underkeeper Ian kindly made the venison stew for the stir-up day staff. The recipe is in my head, so the boys had to improvise. They used a proprietary gravy powder - apparently a good couple kilos of the stuff - and covered the meat and baked it in the oven. When it cooled they were amazed to find that they could turn the 8 litre pots upside down and the hardened sludge wouldn't fall out.

It will be slices of stew for lunch then.

I woke up as early as possible. Did I mention I have a cold? Well, as our family saying goes, it's a long way from my heart so I'll probably live, though it made 12 hours of waitressing rather tedious. (And, who doesn't prefer a waitress with a racking cough and runny nose touching their food?) By this morning my eyes were stuck shut, and I felt like warmed death, but I didn't want to miss a shoot day, even a stir-up one.

I found time to lay out all the dog necessities last week, but never got around to sorting my own shoot day stuff. I prised my eyes open and scrounged for a pair of breeks that would fit. See, I have fat breeks for the start of the season, and thin breeks for the end of the season when all the walking and staying warm in the cold drizzle has helped me lose a few pounds. Fat breeks on: check.

I found some long shooting socks in Mike's closet, a bit big for my feet so the toes will bunch up in the front of my boots, but I can live with that. I had to root around the junk drawer to find my elastic sock holder-upper things, which I dumped in there at the end of last season. My eyes were sticking together again and I still needed to find a warm sweater.

I grabbed a comfortable old orange rollneck, suitably autumn-coloured. Maybe less suitably I have darned moth holes in it, and the sleeves edges were raggedy. I picked off the few dead wool moths still attached and put it on and looked in the mirror.


With my runny eyes, unbrushed hair, baggy breeks and darned sweater I looked awful. For our clients it is acceptable, even desirable, to wear breeks and wool shooting coats handed down from fathers, and lovingly darned by laundry staff in the big house. Hell, even Prince Charles sports an old Barbour jacket that's more mend than Barbour.

From the Daily Telegraph newspaper

When I do it, I look equal parts homeless and contagious.

I pulled on my wellie boots, which I had accidentally left outside in the rain and were still damp inside. Never mind, I thought, my balled sock toes will absorb the excess moisture.  I started my morning round of chores: milk the goats, check on Kitty, feed the dogs. I downed a big spoonful of the only cold medicine in the cupboard -Nyquil that is four years out of date - while the dogs ate their kibble, then took them for a quick walk.

I came in and laid down on the sofa, boots and all, where I still am now.

I'm not going shooting.

The dogs are disappointed that they have to wait two more days to get back to work, except for Pip. Today is her first official day of retirement -

I think she's OK with it.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Autumn Harvests, Goat Magic, and Miss Socks

It's autumn in the Welsh Marches. Our fruit trees are groaning under the weight of apples and pears -

var. "Cissy" - I used a local Pomona to identify some of the apples in our orchard

There are light frosts in the morning. The Mandarin ducks have returned to overwinter in the pond, and Kitty is growing her thick coat. All the poultry have finished their moult. The soil is warm so I'm still mowing grass, but the mower also picks up all the turkey and chicken feathers, and slices the windfall apples at the same time creating an edible feast for the poultry and wild birds.

It's cold enough that I put hand warmers on the seat of the Land Rover now, to prevent CBS (cold butt syndrome). I can use the "Landy" to do all my errands in autumn because I can leave Dakota the German Shepherd in the car while I'm in the shops or in town. The Landy doesn't lock and it's very steal-able, but Dakota is an excellent deterrent. It's too hot even in our British summer to expect her to sit in there.

Our first shoot day is two weeks away and, as is every year, I'm completely unprepared. No, really. The dogs aren't fit yet as my pub job means I'm not home to chase birds back with the dogs - my normal "get fit" routine. I'm still sorting through farm chores that need to be done before shooting, and before the first bout of winter weather hits us. These are the farm chores I've ticked off the To Do list:

1) Stock up on animal feed -

A friend of mine works in a feed store, and he saves me all the broken bags and nearly expired animal food, which I buy at a hugely discounted price. I fill the truck once a month for £75, instead of over £200, It's reassuring to have extra stores in place, too.

2) Harvest the bulk of this year's spring lambs -

Fourteen lambs went to market on Monday. Even though the price of lamb is down, my lambs were good and held their own in the sales ring. These are "fat" lambs, or finished lambs, ready for the UK market. They had gone a bit thin, hence didn't go to market last trip. It wasn't for lack of feeding; they simply needed a dose of worm medicine to enable their systems to use the extra feed I was giving them. Another lesson learned. 

I have three smaller lambs that I've held back to finish. One will go in our freezer, one to our underkeeper as payment for his shepherding help, and one for sale to two customers who like my lamb. There's also Di the goatling to put in the freezer soon. I think I've sold half of that to the local gastropub. We're already supplying them with oven-ready partridge - raised by us but shot on another estate.

3) Goats & goatlings -

I've sold the doe goatling to a friend's daughter. She collected her yesterday, and re-christened her Agnes. Agnes will live with their sheep and pigs in a small orchard. The daughter rushed home from school today to start teaching her new goatling to walk on a lead. I expect I will see Agnes at a local show, being led by a beaming new owner.

Since the goatling went, I've gained an extra litre of milk from her mother Blodwyn at each milking. This morning Blodwyn put her foot in the milk again. No worries - I simply save "foot milk" as lamb replacement milk, instead of milk for human consumption. I traded an ex-goat keeper some of my home-made chutney stash for her leftover milking pail with filter, and sealable bags -

These bags are great, and I can seal them with my vac-packing machine. That way I can freeze a supply now for any bottle-fed lambs next spring. 

I used some of yesterday's fresh milk to make Leche Quemada - Mexican goat's milk fudge-

The pears need to soften; the fudge needs to harden

When life gives you goat's milk, make goat's milk fudge. That's a saying, right? Mike asked if I could teach the nanny goats to use the trampoline so he could have milkshakes.


I have moved on from buying trampolines to buying goat amulets. When I visited Turkey, I saw many herds of goats, and some of the goats were wearing a blue "eye" symbol. I saw a goat bell with the eye in a local market and was told that it is a nazar and protected the livestock from evil and sickness. Well, who am I to argue with centuries of Turkish goatherders? I purchased that nazar in the market and it hangs in my office. I purchased two new ones for the nanny goats from the sacred internets -

This is Blodwyn modelling hers. I think she feels empowered..

4) Find a home for Miss Socks

We also have a new, though temporary, addition to the farm -

Mike calls her Miss Socks, as she has whites toes on all four legs and looks like she's wearing ankle socks. She's probably collie x lurcher, under a year old. She was seen running loose on the estate for a few days before maintenance staff coaxed her into their van. They brought her to us as we already have eight dogs, I guess they figured what's one more. They're right, of course. We checked with local vets for missing dogs (none), and this morning I took her into the vets to check for a microchip (none), and get her health-checked. She's timid, but healthy. A poacher probably dumped her or abandoned her instead of getting caught by the gamekeeper.

The story has a happy ending. The mother of our young land agent has been looking for just such a dog to adopt. She's coming over tomorrow night to meet Miss Socks ( I hope she's also re-christened by her new owner). Miss Socks is a cuddler and with those eyes, I've no doubt she'll have a new home, her own couch, and plenty of affection. 

5) Flush ewes ready for new ram.

(P)Rick the ram will be put to my ewes a month from today. 

He's maturing into a handsome tup, and he has stopped trying to head-butt me though I never turn my back on him in case he changes his mind.

The ewes need to be fit and a healthy weight to "flush" at least two eggs for fertilising. They are getting a daily feed plus a vitamin and mineral lick. My oldest ewe I left to run with pRick when he arrived, and it looks like she's in lamb. She will be due to lamb as the others are getting pregnant; not ideal but a good test run to see what kind of lambs he throws. And I have replacement milk ready on hand, just in case. 

Friday, 25 September 2015

We've Passed!

The results are in from the vets - our new nanny goats are TB free, and free from Johne's Disease, CAE, and CLA. 

We're all very relieved and happy at the news. 

Now we are out of quarantine and moved into our new house, complete with an ivy-insulated roof and soft rubber mats on the floor with lots of fresh straw for bedding. It was once used for cider pressing before its goat-house makeover.

The little paddock is a handling yard where we can be milked, groomed, and checked by vets. Most importantly, it's where we get breakfast and lunch delivered. Besides sweet grain and alfalfa, we are partial to apple peelings and bread crusts-

Our grazing paddock is HUGE and we've already been caught climbing trees and chasing pheasants for entertainment. We didn't think much of the trampoline. Mostly we just pooped on it and chewed the vinyl cover.

Monday, 24 August 2015

White Gold

After a few days of bribing the goats with grain and with a little help from Mike to steady the front end, I have collected my very first harvest of goat's milk -

Ok maybe "harvest" is too grand a word. I had milked nearly a pint when the goat stuck her poo-ridden back foot straight into the jug. I had to throw that milk out, grab a clean jug, and start all over again. I don't want to take too much milk as her baby needs first dibs. I just want her to get comfortable with the milking process, and the bonus is enough milk for my daily tea and coffee intake.

It doesn't taste "goaty" like store-bought goat's milk. Except for being less creamy than cow's milk, there isn't a whole lot of difference. I filter it, but I don't pasteurise it. I practice basic milking hygiene and cool the milk quickly, that's about it.

The vet comes in a week to give the goats a thorough check-up and some blood tests. If they pass, they can move from their pheasant pen quarantine to the new goat enclosure. The goat pen is already finished, I just need to put some rubber matting in the goat shed for their comfort.

I put a section of rubber matting in their temporary shelter, and the kids immediately started leaping and springing on it. I found myself on second-hand websites looking for a small, cheap trampoline just to see what the kids would make of it. I think it sounds like a fun idea; Mike thinks it sounds like evidence to be given at my future sanity hearing.

I forgot to give you all an update on J the jay fledgeling. We released him a few weeks ago and he hung around the garden for a few days. He's since expanded his territory, but we see him around. He's easy to identify as his tail feathers are ragged from being in a cage. When he moults and grows new feathers, he will melt into the general jay population. J was never domesticated, or even tame. As soon as he could feed himself, he wanted to move on.

I miss him though.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Little gifts

It's late summer now. The hay in the field is baled, and the combines have started bringing in the corn. The partridge pairs have formed the coveys, many with wild-raised chicks, that will be their winter social group until they break off into pairs again next spring. The second hatch of swallows has finally fledged from my freezer room, early enough and strong enough to face their great migration to Africa.

The dogs know it's nearly autumn too. Most of this year's pheasants are in their woodland pens. On overcast days, the pheasant wander looking for the sun. Spud and Quincy know that means it's time to chase them back home. As soon as they finish their breakfast, they jump in the buggy ready for work-

It's not ideal to take my best picking up dogs out to chase birds, but that's the rub when you have working dogs. You have to ask them to understand the complexities of different jobs and trust them to do it. Pip and Dakota are still willing, but physically not up to the job any more.Tinker and Molly aren't mentally strong enough or matured enough to cope with the extra work. Mike uses Podge and Dulcie to do his rounds. Even with eight dogs, we haven't got enough for the work load.

Then, we had a week of dog accidents. Spud found the jar of peanut butter I use to bait rat traps (I long ago stopped using poison after too many inquisitive dogs ended up at the vets having their stomachs pumped). I must have hit it when I was mowing and the glass shattered. Broken glass isn't enough to stop Spud from eating, so she retrieved the jagged, part-consumed jar of peanut butter to me, mouth cut up and bloody but still smiling that dopey flatcoat smile. I had to find EVERY piece of the jar to be sure she hadn't swallowed any.

The next morning Dulcie came stumbling out of her kennel, head tilted to one side, unsteady on her feet. Her eyes were unfocused. I later found out it's called a vestibular incident, but it looked for all the world like a stroke. I raced down to the vets as fast as my old Land Rover would go (50 mph in case you wondered) and with medical intervention she's recovered and is about 95% back to her old self. I need her to work over winter this year, but I will have to be extra vigilant and make sure she doesn't suffer another episode. She has pills to take twice daily. I added her to my chalkboard list of "Who has What Medication When".

I'm going to need a bigger chalkboard.

I've started on Pip's hydrotherapy but she's a terrible physio patient. With the life jacket and me to support her, she half-heartedly paddles her front legs and lets her back legs stick out like a frog's. Even when she sits, she uses her bad leg like a kickstand -

Not only is she lazy, but she's now a trip hazard. The vets say she is healing fine. 

We've had some nice surprises too. I found these in Wales looking for a home, and of course I took them on -

Two female Golden Guernsey x Saanen goats. They came with one month old kids at foot: a little buck -

We called him Dai, because he's going to.

The bigger nanny has a little doe, which I've called Rhiannon -

As the goats came from Wales, I figured they should have Welsh names. I haven't got names for the nannies yet, as my Welsh is pretty limited and I've already exhausted the words I know. Unless I want to call them Heddlu (police) and Croeso (Welcome).

The goats are ready for me to milk, except they have not really been handled much. When I collected them, they were just tied to a fence, the kids playing loose in a field. I will have to earn their trust before I can have the milk. There was already a collar on the small nanny goat; when we got the goats home, I scrounged through my box of dog sundries and grabbed a nice camouflage collar that Mike found left behind by poachers he chased off the estate. It fit the big nanny goat perfectly.

I've quarantined the goats in Mike's pheasant rearing field, with a shed for protection from the elements. This is their temporary home while I get a vet to come out and health check them, and while our fencer finishes building them a suitable paddock around a disused brick shed I found in my sheep field. Kitty can see the quarantined goats from her paddock, and seems to like the new company very much. I feed them by hand twice a day and hope they will respond to that ultimate bribery: sweetened grain.

I found my second little gift this morning. As I lifted the lid on our nest boxes, I saw the determined broody hen who has been sat since forever. Even when I took away the clutches of eggs, she would just steal more and sit tighter. I lifted her up to clean out this new nest of eggs and found a surprise-

Bless you, you stubborn old hen. I guess determination pays off sometimes. I've left her current clutch of eggs alone, and will chec again tomorrow for another little gift.