Wednesday 31 July 2013

Gig Driving and Pony Rides

You'll have read in earlier posts that we are currently entertaining the Silverwoods on a week's 'holiday'. Just Mrs S and the children this time, as Mr S has to work. They arrived Sunday afternoon and are here for this week till Mr S comes back this weekend to collect them all up again. Not much time, then, to post on here; the usual run of farm based entertainments and front lawn games.
We have been getting to know animals and poultry, training sheep to eat from buckets and to come up to the gate for food at meal times, helping Broody Betty to scratch up worms for the ducklings and giving the baby bunnies a good amount of handling practise. We have played tennis, badminton, soccer and GAA football. We have lost shuttlecocks and balls all over the shop. We have built wooden toy sailing boats and bird houses. The sailing boat is exhausted from many voyages on the pond.

The highlight of the week (for me at least) so far was a session we arranged with Charlotte the mini-horse owner to come down and let the kids have a go at driving the gig pulled by Romeo or just riding in it and, for the two smaller ones, a bit of bare back riding on Bob. The older children and adults also went for a spin down the lane, dicing with the local traffic.
The horses were due to arrive at midday, by which time it was raining quite hard, so we retreated indoors for tea and to let it stop. The rain obliged by about ten past and we got a lovely hour or so of sunshine to do our stuff and to get some lovely pictures.

The kids, Mrs S and I all took a spin round the front lawn on the gig being shown the reins and the very soft-mouth, gentle action steering of Romeo. Charlotte, of course, drove him in some of the shows where they won all the awards, so she can make him reverse, turn tight round, go slow and fast, but we were just beginners so we were on the very basics.
Mrs S and I both had a go and took pictures of each other but the camera chose that 5 minutes of the day to mis-fire, so we have dozens of lovely pics of the children but none of the grown ups.

We had a whale of a time and everybody loved it. We all thank Charlotte so, so much for doing this for us. She was quite enjoying being able to do some actual training on 'sensible' horses. Round here, she tells me, all the riding schools are for specialist work like show jumping using highly strung, competitive thoroughbred horses which are 'away with the fairies' and not really for inexperienced children. Hence, she says, none of the children are ever into horses.

Saturday 27 July 2013

Calm Before the Storm

Calm Before the Storm? No, actually I am not talking about the current run of thunderstorms now coming through each afternoon and nicely filling our water butts, refreshing the grass and topping up the pond. We are setting up this weekend for a week-long visit from the Silverwoods; just Mrs S and the children this time. Mr S has to work (we need someone to pay those taxes and keep the economy afloat!)  and the dogs are staying home tended by the lady from whom we got the cats last year so I do not have the slightly worrying prospect of 6 Westies chasing my sheep, scaring my poultry and harassing my rabbits.

This army arrives tomorrow delivered by Mr S who will the retreat till next weekend. We have the Silverwoods, then some barge-friends the following week and later in the month, Diamond, Mazy and John coming over from Kent. All roads seem to lead to here at the moment. We decided that our tired and eclectic mixture of guest beds would not really do any more, so we ordered 2 new beds from local supplier, Mulligan's of Balla-D. We'd selected a less expensive option on the beds from our short list of 2 types but in the event the shop found that they only had the one so, knowing that we'd want 2 identical beds, offered us 2 of the more expensive option for the same price! Only in Ireland, I am thinking!. These beds are now delivered, assembled and even made up. The futon, which was here, is now retired to the caravan stroke teenager-den. We are just about ready for the invasion. Bring it on.

Tourism in Ireland this year is all about a big nation-wide promotion called "The Gathering", the idea being that the Irish diaspora from all around the world descend on the country this year in one massive 'clan gathering' and all the towns and villages round here are supporting it and, presumably hoping for lots of tourist dollars (or Euros). Our own local village has produced a book which includes a lot of local history, stories (including, sadly, a rather horrible eviction from a local house by an evil landlord) and lists of the local families as at the 1911 census.

Our friend John Deere Bob has obtained a copy for us  and we are delighted to find that we get a mention, now listed as the new owners of the property formerly owned by TK Min and TK Max, all be it our surname has been lost in translation, we are Matt and Elizabeth Keigher. We finally got a real Irish name!

No sooner had the ink dried on my comments about the sheep not loving us very much and not being that easy to train to the bucket-feeding and close approaches, than they seem to have warmed to us. I can now appear with a bucket of feed, rattling it, whistling and calling, and they will all troop up from what ever corner of the field they are sleeping in to come to the gate and accept a handful of grub in the buckets. They do not let me touch them yet, or eat out of our hands, but we are getting there.

Good progress in the veg patch. I have pulled all the over-winter onions and dried them on a mesh rack. They are now tied into strings hanging up while they dry some more. I dug the garlic this morning - three varieties. This is now taking up the drying rack and, you can see from the picture that the 1050 litre water butt is brim full from the car-port roof 'catchment'. We are well through the calabrese pick now, still using the side shoot re-growth for eating and freezing but plants which are finishing and flower heads which are starting to open into yellow flowers are proving very popular with the rabbits.

The ducklings continue to thrive under Broody Betty's parenting and we are hoping they are not too madly 'imprinted' on her (or her focused on them) as, come Thursday, we want to 'steal' the ducklings back for Mentor Anne and substitute in our day-old Hubbard chickens. We hope she adapts quickly and just accepts them. If not, we are into 'brooder boxes' and heat-ray lamps. We will cope with that but it is so much nicer to see the 'hen-and-chicks' story played out in the free-range environment.

Thursday 25 July 2013

Of Beltex Sires

We have already posted that this year's lambs are standard white, not the deep chocolate brown of last year's Jacob x Texel cherubs. These are from the same Mums, Kenny's Texel ewes but this year he has used a 'Beltex' sire, he tells us, which should produce a meatier carcass which the butchers will love. He is way more experienced and knowledgeable than us but happily admits to not knowing 'it all' and keeps trying different combinations of sire and dam to see what works best for his Irishtown (Co Mayo) farm and the grass and weather conditions.

We just get some lambs from him which have fallen a bit behind and not 'finished' as quickly as his best lambs. It is up to us to lavish what attention we can on them to catch them up or let them make the weight (or not) at a slower pace as suits us. If he chooses a Beltex ram (this year he borrowed him from a friend) then that's what we get. I had never heard of Beltex, so was reduced to googling the breed on the internet where, of course, there is more information than you can shake a stick at.

Interestingly the best website we came across was one covering a Connemara market close to us,

If I can shamelessly plagiarize for a few minutes, I now know that.....

Beltex sheep were first introduced to Ireland from Belgium in the 1980 s. They originated from hybrid sheep bred in Belgium. The breed's main characteristics are double-muscled hindquarters, coupled with fine bones, which ensures maximum killing-out percentage of the finished lamb.Beltex is primarily a terminal sire to cross with Irish sheep and half-bred continental sheep. Beltex-sired lambs are born with ease and are thrifty.Conformation is the breed's main main attribute in producing prime lamb.Finished lambs yield a high killing-out percentage and a carcase with well-fleshed legs, good eye muscle and a long loin. The finished lamb is sought after for its superior conformation both in the home and export market.Breeders have found that quality prime lambs can be produced economically at 18 to 26 kg carcase weight, killing out at 60 per cent. Crossed with smaller ewes they are also suitable for the lightweight export market".

I have to say that 'double muscling' is not anything I really wanted to get involved in. I find the cattle which feature this trait, like Belgian Blues, slightly obscene. They have the extra block of muscle on their rump and down each hind leg like some pumped up, steroid-loaded weight lifter. They fall into that category of things which are bred TOO MUCH by mankind, along with most double and treble flowered plants and too-inbred show-dogs like those funny looking slouched-at-the-back German Shepherd dogs and, ultimately, GM food plants. I am much more comfortable with simpler flowers and traditional breeds and varieties of animals. This might be a half-baked situation which needs some thinking through

Anyway, I am pleased that our lambs are only 'sired by' a Beltex, not pure bred Beltex. They have picked up some of the meat-producing genes but do not show the 'pedigree' double muscling.

Our job, as last year, is to teach them to love us and persuade them to put on lots of weight eating our grass and a feed mix known as 'Fast Lamb Crunch'. So far the 'love us' thing is not going spectacularly well. Last year's lambs came to us straight off their Mums, and their Mums had been fed every day with 'Ewe and Lamb Nuts' which meant that they were used to racing towards Kenny expecting a feed when their Mums heard the rattle of the bucket. We just took over the process and quickly had them feeding out of our hands and hand-held buckets. Once you have done that you can confidently lead them out for a graze of the un-fenced lawn, for example, knowing that when you have done you can lead them back to their field by rattling the bucket.

[Ducklings get a first bath today]

These lambs have been separated from their Mums for three weeks now and seem to have forgotten about buckets and racing to the nearest human. If I go into the field they eye me suspiciously. They wait till I have put down the bucket and retreated and then, at some quiet point between then and my next visit they sneak over to the bucket and eat the meal.

Even that is new - they did not even eat it for the first few days. They would move off if I approached always keeping 50 yards or so between us. That, at least, is getting better. They are getting used to me and let me get to within 10 yards. I am moving the bucket a bit closer each day, hoping that soon I will be able to bring it to the gate and call them over. I am also amazed by how quiet they are. Last year's lambs seemed to be always baa-ing, greeting us as we came home, asking for food, shouting to each other. You never hear these guys! Maybe as they get more used to us and start to enjoy and want the feed, they will start talking to us. Funny little things, sheep.....

Here was a curious thing. I noticed that a couple of the large white caterpillars feeding on some nasturtiums in the yard appeared to have climbed up onto the leaves of a young Kniphofia (red hot poker) and stopped by a pale yellow 'egg mass' each. The masses were attached to the leaves by a web of silken threads and the caterpillars looked for all the world like they were standing guard. They never moved and were not eating, but looked intact and 'healthy'. I photo'd them and posted the picture on the Kent Wildlife Trust pages of Facebook asking what this was all about.

It turns out that they are not healthy or standing guard. Insect expert Jill Ireland tells me that these are "cabbage white butterfly caterpillars which have been parasitized. The larvae of the parasite have crawled out from the host and pupated themselves after eating the living insides of the caterpillar". The caterpillar is just a drying husk. The culprit is a solitary wasp called a 'braconid' known to his friends as "Apanteles glomeratus". This is a wildlife garden, so we are actually delighted that this gruesome event has been played out here - we have an ever more complex food web building up. We find it fascinating.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Foster Mother

Met Éireann are spot on again and we get the forecast small amount of rain on Tuesday and a deluge today, Wednesday. The big new water tanks fill impressively. At one stage water is coming off the 'wrong' end of the new gutter at the front of the house, so I probably need to get up there with a ladder and check it's not getting filled with spruce needles again. When we first bought the house it had had 15 years of neglect, the old gutters were full and the rotted in material was growing grass and peeled out of the gutter like old style peat-turf sods.

The garden, pond, East Field and 'allotment' needed it though. The pond was down about 3 inches from its brim-full level and the field is already looking greener for the refreshment. In the allotment the peas had been battered down a bit by the rain but the pods were filling well and from a 3 m row I quickly gathered 3.74 kg of pods in the rain.

We sat these down on the dining room table between us and chatted away while we podded them and listened to a fascinating Radio 4 programme about 1913. The presenter ranged across Stalin, Trotsky, Einstein, Hitler, Freud, Jung and all manner of artists and writers while we shelled away, producing 1.6 kg of peas for eating short term and freezing. The Silverwoods are now staying here next week and there are plenty more pods on the row for the children to pick and shell. They should enjoy that and, presumably, eating them.

Broody Betty managed to sit tight on her duck eggs through the first one hatching and a couple more days, by which time she had 5 adventurous ducklings on her hands, all keen to get off the nest and go exploring. At this point the 'hin' will generally give up on the remaining eggs and go off to do protective Mum and trainer for the babies; hard luck on the unhatched eggs which, the advice goes, were obviously 'wrong 'uns ' and would chill and die.

Mentor Anne, of course, can do better than that as she has the incubator already set up on other duck eggs, so we rescued the 4 remaining eggs, wrapped them in a towel on a hot water bottle and whizzed them round to her place before they could chill. We have since heard that one more is hatched, another started 'pipping' and squeaking and a third is squeaking away inside but not yet broken out. The fourth, when held against their candling light proved to be addled, so was dumped.

Betty and the 5 babies now sleep in one of the 'Maternity Unit' rabbit hutches in the now chicken house where we have been feeding and watering, feeding with the usual mix of chick crumb and finely mashed hard boiled egg (including finely chopped shell). Today, in between the rain showers, we decided to let them all out for a bit so that the Mum could do her finding-food training and the babies could start pecking at grass, herbs, grubs and so on.

Fascinatingly, this is where the Foster Mum thing can all start to go awry. The Mum is programmed to train them to scratch in the ground to overturn grubs and seeds and to keep them dry and warm. She stays on the ball because baby chicken-chicks do what they are told and quickly move on to lessons 2, 3 and 4 etc. Ducklings, however are not programmed to be trained to scratch at the ground and have a very different diet (grass, pond weed, slugs etc) plus a natural attraction to water and swimming. The positive reinforcement of Mum's training all breaks down and the hen rapidly starts to lose interest and presumably her instincts are all now saying "give up on this bunch - they're ALL WRONG".

The plan was always for us to only have the eggs and ducklings for a short while before they went 'home' to Anne. We were a bit bothered about the effect on Broody Betty of stealing her babies but happily Anne has presented us with a solution which might work. A poultry breeder up by the border produces by the tens of hundreds, day-old chicks, 3 days a week for chicken farmers to grow up to carcass weights and one of the varieties he carries is a meat breed called 'Hubbard' which Anne has known before and by which she swears. The organic meat lady at Boyle Farmer's Market does Hubbard oven-ready birds. Anne has rung round a few people and put together an order for 3 dozen, of which we are to get 8 at €1.95 a pop. The plan is to slide these under Betty as we, by sleight of hand, 'disappear' the duckling-shaped wrong 'uns and Betty may (we hope) breathe a sigh of relief, accept the chickens as her own and carry on the training, this time with markedly better results. That's the plan, anyway! If she rejects them, then we need to step in with a heat lamp brooder and she, presumably, goes back to the egg laying flock.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

A Full Moon and a Mad 24 Hours

Every now and then we have a mad bad 24 hours to rival the circus around a Royal Birth. Welcome to the world, new Royal sprog - hope you can cope with it; it's a bloomin' mad house on occasions. We had our own happy event(s) here too. My day started at about 6 with a hullaballoo from the Marans, loud enough to have me up, quickly donning dressing gown and slippers and heading down to investigate.. So much happened though, that I am going to hop-skip through it in magazine style without too much detail, or we'll be here for pages!

The Marans, I think, were just shouting through to the rooster in the other house but going out there I could see 6 baby bunnies all over the orchard. I had done it again - placing the run neatly over a dint in the ground which gave them an easy, pre-dug duck-under the woodwork and a night of happy free ranging. 3 quickly sprinted back to the dent and dived back into their run and I caught 2 more by hand. The 6th escapee got wise by then and headed for the car port where he took up residence under the water tank and we named him Steve McQueen. We'd worry about him later.

The geese decided they were not coming out to play today and dithered, brainlessly, in their house giving me ten minutes of whistling and encouraging them, tossing them a bit of rolled barley till I got fed up and went round the back to shoo them out.

Main event today was a visit from Sparks, Mrs Sparks and Cotcho-Small (6) who we'd thought were staying over night. We had to whizz the 2CV into the garage for its NCT work and do a quick shop in which Liz managed to explode 2 big fizzy water bottles inside the car. On a day like today this hardly even made the back pages. I also needed more sticky tape to repair a new hole in the poly tunnel, torn, presumably by the same cat (Blue?) as last time.

For a bit of fun we'd made up a Job List for Cotcho-Small (C-S) which we'd deliberately written in a jokey confusing way. "Smelly Goose Poo Soup 1", "Smelly Goose Poo Soup 2", "Catch Steve McQueen", "Make Snot" and so on. As we went through the day he was to discover what these were. The 'Poo Soups' were cleaning out goose baths, Steve McQ was, of course, the rabbit, and Make Snot was helping Liz in the kitchen pounding garlic in the pestle and mortar which, if anyone has done this, will know what "pound the garlic to snot" means. C-S is like any other intelligent, fit, energetic 6 year old boy let loose on a 'farm'. He's Go Go Go! all day and wears us out but he is great gas and will spend hours peering under a water tank thinking he can tempt a baby bunny out by yelling Steve! at it and chucking lettuce in.

We had also now seen ducklings hatched under Broody Betty and needed to lift her off the nest to count ducklings and remove empty shells. We had 5 plus a hatched-but-dead one and 4 eggs left. C-S loved this bit and being able to handle tiny baby ducklings, some of which were yellow, others dark-fluff and with curious head-crests. I will get some better pics of these soon - I did not have time on the hatch day.

While that was all going on I took a phone call from our Sheep Man, Kenny asking could we take 3 store lambs today, a month earlier than we thought we were getting them. He'd be here at 17:30, he said. As is generally the case with Kenny, we waited till 17:45 and then he rang saying he'd been delayed and would now be here at 18:30. We needed to feed the visitors as they had to get away back to Dublin by 19:00.

Meanwhile, Mentor Anne arrived with Simon, Simon clutching a tub of chick crumb and the egg candler. No, they said, they did not have any sheep in the van (!). Liz meanwhile went onto the internet chat areas and asked did anyone have any ideas for fun names for 3 sheepy ladies and got a storm of brilliant ones including "Kebab, Moussaka and Biryani", "Blodwen, Bronwen and Branwen", "Una, Agnes and Baby", "PETA, Pauline and Mary", "Hopeless, Feckless and Pointless". The 'Baby' one pointed out the potential for a future filled with "No-one puts Baby in a Korma" jokes. Simon and I took C-S off to candle the eggs and were delighted to see live, wriggling babies inside the shells, but concerned as to why they had not started to 'pip' along with their same-age 'brothers and sisters'. Anne is just delighted that yet another batch of her call ducks are showing this amazingly high (90-100%) fertility rate. It rarely happens.

With Anne and Simon fed tea and cake and done and dusted, we could all go in to eat some delicious belly-pork and salad, with half an eye on the front gate lest Kenny arrived. He did, when we were about 3/4 belly-full. We abandoned supper to go wrangle sheep, got them all safely into the field and did all the Ministry 'movement' paperwork. It turned out that one of them was a ram lamb this time, so they have become "Larry, Curley and Moe" (The 3 Stooges; yes, we KNOW the stooges were all boys, but Curl(e)y and Mo(e) are kind of girls names too).

So, the guests all left and it all went deliciously quiet. Steve McQueen was still at large but everyone had survived. And so to bed planning a lovely relaxed Tuesday with no dramas to upset the day. A bit alarming then at 06:30 to go out and straightway hear from the baa-ing that all was not as it should be in the sheep. They sounded too far off to be in our field and too spread out to all be in the same place. There was a lot of excited mooing from the grazing rent cattle. Oh, as they say, My God.

There is a dip in the ground in the NW corner where the fence stretches taut across but 12 inches off the ground. I'd been meaning to stuff the gap with black thorn but had no idea that lambs could 'commando' under this on their knees. They can, and one of them had escaped through to Vendor-Anna's land. He/she was then baa-ing in separation anxiety and and had brought the playful, inquisitive baby calves running to investigate, followed by their anxious Mums and the Bull, Felix. Now I had 20 cattle chasing my frightened lamb about and 2 upset lambs in the field, missing him/her. I hoped the escapee would race back to his siblings, back under the fence and shot off to get some clothes on. Not a bit of it; the two followed the one, so I now had three escaped lambs being chased round 20 acres by the cattle. One bit of good news - Blue the cat decided to play-hunt the escaped rabbit and ran him to ground in the orchard grass where I could easily grab him and restore him to his run and his 11 cousins and siblings.

Ah well, to cut a long story a bit short I was not about to risk going into the bull field alone, so I phoned Mike the Cows who, Bless him, even though he had a full day himself and 'not a clue about sheep' (his words) helped me round them up (while fending off the cattle) and shepherd them back through the gap, which is now firmly stuffed with sheep wire, wood, blackthorn and all sorts. The sheep are sitting in our field chewing the cud and panting a bit from their exertions. I am hoping that my mad 24 (well, 26) hours is now over. I have calmly brought Liz her 'tay' at the normal time of 08:30 and told her my early morning story. I think I need a lie down!

Sunday 21 July 2013

OK, I'm Ready Now....

Our heatwave has been running now since at least the 6th and Liz tells me that we are officially back in drought mode after the required 19 days without any rain. When it started there were the usual round of people complaining about the heat and other people telling them not to complain as it had only just got hot after them moaning about the cold and wet. We went along with this not daring to complain about the sweltering heat, not praying for rain and avoiding any funny walk that might be interpreted as a rain dance just in case we pulled down upon ourselves another rain drenched wash out of a season like 2012.

As you know, many local farmers not only have silage cut and baled away but many have managed to get good cuts of quality, dry hay; the previous post shows that we were out there too, enjoying the chance to get some hay in for the mini horses and our own stock. All over Ireland peat-turf for the winter fuel has been cut, and now dried in stacks and, much to everyone's amazement also now safely gathered into barns. Compare that to last year when our own John Deere Bob could not get his dry enough at all and had to wait round till spring of this year before he dared collect it and bring it home.

All the English vegetable growing expert books tell you that when your onions are ready and the leafy tops have sagged to the ground, lift them out of the soil to break the roots and leave them on the surface in the sun to ripen. Renowned local organic grower (he has a place in Co Leitrim, just next door to Roscommon) and writer, Klaus Laitenburger poo-pooh all that saying, quite truthfully, that this method won't work in Ireland and your onions will just lie there in the rain going rotten. You need to put them in a greenhouse or poly tunnel to ripen. 'Out in the sunshine' is no good. Well, this year we have been able to do just that and I see from a picture on Mentor Anne's blog that Simon is doing the same.

'Flavour of the month' in meteorological circles in Ireland this year is a New Zealand writer, Ken Ring who advocates studying phases of the moon and the 'tides' in the atmospheric air and publishes an Almanac each year giving long term forecasts for NZ and Australia and, this year, Ireland where the local farmers are snapping them up despite the €33 cost of the book and postage from NZ. Well, so far he's right for this year - the dry July which looks like collapsing into rain in the last few days and the prospect of a hot August so he's been all over the Irish papers and radio where he rather rudely tells home-grown meteorologists, Met Éireann to 'stick to what they know and what they've been trained to do, which is the day to day stuff'.

Fair play to him if he has found an answer and I hope he sells plenty of books while he's in fashion but I can't help hearing my old Dad's voice in the back of my head. Dad (Stamp Man) was an old school Geography teacher and he used to say that even with the best Met Office computers in the world, there are so many unpredictable variables in British Isles weather that the forecasts could be 75% correct at 24 hours range, 50% at 2 days, 25% at 3 days and after that you might as well toss coins. Ken Ring would see him as one who should "stick to what they know". We'll wait and see.

Me? I've had enough of the heat and the stultifying inability to get on with jobs now and I am happy to wish for rain out loud. I don't mind if I do bring down a torrent upon myself. The garden needs it badly, the veg need water to fatten up properly (and to stop bolting away in the case of chard, calabrese and even a few of the onions) and the pond could do with a top up. No, I am not using mains water! The East Field, now being rested from the horses, could use a good soak to give us grass for the lambs arriving in a month. I have bought and, yesterday, installed our 2nd 1000 litre bulk water butt. This one is to be the reservoir for the sheep drinker. I'm ready now for some rain - may it come and fill my two tanks and the pond. Ken Ring can go back to being right after we've had a wet week.

The other pictures here are of a supper Liz prepared last night which we were proud to declare included almost entirely our own produce - we supplied the lamb, the French beans, lettuce, chard, calabrese, beetroot and mini-turnips, even the redcurrants. We are not quite there with the new spuds yet but they won't be long. The geese and goslings are by now looking like a group of 8 geese, with the big tall lanky babies now almost fully feathered, and Charlotte warning us that we might need to wing-clip them soon or we'll be watching Christmas dinner rising up into the sky and heading for the watery expanses of Lough Feigh and Lough Glynn. Perhaps if we pack enough milled barley into them they will get too fat to fly, faster than they get fully feathered. Huge leg muscles and puny chests!

Ah well, cloudy today and even Met Éireann saying some chance of rain showers late evening or in the night. Liz has just nipped down to the shops and brought me back a mint and choc Cornetto ice cream. Signing off now!

Thursday 18 July 2013

Hay Cart

We like to do things by the traditional methods over here as you know, so when we go hay carting we use the traditional Irish farm implements, the 2CV and pedigree Argentinian miniature horses (!). OK maybe not seriously but we had some great fun getting the baled hay in for Carolyn and Charlotte. The field which is to be home to the 'boys' (Romeo, Bob and Cody) is only yards from the house and is accessible by hard roads and flat dry gate entrances, so it was perfectly good 2CV territory. My little 6 foot by 4 foot trailer did a good job, taking 21 bales on our best load.

Once the morning mist had cleared the hay was beautifully dry and the baler man gave it one last shake through and rowed it up about 1 pm, returning to bale it at about 2:30 to bale it. We got just over the hundred bales off the 2 acres, which is not bad for a field which had not been fertilized or limed recently, all be it the baler man may have had his eye on the per-bale rate and had set the machine up to do them short and a bit light and fluffy, but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt; he may have just been being nice to the ladies he assumed would be carting the stuff.

We went into the field at about 3 pm and we were all done with our 6 loads by half four. Hot work in the sun but when the 'cavalry' turned in the form of another helper with a big 4 x 4 and a stock trailer, there was precious little left for her to do (she didn't mind at all!) and we also had to save 2 bales for Charlotte so that she could have the pleasure of getting mini-horse Romeo back between the cart shafts for a bit of exercise. I got a ride in the cart down to the field, so it was fine by me too!

It was hot work in the sun but, as I said, the bales were smallish and light; none of the lumpy, dense, long things I remember from my student days while sometimes took 2 of us weedy students to lift before we'd built up a bit of muscle tone over the working weeks. We have all the bales now stashed away in one of Carolyn's barns and I was 'paid' 6 bales for my efforts, so I too have a little mini-stack in a barn which will see the geese, chickens and rabbits through the winter (and beyond) for bedding.

In other news I was back at the carpentry today creating 4 more nest boxes. The '8-ball' chickens are now approaching point of lay and I want them to get used to the idea of being able to lay their eggs somewhere sensible. Their aunts are still laying either out in the nettles or, sometimes, in the pile of our own hay in the goose house. That's fine in the hot weather when I wedge the goose house door open with a log to get a bit of breeze onto Broody Betty (who you can see still on station on her duck eggs in this picture; she was completely un-fazed by me turning up with another 4 nest boxes and filling them with wood shavings and hay. She has got her little private drinker there (a sawn-off milk bottle) and her Sussex County crest above her head. She's due a happy event on Monday, 4 days time.

And last but not least, I promised a pic of the dozen baby bunnies - I've got up to 11 here I think, so I ask you for your continued patience. These little whizzers do not stay in one place for long enough to get a picture AND count them.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Finish Holidays!

"Finish Holidays!" is the rather sad cry put up by Diamond's great Poros Islander friend Captain George as yet another of her stays on the Greek Island draws to a close and he is sorry to see her packed and waiting for the ferry back to reality. We are the same today as the miniature horses come to the end of their little stay here, mowing our lawns and the East Field and helping owner Carolyn out of a fodder-shortage crisis.

They were a new and exciting first experience of "owning" horses for both of us. They are great characters, each with their own personalities. Maybe we did 'spoil' them a bit with the Silver-Mints and Carrots but we bonded well with them and loved watching them grazing, rolling on the grass, chasing into full gallops for the pure joy of it. But now we need the grass for the sheep arriving at the end of August so they have gone back 'home' where Carolyn has now got the home field organised (and, in fact, cut for hay).

We will miss them and as the girls took them away we were joking around making sure they "looked after them properly" and would I be allowed to visit them and bring them mints  if I was missing them too badly!

As the 2CV (my own "two horses"?) reaches the expiry date of the old NCT and we try to sort out whether to keep it on the road, I have been out again with the trailer gathering up another water tank which will act as a reservoir for the sheep drinker but I was hoping to use the car for a much more entertaining job - Carolyn's hay is cut and being turned daily as it dries, but is not yet baled. This was suggested for today and we were going to go down and haul it back to the house (about 200 yards, maximum!) on combinations of my 2CV and trailer and an assortment of carts slung behind the various mini-horses. We even had Liz laid on offering to bring the hay-carters out a picnic of sausage pie and salad, but the baler did not show and it's all postponed till tomorrow. I hope to bring you some fun pictures of us all in action. I wonder how many bales I can fit in and on the trailer.

Meanwhile, after a slow start the garden is now starting to crop nicely on all manner of veg, many of which fall into the two categories of "First time I've grown it....." (such as this calabrese) and/or "Best I've ever grown". We are happy , then, to get hints and tips from Mentor Anne and Simon who are not only experienced growers outdoors, having once been in (their own) business of growing organics commercially, but also having used poly tunnels widely.

Anne, for example, told me that if you cut calabrese carefully and high up under the heads, it will keep coming back from side buds á la "purple sprouting", Also to blanch it you plunge very quickly into boiling water (just long enough to make it wet!) and then straight into cold water. You can spin off the excess water in a salad spinner, then freeze on trays before bagging.

 Our garlic is also proving to be a delight - huge bulbs - and the shallots are finished in the poly tunnel and ready to lift. I planted a row of marigolds and nasturtiums alongside the raspberry canes to attract insects to the allotment and they have done so well they have rather swamped the raspberries which were struggling to get established in the dry July. In the picture here (top left) you can also see a very sturdy, healthy looking row of spuds - these are the Hungarian, blight resistant variety Sarpo Mira. If they are anything like as strong under ground as these tops, then we should do OK. My new/salad potato plants are hidden behind them, doing very well but quite dwarfed by the Mira top growth!

As well as collecting their horses, our Rabbit-Mentor Charlotte checked over our batches of baby bunnies and declared that Ginny's and Padfoot's were now old enough to be taken off their Mums. This we did by moving all the babies from one run to the other, and the Mum in the opposite direction. We now have 12 baby bunnies in one run, which is a riot to watch especially as they run and jump about in circles quickly sorting out a dominance order. Charlotte also took the chance to sex them and show me how to sex them. There are 8 does and 4 bucks. My notes are quite funny as we basically have mainly black and white babies, so the descriptions read such as "wide black spine and dots" (a buck, that one) or "2 black dots on nose, black spreads from eyes to ears" (a doe). I am trying to get a photo of all 12 in the run but have so far only managed these 7 in one place long enough to focus on!

Goldie's babies are too young yet to be taken off Mum but she has 3 boys and a girl remaining. We have not done so well with her in terms of survival and have had a few unexplained 'infant deaths'. These things happen, we are told and there are all manner of reasons, but every so often we have checked them in the morning and found another still, sad little corpse lying on the grass. No injuries or obvious problems, but stiff and cold. Ah well, we still have the 4 and we have 12 from the Silverwood Mums, so we can't complain.

Hay cart tomorrow then, all being well.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Ahhhh Look! He has his Father's... Tail!

Our gander has a condition known as "wry-tail". If you look at the right hand yellow circle in this picture you will see his tail is swung round to 45 degrees or so to his left; this is not because I have caught him wagging it, as they do, but this is its resting position. This is a common, known condition in all sorts of domestic poultry; it does not hurt and they do not suffer in any way, they develop normally other than the tail and their fertility is not affected. It is genetic, though 'recessive' and so can be passed on to offspring. What happens is that the pelvis, which should be fairly long and narrow, and aligned north-south (as anyone who has carved a chicken will know) develops bent round to around 45 degrees behind the hip joints, either left or right. Aft of the pelvis all the tail bones and muscles are normal, so that the goose has normal mobility of the tail, feathering and so on but starting from a resting position at a jaunty angle.

Now that the goslings are starting to sprout true feathers through their fluff, including tail feathers, we have noticed that 4 of the 5 of them also have left handed wry-tail. Normally you are advised not to breed from a wry tail bird but as he's all we've got and we are breeding only to eat them ourselves, we are taking that with a pinch of salt. I assume it is a rare condition in wild geese because it must seriously impair flying but in the domestic flock nobody is flying very far and the main selection process is not 'survival of the fittest' but the farmer saying 'will I breed from that bird or not?' Thinking it through, it did occur to us that if this is a recessive condition, then one or both female geese must be heterozygous for wry-tail (half wry-tail or 'carriers' if you like) so we were left wondering whether these geese and the gander may actually be siblings rather than a true breeding group as advertised. Once again, though, we think that as we are only breeding internally, and the goslings we have do not seem to be too in-bred, we will carry on.

This week, in the fierce heat of our hot-spell, we have given up on demolishing the earth/rubbish bank and moved in under the trees of the bit we call 'the woods'. This area was beautifully grazed short by the sheep till spring but has since gone a bit mad with nettles, ground elder, hog-weed and goose-grass (cleavers). We decided to have at it with the sickle and cart away the green tops in wheel barrows. Not only would this tidy the area up but we also might find the stashes of eggs we believe our badly behaved Sussex Ponte hens are hiding in there.

The first half of this plan is working well and we feel as if we are getting a whole chunk of garden back but on the latter we are less successful; having only found one stash of 7 eggs so far. In case there is a problem with the age of these eggs we crack them carefully into a separate bowl before using them in any cooking but so far we have never had an off one. From being a bit short of eggs we suddenly have over a dozen on stock.

Even better, one of the hens has come back into 'the fold' as it were, having discovered my stack of new home-made hay in the goose-barn. I have been leaving the door wedged open to let some air through so that Broody Betty would not overheat and the hen, finding the hay, discovered that she could creep in round a feed dustbin and make a little nest out of sight at the bottom of the hay. One of the Marans followed her in today, seemingly led there by the rooster and added this nice speckled one. We are allowing this as at least we know where to find the eggs.