Feeling crafty

One of the wonderful, and potentially stressful, things about smallholding is the scope. There is so much more than simply raising animals and growing crops. What will you cook with all these varied ingredients? Will you get into preserving such as dehydrating, jams, chutneys, sauces, pickling, juices, homebrew, cordials, vinegars? Then there is dairy production, churning your own butter, yoghurts, cheeses, ice creams. What about baking, savoury and sweet?

The desire to smallhold often comes hand in hand with a desire to be more self sufficient and also to have a lower impact on the planet, smallholders are often quite eco aware. Are you going to make your own cleaning products like soaps? What about building things for yourself? From BBQs and sheds to smokers and solar panels, smallholders often tackle it all. What about carving with wood for art rather than function?

Then you look at what else your animals can give you, meat for sure but with sheep at least you have the by-product of the fleece which needs to be shorn each year. You can spin it (with a drop spindle or wheel), felt it (wet and needle), dye it, make rugs, make ‘vegetarian sheepskins’, weave with it. Don’t forget products from animals that have gone for meat, you have horns, skins, feathers and bones that can also have a use. There’s always a wealth of new skills you can tackle and I have a desire to have a go at them all! In fact I’ve made a pretty good dent on that list already:

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Today I wanted to talk a bit about the crafting with wool. This is something I was passionate about for a few years. In the space of a couple of months whilst we were Scotland, with the help of youtube videos, I taught myself to knit. I wasn’t very good to start with but I worked at it and became quite competent. My Mum juggled being a seamstress alongside nursing but I have never been very good with the sewing machine.

I fell in love with my new found ability to make something. It also allowed me to sit down and still feel productive, a bonus when you have a strong drive to always be ‘doing’ but a body that isn’t very healthy. I had a little dabble at crochet but the confusion between US and UK terms seemed to put me off. I can turn my hands to most knitting without much thought but crochet takes much more concentration for me.

I then discovered fibre. I could knit with real wool and using ‘spit and splice’ to join wool was a revelation that made me look at my stash of acrylic wool with a bit of disdain! Then of course came the need to know more.

What about spinning? A wonderful man showed me how to spin with a drop spindle made out of a twig and CD using bits of wool we collected from the fences in a field whilst camping. I was soon the owner of a drop spindle and a lot of roving. Suddenly I was presented with a lovely gift of a spinning wheel. Well once you are spinning it makes sense to go to the source and I ended up with fleece, both that I had bought and that I had been gifted with.  That required processing and after a very lucky Christmas I had a drum carder.

Now I had too much fleece to spin and I ended up buying a peg loom to turn the growing pile of fleece into gifts one Christmas. I even bought a dying kit but never plucked up the courage to use it. My mother in law presented me with a huge loom that is wrapped up as individual pieces, I still haven’t plucked up the courage to unwrap it and put it together yet. Can you see how it is a slippery slope?  At the very least I was always walking with at least one knitting project and I mean that literally, I could walk and knit at the same time.

Pegloom rug in progress

Then I had my daughter and my focus switched to mothering. I didn’t seem to have time between moving to the smallholding and trying to raise her to do much crafting. I have tried a couple of times to pick up a knitting or crochet project but it has been slow progress and I have had very few finished objects since I had her. I have managed to make two peg loom rugs which are getting a lot of use. I did a demo on it at an event for our smallholding club which re-ignited the flame a little.

Peg loom rug

Our smallholding club (which I love) has been having a wave of starting up small interest groups (winemaking, wooly crafts, cheese making adding to the existing music, growing and baking groups). Despite being pregnant and seeing the imminent demise of ‘me’ time I signed up to the group. We have only had two meetings (one a month) but my word my passion for crafting has been reignited. After the first one I took some time to grab the rovings I made about 5 years ago and dusted off the drop spindle. I need to work on my technique again but it’s at the very least smoother than when I first started with it so I haven’t slid too far backwards.

A rare break to enjoy the weather and spin some wool

Next we had a felting meeting coming up. I had briefly dabbled with needle felting whilst at a camp last year. I made a very thin crescent moon and then forgot about it all. The aim was to do something with the bits of our fleece that are too small to be used in the pegloom rugs (the main destination for our fleeces). I figured I might be able to pick up some tips at this meeting so I dusted it off, grabbed some raw Castlemilk wool that I had bought when smallholding was still a dream and had a go at making a sheep. It’s certainly mammalian, I’m not sure if it is a sheep and you haven’t got much of a chance of guessing it was meant to be a Castlemilk but it was a experiment and I was quite happy. It took me about an hour. My awful start at knitting gives me hope that I can master this skill, I won’t be put off by a rough start!

The felting meeting was great, we made a  wet felt flower with pre-dyed wool and it is something I can see me doing with Chi. It was meant to be a poppy but it came out quite big so I’m not sure I will wear it but it does look lovely. It’s something I can see myself doing during the summer months with Chi.

Following that I decided to have a go at the needle felt sheep with clean, carded wool. I bit the bullet and decided to give washing fleece in the washing machine a go as people in the group were confirming it worked. It was a bit terrifying and I did felt one (used a denim cycle instead of wool as they are next to each other) but it is working well and I think I could get through a lot of fleece this way! The fleece shown was very dirty to start with and was a bit dirty after the wash so I put it through for a second run.  It came out cleaner but still a bit dirty on the tips. It wasn’t a great one to start with but it didn’t felt, the body side is a bit more tangled on the net bag one though, not quite felted but you can see it starting. I’ll go with pillow cases from here on out.

The drum carder got a dusting off due to another smallholder in the group being excited about them and getting one. I carded my freshly washed wool and set about making a new sheep. It’s very different working with carded wool than with raw fleece, the sheep has been a lot easier to put together and isn’t half as lumpy. I’m still working on getting the proportions right, the back legs are a bit thick, and the head is giving me some trouble but it feels like I am improving which is the aim.

Now another friend is experimenting with acid dyes on spun wool and I’m starting to eye up my dusty dying kit and thinking about putting together that loom. I have 5 reasonably sized white fleeces, 2 huge white fleeces, 1 huge black fleece and 19 of our own fleeces sitting around getting dusty so I have plenty to choose from for experiments.

3 bags full

All in all I am feeling reinvigorated about crafting and I love it. It is something I have really missed. I know baby is due in August but I am hoping I can find some way to keep going to the meetings and keep a bit of me time for crafting this time around. In the meantime I’m going to get as much as I can made before baby arrives. Hopefully this has given you a bit of an intro about me as a crafter and will help my future posts make a bit more sense!

Dans

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Scaling back

Well you may remember a couple of months I was saying how hard we were finding everything at the moment. My hips were starting to go, I was banned from lifting due to pregnancy, Sam’s knee was still very much out of use after the cellulitis and due to his disability he does a lot of smallholding activities kneeling so that he has a stable base, the weather was awful with everything flooding and the grass not growing and it all just felt a bit overwhelming.

We did send the geese to the freezer after that. The combination of no eggs being laid, running out of grass for them and extra work for Sam when he was already stretched thin, just proved too much. In hindsight I realise I should have either had them jointed or put them up for sale before sending them to the abattoir but hindsight is 20:20. Instead they are in the freezer and will get eaten at some big gatherings through the year. I do really miss having the geese around but in actual fact it has been a blessing, it did relieve the pressure and allowed us to look at the orchard again. The chickens now have safe free roaming of the smallholding and can forage in the orchard, we’ve also set up the broody nursery in there. I noticed a lot of ants and thus aphids on the young fruit trees in there so we will be pulling up our chicken wire ‘goose excluders’ that we have set up around the trees so that the chickens can do a good job scratching around those trunks for ants and other grubs. I like to think we will have geese again but if we do we’ll be changing our management to have them following the sheep grazing.

A fair amount of roast goose in our future

The other area we have scaled back is the growing. I wanted to grow something this year, maybe not expand on last year but still be growing as I loved eating our home grown passata for several months and would like to do it again. Unfortunately we also decided to work on raising the beds and having the chickens free ranging meant that they were straight into the polytunnel to have dust baths in our beds. As a result of that, and general disorganisation combined with a strong urge to nest meaning I wasn’t sowing seeds until very late, we have only just got our first plants into the polytunnel. Some netting over the unused doors has been a successful short term measure to keep the chickens out but the polytunnel cool enough. We still have nothing outside and we only have 2 veg beds raised in the polytunnel. The growing is most certainly scaled back this year.

All of this may be for the best though. The baby is due in August which is our peak harvest season in the polytunnel. We are unlikely to be able to do much in the way of food processing this year and no matter what we do the plum, apple and pear trees will be dropping their fruit on us which will likely mostly go straight into the freezer. Not growing as much and focusing on the infrastructure should hopefully set us for a good growing season next year. At least that is what I keep saying to myself when I see how empty the polytunnel and outdoor beds are! I am hoping that by this time next year we will have a covered fruit cage with planted bushes (that will mostly be 3 years old and thus should be in good production), 5 raised beds in the polytunnel and possibly the citrus trees planted, internal netted doors on the polytunnel and the 5 raised beds outside.

Sam working on raised beds

Reading a smallholding magazine the other week (likely a back issue as I’m a bit behind) there was an article by the author of Doing It In Wellies (a book I really really want to read). She spoke about getting the smallholding and jumping into everything and forgetting the why of it all because you were too busy trying to survive it. That really resonated with me. She said how they pulled some bits back and stopped to smell the roses and how that really helped them refocus the activities.

Sam and I got into smallholding for several reasons. The first was my health at the time, the PhD had worn me into the ground and down a few layers. We thought a slower pace of life, without as much of the pressure(!) might be helpful. I could do lots on my good days and less on the bad days. For the most part that has worked. Smallholding can be very stressful. There’s never enough hours in the day to get things done. Trying to make a business out of that makes it harder, there isn’t just the physical acts of smallholding and record keeping for animals, there’s also things like this blog, website design and management, courses to do to get the various food safety requirements, endless research, balancing books etc. Then add in the stress of pests, disease and never ending maintenance that any smallholding needs and there is the potential for stress. Throw full time motherhood into the mix and you’d start to question if a PhD might be a relaxing break! But in all honesty nothing I’ve experienced touches the PhD for stress, all the stress related illness I suffered from have disappeared. I am pretty much medication free now, just a vitamin D supplement. I’ve also lost a good 10kg and have put on a lot of muscle. I’m healthier than I have been in a long while and I have the smallholding to thank for that. Job #1 done!

Our second reason was Chi, we wanted her to know where her food comes from. Not just know where but to see it come from there, to understand the process, to know it well enough that she can do it herself. She makes cakes and custard with me, she has watched me kill and pluck and gut chickens, she’s seen me salting sheepskins, seen the wool being sheared, washed, carded and spun. We have picked apples off the tree and pressed them into juice. As her memory gets longer she will start to see and learn the process of growing, of the seeds we sow and plant and water then harvest and compost. She is learning so much and the beauty is she doesn’t know that she is. It isn’t a special trip out or an episode of a show, this is simply her life and I love it. Job #2 done.

The first taste

We wanted to know the history of our food, that the animals had a good life and the crops hadn’t been saturated in pesticides. We aren’t as self sufficient as we would like, I would love a goat or two to produce milk for us as we still buy a lot of dairy. I’d also like pigs for meat and at the very least a local known source of beef, but we have a small acreage and we are doing what we can with what we have. I think the dream of a bit more land will always be with me but we are doing well in lamb (well mutton), fruit and veg, eggs and pork sourced from other smallholders. So job #3 is in pretty good standing too.

Lastly we wanted to enjoy things. This is where we are lacking a bit. We work a lot on the smallholding, we put a lot of hours into getting the place up and running, especially Sam working a full time job and then doing work on the smallholding. Sometimes I think we work so hard on it all and don’t actually enjoy it. I think that is where we got to earlier in the year. Lots of work and very little enjoyment. We’ve got a table set up in the garden for BBQs and have had more this year than the other years previously. We are getting some more garden furniture to dot around so that we can sit and rest between jobs and enjoy things rather than lugging our 2 chairs back and forth over the smallholding.

A rare break to enjoy the weather and spin some wool

I am hoping that this year we will get more of the infrastructure done and build on enjoying the smallholding next year. Wish us luck!

Dans

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Juggling broody hens

Ok so I haven’t actually been throwing chickens in the air and trying to catch them, but it sure feels like I have! Beware this is a little long, but it does contain pictures of cute chicks. I’ll try enticing you in with a video of our first chick of the year:

Our broody journey this year started with a Derbyshire redcap hen (green right, yellow left or yellow right leg band – we didn’t note it down). We cleared up the shed and popped her in one of the tiny triangle hutches as we hadn’t finished doing the maintenance on the broody coops over winter yet. We decided to provide her with some of our own eggs. A few cream legbar, cuckoo maran and white leghorn eggs with our Heinz 57 cockerel, Aramis, being the father. Despite Brienne being a big chicken and a regular layer of large eggs I’ve decided we won’t be hatching from her again. Her eggs have the occassional wrinkle in the shell but her daughter, Cersi, has awful wrinkles and can be quite thin shelled too. No-one else in the flock is affected so I am assuming it is genetic.

Selection of our eggs for our first broody hen

I painted up one of the broody coops (with Chi’s help of course) and gave it a good clean. We also put a panel over some of the mesh to keep it a bit drier and warmer. We had wanted to do some work on the roof, there’s a slightly rotten corner and it needs refelting, but we really needed to get the broody into better accommodation. We set her up in the orchard with a run attached to the coop. We ummed and ahhhed but a few days later we put some more eggs into the incubator. She had 7 eggs under her but we wanted to try and get the most for the work we will put in to raising the chicks so the plan was to sneak her a few extra chicks after hatching for her to raise for us. These chicks were set to be meat birds first and foremost, although if we got some more green or dark brown egg layers they could be added to the flock. Everything was looking dandy.

Painting a broody coop

Then it seemed like Aurora, our veteran broody Daisy, had gone broody. We would only see her for an hour in the morning each day and she wasn’t returning to the coop at night. We caught her and gave her some random eggs that she seemed to be sitting on. At the same time Christie, another Derbyshire Redcap, had gone broody. We rushed to get the other two small houses ready, ordered some pure eggs off ebay (Copper black Maran and Cream Legbar) and set up a broody nursery in the orchard. The eggs arrived and we did a bit of juggling. The first broody hen and her soon to hatch eggs went into the woodland coop, Christie replaced her in the green coop and Aurora went into the blue coop as it doesn’t have a run and we had pretty good faith in her.

The next morning Aurora was gone and showing no signs of being broody at all. No problem, a couple of her eggs went under Christie (we had split them 50/50 3 browns and 3 blues each) and the rest went in the incubator. We had seen a couple of cracks on the Cream Legbar eggs when I candled them on arrival. One started weeping a lot on the first day in the incubator and I discarded it. Having two batches of eggs in the incubator due to hatch at different times isn’t great but it was manageable with the numbers.

Aurora when we thought she was broody

Then the worst happened. The first broody was off the nest and pacing in her pen. I’d noticed her off twice the previous day but I was in and out so assumed she had gone back in. Checked on the eggs and they were stone cold. 5 days from the hatch date. We couldn’t physically fit them in our 9 egg incubator with the others (7 already in there). I did manage to get 3 more in with a bit of jiggling. The aim was to warm them up enough to see if they were still alive, I had to do it in batches though. I didn’t hold out much hope as they may well have been cold for 48 hours by now. A post on a smallholding group had a local smallholder offering to pop them under her broody hen if we needed which gave me some breathing space. We had also been talking about getting a bigger incubator and this, plus the faff of turning eggs daily, pushed that up our priority list. We ended up buying the incubator anyway as it should allow us to follow our original plan of adding eggs to a hatch whilst still having the 9 egg incubator as a ‘rescue’ one.

Old incubator on the left, new one on the right

In the end only 1 of the eggs was still viable, a Cream Legbar one. It took a couple extra days to hatch but did so, followed a day or so later by the 4 we had started in the incubator. We ended up with a hatch of 5, 2 Cream Legbar crosses, 1 Cuckoo Maran cross and 2 White Leghorn crosses. Christie was looking a bit pale in the comb so once the chicks had fluffed up we took away the postal eggs she had been sat on and gave her the day old chicks. To start with she didn’t seem too keen to get up and about with them but then we realised she still had a Maran egg under her, once that was taken away she was up and about and has proved to be a great mum.

The postal eggs went into the incubator and another Derbyshire Redcap hen, Carrie, decided to try her hand (wing?) at being broody. Sam had commented that she was a bit crazy, quite aggressive and she looked at him funny, twisting her head back. I didn’t think much of it. We knew we had eggs in the incubator we could give her but had a couple go rotten already so we wanted to keep them until closer to hatching as with her being a bit crazy we didn’t want to be bothering her lots to candle. She sat on a couple of Daisy eggs. When I checked on her one day I saw what Sam meant about her neck, twisted right round when you opened the coop. It rang an alarm bell so I took the internet, wry neck. Varying thoughts online about it but vitamin deficiency seemed most likely so we started trying to get some baby vits in her. After one dose she was doing really well but we’d had another hen, Chickaletta (not named by us), go broody and I was worried about Carrie so we moved her to the blue coop without a run and left it open in the hopes she would graze a bit more when she got up each day. Chickaletta got some rubber eggs as we weren’t far off hatching the incubator eggs. After the second dose of being pinned and given the vitamins Carrie decided it was all too much and left the nest. She is no longer broody thankfully and the eggs under her hadn’t developed. She is much better now she is foraging but she still isn’t great so she is due to be penned up and given the vitamins everyday for a set time. Fingers crossed.

Carrie and her wry neck

So Christie was happy with her chicks and Chickaletta was sitting, and the postal eggs were doing well in the incubator, although we were down to 5. Then both Brienne (a previous broody) and another Derbyshire Redcap both went broody. I’m running out of housing at this point! We did another shuffle. Christie and the chicks went into the blue coop as it doesn’t open from the top and we don’t need to check them much, we gave them back the blue run which had been used with the woodland coop. Chickaletta stayed in the woodland coop with the woodland coop run and Brienne went into the green coop with no run, again she had been a great broody last year so we trusted her. How foolish. Despite having a nice private suite with a clutch of 9 eggs to sit on she bolted for the chicken house first thing to sit on an empty nest… She did this for two days before we put her food and water inside and locked her in with her eggs. She was still broody but had imprinted on the main hen house. She has the door open today and is still sitting so *fingers crossed* and building a run for the green coop has risen on our priority list. The postal seller has sent us 6 more Cream Legbar eggs to make up for the damage in postage and poor fertilisation rate of the first batch (no development at all on a fair few eggs). Those went into the shiny new incubator and will be transferred to the new broody DRC as soon as we have a house for her, which Sam is picking up today.

Brienne being introduced to her new clutch

It was hatch day for the postal eggs on Tuesday so over the weekend we gave the eggs to Chickaletta to let her hatch them. We noticed the brown eggs pushed out a couple of times and nudged them back under. When they were out again on Tuesday we took them and put them in the small incubator. Wednesday afternoon she had at least one chick under her. Today one of the Marans has hatched in the incubator and the other has pipped, I also peeked at her and she now has two chicks and an unhatched egg. If it is still unhatched this evening (when we will likely give her the hatched chick) I’ll pop it in the incubator.

Hatched Copper Black Maran waiting for its sibling to hatch

So yes, that is our 2018 broody journey so far. It’s been a bit exhausting to be honest and we still have just under 3 weeks before everyone has hatched as they should, by which time we may well have more broodies!

Dans

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Crichton’s brush with death.

Well we have now had our first large animal scare. This is a pretty long post about Crichton. Sam went out last Weds to mow some grass after work and thought Crichton didn’t quite seem himself. He let me know and went about the mowing. Another check once he had finished revealed that Crichton was lying down in the hedge, shivering and non-responsive to food or much else but at least conscious.

I facebooked my vet friend (not sure what we do without you Cassie!) whilst calling the vet. We had an extra slight drama as the vet said they had reduced the practice boundaries and we were no longer covered so he can’t come out, he did give phone advice though. We managed to get Crichton into the polytunnel and gave him some antibiotics (the first dose was subcutaneous though as I was panicking and both vets advised a second intramuscular dose). We also gave an intramuscular dose of ivermectin wormer in case he was carrying a high burden or had haemoncus. He was very pale in his gums and eyelids and very sluggish although at least he was standing in the polytunnel. Checked his temperature and it was 35.6C, sheep should be 38.5C ish  so things weren’t looking good. The vet advised to keep him warm and call in the morning if the sheep is still alive.

On his feet but looking very bad

We set him up a pen on top of an empty veg bed with straw, hay and water and put a fan heater nearby (but not too close) to hopefully help him warm up. The vet said painkillers might help but as we didn’t have any don’t worry. I went back in after a bit and he had moved off the straw to be closer to the heater so I covered him in the straw and moved the heater a bit further in the hopes we didn’t set fire to him overnight.

It wasn’t a good night. I tentatively went into the polytunnel in the morning not sure if I would find him dead or alive. Opening that door was nerve wracking. He was alive though. He had also been eating the soil, it was between his teeth. I stood him up to take his temperature which was up at 37ish, so much improved. Once up he went over to the water and had a little drink which made me feel much better, I got him some nice fresh green hay which he had a bit of then lay down again. I took Chi off to nursery at this point and called the vet for advice. Apparently we were actually still clients, it had been a mix up and the vet would call me back when he could.

You can see the soil he had been eating

The day started heating up, Crichton seemed to get more lethargic and the polytunnel was getting hot so I led him out to the orchard where he just stood whilst I moved the hurdles to pen him there. He ate a bit of grass then lay down again. The vet called back in the afternoon and said he could come if I wanted, 10 mins away. He agreed that Crichton looked very depressed and was very lethargic. Checked the guts in case there was a blockage but everything felt and sounded fine. He was very pale so he gave an intravenous vitamin and drew some blood at the same time. Actually got a really big clot from that so despite being pale he wasn’t very anemic. He gave the painkiller and Crichton did stay standing for a bit more. He got the ultrasound out of the car and checked the guts with that, absolutely fine, checked the liver and it was pretty huge. The bile ducts were quite enlarged and fibrous too. His best guess was that it was either plant toxicity or fluke, with the slight possibility of haemoncus still on the table as it can be ivermectin resistant. The good news was it was unlikely to be clostridium as Crichton would probably be dead already so it wasn’t the delay in heptavac.

Penned up waiting for the vet.

The vet left us with some painkillers and vitamins and recommendation to get an adult flukicide (closantel based) as he didn’t think it was juvenile fluke. I got my microscope out and did a quick (well longer than I wanted) fluke count on the sample I had grabbed from Crichton the night before. Absolutely no fluke eggs but a lot of worm eggs. The fluke test is a sedimentation test, you don’t normally see worm eggs in there unless there is a very very high burden, so the amount I saw in Crichton’s sample was surprising. I called the vet to see if the diagnosis was still the same on the basis of a 0 fluke egg count. Unfortunately I didn’t get a reply. I could have headed out to the agri store but at that point Sam was eyeball high in work, I would be rushing to get there before closing, I was beyond shattered (had said to Sam on the Weds afternoon that I needed some really good rest or might crash) and Chi hadn’t napped, if she napped at 4:30 we would get no sleep that night. Crichton was looking better so we made the decision to wait until Friday morning for the wormer and hopefully the vet would get back to us. He didn’t.

I made the decision to go with the closantel based wormer despite the 0 fluke egg count. It should also kill the haemoncus if the ivermectin didn’t and was a different class of wormer that I could use on the others as we wormed with ivermectin last time. Unfortunately they only had a £66 bottle which made me cry slightly but not much I could do about that, other than calling the day before so they could order in a smaller one. If I hadn’t been so worried about Crichton I could have gotten them to order in a smaller, injectable closantel based drug that would cost a lot less but it wouldn’t get there until Monday (which I doubted as it was bank holiday) and it’s an hour’s round trip if you don’t get stuck at the level crossing and don’t count the time spent there.

Sporting his shaved side and looking better before the closantel drench

Once home we saw that Crichton was doing a lot better. He was loose in the polytunnel with a grassy area penned off outside as it was a cooler day and he was much harder to catch (although still not difficult). He had his daily jabs and the wormer. He kept on like this for a couple days, each day being a bit harder to catch, standing up for longer and eating more. He is still very thin but he is back out with other boys (went back with them on the Monday) and seems to be doing well.

My only guess is that when the grass was low in the other field he ate something he shouldn’t have, or a higher quantity of something he shouldn’t have. None of the others seemed ill, though we gave them all a closantel wormer anyway based on Crichton’s count. The BCS of all the others is pretty good, even runty Crais is looking much chunkier than Crichton. My July sending for meat has been pushed back due to the wormer and I also don’t think there will be much on Crichton at that time. We may have to hold onto them for longer and just hope we manage the grass ok. Maybe a Jan sending off, we’ll see. The ewes are in fighting form, literally, I have bruises from worming them and straddling them to do the wormer was quite difficult, they are solid girls. I think my sheep wrangling days are getting numbered too as bump is getting bigger and making bending hard. Hopefully just to heptavac them sometime this week and then again in 3 weeks time for the ewe lambs and that should be our wrangling over for the summer. Debating treating for flystrike, we were fine last year and we check the sheep quite regularly, but it would give us a bit more peace of mind.

Dans

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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A journey into smallholding