Backyard composting by John Roulac

Hi, my name is Dans and I have a book problem. I buy a lot of books and I don’t get much time to read them all. My bookshelves are always overflowing no matter now many donations I make to charity shops. I have books on all the different topics that interest me, smallholding is no exception.

My smallholding book collection

Unfortunately not all books are made equal and there have been some smallholding books that I have opened with excitement, flicked through and never touched again. There are others that I reference regularly but haven’t ever read through cover to cover. I’d like to change that, partly because I need to clear space for more books by getting rid of the rubbish and partly because I do feel the knowledge would be better in my head than getting dusty on the shelf!

I’ve joined some facebook smallholding groups recently and a common post is one requesting book recommendations, either on a specific topic of smallholding or just general smallholding. I thought it might be useful for me do a little summary/review on here of the smallholding books I read, someone out there might find it helpful. I don’t promise there will be lots and lots. I’m trying to set up a smallholding, be a full time mum and housewife, have some time to pursue my non-smallholding interests (boardgaming and crafting), produce things to sell and grow a baby. This review may well be the only one you get this year but the intention is there!

So the first book was Backyard Composting by John Roulac. I think we picked this up from an elderly smallholding couple who were packing up. They were actually founding members of our smallholding club and got into it all in the smallholding wave of the 70s. I had assumed that this was quite a new book, it’s in pretty good condition and the cover art doesn’t seem dated but a couple of the projections of where we will be in terms of recycling by when made me check the date. It was first published in 1992 and my edition is from 1999. It seems to be out of print at the moment but there are second hand copies going cheap on amazon.

Overall I really liked this book. I’ve always been a bit stumped by composting and find I get sludgy bins with lots of fruit flies and smell, or dry bins with ants in. This book took the art of composting and made it really simple to follow. It gives you the complicated recipes you can follow but also reiterates that organic matter will compost eventually. I especially liked the troubleshooting section. I can see that being referred to in the future. It has a good mix of inspiration, information and practical guides.

A practical book

The other good point was the short sections. It really is a bitesize book. Not only is it under 100 pages from start to finish, but each section is only a few paragraphs long. Perfect for reading in short bursts which suits me these days!

Short sections

If you’re interested in composting and want a quick guide then I’d say give this one a try. There’s the basics of composting, recipes, specifications for different types of bins/heaps and a troubleshooting guide. The book may be older but it’s information still holds true. I’m certainly feeling more positive about composting after reading it. Next up will either be a book I’m pretty sure I don’t like (have a charity shop run to do) or one on polytunnel growing as I should really be getting going on the growing.

Dans

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When the sun shines

It’s amazing the difference the weather can make when you are smallholding. I can really see why sun worship has been so popular through the ages. Everything just feels so much lighter, hopeful and easier.

We had been meant to go away this weekend but due to family illness it was cancelled last minute. We put the change of plans to good use though. Friday we made into a Chi day. Trip to the local garden centre to visit the owl centre, look at plants and seeds, have ice cream and look at fish. Followed by a quick stop in some shoe shops to get me some shoes other than trainers that I can put on without bending and have a dinner out. Home with an exhausted Chi so time for a boardgame. Nice and restful with plans to get smallholding at the weekend.

Saturday started off with a smallholder’s club meeting. I’ll keep on saying that joining our local club was a really good move for us, being active in it has been even better. Sometimes you look at the long list of jobs you have and the forecast of good weather and think maybe we should skip it this month but it has always paid off when we have gone. It’s not just about the topic of the meeting (although this one was all about growing which was well timed for us as this year we are focusing less on livestock and more on growing). There is also a massive benefit to meeting other smallholders, making friends and getting ideas of how to set things up/fix things that you may not have thought of. If you are a smallholder and have a local group then I highly recommend joining it. I picked up a lot of tidbits at this meeting and of course there is always cake!

We grabbed some chips from McDonalds on the way home and headed straight outside. Sam got started on the compost heap again. The chickens now have free range of the land (which they love, although some still think the garden grass is greener) but it means they have attacked our muck heap and giant compost heap, spreading things everywhere. So we are using 4 heras panels to enclose the muck heap.

Finished compost/muck heap enclosure.

We would love to have a row of 3 or 4 neat contained compost heaps that we could use to turn the compost as it matures and keep things manageable. Unfortunately this year has a gazillion jobs we want to be doing so the muck heap is low down, we’ll contain it and just pile everything up. Hopefully next year, when we have the fruit patch contained and raised beds in the polytunnel, we can work on building some nice compost heaps. Sam managed to finish it and then he cleared out all the straw from the polytunnel from our lambing last year. We’re a bit behind on it I know!

Making headway on clearing the lambing side of polytunnel

Whilst he was working hard at that I attacked the beds again. I’m very against using products to kill the weeds. We aren’t registered organic but I really try to raise our animals and grow our crops with organic principles in mind, possibly too much so. Neglect over the end of summer, through autumn and winter meant that the thistle on our land moved into the polytunnel. We have beds of it. Some good friends cleared one bed for me at the end of last year but thistles are persistent. We had a slight problem with them last year but by weeding them pretty much daily, pulling the new shoots as soon as I can see them I managed to weaken the root system enough that over summer I had no problems with them at all. So I’m taking that approach again. Pulling up every thistle I can find in the polytunnel with as much of the roots as possible. It’s not easy as kneeling and bending are quite hard work for me at the moment but I think I am getting somewhere. I just need to keep on top of it. The beds are all a bit merged but we’ll sort them out once we get the sides on and manage to keep the chickens out!

De-thistled veg beds

Chi had some great fun feeding some of the flowering purple sprouting broccoli to the ewes, I think they enjoyed it too. Sometimes it’s the small moments, like seeing her barefoot, smiling and feeding sheep, that boost my confidence that we are doing something good for her here.

Feeding the sheep

Sunday’s task was to be the fruit patch so we spent Saturday night going through all our notes from last year about the size of patch, the plants that are in and the distances between them. I have signed up to The Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Planner. It’s a paid for service, although there is a free trial, but I really like it. I used it to plan the garden in Scotland but didn’t really follow up with it. It can give you updates about when to plant things, spacing and means you can go back and see what was planted where and when. I have one for the polytunnel and now for the fruit patch. I don’t think we will get anything into the outdoor veg patch this year, the covers can remain in place to kill the weeds for a while longer. You can see the fruit patch plan here.

Sunday morning we headed straight out. My mum came up and joined us for a few hours in the afternoon which gave us a bit more freedom to work as Chi played with her. We managed to plant 9 new bushes, giving us 9 blueberries, 8 gooseberries, 3 blackcurrants, 7 red currants and and 8 white currants. The garden centre we visited on Friday has some very mature bushes going very cheap so if I can get down there I’ll grab some to fill in the black currant and red currant gaps.

You can just about see the plants

Sam worked on clearing the weeds from the weed proof fabric, I think we may need to put woodchip down over the fabric but the fruit patch is Sam’s part of the smallholding so he gets final say on everything.

Clearing the weeds

Last year we were trying to improve the soil and thought we would cover the whole patch in a thick layer of manure. It didn’t quite happen but we did pull up a strip of weed proof fabric and gave a good foot of manure to it. That has rotted down now which is great but the thistles loved it! (Are you sensing a theme here?) So my next job on the fruit patch is pulling the thistles that are there, once that is done we will cover it over with weedproof fabric again and get the loganberry, raspberry and blackberry planted down that side. We are hoping as they grow they will provide a bit of shelter to the sheep (or anyone else) who grazes in polytunnel way.

You can just about see the uncovered, manured patch

It really, really feels as though things are moving in a positive direction on the holding. Of course it is April so we have had showers this week, limiting what I can do with Chi outside, but I managed to do another bit of thistle weeding on Monday and hope to do some more on Thursday. I’ve been using the rainy time to focus on getting the inside of the house under control (I am nesting after all) and had to do some pregnancy research in the evenings but I am hoping that tonight I will get some seeds in to trays inside and really kick our growing off. Better late than never hey?

Then it will be working towards making some raised beds in the polytunnel for my nice new seedlings to go into. It feels all go here at the moment, which is exhausting but oh so good!

Dans

Chicken house renovations

We’ve finally done the renovations to the chicken house. I have to say that whilst I provided a lot of the ideas for the design the actual work was pretty much all Sam.

Our first attempt at a chicken house had two perches at different heights and two external nest boxes. We soon found that the chickens didn’t like the external nest boxes, they had a slight leak. We used some plastic Ikea boxes to make two internal nest boxes and they proved to be a hit.

As our chicken numbers increased we needed to change the house around. We planned to do the changes swiftly but as always things got delayed. First was putting in longer perches, but this meant that the perches went over the two internal nest boxes and cleaning up the house each week took a lot longer.

Longer, level perches

We now have a shiny new poop tray. It’s been varnished and covers the underneath of the perches so I am hoping that rather than picking poo out of the chopped straw bedding I will be able to simply scrape it off of the tray. This will be so much easier and will be better for composting.

The next step was nest boxes underneath the poop tray. We went for dividers that go from the floor to the underside of the poop tray. We used the same width as the Ikea boxes as the chickens seemed to really like these. We managed to fit 6 in. Due to the depth of the poop tray these boxes are nice and dark so hopefully the chickens will like them. It also takes us to 8 nest boxes between 23 hens, hopefully some of the hens will feel less inclined to make their nests in the bushes. Some of the hens have already started laying in the new nest boxes which is encouraging.

Of course having the nest boxes so far back means that it’s hard for us to get to the eggs. The next development for the house was knocking some panels out of the back of the house and putting a flap in to access the eggs. It took us the best part of a week to get that part finished, using boards held down by paving slabs in the meantime but the job is done.

Then that’s it, the house is finished. The chickens have been a bit disrupted with all the work going on so we’ve seen a dip in the egg laying. It’s mostly the Derbyshire Redcaps, our most flighty chickens. Instead of getting 8 or 9 eggs a day from them we are getting 4, so the others are off laying elsewhere. I’ll have to try and track down those nests and hope that as they see the others using the nest boxes inside the house they will start laying inside again. We are up to 20 eggs being laid in the house, which with 23 hens isn’t a bad day’s haul.

Already queuing

It feels really good to have a big job checked off our to do list. Now to do the same with the other jobs (finish planting fruit bushes and net fruit patch, raised beds in polytunnel and chicken proof doors, fix the shed roof, chicken fencing, compost heaps –  oh how the list goes on!).

Dans

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Pressing frozen apples

We’re having a bit of a freezer crisis at the moment. We’ve got quite a lot of home grown fruit, veg and meat in the freezers now, as well as some bought in pork from other smallholders. This means that we are nearing capacity, which of course is brilliant, if I can get sorted with using what is inside then it will really lower our food costs and is in tune with the whole reason for this smallholding, eating home grown produce. We did really well at getting on with the preserving last year, apple sauce, apple and cucumber chutney, lots of jams, passatas, apple juice and wine etc but the freezers are still quite full.

I’m pregnant and due in August, that means that during our peak harvest of fruit and veg and when we shall be getting hogget and possibly mutton back from the butchers I be either heavily pregnant or dealing with a newborn. I’m not sure how productive I will be in the kitchen, but given the state of my hips currently I think it’s a good idea to bet on me not doing much at all. So what will we do with all the produce? Wash, chop and shove in the freezer of course! Then, when baby is older I can start working through it. The issue is there is no space for a summer’s worth of produce at the moment, so I need to get clearing while I still can.

That brings me to this post, and hopefully a few more along the same lines in the coming months. Emptying the freezers and turning the contents into tasty and in some cases, long lasting, foods. We kicked off this process this week with the immanent arrival of 3 geese and 2 chickens for the chest freezer. At the end of last year we were drowning in apples and, after contacting Vigo Presses, I washed, chopped and frozen 2 builders buckets of cooking apples. Just straight in the freezer with some cling film over the top. These came out along with a small bag of Beauty of Bath apples. We popped them in an empty fridge to defrost for a couple days and dusted off the apple press.

Vigo had suggested that if doing the apples from frozen we may benefit from a mesh bag to put the crushed pieces into inside the press. I can’t remember what stopped me from buying it at the time but I am guessing eventually the tab got closed on my computer and it got forgotten about. I’m not sure we actually needed to crush the apples, they pretty much turned to a mush despite still being a little frozen.

We then got to the pressing stage and soon realised the reasoning behind needing the mesh bag. A fair amount of the apple just squeezed through the press and we even got some spurting. It was certainly going to be a cloudy apple juice. As we couldn’t press it too much the mush ended up being quite wet at the end, much wetter than we would have liked so a lot of juice remained in it. If we had the bag we could have probably gotten it a lot drier and gotten more juice.

We took the juice inside and poured it through a small colander into a pot, we had about 10 pints of juice. We left it to sit for a while as I was feeling a bit broken by the point but I’m glad we did. When I went back to it there was quite a bit of frothy scum that had risen to the top. We had this with our first batch of juice and Vigo had said then that letting it stand may reduce that. I scooped off the scum and bottled the juice.

It went into the pasteuriser which had been filled with cold water and set to 75°C for 25 mins. We sat down to watch TV and forgot about it so it had long been done by the time I remembered. The bottles were still too hot to touch though. Being so hot for so long may have affected the flavour but hopefully not, we haven’t opened a bottle yet although we did taste some freshly pressed juice which was lovely. I used our nifty grabby tool to get the bottles out, tightened the caps and lay them on their sides. There is still quite a lot of scum so I think we will leave the juice to stand for longer next time. The juice is also quite dark after pasteurising but this time I didn’t bother with ascorbic acid or citric acid, the juice tastes fine as is and I just didn’t feel like adding extra things in just for aesthetics.

Just to pop labels on them and drink them in the next 1-2 years. A learning experience to be sure, but we now know we can juice from frozen apples and have some ideas on how to improve the process. As a bonus it made just enough space for the geese and chickens which went into the freezer the next afternoon.

Dans

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Eggs everywhere

We have too many eggs. Seriously too many eggs. 20 boxes of eggs in the fridge for our use. We are getting between 16 and 22 eggs a day from the chickens, we try and sell as many as possible, but any small eggs, dirty eggs or eggs with shell defects go into our use. We also only keep eggs at the gate for 7 days before bringing them into our use. I like to only sell fresh, decent sized, clean eggs to those who choose to buy from us.

Eggs for sale on the gate

The downside is the sheer number of eggs we are getting at the moment. The Derbyshire Redcap young hens should increase their egg size soon and if it ever stops raining the eggs will be cleaner. In the mean time though we have a glut!

One day’s harvest of eggs

So what to do with all these eggs. We’ve been having scrambled eggs for lunch and omelettes for dinners but it’s just not cutting it so I asked on facebook for some ideas. The first one was Spinach and soft cheese fritters. There was no recipe and I’ve never made fritters so I winged it. I greased a muffin tray with butter and put a whisked egg into each one. We didn’t have spinach but we did have kale so I chopped that up and put a bunch into each one. I finished it off with a dollop of soft lactofree cheese. Into the oven at 200C for 10 mins. They came out quite well but a bit plain. I think some salt or bacon or even herbs mixed in would help. My second tip would be don’t use butter, a week later I’m still trying to scrub the muffin tray clean, oil may have been better.

Kale and soft cheese egg things

My next attempt was custard. A few years ago a friend told me custard was easy to make. I love custard but being lactose intolerant I don’t get to have it much. I looked it up but separating eggs seemed far too scary so I left it. I bought an egg separator a few weeks ago and have finally put it to use. I found a really simple recipe online here but as I’m rubbish at following recipes I modified it a bit.

My modifications were small, mainly using 3/4 a cup of full fat milk and 1/4 a cup of single cream. I am also terribly impatient and whisking continuously is far too boring so I just turned the heat up to high. I was meant to pour it into a jug once it hit boiling and then whisk until thickened but I honestly couldn’t tell if it was boiling because the whisking was creating bubbles (I may have had some white left in). In the end I whisked until it very suddenly got harder to whisk which turned out to be it thickening. I checked it and it seemed thick enough to now be called custard. I was quite nervous but as soon as I tasted the spoon I knew it was a success, I didn’t even get a photo of the custard in a jug, it was gone far too quickly. It was really tasty but I might do slightly less vanilla in future. I’ll scale it up tomorrow for dessert with Chi as I waited for her to be in bed before attempting this.

My last egg adventure is whisking eggs up and freezing them. I tried in a muffin tray to start with but I found it very hard to get the frozen egg out. It does work well in silicon fairy cake molds though, popping them out into a bag once frozen. I’ve yet to try defrosting and using them. That is on my to-do list for this week.

Eggs ready for freezing

We’ve been doing all the usual egg dishes as well; egg fried rice, eggy bread (french toast), fried eggs, egg salad, hard-boiled and dippy eggs. Hopefully there’ll be some more posts of ways to use up eggs soon. Quiche and meringue are my next challenges.

Dans

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Best laid plans

Sometimes you can make the best plans in the world and it all goes awry. We’re having a bit of this at the moment.

Easter weekend seemed like it would be a great time to get on top of some of the jobs that had piled up. Sam had 4 days off and we’d just had our first real taste of Spring the weekend before. We started really well, getting into the polytunnel on Friday and doing a good tidy. The chickens we had in there had merged all our beds into one  which we worked at sweeping into individual beds. We are planning to make the polytunnel beds raised beds this year, we have the wood for it but we will see how that goes. On the upside they should have done a good job at removing pests and added a bit of fertiliser. I’d quite like to let some chickens loose on empty beds each year. Whilst sweeping and weeding the beds Sam spotted two parsnips we had missed, they were huge. He also managed to start work on getting our muck heap fenced in as the chickens have been spreading that too.

I busied myself with doing the second coat of varnish on the new poop tray for the chicken house. The plan was to get that in on Sunday when the weather would be drier, it will massively reduce the amount of time spent cleaning the chicken house and hopefully give us some cleaner eggs. I then cleaned out the chicken house in the polytunnel as it was no longer in use, Aurora being back in the main flock and Chihiro being in the freezer. Whilst the varnish was out and as it was nearly finished I threw a coat onto the inside of the roof. The ventilation on the house isn’t great and we found that some days there was condensation inside which was rotting the inside of the roof. It isn’t a brilliant house, I did a review of it here, but it works for housing chicks and broody hens, newcomers and anyone we want to isolate. I know the varnish isn’t a proper fix but hopefully it will help. Chi was kept entertained once she realised she could get into the house. We even managed to play a board game that night, things were looking good!

Saturday was a Chi day, we took her to her first cinema trip which she seemed to enjoy. We were meant to go swimming after but she was very tired and ratty which should have been my first clue something was up. She was asleep by the time we got home and we managed to get another game played. Sunday we had swimming in the morning then the plan was home to make the most of the dry spell. The forecast lied. There was no dry so we went to a soft play instead. Whilst there I noticed Chi was getting ill again, which resulted in a 3 day stay at hospital. Bang went the rest of the plans for the weekend and the next week as I really struggle to take her outside in the cold and wet when she isn’t well. We seemed to be getting better but something else has cropped up that the GP is looking into. Over a week after getting out of hospital and I am still worried about taking her out. Children really can add a random factor into smallholding that you just can’t account for.

On top of that the rain hasn’t helped things. We haven’t been hit as badly as some people but the land is pretty saturated, we’re about to buy even more hay, in April. It feels wrong but there just isn’t enough grass.

The chickens are laying like mad, but we’re getting less people stopping at the stall to buy eggs. Plus the chickens have muddy feet so we’re getting a lot more dirty eggs that I feel bad trying to sell. We have 20 boxes of eggs in the fridge right now for our use. I have to admit I’m feeling a fair bit overwhelmed! There’ll be a post soon about the different bits I’m doing with eggs. On top of that I was so glad to see 4 boxes had gone from the gate yesterday, only to find out that once again no money has been left. We have a repeat offender who will help themselves to several boxes and leave no money. It’s depressing to put so much work in and have people take advantage, especially when you are producing on such a small scale so every sale counts.

One day’s harvest of eggs

It’s also starting to get impossible to get to the Derbyshire Redcap cockerels as the entrance to their polytunnel is flooded, they have also started to fight with each other. The geese still aren’t laying and have eaten through their grass. We’ve made the decision to send the geese for meat. We really wanted to keep the descendants of Athos, April and Abigail but they are all boys and we are struggling with the workload this year. It will be very strange not to have geese on the land. The two cockerels are going too as they are well past time and I don’t know when I will get to killing and butchering them.

The cockerels sizing each other up

Last bit of news was some mucky bums on two of the ewe lambs (Celaena and Caitlin), they hadn’t been wormed when we did the other lambs last year so they got their first dose of wormer. Not before Celaena jumped straight over the hurdles and went for a wander around the area though. She takes after her father I think. We did Caprica at the same time as her bum was a bit mucky. I would have liked to do a worm count first but honestly I’m struggling to get things done. The ram lambs are showing no signs of needing and neither are the ewes so we left them be. They are starting to look quite smart, I’m thinking about trying to sell Cisco for breeding, he’s a great ram lamb, when he isn’t putting his head in a fence, but that’s probably to do with the lack of grass.

All in all we are finding things hard right now. We make plans to get things on track but other things crop up. There’s lots to do, the year is ticking by, Chi isn’t well, I’m pretty useless and the weather is literally raining on us. It’s probably the hardest we have found smallholding since starting and we have had thoughts about packing up. We won’t make a decision now, not in the midst of the bad, but we are longing for some good weather and a bit of a break from all the hardships of winter.

Dans

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Spring has sprung!

Well the last few days it’s actually been cold and rainy but last weekend we felt the first promise of spring in the air and despite the rain it feels like the land is waking and the wheel is turning. We had our first good weekend of outside work, doing a general tidy up of the back garden, snipping back some dead branches on the fruit trees and a bit of late pruning. We got some bigger jobs in too though.

Saturday was mostly spent with me killing and preparing Chihiro, the only Light Sussex chick (now 29 weeks old) that Aurora hatched. He was younger than the two Derbyshire Redcaps but he was becoming a bit troublesome, fighting with Aramis through the polytunnel (which now needs some repair work). There was also the fact that we could do him and return Aurora to the flock. We were a little worried that my nausea would return and we would have killed him but been unable to process him, the idea of doing the Redcaps and wasting the two of them was just a bit too much. I hate the idea of wasting anything from the animals that die for us.  It actually went really well. He was quite large, 3.1kg dead weight, and I was able to pluck him with no damage to the skin (first time). I’m still very slow to process the chickens, it took me 2 hours to get him gutted somehow. I was looking after Chi at the same time who kept coming in to ask questions/for snacks and I had to dig out all my tools only to find they weren’t sharp. Then I also found I couldn’t fit my hand into the body cavity from the top end, and the guts were really hard to remove. Oh and I cut myself. A bit of a nightmare really. He was quite fatty  which I think didn’t help. We really need to work out how to get the chicks more free ranging whilst still keeping them safe. The Derbyshire Redcaps are up next, hopefully Easter Monday. I’ll be very glad to have all the cockerels bar Aramis dispatched, it’s been on my to-do list for far too long.

The feathers came out really nicely after dunking in hot water

Chi being there wasn’t all bad though, we do want her to know where her food comes from. She actually came over for a look and was a bit concerned that I was pulling his feathers too hard. I explained that the white chicken was no longer alive and as such it wasn’t hurting him. I tried to explain that we were going to eat him and we don’t eat feathers so they have to come off. She seemed to accept this then went to play in the polytunnel whilst I stressed that I’d handled it all wrong. When I was gutting him she was a bit weary again, she said ‘too hard’ when I took his feet off but I explained again that he was dead and couldn’t feel it and we don’t eat the feet. Again she seemed to accept this. She said later that we eat the chicken but not head or feet. We had chicken thighs (shop bought) for dinner that night and she had no issues so hopefully I handled it all ok. She has always been present for the killing, plucking and gutting but this is the first time she has taken an interest or commented. If anyone has any suggestions on how to approach it all I’d be really interested.

Chi asking questions

In a moment of temporary insanity I decided to volunteer to set up a winemaking interest group for our local smallholding club (Fenland Smallholders Club). It is mainly on facebook but we had our first face to face meeting on the Saturday night. I was very nervous about it but we did a little bring and taste, question and answer session, a bit about filtering with a demonstration from Sam and a troubleshooter for how to fix a wine that hasn’t come out as you’d like. Was actually quite a success which was a relief!

Sunday was mostly more pottering on the land, catching up on small tasks that had been waiting a while, including a nice new head on the hose so no more trekking back and forth to turn the tap on and off. We did a deep clean on the chicken house ahead of the hopeful renovations next week (new poop tray and nest boxes), it really did need it. We let the chickens have the run of the land a couple weeks back and they discovered the muck heap. What had been quite a tidy heap has been spread by them so Sam worked at getting it into one pile and thinking about how we fence it off from them. Chi had great fun climbing it whilst he did though!

I’m sure she’s helping!

The weather was still good on Monday so Chi and I headed out for a bit. I sorted through the last of the apples from the autumn and did the first coat of varnish on the poop tray for the chicken house. No photos as my phone died.

One last thing. Burnham has made a full recovery. I posted about her being off one of her legs a couple weeks back, you can read about it here. There’s now no sign of a limp and she is back to being found in all the places she shouldn’t be. It was hard trying to help Arwen but ultimately not being able to. It’s a good feeling when we can successfully help our animals.

Dans

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R.I.P. Arwen

Sad news to report tonight. Putting the chickens to bed last night Sam found one on it’s back, legs in the air, under the apple tree. He was pretty sure it was dead until he saw it move slightly. He brought it in to me and I quickly realised it was Arwen. She has been on my watch list since October 2016, when we got settled at home from all the funeral bits we noticed her hunched and not doing much. She was brought in then and given scrambled egg, she perked up after a couple days and went back out with the flock. She never seemed to fully recover though. Each winter I’ve kept an eye out expecting her to not make it to morning or night corn one day but she has persisted. We didn’t put an end to her as she was quite happy running around and eating, wasn’t at the bottom of the pecking order and could quite easily jump over the fence to the garden where the grass was always greener! She was hell to catch too, that chicken was swift on her feet!

We brought her in and she was quite cold. I wrapped her in a warm towel and got the hospital dog cage out again. I set her up in our room by the radiator and scrambled some egg. We got some warm water and a pipette too. I gave her a small amount of egg in her mouth which she did swallow and about 1.5ml of warm water.  She didn’t resist or move much at all and occasionally twitched which I was hoping was her body trying to get warm. Then I sat with her on my lap until her legs were no longer cold.  I checked her over at the same time, noting new feathers she had. She had no lice on her or eggs at the base of her feathers so she had still been preening up until very recently. I left her at that point to settle for the night and see what happened. We moved her to the spare room just before bed as we have to have our bedroom door open for Chi and I didn’t want the cats bothering her. Chi just kept saying the chicken was sleeping, I said that I think she may be passing but I don’t think she really took it in.

I was feeling hopeful this morning as Arwen was still with us. Gave her some sugar water and a bit of cat food (not poultry) to try and boost her as she is also getting some new feathers in (that plus the cold is probably what pushed her too far). She was taking that quite well and I popped in each hour to see to her. She pooped and she was moving about a little, not on her feet but she would spread herself out and move her head. She was also a bit more resistant to me giving her food and water which I took as a hopeful sign and seemed to be opening her eyes more when I came into the room.

When Sam brought her in I figured at the very least she would pass in peace, no bother from other chickens or wild animals, and in the warm. At best we could nurse her back to a good quality of life. I wasn’t bothered about eggs from her (I haven’t expected any for a while) but she was once the head of the flock and had been with us from the start, I wanted the smooth path for her, whether that be in a smooth passing or good health. Unfortunately it was the former. I went in to check on her but she had passed.

Wearing a saddle when she was Aramis’ favourite hen

Being who I am I second guess and question things. I saw her the other day when I did the night run a bit late and she had gone in earlier than the others and was hunched. I brought her out and sprinkled some corn which she ate then went back to bed. I made a mental note to bring her in for some TLC soon, maybe if I had done it then she would have made a recovery. We also haven’t wormed the flock in a while, maybe a dose of wormer would have helped her, the worms could have been an extra burden she didn’t need. Whilst we were out yesterday Sam mentioned that a grey hen had been in the nest box last night. I immediately thought Arwen and that we should probably bring her in, but when we got home she had already started the decline.

Arwen this winter

I also stop and think what was it that struck her down in 2016. It could have been Marek’s. She did have pupils of different sizes and she has lost weight, but she just seemed to happy in herself. Plus we can’t treat for Marek’s, just deal with it as it hits us in the flock if we do have it. Maybe it was worms that weren’t cleared by our normal worming. I said before she jumps the fence regularly which can affect how much pellets she eats, instead favouring foraging. Maybe a dose of Ivermectin would have helped.

It’s one of the awful things about having animals (be they pets or livestock), they do die at times. We do what we can to give them good lives and good deaths but we will make mistakes. Maybe I made mistakes with Arwen, maybe I didn’t, I’ll never quite know, but I do know that I tried my best for her at all times. It’s a hard line to walk not knowing if you are reaching for medication too quickly/often or not quickly/often enough. Experience over the years will help me refine that balance, I read everything I can but not much replaces experience, I just hate when that experience comes at the possible cost of a life. Rest well Arwen.

Dans

The Beast from the East and a wobbly chicken

So I thought it was about time I treated you all to another update.

The last couple weeks have seen a few events around here. The big news I guess is that we are expecting a new life at the smallholding this summer, but of the human variety. We’re having our second (and dare I say final) baby in August. Although we are very happy about this it does have it’s downside. I now can’t lift, carry, pull and push the weights I could, which is what we really need me doing to catch up on all our jobs. In addition I don’t do pregnancy very well, my hips were really bad last time and 1st trimester nausea hits me hard. Nonetheless it’s only 9 months and we will get through it.

We’ve had a little issue with the sheep. Starting back in Jan when they really upped the hay intake I noticed a bald patch on two of the ram lamb’s noses. As time went on it grew and got a little scab. Nothing on Crichton’s nose though. Then the a couple of the ewes got the same thing. I spoke to the vet who asked for pictures and was a bit baffled. She suggested it could be a bacterial infection where they are rubbing noses on the hay rack. We gave a long acting antibiotic and sprayed their noses blue. Sure enough the next day there was pretty much no sign of the blue spray and when watched they do rub their noses in those exact spots when eating from the rack. Not sure what we can do to stop it but we are moving them to some fresh grass soon and I keep hoping the grass will start growing again! If anyone has any ideas on stopping them rubbing their noses it’d be much appreciated!

The next event we had was the Beast from the East. We actually got off quite lightly in terms of the weather. We had a couple of days of the weather being bitterly cold but at most we only had about 3 inches of snow. We saw worse snow when we lived in Scotland. The big issue we had was with freezing water buckets, but I think a lot of smallholders faced similar issues. Our remedy was to have spare buckets and fill them up in the bathtub. Then once in the morning and once in the evening we’d take the fresh warm water out and bring the solid buckets of ice in for thawing and refilling. Sam had to do most of the traipsing around in the snow as my hips were really bad that week. I did get out once to see to the animals and take some photos though. Chi also got a trip out in the sledge but I did have to take a crutch with me for that one!

I’m happy to say that we had no cold related animal losses. Despite Awen (one of the original Cream Legbar hens) looking pretty rough since autumn 2016 she is still happily scratching in the garden, on the wrong side of the fence might I add! Despite that we did have one guest hen for the cold snap. Two days before the snow hit, Sam found Burnham (one of the Rhode Island Red hens) just sitting in the nest box, he had to move her to change the bedding but she hobbled and flapped her way around then lay down. It didn’t look very good at all.

I gave her a once over whilst Sam saw to the rest of the animals. Wing seemed fine. The scaly part of her leg was as cool as the other side, the feathered part was as warm on the other side. Nothing felt floppy, at the joint or within the bone, and she could grip my finger with her toes. I used some warm water and a cloth to wash away the caked on mud from her foot in case she had something stuck or a cut, but there was nothing I could see. Her leg was shaking like anything but the rest of her was fine. Her comb was nice and red, her eyes bright and she didn’t feel skinny.  She was also eating and drinking well when food was brought near. We brought her in in a dog crate and crossed out fingers that it was just a sprain.

Burnham having some r’n’r

I called the Vet the next day for some advice and she suggested tissue damage or possibly Mareks. There’s a good page about it here if you want some more information. The vet said we were right to bring her in and confine her, if it is Mareks she will go further downhill, if it isn’t then the rest should help her. From what I can see from that page it would be the neurological form, but the leg wasn’t really paralysed so much as she didn’t want to put weight on it. We put her out the next day as I was worried about her in the warm house all day on her own (we were going to be out) but when we got back she was lying in the same spot.

We then kept her in for about 4 days before giving her a bit of a stretch in the conservatory. She hadn’t been laying but she had new feathers coming in on her clipped wing so she may be moulting a little. I had a feel but couldn’t feel anything like an egg so I suspect the stress of being ill or moulting has her off lay for a bit. She was much better in the conservatory, a limp for sure but no longer flapping her wings with every step.

A few days later she started getting much more lively in the pen. Arguing with me when I lifted her out to clean the cage and making much more noise. We had lost all the snow in the garden and it was sunny enough that some chickens were sunbathing so I popped her out. I kept an eye on her throughout the day. She was still limping, but not really hobbling. She didn’t run around the garden but she did move about and seemed happier. In the evening she took herself to bed, although she slept on the floor of the house rather than on a perch. She’s been out a few days now and we haven’t seen her lying down exhausted once. She is still limping but she is a fast mover when she is out with the corn and there’s no signs of any of the other hens bullying her. It is possible she will now always have a limp but her spirits are high so I’m feeling pretty happy about it.

The last bit of news is really non-news. We still don’t have goose eggs. I’m starting to be convinced that we have a gay couple of geese, they are certainly bonded, going everywhere together and leaving the 3rd goose on its own a lot of the time, but neither one is being submissive in the mating situation. They get into the water, make all the mating sounds then run in circles pulling at the feathers on each other’s backs until one gets pushed out of the pool. Then they both flap like mad. I was hoping the third was a female at least but no sign of eggs or a nest and it is much later than when the previous generation of geese started laying. Maybe it’s just the cold snap. I’ll keep holding out hope.

Dans

Our first mutton, sheepskins and horn

Yes we are still here!

My laptop had a slow death and went completely out of use a couple of months ago. Since then I have been limping along with my phone but it was a lot harder to get things done. Now I have a nice new laptop I’m back again. I’ll catch you up with the various goings on as new stuff comes up, but I want to do a post about our first experience of sending sheep to the abattoir and getting the meat and other products back.

You may remember that we ended up getting more breeding ewes than we thought we could have in the long run. We wanted to see how they lambed and then cull down to our final number of breeding ewes (3). Two of the ewes, Anya and Aelin didn’t get in lamb, there was a chance they would if we gave them a second year but we just couldn’t justify keeping them on. They were earmarked for meat once we were certain they weren’t carrying lambs.

Lambing went pretty well for our first time. Alanna’s lambing stood out though. She scanned as a single and had a small lamb with no difficulty. We saw another sack but she showed no sign of pushing. A very small lamb literally wriggled it’s way out of her, it dropped to the floor, she looked behind her and then continued licking the first lamb. I waited a bit to see if she would do anything but then cleared the airways. We gave her 2 hours and still no mothering towards the second lamb. We did finally get the lamb up and feeding, which she allowed after a bit of a fight. She never did ‘mother’ Crais though. She would allow him to feed if he was by her but she never answered his calls or went to him. Both lambs were a lot smaller than any of the others and Alanna got marked for meat once her lambs were weaned. Her not looking after Crais gave us so much extra work.

So weaning time came around and we booked the ewes in. I spent the week before trying to come up with ways to avoid it. Maybe we could sell them – but we want meat, if we sell them we have no mutton. Maybe we are being too rash in writing them off – but if we keep them we have 12 sheep on the land over winter, far too many. It really was a decision I wrestled with and I am kind of glad I did. I hope I always feel at least a little tug in sending animals off for meat.

Aelin, Alanna and Anya

Abattoir rolled around quickly, the trailer had been scrubbed out, the sheep dagged and checked over, everything was ready. We got a little lost driving to the abattoir, despite doing a test run a couple days before, we pulled up at the butchers expecting the side road to be a route to the abattoir but it turned out it was further so Sam had to do a u-turn in the trailer! The animals unloaded fine and we had all the paper worked needed to get back our Category 2 animal by-products. We drove back home feeling a bit solemn but not with the tears a lot of smallholders had reported.

Saying bye to the girls

I was back there a few hours later though to pick up the skins and horns. It would seem that the abattoir aren’t used to people doing this, they weren’t sure about the paperwork at first and the horns were cut at varying lengths, they did apply an initial salting though which was nice.

Cat 2 products for transit

When I got them back home the skins were laid out and any flesh removed, in future I think I’d actually ask them not to do the initial salting if I’m going to collect them so quickly (they were still warm), as it seems to make the flesh harder to remove in places. I got them as clean as I could though and covered with salt. A week or so later we covered them again and then about a month later we sent them off to be tanned. I’ll try a do a more in depth post about the skins once I get them back.

The horns I had much less of a clue about. I’d read about burying them, or putting them on a high roof far away. Unfortunately we had neither of those and so we popped them in a dog cage near the back door until I could read more about the boiling method. As it turned out when I next checked on them the maggots had loosened the core on one despite the cold weather. I left them longer and the maggots loosened the core on 3 more, not really much of a smell at all until you removed the core. There are two more and they are now in the conservatory. I should give them a try again soon.

Collecting of the meat was ok. The butchers got a couple cuts wrong which was annoying as I had to drive back to get it corrected, I didn’t want to disappoint the customers. We sold 5 halves in the end, keeping one half back for ourselves. One was collected fresh from the butcher, one was collected fresh from us, two were frozen and then collected from us and the last was posted fresh. The last one was probably the most nerve wracking for me. I pretty much loathe polystyrene so we went for Woolcool packaging which is cardboard boxes lined with a wool insert. We sent it next day delivery via courier and it arrived fine thankfully. I think we’d definitely be open to posting in future.

The contents of one of the meat boxes

We ate our first home grown mutton the next night and it really was delicious, just a quick dish of chops lightly fried but the meat wasn’t tough at all. We saved a leg for Christmas dinner and slow cooked it, the meat really is different to lamb, it is genuinely richer. We’ve had lots of positive feedback from the customers which is really nice.

Our first mutton meal

We should have a very limited amount of hogget over summer, so if you’re interested get your orders in, I have a feeling it will go quickly!

Dans

A journey into smallholding