Monday 29 October 2012

October Peas

This cold and wet, miserable, slow vegetable growing season is coming to the end now but is still managing to give a little. We've had 2 good frosts so far, we've swapped BST for GMT and the shops are full of Hallowe'en stuff but I was out there today in the kitchen garden picking and podding broad beans and peas. The leaves are all starting to turn and the birds are stripping the hawthorn hedges of haws; I see flocks of birds moving through the allotment hedge when I'm down that way doing 'sheep watch' (see previous post) but we are still getting excellent curly kale, chard, parsnips and carrots. The cabbage never really thrived and has been hammered by slugs and sheep but still gives us the best hearted cabbage I have ever grown.

2013 is starting to come into focus too, with the autumn planted broad beans and onions now breaking the surface.

Sheep Watch

We've had these three sheep for almost 6 weeks now and it feels like they are such an established part of our routine, they've been here a lot longer. We have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and they've been very little trouble; very happy relaxed animals which are a pleasure to look after. In terms of man-hours they get a bit more attention than any other animals with 2 separate hours of 'exercise' each day in what we call "Sheep Watch".

They have long since munched off all the long grass in their original paddock, so we let them out twice each day to graze and browse around the wider estate. In the process of doing this every day for 3 weeks or so I have come to know them quite well and to be fascinated by their little ways and individualities.

Originally these 'Sheep Watch' sessions were just out to the front lawn and back. One of us (Liz or Myself) would grab a handful of their pelleted feed ("Sheep Nuts") in a plastic bucket and go out to their gate rattling it so they'd come charging over to meet us. You'd open the gate and then lead them, still rattling your bucket, to the front lawn, where you'd give them the nuts and then they'd look up from the buckets and realise there was lovely green grass all around. Their noses would go down and your job was basically done for 50 minutes or so while they filled their stomachs.

When their tums were full of basic grass 'fuel' they would start to look up and look around and maybe start exploring, maybe into the wooded bits or the hedges looking for some 'dessert' of ivy or young Queen Anne's Lace or other succulent herbs. We'd let them do this till the hour was up but by then you could rattle another hand-full of nuts in the bucket and they would rush over and allow themselves to be led home to their  paddock where they'd sit down to 'cud' and digest that hour's takings. This we do twice a day, around 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. in what we call Sheep Watch 1 and Sheep Watch 2.

As time's gone by they have started to eat off the  front lawn grass and get a bit more curious; more likely to wander about in search of variety rather than focusing on the lawn. They've explored the woods and all round the allotment (where I have to keep shooing them off the curly kale and the human crops and try to keep them on the grass 'verges' or the knackered old slug-riddled cabbage), they've come down through the yard into the Secret Garden and been all up the Primrose Path and ventured into the East Field. This is where watching them gets a bit more serious as the fences outside of their actual paddock might be cow-proof but they are in no way sheep proof. Sheep can easily duck under the bottom barbed wire strand of a cattle fence, so the watcher has to hover nearby to shoo them back off vulnerable gaps or be ready with a bucket of grub to tempt them back to safer ground.

As I said, in the process I have found them fascinating little individuals. I was surprised how choosy they are. Even on the front lawn which looks, at first glance, like an even carpet of grass, there are 'favoured' bits and less favoured bits, so that parts are grazed really short while other bits, such as near tree roots, stay long. Maybe they taste different?

They love to climb and clamber over the raised bits - old overgrown walls and mounds, or stand up against trees to reach up for ivy. This might just be because they are 50% Jacobs, Jacobs being a very goat-like sheep. For me, because of their dark brown colour, they remind me a lot of the dark-phase Fallow Deer in Challock Forest (Kent). They move through the trees in a similar way. I was surprised too by how fast they can move about and run, sometimes kicking up their heels and chasing away for 50 yards or so in a bouncing, leaping run like playful baby lambs. These dashes are the ones which bring them suddenly to the curly kale and have me sprinting after to shoo them away before they get too many mouthfuls! They even seem to do that stiff ankled, high-leaping run which in deer is called "pronking". Again, this might be the Jacob 'mountainy-sheep' blood in them. I didn't even know that ewes squat like a bitch to wee! They are also slightly different, each one, with Constance definitely the most 'tame' and most likely to come and say hello. She likes to have her hair ruffled and lets you tickle her chest and back. Florence (the paler, gingery one) is a bit tame, but Dora will have none of your fuss unless she has her nose in your feed bucket.

It's been fun but now, as I said, they are coming up to a reasonably hefty weight so we are approaching the time when we have to stop thinking of them as entertaining animals and start thinking about live-weight and the yield in shanks, shoulders, leg-of-lamb and rack of ribs.

Hey ho.

Friday 26 October 2012

Baby Chicks and a New Author

Yay! We officially made it to 30,000 page views, so Deefer Dawg has now officially handed over the keyboard to her "Dad" (me, Matt). Well done, Deefer and congratulations on keeping this show rolling on for 6 years. From this post on "I" will mean me (Matt), "Mum" will take her real name, Liz, and everyone else will keep the same names. Perhaps all the readers will end up a bit less confused. Let's hope so, anyway.

So, along with the 'new' author, we also have a success story of baby chicks to relate. At the last post we were still waiting, but 'Broody Betty' didn't keep us waiting too long. On the Monday morning (22nd Oct) Betty turfed out of the nest this obviously hatched and empty egg, although she was keeping the tiny chick well hidden under her skirts. We knew we were onto something. The next day there was another egg and we also started to see our first baby chicks peeping out from under her feathers and we could also hear the peep-peep noises of more than one chick.

The following day there was a third and we were amazed by the way the little ones changed 'shape' in the first 24-48 hours. Newly hatched chicks are very 'baby-bird' shaped even when dry and fluffy. They have big, wobbly heads on narrow necks, tiny bodies with sticky-out wings and big bums. By Day 2 they seem to change shape completely, with no neck, and almost spherical body and head, as in these pictures, like a child would draw a chick. Their wings seem to vanish into the body-fluff.

Betty seemed to be sitting on about 7 more eggs and quite happy, and we already know that some of the clutch were added later than the 1st Oct by both herself and by her sisters who hopped in with her all through the incubation to add 'contributions'. We decided to leave her be and let her decide when to move from sitting on eggs, to showing her babies around. However, this presented a couple of small problems. First, there was the risk of predation by kittens who had taken to prowling, inquisitive puppies and any rats that might still exist round here. Secondly, the nest box has a lip and a drop of 6 inches to the floor. The chicks were quickly able to hop over the lip but then couldn't get back up to the nest, so I had to rescue one or two of them a couple of times. It was time to rescue the family to the Maternity Unit where hutch-mesh would keep out the bad guys and all the floor was on one level.

Our 'mentors', Anne and Simon, advised to do this at night so that the dark would calm Betty and they could settle in the new quarters and then wake up gently to find themselves there. This we did on Wednesday night, moving Mum, 3 hatchlings, the remaining eggs and the nest, laying it on some new hay in the 'bedroom' bit of the hutch. It worked. There was a lot of clucking from Mum as we lifted her off the nest and a lot of anxiety and loud cheeping from babies as Liz gathered them up into a basket, but when we re-assembled them all in the hutch the babies quickly ran to be with the hen and the hen quickly hunkered down on the new nest, pulling all the eggs together under her. We left them to it, the babies all quiet and the hen clucking contentedly and that's how they all were in the morning.

Since then it seems to have all remained good, and we have put down 'chick-crumb' (special food) and supplied water, plus mixed corn and milled barley for the hen. The babies now sneakily explore the hutch space but race back to mum when we appear. We still only have three as far as we know but the hen is still sitting on the rest of the eggs, so maybe we'll get some more soon.

So, that's the story so far, and my first post on here as myself,
All the best

Monday 22 October 2012

Big Trees

Well, we're at 29,910 page views, so this could well be my last post. It's time to hand over the keyboard to Dad.

The 21st comes and goes and the broody hen still sits on the eggs and the baby chicks still sit inside their egg shells (we hope). To keep from everyone getting bored, I decided to do a post about trees; specifically some of the huge trees we have growing on the property. The biggest is pictured in the first three pics on this blog-post, with the first showing Dad's 6 foot 1 inch frame (in yellow circle) for comparison. For fun we did that triangulation thing to estimate the height, where you hold an inch-marked pencil out half a yard from your eye and measure the tree height against the pencil, then factor up by how far away from the tree you are standing. In Dad's case he was 35 yards away and the tree a foot tall against the measuring stick, so this, the biggest tree on the plot is, we reckon 70 feet tall. The girth of this giant at 4 feet from the ground is 94 inches (7 feet 10 inches) or 238 cm.

The second picture shows these trees as seen from down in the allotment; the big fella is the one on the right of shot. Locally these tree are known by the tree surgeons etc as "Dale Trees" and many people try to tell you they are sitka spruces but we've looked them up in the book and run their features through an identification key and we think they are Black Spruce (Picea mariana). They grow all around here and all over Roscommon, Lietrim and other counties and they all seem to have been planted at roughly the same time, starting maybe in the the 30's and 40's so perhaps some local forestry concern got hold of a job lot and they became a fashion.

Our 4th picture is of the trees along the 'Secret Garden' which we have mentioned before but not properly depicted. This was originally the veg garden and we know from talking to Vendor Anna that these were planted rather foolishly by her Dad (TK Max) as wind break saplings in about 1961. The Secret Garden has these up the inner west side with a nice row of beeches (showing Autumn colour in this shot) on the outside west, and some nice ash on the east, which may be coppiced for logs in a future Winter. These are the trees we'd like to have down but were going to be charged €1000 for the privilege by local tree surgeon and log splitter guy 'Oliver Splits'.

There you go.
We'll go back to excitedly watching over the broody hen for signs of eggs 'pipping'

Saturday 20 October 2012

3 Baby Bunnies

29,823 page views and counting....

We have some excellent news on the rabbit front and can report that Padfoot plus 3 two-week old baby bunnies are now rescued to the Maternity Unit where Pads is now standing guard outside the 'bedroom' of her new hutch and the three babies, in a nest made with fur from her belly and new dry hay are hiding within.

That sounds nice and easy and relaxing, doesn't it? It was not that calm to start with. Dad had done the sheep-free-range thing which happens now twice a day; the sheep get let out of the paddock to roam the lawn, the pond garden and the stuff around the allotment where the crops are finishing ( or in the case of the big York cabbages, so slug-riddled that a sheep is hardly going to make visible damage!) and all we dogs were locked up indoors, so Mum and Dad drew a deep breath and went to look.

At first glance it was all a loss, the compost 'heap' looking more and more like a trampled, dank mess of rotting nettles and the 'hay plug' Dad had seen blocked only a collapsed, empty tunnel with a few shreds of fur in it. But Dad climbed over the fence and started to look for other entrances as then found one right at the back against the wall. This proved to be a shallow tunnel about 2 feet long and when the top was broken open there was the nest, obviously still warm, dry and cared for, and now wriggling visibly with new life. Wearing rubber gloves to minimise the human smell put on the babies, Dad lifted nest-ball complete with babies into a Curver bucket held by Mum and Padfoot had helpfully hopped straight into the cat-basket a few seconds earlier, so Padfoot and the nest could be hurriedly transferred to the calf house and the hutch there quickly bedded with new hay, sawdust, water and food.

Now we just need Pads to stay a good mother for 2 more weeks or so, while the babies are weaned. Then she can go back in with Ginny and Rogers and the bunnies will stay indoors as they grow for a month or so while we decide what to do with them; sale as pet rabbits, or the larder.

In other news, we have blitzed the big overgrown hedge to the east of the front lawn, between the lawn and the "Primrose Path" (Our 2nd driveway, if you like). This had been neglected for at least 15 years and was a mess of big blackthorn, elder and hawthorn poles 10 foot high and 6 or 7 foot thick. Not any more. Now it's a neat 4 foot tall and 2 feet or so thick and, hopefully, thinking about coming back as a nice green reviving trimmed garden feature!

Just for fun, here too are a couple of pictures of the chickens up a tree, possibly trying to get a better view of whether their sister is going to hatch those eggs tomorrow or not. There is also a nice Autumn shot of our lane starting to get nice and colourful with the leaves and, finally a shot of Dora's flank showing her beautiful gingery wool. Like the inside of a Crunchie Bar, says Mum and we are not going to argue.

Friday 19 October 2012

Tension Building

Coo! It's all happening! Dad thinks this retirement lark is meant to be all peace and quiet, a chance to relax, a time free from stress and anxiety. Not a bit of it round here at the moment as we have 3 separate pressure points coming up and as well as looking forward to the imminent visit from Niece 'Mads' who is over for a couple of days next week. Our three dramas are as follows.

1) Will there be any baby rabbits and a still-active nest in the compost heap when we go to rummage and look on Saturday? We have posted before that the black and white lop eared rabbit, Padfoot, started a nest back on the 6th of this month and that because rabbits are notorious for destroying the nest if it is disturbed, we pretty much made it a rain proof roof of corrugated but then backed off to leave it well alone for the early, vulnerable days. Baby rabbits are born pink, naked, blind and with their ears 'glued' down. After a week (says our learnéd tome, 'Practical Rabbit Keeping' by Katie Thear (Pub Ward Lock, 1981, ISBN 0 7063 5931 3)) fur begins to appear and at ten days the eyes open. The ears open and come upright at 8 days and at 2 weeks they are completely furred and quite alert. At this point they may start coming out of the nest to explore and therefore become vulnerable to cats, magpies and other predators, so it is at the 2 week point we are advised to 'rescue' them from the compost heap and transfer them to one of the Maternity Unit hutches (along with their Mother, of course). Mum and Dad finally get to see do we actually have baby rabbits, or have we been pussy-footing around a nest which is long gone and feeding extra rations just to make them fat for the winter? That's tomorrow!

2) Next up is our Broody Hen saga which may or may not result in the 'pipping' of up to ten baby chicks; the first possible day being Sunday 21st. Despite her breeding (which has been designed to breed out the tendency to go broody), her general dim-wit intelligence (getting on the wrong nest, which has caused Dad to rescue and move her back to the correct box half a dozen times) and the frequent disturbances from kittens, puppies etc, she has hung in there diligently for the 21 days. In an ideal world (those learnéd tomes again) you immediately move a broody and clutch to private quarters, safe from disturbance even from her sisters and from rats etc. But every time we've done that in the past the broody has immediately abandoned the nest and gone back to the sisters, so this time we left her be right there in the main coop with everyone else coming and going past her to feed, roost, lay their own eggs and so on. So on Sunday she might start to feel the stirrings of 'pipping' eggs under her and hear the cheep of emerging babies. If not maybe soon after. We then need to find out is she going to continue to be a good Mum. Our 'mentors', Anne and Simon advise us to 'rescue' her to the Maternity Unit also because the chicks, anyway, need special food (called "Chick Crumb") and a small 'drinker' (they have quite a tendency to commit suicide in their water bowls) and also need protecting from those rats, magpies, kittens and other bullies. This picture is, as you can see, not of the broody, but of the father, William the Conqueror, strutting his stuff along the front wall.

Then there's 3), will the 2CV pass it's NCT (= MOT) on Thursday at 08:30 in the Castlerea test centre? She is as ready as we feel she can be. The philosophy seems to be to get her nearly ready, submit her and then fix what she fails on (if anything) rather than to try to 2nd-guess the testers and pre-fix everything possible, which would be expensive. The garage says that sometimes you can get lucky with an old 'not-every-day' car and they might be a bit lenient. We shall see. These are nervous times.

Then, as I said, there is the excitement of the imminent 'Mads' visit. Mads may already be in Ireland as she was coming over first to visit her old chums at Dunboyne Castle (Near Dublin), where she did her 'work placement' year as part of her University course in Hotel and Business Management. On Monday she takes a train to Roscommon Station and we collect her from there. She stays with us a couple of days before we drop her to Knock Airport and the flight home. We are looking forward to it and we hope she is too.

And finally, there's the small minor excitement as the page views on this blog nears 30,000 and the planned hand over of this keyboard from me (Deefer) to Dad. We are currently on 29,770. Watch this space.


Sunday 14 October 2012

Big scary rooster....

Big scary rooster; poor defenceless sheep?

These days we let the sheep out for an hour morning and afternoon from their run (where the grass is almost grazed off) to the front lawn, woods and hedgerows for a graze and browse; where there's still plenty of grass etc. At the same time the chooks are out free ranging, wandering about as a group. Each hen takes her turn to peel away from the group to nip back to the coop to lay her egg and, when she's done wanders back to find the gang and William (The rooster). William is delighted to see them back and charges towards them making his throaty growly noise, racing up to the returning female and doing his little stompy dance, which seems to translate as "Yay hay! Can we make lurve now?"

This morning the 'gang' were in the woods and the 3 sheep grazing away just outside the woods, all with their heads down so that they'd not have been able to see the hens over the long grass and brambles at the wood's edge. Returning hen appears on lawn from far side, so sheep are between hen and gang. William spots her and charges through the undergrowth, 'exploding' out into the open just by the sheep, who freak and shy, stampeding away! Dad nearly splurged his coffee laughing. Not sure if sheep can look embarrassed, but ours came pretty close.

It occurs to me that we have not reported a visit yet by Steak Lady, Mr SL and Auntie Mary, the Nun (85). 29th September was the date, to nearly coincide with Mary's Birthday but they were mainly here to show Mary around. We have always been close friends with Auntie Mary, who has called Mum her "Little Princess" since a very young age, but who spent most of her life Missionary-ing in Africa. For a tiny, petite, soft spoken 'little ol' lady' she has probably seen more of horrific real life than any of us are likely to see and can quietly relate stories which make your hair stand on end - whole African villages wiped out by AIDS, persecution of Christian villagers, war, turmoil and strife, starvation and hardship. She is a fascinating person to talk to. The picture is left to right, Mum, Steak Lady, The Nun and Mr SL, with Towser sneaking in at SL's feet and Poppy just getting her nose in shot bottom right. The visit went well and they all love the place. They piled into Mum's food, loved what we'd done with Steak Lady's garden cuttings and admired the sheep.

We have also been on a visit down to the Silverwoods, birthplace of Towser and Poppy (and their 5 brothers and sisters). This was to have been so that Dad could see and get photo's of the children's new activity, horse riding lessons, which happens on Sundays with the two eldest and the two youngsters alternating weekends. In the event it got moved to the Friday so that we could babysit little R (4) while Mr and Mrs S took M (6) off to Dublin for an appointment. We could collect R from school and hand her over to Aoife the Social Worker who was to take her on a visit to her natural family, and we could also collect J-M from school in the rain. We took the pups along so that they could experience their first proper car ride and re-acquaint with Silverwood and the S's. So it was a good fun visit with lots of coming and going but never really got going as a whole family event or a meal because everybody was there in snatches in between zooming off on 'things' - even J-M was on a French lesson as soon as she got back from school and Em-J now does homework / study after school till gone 6 p.m, so we never saw her at all. 

Dad's 2CV is now being readied for her NCT test (=MOT). We have finally got the windscreen we needed and she is now in the garage where they are sorting out her ignition and mixture. She's lost the ability to idle, which meant a quick pull on the choke to keep the engine going at every T junction. The garage have tried changing points and capacitor in case it was an ignition problem but have then found the car is leaking air round the carburettor. We are waiting for Monday when the garage will let us know what we need to do about this - is it a new 'carb' or just the gaskets around it. Luckily we have 2CV Llew to call on at the other end of the phone, with a stack of old carbs stripped off dead 2CVs, so we won't have to spend £££s either way. We just need to get Llew to actually put one in the post, which has been, in the past, not anything you can hurry! We love Llew madly but he's nobody's version of 'urgent'. We'll see.

That's about for this one. 


Maternity Unit

Behind the scenes of all these descriptions of routine normality, we have 2 exciting little dramas going on. The first is the broody hen, the 2nd is the rabbit nest. Both are nail-biting, wait and see stories and neither are yet very photogenic.

The broody hen featured in the previous post. She is, like all our hens, a Sussex Ponte, a modern utility hybrid designed by one of the big commercial hatcheries to produce 300 eggs a year with no health issues and with almost all the tendency to go broody bred out of her. An egg laying machine. This is probably why so far, in any attempts this year by any of them to go broody, the hen has generally got bored after a few days and gone back to the girl's gang, abandoning her eggs to go cold. Not, it seems, this time. This girl went broody on the 30th Sept and is still sitting tight an a clutch of 10 eggs, brooding them like a pro. Well, the best sort of 'pro' she can be in the circumstances, her being a bit thick and silly with it.

She gets off the eggs once each day to go eat, drink and scratch a bit in the run before hopping back into the nest box BUT does not always get into the correct box. This happens particularly when one of the other hens decides to lay her egg while Miss Broody is out, so she is sitting on the clutch when Miss B comes back. She can occasionally be found brooding an empty nest next door to a little stack of 10 eggs and on one occasion was sitting in the end box with her neck craned round the divider, looking at the clutch and presumably wondering how to shuffle her feet to draw them round into her compartment. Dad has to keep a close and regular eye and correct her little mistakes lest the eggs chill but so far we think we are OK.

If that's true then we might be seeing some eggs 'pipping' on around the 21st, just in time for a visit from Niece Madeleine who is over for a visit on Monday 22nd. If that happens, we then have all the excitement of learning how to keep tiny chicks alive in October and November. We are hoping Miss Broody will become Miss Excellent, Caring Mother or we will have to be messing about with heat lamps and the like. Wish us luck.

In the Rabbit Nest story we have a lot less information. Rabbits are notorious for destroying the nest and babies if you disturb them so that, having discovered the nest back on the 7th Oct, we have basically built a roof over the area with corrugated and then retreated to watch and wait, while increasing the 'meusli' feeds to almost ad-lib status in case Padfoot should need the extra energy in order to feed milk to the kittens. We just see the grown up rabbits bouncing around in their run and periodically Padfoot sloping off to the compost heap where the nest is and we HOPE she is doing that attentive mother thing rabbits do of un-burying their nest and the babies, getting into the nest to feed them and the re-burying the fur-ball with the babies inside back under a plug of grass and compost.

We have no way of knowing if this is what IS going on. The rabbits may be just retreating to the hay of the compost after eating their extra rations of food to sleep it off just because it's nice and dry under the corrugated. The nest may be ancient history by now. All we can do is wait, but Dad says his nerves are shredded from watching the young cats prowling around, he imagines catching a whiff of milky baby rabbits and warm nest hay and thinking evil thoughts. When they do prowl, Dad thinks he sees the rabbits getting anxious, milling in the nest area, rebuffing curious cat noses by punting them with their own noses but they might just be saying 'hello'. It's a nervous time. Dad has now decided that next weekend, when the bunnies should be 2 weeks old and no longer pink, naked, blind and too vulnerable to being killed by Padfoot, Mum and Dad will lift the lid, have a proper explore to see if there is an active nest and, if there is, rescue it, the babies and Padfoot into the Maternity Unit in the calf house, warm, dry, rat proof and protected from cats.

Wish us luck on that one, too. We'll give you more info on all this when things happen.


Hum Drum

It's a bit of a 'same old same old' week this week, finishing up on a drizzly Sunday where all of us are now sitting indoors at midday, all dogs snoozing, cats asleep in various beds, Mum still in the dressing gown playing on the computer, Dad resting in the easy chair. It might be a good opportunity to describe a typical day here on the 'farm'.

Nobody uses the alarm clock any more, except on special occasions, so we now wake up (That's Dad and I) at about 0730 as the day starts to brighten. We head downstairs, where pups and kittens now have free run of the kitchen and dining room with a mission to unlock the back door and get everyone out into the yard before anyone does their 'I've just woken up' wee or poo. We leave the back door open but the kitchen door shut so everyone stays out for a few minutes. Dad chases round the various livestock releasing and feeding chickens, and throwing a handful of 'meusli' to the rabbits and a handful of 'nuts' in each of three buckets for the sheep. By then the kindergarten have all done the first 'business' and they (and I) all get breakfast. Dad takes the chance while 5 noses are focused on 5 food bowls, to clear up any overnight presents in the dining room etc, but there are very few these days as the kindergarten are all approaching 5 months old.

Then we take a cup of tea up to Mum and open her door so that she can been invaded by lots of excited, well breakfasted, wide awake animals, which she loves, of course! Soon she's been woken up enough to come down and have breakfast and start the day. For Mum, work is now all the domestic goddess-ing you'd expect plus , food shopping and lately a battle with the hedge between the front lawn and the 'Primrose Path'. For Dad it is what ever's come up next in the allotment gardening, path-laying or chain-sawing depts, or a chunk more digging of the enormous pond. In between this the sheep now get an hour's 'out' morning and afternoon, grazing the front lawn and browsing bramble leaves, ivy and herbs in the woods.

There's a break for a lunchtime sandwich of soup around 1 p.m. and around 5 p.m. Dad lights the range. Supper is around half 6 after which, recently, we've been enjoying quiet evenings in watching our way through our boxed set of the US political TV show "West Wing". Interspersed between all this is also some playing on the internet, Facebook, chat forums on poultry, emails and blogging, for example on the Cambria barge blog.

It's all very relaxing and settled after the hectic hard work of the house build.
We love it.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Getting all Autumnal

It's all getting very Autumnal round here now with a definite nip in the air and, this morning, a genuine frost with crisp grass and a bit of ice on the rabbits' water bowl. The nights are clear which means that here, in this unpolluted air with no street lighting to interfere you can see a gazillion stars - too many sometimes to pick out the constellations you "know" from Kent. The Milky Way is clearly visible and the moon has been full (although now waning) and it is all very beautiful. Mornings can be quite beautiful too with the mist visible over the turf bog below us in the valley. This morning was extra special as a bright red "Shepherd's Warning" sunrise came up behind a bank of mist, filling the whole 'farm' with a bizarre soft pink mistiness. Luvverly!

Autumn, then, so no-one should be thinking of Springtime and producing babies? You'd think not. However, we have a chicken gone broody on the 30th Sept and ever since then sitting on her clutch of now TEN eggs in the centre nest box. Sussex Ponte chickens are a 'mass produced' Utility hybrid rather than a fine tuned Pure-bred variety; they are 'designed' to lay 300+ eggs a year and be healthy and to not go broody, so we have had a couple of aborted attempts through the Summer but they usually last only a couple of days before madam gets bored and wanders off, abandoning the eggs to go cold. Not this time, so far. She has gone 7 days so far. Incubation period is 21 days, so we might, just might, have some newly hatched chick babies to show Niece Madeleine when she comes over on the 22nd. Don't count your chickens, though....

Also, the rabbits, whom we were sure had not 'taken' to the attentions of our friends Anne and Simon's buck rabbit Peter and had given up on needing the Maternity Unit this year have produced a surprise. Mum spotted the black and white lop-eared girl, Padfoot hauling dry hay into a burrow they've made in the old compost heap which is currently part of their run so we took a look today, thinking that if we find any signs of nesting we'll move them all indoors. Too late! We found a nest alright, but this one the text book ball of fluff pulsating with new life! That is all you get to see first according to the books and any attempt to rummage among the ball of Mum's belly-fur will result in Mum deserting the nest, so we retreated in a hurry, returning only to bring a sheet of curved corrugated to put above the compost heap as a rain-shelter. We will have to just wait and see. No end of disasters can befall rabbit kittens, not least being eaten by adult rabbits or predated by rats (or cat kittens!) but if we can get to 4 weeks they stand a chance of having been weaned so we can rescue them to the Maternity Unit then. No such excitement for Padders's sister Ginny, by the look of it.

 In other Autumn related news the fields we own and those surrounding (over which we have permission from Vendor Anna L to walk) have many many blackberry bushes in their hedges and these have yielded up 2.5 kg of lovely blackberries which Dad has supplemented with a couple of Bramley apples to make 12 and a half jars of delicious (says Dad) jam.

We have also had a couple of still windless days and 'windless' round here means "it's OK to use the chainsaw as you can tell which way the tree will fall". Dad has had a chance to top up the big log store, which now contains about 2.5 cubic metres of logs. That should keep us going for a few cold nights! It is made up of 2 big ugly, diseased Leylandii, some hay-barn beams (the rectangular bits), some big elder and plenty of the dead black spruce 'weedings' from the woods.

In Autumn food Mum and Dad have been exploring some Indian cookery (don't worry - nothing you'd call 'hot' or too spicy) from the new Madhur Jaffrey cookbook but also plenty of winter-warmer recipes. Today, for example, lunch was homemade leek and potato soup with some smokey bacon in it and tonight "pork bones". We'd never heard of this in the UK but here it comes from proper butchers as short lengths of pig-spine split longways. One 'chunk' is about 6-8 inches long so contains about 5 vertebrae but band-sawed into two halves lengthways, with the spinal column 'canal' exposed. You slow-cooker these as you would ox-tail, shin-of-pork or lamb-shank, till the meat falls away and all the cartilage goes gelatinous. In Mum and Dad's case they did it in a Chinese sauce (star anise, soy, ginger, garlic etc) and served it with noodles and steamed chard. The left over bones have plenty of interest for dogs, pups and kittens.

The only other thing exercising us at present is the 2CV finally getting prepared for her NCT (= MOT). Dad finally got hold of a windscreen so now the car is in the garage for its idling to be sorted and for a pre-NCT check up, prior to booking the test. We hope there are no problems with this but we have heard, rather worryingly that the NCT demands all tyres be no more than 6 years old even if they have new tread. This could be an issue.


Thursday 4 October 2012

Free Range Sheep

This blog is homing in on the landmark 30,000 visits since we started, with 29,054 as I go to post. Actually, we are now starting to find the "written by Deefer" thing a bit of a pain, so as we hit 30,000 we may just come clean and let Dad write it from Dad's viewpoint. We'll see. Please comment if you'd hate for this to happen.

Meanwhile as both Mum and Dad finish their holidays and the farm moves into Autumn mode (gathering winter fuel etc), the sheep are starting to get through the nice grass in their paddock and need extra ration if they are going to put on all that weight that's being asked of them. This was always going to happen and has been planned for. Grass we can do to beat the band and the front lawn has deliberately been left un-mowed. We had, in theory, only to train the sheep to love us and to come to the rattle of a feed bucket, and we could lead them out to the front lawn, watch over them for the hour or so it took for them to fill their bellies and raise their heads from the grazing, and lead them back again.

 And so it was. The sheep were quickly trained to the bucket and soon came stampeding across the paddock to get their sheep-nuts (some kind of extruded concentrated sheep food which is also, bizarrely, also delicious to kittens, dog and puppies. We will have to have a careful read of the label to see what's in it but anyway, we need a metal dustbin with lid to store it in!

It was Sunday 30th Sept when we first bit the bullet and tried this out. On the Saturday we'd had a visit from Steak Lady, Mr SL and Auntie Mary (The Nun) and we thought that might be one bit of confusion too many at once.

The sheep were brilliant. Dogs were confined to the house. Kittens were allowed out, being unlikely to chase or harrass sheep, and the chickens were out anyway. Dad opened the gate and Liz did the rattly bucket leading thing and the sheep trotted obediently round to the lawn, then put their heads down and ate, ate, ate, enjoying the long, lush, fresh, weekly-mowed since April, grass. After about 45 minutes they got full and started wandering but this seemed to be just to try out some bramble leaves or the herbs around the drive, a bit of ivy off a tree stump, or a curious look out through the gate. The rattling bucket was deployed and they chased Mum and Dad back to the field where they were shut in and everybody relaxed. There was one small hiatus when one found she could actually get back out UNDER the gate but she was quickly rounded up and the corrugated sheet replaced.

 And that is the way it's been every day since. The weather has conveniently played ball, giving us a dry sunny hour each morning to let them mow the lawn some more.

Dad has built them a rudimentary shelter out of the Roscommon squalls. In theory they are ruffty-tuffty animals who can survive the heavy rain and have good waterproof coats which they can shake the rain off, but we saw them standing in a downpour and they looked so miserable, Dad decided that a quick shelter made from our left over joists, corrugated from the collapsed hay barn and a one tonne builder bag wouldn't hurt

Mum and Dad are very much enjoying this sheep-minding and for Dad it has the delicious flavour of Kent/Sussex history. In those counties, especially in Romney Marsh, sheep were looked after by paid workers called 'lookers'  and these poor souls were given a pittance and a single room cottage called a 'lookers huts' as their base. Their job was called 'Lookering'. They didn't own the sheep, just watched over them on the bleak, featureless marshes. More recently, in the days of CB radio, Dad can recall being associated with one Sussex Farmer who had several hundred acres and many sheep down on the marsh. Each morning the 'lookers' (now properly paid farm workers living in proper houses) would go check their animals and 'report back' on the CB to all the other lookers simply by keying the microphone and saying "Baaaa!". To anyone listening in it just sounded like a load of blokes mucking about, but if you knew the voices you'd hear a variety of 'baaaa's and then one would say "Hmmmm, Ol' Fred's not about this morning, then" and someone would be off to double check he was OK and his sheep were all accounted for.

Mum knows how to 'looker'. Pink wellies on and feet up.


Monday 1 October 2012

Back on the Barge

Mum having had her 'turn' at holidays, it was Dad's turn to have a break from us all here on the 'farm' so it was almost inevitable that he'd choose to spend some time with the Thames Sailing Barge Cambria. The old girl is between charters these 2 weeks, so is moored on the big new floating pontoon by St Andrew's Wharf in Gravesend. The charters are for young carers 'respite breaks', youngsters who spend most of their non-school waking hours looking after disabled, blind or sick parents, siblings or other relatives and are rescued by the Rotary Club for a week each year to have a complete break from these onerous duties and go play on a sailing boat while the Rotary funds a replacement carer to fill the gap.

The intention had been for the barge to go on display to the public on 'the wall' (the concrete quayside) at St Andrew's Wharf, but as the barge was coming into the Thames the weather took a turn for the worst and fierce squally winds meant it would be dangerous to try to come alongside on such an unforgiving structure and the barge diverted to the pontoon with a plan to move to the wall when the weather calmed down. That side of the pontoon can not be opened to the public. Dad had intended to join the volunteers showing the barge off to the public but now only had to man the barge at night for security reasons, like a night watchman of old. He would be free to wander about town etc during the days and spend some time away from the barge to visit Pud Lady, (brother) Tom and friends.

Mum dropped Dad to the Knock Airport on Monday 24th from where he flew to Gatwick, collected the hire car (Seat Ibiza) and drove round to Gravesend to park in the Port of London Authority (PLA) car-park and find his way aboard down the new pontoon. This proved OK except for having to hop over a padlocked barrier but the barge keys were in the prescribed hidey-hole and Dad was able to get in, open the aft hatch, climb down the companionway (all familiar territory even in the pitch dark) and find some light switches. The fridge was well stocked with milk for coffee and with food from the previous charter, so supper was easy and the Captain's Cabin was set up with duvet etc. The Cambria Trust Ops Manager (Rob Bassi) dropped in briefly to check all was well but then left Dad to it, rocking gently in the swell from the storm.

Morning dawned sunny and mirror-calm. Incidentally, you can see on the 'full barge' shot here the black plastic kestrel kite which hovers very realistically  above the pontoon keeping the nasty poo-y pigeons off. Behind the scenes, the 'management' were now trying to get the barge onto the wall or to the inside of the pontoon where it could be open to the public, but Mr Insurance Man (and common sense) says you can only move the barge when there is a qualified skipper aboard and we needed the back end of an ebb tide to do the job. These days possible Skippers are our Master Shipwright, Tim Goldsack, or one of the two charter Skippers, Richard Tichener or Ian Ruffles. The first to come available was IR and he not till Thursday's afternoon ebb tide. This meant Dad would just have to amuse himself through Tuesday to Thursday lunchtime, with no public to show the boat off to, so it was going to be a relaxing break. There were occasional visits from fellow-volunteers like Dave B and photographer Jason A and from Rob Bassi again and then Chairman Bruce Richardson and there are plenty of eateries and pubs in Gravesend, especially the Rum Puncheon and the Three Daws which are right on the River. The Three Daws does a rather fierce chilli con carne!

On the Wednesday Dad heads for Hastings to visit Pud Lady and his own brother Tom for a long chat and lunch. He returns via Challock where he can drop off some genuine peat turfs (from John Deere Bob's bog) to Irish chum Rona, who'd been missing the smell of peat fires. From there to Boughton to drop in on another chum, Mazy-Lou and then Faversham to visit ex neighbours Angel B and Jim and then newly married Diamond and John. Back in Gravesend and on board he is joined by a gang of the former painting-volunteers, Dave B, Mrs Dave B and 'Mum' and Owen P for a trip to a Chinese restaurant for an 'all you can eat' style meal.

Thursday was the day for moving the barge, so they were joined by Skipper Ian Ruffles and Mate Denis Johnson. The short version of this task’s description is that you let the barge drift backwards off the pontoon while controlling the drift with the thick mooring warps (ropes) and then, when the bow is clear, put the helm over so that she slides sideways in the current till she’s line up with the other side of the pontoon, and then winch her back up against the tide using the dolly line. Needless to say it’s not as simple as that and there’s a lot of preparing by, for example, hauling the barge-boat inboard, then nipping about letting go one rope and making fast another, setting ropes up so they do not tangle on bits of pontoon, fending the barge off the sharp corners of the pontoon and, of course, heckling Ops Manager Rob Bassi (red overalls) on the pontoon. Also hauling up the anchor, taking the outboard back off the boat and squaring away ropes etc at the end.

In this, a pic from  Jason A, on deck (l to r) are Denis Johnson (admiring the view while dangling a fender ‘bladder’), Skipper Ian Ruffles keeping an eye on things and issuing instructions, Dad taking up some slack on the big yellow and black warp and Dave Brooks giving it some on the dolly line, a surprisingly strong but thin cord. Looking at it, you’d not think it could start a 90+ ton barge into forward progress against a 3-4 knot tide flow, but it did with Dave leaning on the windlass. All good clean fun!
Thursday night had Dad and Dave B heading for Hoo Marina to see if they could find and photograph the only known Galway Hooker in Kent, Ray Rush's 'An Dreoilín' (The Wren) and to visit Dave's barge-model builder father, Tony. 
That brings us to Friday and the end of a nice break. Dad repacks his stuff, retrieves the Seat Ibiza from the PLA car-park and returns it to Hertz in Gatwick, grabs a breakfast in one of the cafés and waits to be called to his gate for the flight home. Mum brings me to Knock to meet Dad so we can all have a happy excited re-union. Brilliant holidays!