Monday, 26 January 2015

The Scanner Man Can

Apologies for anyone who has taken the time and effort to compose a comment on the blog, only to have it disappear into the internets somewhere, never to be read or appreciated. I jiggled some settings and hopefully any comments will now be saved. And read. And appreciated. Let me know if the jiggling worked.

To make it up to you, I will now post a picture of a cute puppy -

Meet Molly. She's Mike's new puppy. (Now we each have four dogs, so we're even.) She's a black and white springer spaniel, four months old. She's very endearing.

Mike's going to struggle to discipline that face. 

Even Pip accepts her -

Well, maybe accepts is a strong word. Tolerates. Endures, possibly. They already share a love of napping.

Molly will soon be joined by baby lambs. The mobile scanner man came today and my flock is officially in lamb -

Malcolm the scanner man pulled up with the whole unit on a trailer. He was set up and ready to go before I could boil the kettle to make him a cup of tea. 

The ewes walk up the ramp, in goes the device, and an ultrasound of each ewe's uterus pops up on a screen. Malcolm counts the amniotic sacs and gives me the results, and I spray one purple dot on the ewe's back for each lamb inside her. We're expecting in total: 6 singles, 11 twins and 3 triplets. Eunice and my old matron lamb are both empty, so they will have a season off.

Before lambing starts, we still have the final week of shoot season to get through. The dogs and I are doing 4 shoot days this week, and our last day is Saturday - a beater's day, which means all the beaters and pickers up who helped though the season can bring their guns and shoot a few cock pheasants. I butchered a fallow deer to make a huge pot of venison stew for our end of year meal. All in all it's been a successful season. This winter will soon be over, spring will be here bringing lambs and pheasant chicks, in preparation for the next winter.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Plough Monday

Last Monday was Plough Monday, the traditional start of the agricultural year in England. It's our "back to work after the Christmas holiday" day, which I found hard as I spent my holiday binge-watching Game of Thrones and wasn't ready to part company with my couch just because the calendar said so.

The sheep needed my attention first: Pumpkin the runt had diarrhoea and looked listless. Worms most likely. Being a committed shepherdess, I wanted to get a poo sample and check it for worms so I could dose him with a target-specific wormer. So I stood in the field, sleet coming down, getting cold and wet, coffee going cold, staring at the ass end of my most worthless (economically-speaking) sheep, willing him to hurry up and poo. A watched sheep never poos. Nearly an hour went by and my sample pot remained empty while my coffee cup filled with icy rain.

Being also a practical shepherdess, I am adaptable. I opted for a general purpose wormer and some electrolytes, dosed Pumpkin and decided to monitor his progress for the next few days, and went inside for fresh coffee and dry clothes.

The scanner man is due on Monday, and I hope that 22 of my ewes are in lamb. When we moved from Dorset, we left our lambing shelters behind. With no protection from the winter weather, I had to change to Spring lambing instead of having lambs born in autumn to overwinter. Easily done - you simply put the ram (or tup) in at a different time.

Pre-tupping preparations begin

Into the rollover crate to trim feet, check teeth and teats

Through the foot bath, then stamped with their ear tag number,

This year's crop of lambs is due starting March 25th. Lambing all the ewes will take a few weeks.

Moving a flock of sheep to the border of Wales - where sheep already outnumber people 3 to 1 - is sort of like starting an ice farm in Alaska. Not a genius business plan. We don't have our own land up here (yet) so have to rent available acreage, and we can't secure as much grazing as we owned in Dorset, so I sold 12 of last year's ewe lambs as breeding stock. On the plus side, it was the first time my flock of sheep turned a profit.

Not only did I bring sheep to Wales, I brought the wrong type of sheep. Markets don't like my breed for meat. Again, I am a practical shepherdess so I'm trying an experiment: I borrowed a commercial-breed Charolais ram to put to my ewes this year. He's not a looker in my books, but the ewes were happy to see him -

The ram wears a chalk marker that lets me know which ewes he's covered. 
I numbered the ewes so I can see at a distance which ones are marked and track their due dates better.

This ram is a terminal sire. It means every lamb born from this mating will be sent on for meat, none will be kept for breeding stock. The Charolais genes should square up the lambs and make them suitable for the meat trade here. It doesn't compromise my purebred ewes so I can put them to a Dorset ram next year and expand again, if we gain more acreage.

Normally I wouldn't worry about the meat trade as I butchered my own lambs for direct sale to a customer base. I also had to leave my customer base behind when we moved. Where we live now - an area known as the Welsh Marches - is not as affluent. There are not so many bankers from London with second estates who wish to purchase speciality-bred artisan-butchered hogget. We will try the meat market option this time, and I will work on building a customer base here.

I experimented with a fleece option last year, and sent my best fleece away to a mill in Yorkshire to be cleaned, carded (combed and debris removed), and turned into ready-to-spin fibre. Meh. Turns out Polled Dorset fleeces are OK but do their best work on the backs of the sheep keeping them warm through winter. I will enjoy spinning it and knitting it into a coat / cardigan thing, but it's not a revenue avenue.

Between having sick sheep, wrong sheep, and hungry sheep I was feeling discouraged about my ovine future and my ability to make sheep work as part of our farming life. I was certainly doubting my shepherding skills. I did this often while leaning on a fence staring at the breeding stock I decided to sell. Out of thirteen ewes, I sold twelve; one shearling ewe, number 42, caught my eye. Her overall conformation made me decide to keep her.

On one of my fence-leaning outings, Bill the retired estate shepherd came out to join me - fence-leaning, like yawning, is contagious. Bill is soft-spoken and contemplative, probably from years of practice watching sheep. After a time he nodded his head at a shearling ewe - number 42 - and said "That's a very good ewe there, nice long back." MY sheep. One I'd selected. And he didn't know I was keep any. My judgement coincided with that of a bona fide shepherd: I got the Bill Seal of Approval!

I have just moved the (fingers crossed) pregnant ewes to the field next to our house. As their pregnancies progress and my normally fat ewes get ginormous, they can end up on their backs and suffocate. Having them so close means I can check them very regularly and flip them right side up as necessary.

We may not have enough grazing, but we have convenient grazing.

It's also small pleasure to start my day by putting my wellies on over my pyjamas, grabbing my coat and a cup of coffee, wandering past the kennels to pat the dogs and tell them breakfast is on its way, then crossing the lane and wiggling the gate latch (I must fix that post) into the sheep field, just to be run over by bahhing sheep demanding to know where their sheep nuts are, and what time do I can this? we've been awake for hours.

Well ladies, I have been approved by Bill so you know you're in good hands. Let's get this year of farming started!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Our First Shoot Season

We're nearly through our first shooting season in Hereford. I don't think either of us were truly prepared for how tough the first year would be. It's been made easier by good employers, and a great staff of beaters and pickers up. However, when you're trying to move, farm, and pull off shoot days on unfamiliar ground, you look forward to years in the future when you can rely on well-worn routines and experience to take some of the work out of it.

Our first shoot day didn't go to plan. It was edging on disastrous. A gate from Mr. Winney's sheep field was left open and the sheep decided to head off into the woods where the pheasants were settled. A flock of wandering sheep has very un-settling effect on pheasants, and birds came out of the woods in great flushes, cocking and shouting their surprise, before the guns were on their pegs ready to shoot.

Not to be left out, Heston the bull decided he no longer wanted to be in his bull pen without the company of some lovely heifers he could smell on the other side of the woods. He simply pushed his fence over and went for a wander.

Bulls have a very unsettling effect on beaters, especially when the beaters find themselves standing between the bull and his Good Time. Normally beaters stay in a straight line, no gaps, and slowly take the line forward to move pheasants quietly over guns. When Heston hove into view, the line quickly parted to let him through. No one wanted to be in the way of this guy -

Not an auspicious start to our first day but, in the end, we put enough birds over ready guns and got the bag. "The bag" simply means if you set out to harvest 100 birds, then 100 birds are hung up in the chiller at the end of the shoot day, OR you fired enough shots that, had you hit the birds, there would be 100 birds hung in the chiller at the end of the shoot day.

So far we've successfully made the bag every shoot day. It's not been easy, at least early in the season. Yes, there are more birds at the beginning of the season, but a warm autumn and lots of natural food allowed the birds to wander. A cold autumn helps the birds feather up quickly and fly stronger, and lack of natural food means that birds hang around feed bins provided by us. In the drive. Where we want the birds on shoot days.

It seems only weeks ago I was helping small chicks out of their shells and tying to keep downy chick fluff out of my coffee cup. Now I find myself butchering full-grown pheasants, and picking finger-sized, copper-coloured feathers out of my coffee cup. These pheasants get roasted and put in a stew to feed the workers on a shoot day who, in turn, bash through brambles and around fallen trees to push pheasants over waiting guns. We then retrieve the shot birds, which go back into the food chain. And so it goes.

Not much is lost or wasted. When I'm preparing the pheasants for the pot, I even save the contents of their crops - a pocket in the oesophagus where the bird stores grain it has eaten -

I'm holding the crop - it's full of grain!

I tip out all the undigested wheat and maize for the hens in the garden to eat.

The pheasant carcases, picked clean of meat and grain, are put in a hole along with all the plucked feathers to compost down and feed the soil. In summer, spent eggshells from the hatches are put here too.

Something we haven't harvested yet is turkeys. All our turkeys had a reprieve in November as I flew to visit family in North Carolina for Thanksgiving, and ate one of their unpardoned turkeys. Then, just before Christmas, our turkeys came down with a mysterious turkey sickness and had to have antibiotics. Antibiotics that had a 28-day withdrawal period before the turkeys could be eaten. When I call to them in the morning, their gobbles sound like laughter. I'm their gullible caretaker

The 15 young turkeys have grown well, and soon outgrew the old dog kennel I was using as their overnight accommodation. They graduated to sleeping in a plastic coal bin, turned on its side and filled with straw -

Now they have outgrown everything, bar maybe the horse trailer.

They prefer to sleep out in the open. For their own protection they're fenced in with wire panels and electric fencing, I stacked some straw bales, stuck perching bars between the bales, and ratchet-strapped a plywood roof on top so they have a weatherproof shelter if they so require. The five bantam hens that share their run still choose to sleep in the coal bunker. As long as everyone is comfortable.

Enrique and his two hens are still sleeping in the end dog kennel, but Enrique visits me first thing in the morning when I'm eating my breakfast -

That's him peeking around the door, looking for treats. I have toast, and he has a handful of mealworms. Tina, my oldest hen turkey, still follows me on my morning rounds to share in everyone's breakfast.

We had to get a new cockerel to replace our old infertile cockerel (he's living in the woods in a pheasant pen, fully retired). Our new cockerel is a young Light Sussex. He was "free to a good home" from a local small farm. He's called Brian Cox.

Tina and Brian took an instant dislike to each other and had to be separated by a fence until they could learn to get on. It took time, and much posturing at each other through the fence -

I don't know if there was any poultry "trash talk" but there was a lot of noise to start. They're fine together now. Who knows what goes on in their little pea-sized brains?

There is still another month of the pheasant shooting season, but I think we can say that we've weathered the first year. The bosses and our team of guns are happy, and all next year's shoot days are sold, with a waiting list if any more become available. So I will soon be picking chick fluff out of my coffee cup again, but not before lambing, which starts 25th March. I will tell you all about the sheep next time.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Morning Rounds in the Truck

All the animals like to see the truck arrive, but for all different reasons. The sheep make full use of it to scratch those hard-to-reach itches while I dispense sheep chow into feeders -


The sheep would do that all day if I let them. They would be awesome at one of those Touch the Truck competitions.

Kitty capitalises on her height and prefers to investigate what's in the flat bed. This morning she thought she hit the jackpot, finding straw and bags of cut maize -

Then she sniffed the wormer paste -

Poor Kitty. Sometimes the truck giveth, sometimes the truck taketh away.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Birds, Dogs, and Dogging Birds

Our first shoot day is Saturday, less than 48 hours away. We are getting through a long list of jobs that still need sorting before the first bird goes over the first gun, but I thought I would give you a quick update on the work so far.

The birds have been to wood for a few months now, and the October frosts have helped them feather up. The cocks have grown long tails and assumed their autumn colour, matching the chestnuts and changing leaves in the park. They are never content to stay where they're put. They come off roost on daylight, eat a quick pelleted breakfast, and begin their daily rambles. Like their chicken bretheren, they love crossing the road. We put up signs to warn motorists -

"Slow" describes a pheasant in more ways than one.

Every morning, the dogs and I pile into the truck to chase birds back where they belong, which is the centre of the park. We sweep the margins and edges of the woods. I say "we" but the dogs do all the work. Podge goes with Mike -

I take Pip and Dakota. Even though we have seven dogs, there's a lot of dog work to do. We're short of dogging in dogs so Dakota, like the old cop in an action film, has had to come out of retirement for "one more job". Her hips are holding up, though she deigns to let me assist her into the back of the truck. She's as proud as any self-reliant old woman, and twice as cantankerous especially if I try and leave her behind to give her a morning off.

Lazy dogging in: I drive the truck and drink my coffee while the dogs do all the work!

Ian borrows Dulcie, as his Labrador Stella is too young to work yet. Instead, Stella gets dropped off for play dates with Tinker, also too early in her training to go dogging in. The pups work on their social skills instead. Dulcie is a hard worker, She was as fat as a pork sausage in June, but is back on double rations having run the extra weight off before the shooting season even starts. 

After dogging in is done, I have to go round the kennels and check each dog for injuries. Scratched faces, bleeding tongues and noses are usual for dogs that work hard in brambles and tall grass. The spaniels always need their eyes wiping over with cold tea bags at least, and everyone needs the burrs and sticky buds combed out of their fur. 

Happy but a bit scratched up - Pip after a morning's work.

Quincy and Spud take the night shift, usually less busy than the morning shift as birds are wont to go home to bed on their own. I try reserve these two girls as my picking up dogs. Giving a dog carte blanche to chase birds one day then, on a shoot day, expecting it to sit steady while birds drop all around can be confusing for the dog. As a dog matures, most seem to understand the different jobs required of them. Pip is at that perfect age. Quincy will be there soon.

Recently, a Big Time cocker spaniel trainer came to the estate to give a demonstration. His dogs were impressive, very responsive to his commands to go left, right, back, and stop and hunt an area. He trains them to win field trials and he's the 2102 and 2013 champion so he must be good at it, but he doesn't work his dogs on shoots. Different training you see. 

The big difference between us (besides his skill and my amateurishness!) is our expectations. My dogs often need to find game that I haven't seen fall, or has run off. I expect them to work independently without handling from me. Mr. Trainer can take all the time needed to fully train his dogs. Our dogs have to earn their keep as soon as possible, or we don't get paid. Food and vet bills are only covered for working dogs, not puppies or retirees. Finally, if one of Mr. Trainer's dogs doesn't make the grade, he can sell it on as a part-trained dog to a shooting person. I'm not sure I could regularly part with even the most useless dog, as they quickly become part of the family for me.

His highly trained trialling dogs are tools of his trade. I suppose mine are too (tools of my trade, not highly trained!), but they're also my companions. I take a dog or dogs everywhere I go. In late summer, we hiked the local woods together and picked fruit from the hedgerows to make into jams and chutneys -

The dogs pick for their own consumption alongside me, and come home with purple tongues. Quincy shares her windfall apple finds with me, but these are tart cooking apples -

She doesn't share the sweet pears that she picks for herself from the low hanging branches -

Dakota and Pip check for wandering birds while I glean the potatoes left behind by the big harvesting machines and bag them to store over winter. The smallest potatoes get cooked up for the dogs' dinners. Pip snacks on raw ones. 

I don't think any of my dogs would starve in the wild.

Sometimes I do things just for the dogs' enjoyment. This summer Dakota and I spent the day canoeing up the Wye river in Wales -

Dakota loves canoeing and I worried that this might be the last summer she was fit enough to enjoy a day messing about in boats. Swimming is good for her joints and her float vest means she can swim without too much effort. I even tied a bandanna around her neck, so she could feel like a real outdoorsy dog -

So I said I was going to fill you in on all the work we've been doing to get ready for our first shoot day,  but I'm not making it sound like work. I suppose that's the secret. Alongside the fruit picking and bird chasing, the dogs have got fit. When I'm not being lazy and drinking coffee in the truck, I've just about got fit too. I'll let you know how our first day on the new shoot goes. Soon I'll have to turn my attention to the sheep, as the ram goes in, in under a fortnight. But that's a story for next time.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Turkey learnin'

I am really enjoying my first time raising turkey chicks. Each week, they grow older and demonstrate new (well, new to me) behaviours that I find endlessly entertaining.

Our apprentice underkeeper Monty discovered this neat trick when his phone rang while he was stood near the turkey poult pen:


Most evenings I had to chase the poults into their pop hole and the safety of their shed (OK. Not really a shed. A converted dog box. I'm not sure why you expected anything different.) Once we discovered that a simple ringtone sent them running for cover, it made my evening chores - the turkey ones anyway -  a little bit quicker.

Last night was the first night that I left the pop hole open between the run and their "shed" (it's in quotes, are you happy?). The poults are big enough and feathered enough to come out on daylight. When I went to check on them, the little poults were vocalising and the stag turkey poults were displaying - tails spread, wings down, and emitting tiny chuffs of air that will later become booming sounds when they're fully grown. I tried different noises myself, to see how they'd react to me:


I spared you the video where I sing "The Doggie Breakfast Song" (don't ask....) which generated only a half-hearted response. Possibly the poults were just humouring their food and water provider, I don't know. One low-toned, loudish but short word was most effective. I was a half hour late for my breakfast and now-cold coffee. That's how entertaining turkey poults are.

My second hatch of turkey eggs was pretty good too, resulting in another eight turkey chicks including a pure white one. That's sixteen new turkeys in total this first year. Not bad at all. The second batch are still under a heat lamp but will soon join the turkey chorus outside on the grass.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Happy Birthdays

It just so happens that Mike and underkeeper Ian share a birthday (albeit 30 years apart). On Saturday, Mike turned 50 and Ian 20, so it was a great excuse to throw a party in the garden-

Colourful bunting festooned the apple trees, and caravans and tents appeared in the orchard. I minced one of our lambs for burgers. Friends manned the grill, tended the warming fire, played guitar and sang. Dogs, kids, and slightly tipsy adults made everything festive. Pip and another labrador were caught pinching bread rolls from the table, but there was enough to go around. Even for dogs

Pip's on the Clean Up committee

Weekend over, and it's back to pheasant duties. Happy birthday guys.