The Woodland Chicken Coop – Chicken Coop Company

We were a bit rushed into our first attempt at hatching chicks. One of the Brown Marsh Daisies went broody and we scrambled to get things together for her. As such we ended up with a less than ideal broody coop. The chicks quickly outgrew this and despite building an additional run for them it was soon evident that they needed to move to larger accomodation.

Our broody coop

Between my poor woodworking skills, Sam working full time and us trying to keep Chi entertained whenever we do anything we realised that we wouldn’t have time to build the kind of coop we would want. It needed to be not too large (as we weren’t wanting to having many chicks at one time), easy to clean out and moveable.

I searched the net and came across the Woodland Chicken Coop from the Chicken Coop Company. It seemed to tick all my boxes, I especially liked the slide out tray and the ability to open both the side and the top. It was on a special sale as well so we quickly bought it, there was less than 24 hours of the sale left.

Unfortunately, as with most rush purchases, all was not as it seemed. We put it together easily enough (of course with help from Chi), and moved the chicks as soon as possible. I was really happy with it, until I went out the next morning to let them into thier new run. It was 8am and the house was in the shade of a large mirabelle plum tree but the window was steamed up. I quickly let them out and when I opened the roof door the heat hit me in a wave. I then realised there was absolutely no ventilation on the coop at all. Sam quickly got to work with the drill to get some holes in the highest point. I went and looked at the website again to see if I had missed some instructions about ventilation but there was nothing. I was surprised to see that the coop was on sale again, at the same price we had paid, but that sale was also ending soon. Ah the eternal sale.

Makeshift ventilation

Within the first week we noticed the second problem with the coop. The nesting boxes are level with the perches. Chickens like to perch at the highest point and so you want your perches higher than the nest box to keep things clean. The chicks were sleeping in the nest box or perching on the edge and then pooping in the nest box. I cut out some of the cardboard packaging that came with the coop and created a false wall so they could no longer access the nest boxes. Afterall no-one in there should be laying. Bodge job #2.

Nest boxes level with perches

The coop was moveable, which was an important factor for us as with such a small run we were moving them to a fresh patch of grass regularly. A nice feature would have been a way to keep the ramp lifted up as trying to stop it from hitting you in the face when you are lifting the coop wasn’t the easiest thing.

The coop then seemed to be ok, until one day in the autumn I opened the roof door to find black mould along the underside. The ventilation job Sam did must not have been good enough. Unfortunately he had drilled holes on all the available ‘good’ space. They say for ventilation it shouldn’t be level with the birds heads so that they don’t have a draught, but the way the roof slopes that is only possible on the top most corner.

The roof got a bit mouldy and damp

Then the final problem hit on a slightly windy day. We were under the bird flu prevention zone and I had covered the run with tarp held down with some bricks. I went out to check the tarp was in place once the wind died down a bit. I was very surprised to see the tarp in place but 3 cockerels running around the field and the roof door, that I had been so in love with, over the fence and in the other field. It had ripped clean off it’s hinges. Although there were good locks on the run, the side door and the nest boxes, there was no catch at all on the roof door. The wind must have got under it and raised it (it has handy locking arms to keep it open for you), then taking all the force of the wind it would have been too much for the screws, especially with the damp damage from the lack of ventilation.

The roof blew right off the coop

The upside of the coop was that it was indeed very easy to clean out. I had read about small openings and hard to clean out coops but this one was a dream. I think the multiple entrances, sliding floor and removable percehes really help.

Sliding base

In short I think I have learnt my lesson and will stick to things we have built (should be easier now Chi is older) and sheds we have modified. Having the problems with this one has really made me appreciate our job on converting the shed into a hen house. We’ll fix up this coop, see what we can do about ventilation and use it as a quarentine coop for new or sick birds.

Dans

Musical animals

I’m a bit late posting this but there’s nothing new about that!

Following from our weekend of the unexpected we decided to set some of our plans in motion and went for a non-stop Monday of Musical Animals. We had our good friend Lis over, but just for the day and the vet booked in. It ended up being such a busy day that I didn’t take any pictures of us doing bits, but I’ve managed to go around and take a few snaps in the following week.

Lis arrived the Sunday night, with another one of our good friends, Kay. We decided to put their presence to good use and set above adding 4 more chickens to our flock. We actually bought them 10 days prior, but they have been in quarantine. We now have another 2 Cream Legbars (although these do meet the breed standard so look quite different to Annie and Awen) and 2 Cuckoo Marans. The Cuckoo Marans aren’t a rare breed but I do like the brown eggs that they lay and they are a nice meaty bird so we made an exception. The eggs are a bit lighter than I was hoping for, but they do seem to vary in colour from day to day.

The new girls

We waited until the birds had gone to bed and were sleepy then removed them one by one and added a green leg band to one of each breed, just so we can tell them apart. Their wings had already been clipped by the breeder. As we have the girls free ranging we like to clip their wings for the first season here. Once they know that this is home we leave them unclipped. We then moved the new girls (still to be named) into the main chicken house. They should all wake up together and between the large space they have and Aramis’ policing there should be a fairly peaceful merger between the two groups. We kept checking regularly for the next day or so, ready to separate if any issues, but there was no need. We also did a head count for the first couple of nights in case they didn’t find their way back to the house but they were all there.

A lot of things I’ve read has said to keep the chickens penned up but visible to each other for a week prior to introductions but we haven’t seemed to need this with our set up. There’s the odd squabble around the feeder or at corn time but we’ve not had any injuries with new introductions and this time was much the same. I do put it down to a combination of the space and Aramis’ presence.

Monday morning saw the vet here bright and early. The first stop was the geese. I have been worried about April for quite a while now. The geese don’t take the wormer very well (they very rarely eat as much of the pellets as we would expect them too) and the vet wasn’t really sure what else we could worm them with. April also has this odd protrusion on her chest, which I had thought was her keel showing through. It turns out it’s not her keel but rather her crop and it is likely showing due to her being a bit underweight. I’m not really all that sure what we can do about that as we give corn but if we give too much they just leave it and we offer pellets but they don’t eat those either. We try and make sure they have plenty of grass but obviously something is stopping her putting as much weight on. She did have a slightly mucky bum when she came out of the bird flu quarantine but that has cleared up. The vet said if she was looking at her she wouldn’t be too bothered and if the bum gets mucky again we can check for coccidia (a parasite), but otherwise she wouldn’t worry.

That was a bit of a weight off my shoulders. I’m still not sure I’m happy for her to sit on eggs (April gets very broody) but that’s no longer an issue as when we last pushed her off the nest to eat she decided to stop laying completely. We’ve had no eggs for over a week now so I’m starting to think she has stopped for the season, which is a bit of a disappointment but hopefully she will put some condition on and be ready for a good breeding season next year. So now we are down to just Barbara laying eggs. Which I suppose is a bit of a blessing as we have had absolutely no interest in goose eggs at the farm gate stall.

Next up was the sheep. We gave everyone a white wormer as I saw Nematodirus eggs in my faecal egg count, and they all got their Heptavac vaccinations which will give protection to their lambs. She had a quick look at Aeryn’s feet and suggested a little more trimming and to keep an eye on them. Anya’s feet also needed a little trim. Other than that they all seemed fine and had a BCS of about 2.5.

We waved the vet off and then got to work. First job was to release the geese. They had been penned up for the past 10 days so that there was less grass to eat, that should, in theory, make them more likely to eat the worming pellets. They still didn’t eat much but we couldn’t keep them penned forever. They were very happy to be free and had a good run up and down then dove into the grass. We set up the hurdles around the trees again and to cover their water and that will stay like that until the end of April when hopefully the restrictions will be relaxed.

Goose worming pen

The rest of the hurdles went across the road to finish fencing off the 0.5acre we are trying to get under control. We have used heras panels for the rest of it but 2 hurdles make for an easy entry point and somewhere to hang the hay rack. The aim is Anya and Aelin will get this area under control whilst also no longer bothering the pregnant girls or eating up the good grass. Then later in the year it may be of use to the other girls and/or their lambs.

Then it was time for the most daunting job of the day, getting Anya and Aelin across the road to their new home. I had ummed and ahhhed about how best to do this. I finally made a decision and I bought a halter. I figured we would walk them across with me holding onto the halter and them following Sam. The sheep have got so good at following Sam everywhere that I was hoping the halter would just be back up for us being on the road. It ended up being a bit of a disaster, likely because the sheep aren’t used to halters at all. We opened the hurdle, I let Anya out (she is the tamer of the two) and suddenly we were in a rodeo with Anya jumping and kicking and me hanging on the end of the halter. Thankfully it was probably less than a minute of this before I caught her up again and got her back in with Aelin, it felt like forever though. In the end we got the trailer out (not attached to the car), loaded the girls up really easily (have I mentioned that Sam is a sheep whisperer) and pushed the trailer across the road. The girls unloaded without looking back and have munched away in there ever since, barely batting an eyelid at us. In fact they have given us a few scares by hiding in the long grass.

More hurdle and heras panel moving and we had the middle third of the sheep field ready for the pregnant girls. They saw the gate was open and meandered in and set to work on the grass, again no longer interested in us for nuts or hay, so I take it as a good thing. The hope is that they will stay on here until they start lambing, then spend a day or so inside and turn out onto some fresh grass we have set aside for after lambing.

The pregnant girls, munching away.

That was finally all the animals moved to where they needed to be. We headed in for a goose egg lunch (fried which is positively my favourite way to have goose eggs) and then it was time for Lis to go. Sad to see her leave as we hadn’t seen her in so long but she will be back for lambing time in May. Hopefully we won’t be too sleep deprived then.

I think that is it for this post. We’ve been busy bunnies on the growing side of things so hopefully there will be a post on that soon.

Dans

A unexpectedly lame weekend

This weekend was full of unexpected turns of events. Firstly I was booked onto a spinning course on the Thursday so Sam took the day off to look after Chi. I have been wanting to get my spinning wheel back into use for ages so was really looking forward to this. I actually booked onto the course in Feb, but it was cancelled. Unfortunately, it was cancelled again at the last minute.

We decided to make use of the day and got a bunch of tasks done. Another 12 berry bushes planted in the berry patch so we have gooseberries, red currants, white currants and blueberries planted. Still have the raspberries, loganberries and strawberries to go in but it is really starting to take shape. I am looking forward to many years picking berries in this patch.

The growing berry patch

We also planted some onions in the outdoor veg patch, to go with the potatoes I planted earlier in the week. I need to get some more bits in those beds but I can see things starting to come together.

We are facing a bit of a dilemma with where to do lambing. We were going to use our storage polytunnel but I am starting to worry about it getting too warm in there as we are lambing later in the year than I’d have liked. Sam had an idea to partially cover the shade tunnel using tarp so we gave that a go. A few false starts getting it on but we succeeded at last. So far it seems to be holding and not flapping so we may put a second one on to give a larger area.

Our makeshift cover

Lastly we cleared up some big thistles from the sheep field and filled in a few ankle breaker holes. Our ground can get so dry in summer that it actually cracks, leaving nice gaps that will fit a foot in! While we were in there we noticed that one of the sheep, Aeryn, who is pregnant with twins had a slight limp. Everything I have read has said it’s best at this stage to see if it resolves itself rather than trying to catch and see to a pregnant ewe. So we noted it and left her be.

We were meant to be going away for the weekend to see Sam’s family in Dorset, including his grandmother, before lambing. We got up early on Friday morning to get all the animals cleaned out and sorted ready for the sitter coming that evening. I gave the sheep fresh hay but they were all sleepy and not bothered, as they are most mornings. After sorting the other animals I went back as an after thought to move their hay rack (3 hurdles in a triangle with hay racks over them that we move regularly), as there was some nice grass under it and we are moving them out of that area on Monday. It was then that I noticed that Aeryn had gone from a slight limp to completely non-weightbearing on one leg.

Got Sam to come out, with ewe nuts, foot spray and foot shears. At first I thought I could just grab her but even on 3 legs Aeryn can be quite flighty. We got her penned easily enough though (Sam really is a sheep whisperer). We couldn’t turn her as she is 6 weeks off lambing but we were able to pick her feet up to have a look, a bit like a horse. The worst one was the front right. Really bad shelly hoof, to the extent that the whole external wall was flapping. There was also a slight smell coming from the foot. I cleaned the mud out of the gap and we clipped away the loose bits of hoof. and sprayed it. The other front foot had a bit of shelly hoof as did one of the back so they got the same treatment. We let her go and then had a chat with one of our friends, Cassie, who is a vet. She suspected foot rot, which would need antibiotics and painkillers as well as daily spraying, so we got in contact with our vets. The trip away would have to be cancelled.

I don’t know if I have spoken out the vet situation on here but we have only 1 that covers our area.  That wouldn’t be so bad but the practice is an hours drive from here so not ideal. It’s not all bleak as they have a half price call out day for our area once a week, are happy to post out meds and have an ‘outpost’ where you can arrange to pick meds up from if it is arranged in advance. The receptionist said that she would get a vet to call me back but we would need to come to the surgery to get the meds as there was no-one nearby. Not great but, as our plans had already changed, getting Aeryn sorted was the priority of the day.

The vet called and was worried about Aeryn being off her feet for twin lamb disease (TLD) but although she was lying down a lot she was still eating and she was running over (albeit on 3 legs), when she saw Sam with ewe nuts. She also didn’t have the tell tale acetone smelling breath. So we weren’t too worried about TLD. TLD is a metabolic disease that can affect pregnant sheep. Basically, the lambs take so much nutrition that the ewe starts breaking down her own supplies, if this happens too much she can effectively get poisoned by the ketones and it can lead to death if not treated quickly. The vet was very nice and when he heard where we were he said he could actually meet us in a local supermarket car park to give us the meds, a 20 minute journey instead of an hour.

Whilst I rushed off to Asda, Sam fixed the Honda (dead battery and relentless car alarm) and headed off to get some straw in case we needed to bring her in. We needed to get the straw anyway, ready for lambing, but thought we had a few weeks. I have to admit it felt very odd pulling up in the car park and standing next to the vet as he drew up the meds with shoppers driving past but it made things so much easier.

Back home and we gave her the meds. There wasn’t much improvement at first but after a few hours she was limping less. We caught her the next morning and she seemed just as bad. I decided to check between her toes in case anything was stuck there. I had been so appalled by the state of her hoof that I hadn’t thought to check the day before. There was indeed a piece of hoof stuck diagonally between her toes. It could have broken off there as the hoof wall broke away or it could have been she stepped on it after I had clipped it. I’ll be picking up any hoof cuttings in future! She got another spray and release. By that evening she was looking a bit better thankfully.

Now that we had a good store of straw we used 4 bales and an old garden table to make a goose nest box. April has been getting overly broody and sent poor Barbara out to nest in the dirt. We are hoping this impromptu nest box will give her somewhere dry and clean to lay. I was getting worried about April as she had spent 3 days on the nest without laying an egg and was no longer taking feed and water breaks so we pushed her off and locked her out. It seems to have broken her broodiness but she has also stopped laying *Sigh*. They are on the last couple days of worming so hopefully when we let them out on Monday she will come back in to lay.

The makeshift goose nest box

When we realised we weren’t going away for the weekend we made some impromptu plans for Sunday. We had been planning on taking Chi to a few places whilst away and as that wouldn’t happen we wanted to make it up to her (even though she didn’t know about them). We decided to go to Hamerton Zoo, which isn’t too far from us. We checked on Aeryn first and she was much improved, a bit of a limp, back to how she had been on Friday. We still penned her and sprayed the feet though. We had a lovely time at the zoo and when we got back and checked her again she was walking fine. If it wasn’t for the slightly blue legs and close scrutiny, you wouldn’t have known she had an issue so we didn’t give her the added stress of another catching. Hopefully this means it wasn’t foot rot, and just a secondary infection but we will remain vigilant.

Right Sam has today off and we have the vet coming for our yearly check, worming and heptavac and 2 sheep to move across the road so I better get off the computer and onto the land! (EDIT: This was actually written on Monday morning but it has taken me this long to get the pictures in!)

Dans

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Busy bees

Well this weekend it was Mother’s day and Sam’s birthday but that didn’t mean a restful weekend!

It started on Friday evening when we caught up the sheep ready to move them to some fresh grass. We took the opportunity to do a body condition score (BCS) on them. This is basically feeling their backs over the hip area to assess how bony or fatty they are. This gives you an idea of how they are doing and what feeding they need. Especially Arya who we know is carrying twins as this can put quite a strain on her body. We also took some poo samples so we can check the worm burden of the sheep.

Checking Arha’s BCS

Saturday wasn’t too bad, a trip to B&Q to pick up some supplies and had a quick lunch out so we could get straight to work at home. First job was a delivery of manure. I’m trying desperately to improve our soil so some free organic matter seems like a good bet. It’s horse manure though so a bit weedy but we don’t have cow manure in great quantities in this area.

The manure delivery

Next was the usual jobs around the holding, including cleaning out the chickens. We’ve been having a slight problem with mice. Our house is filled with lovely deep bed of chopped straw for the chickens to jump off the perches onto. Unfortunately, this winter mice have decided it’s a great place to live. First it was two nesting which we cleared out. Then about a month later we had a young family which we also cleared out. And now a month or so later we have had 1 in there which I cleared out Saturday. I basically move all the additional things in the hen house (plastic nest boxes and a wooden step for the hens to reach the higher nest boxes) and chase out the mice. It seems to work as they stay away for so long, but I think we need to look into some traps if it persists.

The inside of our hen house (although the food is no longer kept in there)

Then I decided to brush off my very rusty skills to do a faecal egg count (FEC) on the samples we gathered on Friday. This tells us what eggs are being shed by the ewes and if they need worming. It was a nice low count of about 150 eggs per gram (epg), which wouldn’t be anything to worry about. However, I found a single Nematodirus egg. This is a type of worm that can be quite bad for lambs to get so the ewes will need to be treated in the next coming weeks.

The Nematodirus egg

Sunday, the day of rest right? Especially as it’s Mother’s day and a birthday? Well I was up at 8:30am and Sam stayed in bed until about 9:30am with Chi. Then it was all go again. The guy who owns the 0.5acre plot across the road has said we can graze the sheep there. It’s quite overgrown at the moment and the grass won’t be very nutritious so we’re going to send Anya and Aelin over there as they shouldn’t be pregnant and are being a bit of a nuisance to the others. But there is a pile of rubble at the back and the guy goes in regularly to get bits from his storage container so we’ve bought heras panels so that they sheep are safe and he can get to his stuff. They arrived bright and early so that was the first job.

Our next job was to finish marking out the berry patch. We marked out the blueberry row a little while ago and got some planted. We marked out the rest of the spots and cleared more of the area but there’s more moss and grass to clear and then of course the bushes to plant but I can do that on my own. Thankfully of the 31 fruit bushes we bought at our local garden centre it looks like 30 have made it through the winter and are budding. I’m holding out hope for the last one but we will see. They varied in price from 50p to £2 so pretty good value.

Next we had an impromptu chicken rescue. Aurora had got into the goose area and one of them went for her, judging by the squawking and honking I heard. I ran over to check she was ok and found her on the other side of the fence, on the bank of the drainage ditch that runs along our smallholding. There’s chicken wire along the bottom so she would have had to fly back over. I ended up climbing over the fence and trying to catch her on a steep bank. That was not fun but we got her back safe and sound.

No rest for the wicked, a quick drink of squash and we were back to work. We pulled back the weed proof fabric that we spread over the intended veg bed. It was much better than it had been but some bits were still growing. We dug out some of the bigger stronger tufts of grass, raked the area to be somewhat level, flattened out the fabric and marked out the veg beds. We’ll plant through the fabric this year, then in the winter we will pull it back again, mark out the beds top with well rotted manure. Or at least that is the plan. We’ll see how it goes.

The clocks going forward meant that it was still light out so we headed across the road to start putting up the heras panels. We managed about half before Chi woke up and we had to head in for dinner whilst Sam saw to the animals.

For the last job of the day Sam went to get a combination of Chinese and Indian for dinner whilst I baked him a birthday cake. It was an experimental apple and redcurrant cake. I thought I used enough redcurrants but they are quite subtle so I think I’ll double amount next time.

With all the stuff getting done, the plants growing, the buds on all the trees, the sheep getting bigger and all the eggs rolling in it really feels like the year is turning.

Dans

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Sheepsies

Wow, looking back I haven’t updated about the sheep since early January. In a way not much has changed. They spend most of their time munching away, including eating any bushes and trees they can reach. However we are in the run up to some big changes.

If I stand on 2 legs I can reach higher!

At the start of February we took Akbar back. He served us well covering all the ewes in the first 2 cycles and, as far as we could see, none in the third cycle. We only had the orange and green raddle paint though so we mixed it to a brown, and as we didn’t get any covering in the first half of the cycle we didn’t top it up. I was quite daunted by the prospect of loading him up, but we made a makeshift race and Sam loaded him up no problem. We did the drive and unloaded him easily. It’s another one of those smallholding tasks that has worried me, it’s a short list that is pretty much built around the places we could really go wrong in animal welfare. It includes loading and transporting animals, killing our first chickens and all that follows, lambing and booking an animal in for the abattoir. We’ve now done two out of that list.

A week and half after Akbar left we had the Scanning Lady come to scan our girls. It was a couple weeks earlier than the suggested time for when Akbar went in with the girls but it was the best we could do due to her availability. She made quick work of the girls and we scanned as 1 twin (Aeryn), 2 singles (Alanna and Arya), 1 single that might have a second (Arha – the lam she was certain of was still small) and 2 empties (Anya and Aelin).

The plan when we were first thinking of getting sheep was to get 3. Then we thought maybe get more and eat those that don’t get into lamb. When we found out we had 2 empties we thought ‘great, we’ll be eating lamb (well hogget) before 2018 ‘. Then we looked at when Akbar left we got a bit worried that the Aelin and Anya might be in the very early stages of pregnancy. Unfortunately there’s no way to tell now until they go past the latest possible lambing date (5th July) and I would feel absolutely awful sending them off to slaughter only to find out they were pregnant. So we shall be keeping them and sending them off in July if they haven’t popped.

Twins on the right ’empty’ on the left.

I’m feeling pretty certain that they aren’t in lamb (pregnant) though. The two of them are hopping and skipping around the field and picking fights like teenage girls. I took a little video (well it’s a bit long in places) that shows their behaviour standing out. They are starting to really butt the in-lamb girls though so we may have to separate them if they don’t calm down.

Of the girls that are pregnant, Arya is due at the start of May followed by Alanna, Arha and Aeryn all at the end of the month. I am both terrified of lambing and utterly excited. Hopefully we shall soon have some happy tales to tell and lots of pictures.

The lambing schedule

Dans

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Geese, chickens and freedom

Another long gap between posts. I’ve been updating the facebook page at least weekly with little things but to be honest it has felt very quiet on the smallholding for the last month. Not much has been going on, but as the blog has been mostly focusing on apples recently (or at least it feels that way!), I’ll try and give you an update on our livestock.

We plodded along with the bird flu restrictions hoping that they would be lifted at the end of Feb. Unfortunately the news came that they would only be partially lifted. Contact with wild birds must still be prevented but in low risk areas, like ours, birds can still be let out. There are a bunch of extra precautions that need to be followed, including use of things to scare wild birds away, keep feed and water under cover, making regular visits outside to scare wild birds and doing a full risk assessment. We had hoped to be ready to let the birds out at the start of March but we had  a bit of a nightmare with some guys chopping some trees down for us. The job was quoted as 2 days but has taken 6 days spread over 3 weeks and we have now told them we’ll finish it ourselves. It took the plans for release right off the table as the felled branches littered everywhere and moving around our (very) smallholding became difficult.

We did finally manage to let the geese out earlier this week though. We cleared the branches from thier orchard, re-sited thier house (which Storm Doris tried to do roly polys with), fenced off the trees that wild birds can roost in and made enough of a path to walk the geese around. They were very happy to be out again and have even started laying inside thier house which is a first. Last year they were insistant that laying in the bush was far better! I want to get some more cds up to act as bird scarers but we’ve not spotted any wild birds in there and all the food and water are undercover. Our next couple of jobs for the geese centre around thier ‘house’ and include sorting out the roof, cutting the door in half, adding some ventilation and painting it. Fingers crossed I’ll have some pictures of a swanky new goose house soon!

Happy to be on grass again

The chickens have been getting by in thier enclosure but they were longing to be outside. Unfortunately thier area is harder to keep bird free as they have access to the area under the leylandi and too many pigeons roost there and poop on the ground below. The issue was that it was the leylandi that were being trimmed and the area below them was a mess and we couldn’t fence it until we cleared it. If the guys had finished the job when they said we would have let them out a lot sooner. In preparation for letting them out I installed a shower curtain in thier run. It’s a clear one, hung over the entrance to the where the food and water will be undercover. This should deteer the wild birds but allow our (brave) chickens through. The chickens were a bit hesistant, especially Aramis, but they all go through it fine now.

The shower curtain acting as a bird scarer

i also wanted to do a similiar thing for the pop hole, my first attempt at covering the pop hole failed though. I used an old compost bag sack turned inside out as I thought the black would give more privacy inside and make some of the other nest boxes more appealing. However, our chickens are a bit dense and pretty much refused to go through it either into the house or out. I ended up taking it down and putting up a clear feed bag. This went a little better although Sam still had to help 3 of the hens to bed tonight. A couple more nights of checking they have all made it to bed and we should be good. Unfortunately I only took a picture of my first attempt.

The failed pop hole cover

We gave up on the idea of getting the leylandi fenced off and decided to claw back a bit of the garden for Chi. So we’ve halved the garden using bamboo canes and the scaffolding netting, which has given the chickens the ability to be let out again. Freedom finally! Two of the chickens tasted freedom slightly early though. We had to use the same scaffolding netting to fence the area off as we had used to cover part of the run. Buffy and Alice saw a chance and jumped over the panels leaving the rest of flock utterly confused as to how to get out. I’ll be getting some more bird scarer cds up tomorrow and then that’ll be their area done. The hens had a great time scratching around for insects, whilst Aramis ran around like crazy mating with all the girls.

The penned off area and two escapees

All of the chickens are back in lay now. Brienne (our mixed breed hen from our first hatch) is laying large brown eggs whilst Buffy (our White Leghorn from our second hatch) has much smaller eggs but in a lovely white. Buffy’s eggs are starting to get a bit bigger though so I still hold out hope for the breed average of ~55g. So far Akira’s eggs have all been fine, we had an awful problem of ridged eggs from her last year. The only other thing of note is Awen. She was a bit off colour in the autumn and we even brought her into the house one night to perk her up. She has seemed better since the new year but now she has come into lay her eggs have been a lot smaller than they used to be, with only one normal sized. The other day we had the smallest egg ever from her, 22g. We thought it would be a wind egg (just egg white, no yolk) but it was a complete egg, just teeny. All in all the eggs are piling up so we’re going to have to start selling at the gate soon, hopefully by the end of the month. I just hope people stop to buy some!

We have had one very sad event over the last month. I went to the hen house one morning and only 8 of the chickens were outside. I went in to get eggs expecting to see the other hen inside laying or scratching away but she was upside down under the perches. She must have died in the night and fallen off the perch as she had been pooped on overnight. I checked her over and she had been dead a while but there were no wounds and more importantly absolutely no signs of bird flu (I was pretty terrified when I saw her). I had had a good long sit down with Chi the day before watching the chickens and all had looked happy and healthy. This was Aino, and she had a good shape, a bright red comb and face and bright eyes. Nothing to indicate she would be dead the next day. Apparently they can get heart problems that do them in suddenly which is what I suspect happened. She was a character of a hen, always coming in an open door to the conservatory, living room or kitchen. She bossed the flock around when she was top hen and did a stellar job of brooding and raising her chicks. RIP Aino

Awen and her 3 chicks. RIP girl

I’ll try not to leave it so long before the next post, which I think will be an update on the sheep as you haven’t heard about them in a while.

Dans

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Apple pressing

Sam and I decided to forgo the usual exchange of christmas presents and put the money we would spend towards something useful. In the black friday sales we went all out on some juicing equipment from Vigo Press. We bought a Classic Crusher A, a 20 litre press and a stainless steel pasturiser. Just before Christmas we decided to try it out. We gathered the last of the apples from the trees, eating and cooking and gave it a go.

We had about 20kg of apples and set up a little production line. We gave the apples a quick rinse in a tub of water, quartered them (cutting away and bruised or bad bits) and put them in the crusher.

The production line (and little helper loading the crusher)

We ran them through that once, in batches of 10kg, the crusher was really easy to use, so easy a child could do it. Chi had a great time putting the apples in and even turning the crusher.

We then used the press, that was a bit more complicated. We didn’t secure the press and I think that next time we will bolt it to a pallet or something. We ended up having to have one person hold it whilst the other wound it to press the fruit. I didn’t get any pictures of this step though, I will do next time.

We had a stainless steel pot underneath to collect the juice. Chi was very happy to have a taste of the juice fresh from the press! We added some citric acid in the hope that it would stop browning. It didn’t, after talking to the staff at Vigo Press they suggested using ascorbic acid at 0.5g/litre, I think we will try that next time.

The first taste

We didn’t end up with as much juice as I had hoped for, about 8 750ml bottles. Again Vigo Press advised that we could try running the apples through the crusher twice and we shall definately be trying that next time. The pressed apples weren’t as dry as I had been expecting them to be so I think we could have gotten more liquid from them. They did make a nice treat for the geese and chickens though.

We pasturised the juice and I was very happy to see that it did lighten in colour, so it wasn’t so brown. The only issue we had was that some scum appeared at the neck of the bottle. We might get less of this if we use a mesh bag in the press to stop bits and pieces coming through. But Vigo Press suggested leaving in a sealed container overnight and then pasturising, so that’s another option.

In the pasturiser

The juice tasted really nice, and although we only got 8 bottles we are managing to save them for special occassions. I am really looking forward to 2017, we will keep more apples this year as I had been getting rid of any with even small blemishes. I can see some nice family days pressing apples, it’s a great family activity. And I’m looking forward to trying it with pears and with trying to make some wine with the juices. Yep, very excited to get more use out of this equipment!

Finished product (and wonky label)

Dans

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Snippity snip

I think I have mentioned our many fruit trees before. We have 3 cooking apple, 4 eating apple, 3 pear, 3 plum, 2 greengage, a mirabelle and at least 4 cherry plum. Having all of these mature trees here has meant an abundance of fruit, which has been awesome. The downside is that all trees need maintenance and from what we can see these trees have been neglected for many years. We’ve been clearing away dropped and diseased fruit, brambles around them and the chickens have done a very good job of clearing the grass around the base. All of that should help but what the trees really need is a prune.

Pruning sounds simple enough, cut some bits off and voila, but I’ve actually been really scared of it. If you do it at the wrong time of year you can leave the tree susceptible to disease and poor growth, if you cut too much off it can turn into a spikey hedgehog throwing up loads of new shoots and the very idea of cutting off branches that would have given me fruit later feels like throwing the fruit away. So why do it? The current state of the apple trees means that the fruit is actually lying on the floor while it is still on the branches. We made some supports last year which helped a bit but a lot got damaged and more were eaten by the chickens. When branches are criss-crossing each other they rub which can damage the bark and leave the tree open to disease. Branches that are all close together means less airflow through the tree and again leads to disease. All the trees in the garden have had some instances of brown rot which is a fungal disease, more airflow should help us fight it.

This past weekend we finally took the plunge. I have the Fruit Tree Handbook by Ben Pike which talks about pruning in general and in relation to restoring older or neglected trees. We had a quick read, not as in depth as I would have liked but that comes with trying to do anything with a toddler, and decided to start with the Beauty of Bath eating apple tree. It looks to us like a previous owner actually trained the tree to grow it’s branches downwards, they bend down at quite the angle. Unfortunately that means a mass of braches and loads of apples on the floor. They’ve done this with two of the cooking apples aswell. The book said to take off no more than 20% in the first year and to look at restoration as a several year project so that is what we did. The pictures aren’t great but I can certainly see a difference. I just hope we didn’t take too much off.

Next I had a go at our russet apple tree, we don’t know what type of russet it is, but it produces small tasty apples so we like it. They worked really well dried last year. The tree itself is very small and tucked behind the Beauty of Bath and under our largest Cherry Plum. I only took a few branches off of this, mostly where they were tangled with the Beauty of Bath or where they were crossing themselves.

The next tangle was our 3rd eating apple tree, we have no idea what type it is so we call it Eating Apple (EA) 1, and one of the cooking apple trees called Cooking Apple (CA) 1 (I just went anti-clockwise around the garden). I had to tackle them together as they are that tangled that you can’t really tell one from the other at the moment. I started on the eating apple side and did my best to free it from the cooking apple. Again we liked the taste of these apples and they came in earlier than the other eating apples so more of them would be good. Unfortunately, due to the crowding and an awful problem with coddling moth I think we got 2 apples from this tree last year, the rest were inaccessible, infected with brown rot or riddled. I am hoping that if we can get to it this year, and get the chickens access to scratch around the base, then we can reduce the coddling moth and airflow will help with the rot. We only managed to tackle CA 1 in as far as it was encroaching on EA 1 as it started getting late and my confidence had grown to the point that we decided it probably didn’t need to be a two person job.

A lot of the jobs around our smallholding are split into one person or two person jobs. One person jobs I try and do during the week with Chi, unless I don’t have the skills to do them, in which case it goes on Sam’s list if he does. The two people jobs, because it is a bigger job, needs more hands or I am just not confident doing it on my own, wait until a weekend, evening or Sam has a day off. I am getting a bit more confident at trying some jobs on my own but I was really worried about taking too much off the trees and just cannot judge if a pile of twigs is 20% of a tree or not!

The prunings from Beauty of bath. 20% of the tree???

Once I had a vauge idea though, we decided I could probably manage on my own (Sam had spent most of the pruning time fixing a broken tap so we finally have water in the back garden again – oh and entertaining Chi). We then turned to another fruit tree related 2 person job, planning out the orchard. We have planted 4 fruit trees in the orchard so far. We weren’t very sure about spacings so we went with 4m around each tree. Those trees were penned off with chicken wire to keep the geese away and mulched with old hay to keep the grass down around them. Sam and I worked at getting some bamboo canes in to mark out where the rest of trees will go until it got so dark we couldn’t actually see the bamboo canes. Now I have a new one person job, dig holes for the trees! We bought 8 trees when our garden centre was having a clear out. They are older trees, probably not in the best of health and I am pretty sure 1 is dead (possibly more after having spent the autumn and winter in the polytunnel) but they were stupidly cheap (£2-5) so we will give them a go. I’m not sure what the geese will think when they go back in and find even more trees in thier area!

Now I just need to prune CA1, CA2, the three pear trees and EA2. At least we will have plenty of kindling for next winter’s fires!

Dans

December catch up part 2: Bird flu

Aside from the usual festive season and a late tupping, December had the added surprise of bird flu, which although we had known about it being in the continent we were hoping it would pass us by. For those that don’t know bird flu was spreading through Europe in November and a Prevention Zone was set up in the UK on 6th Decemeber. That basically means that everyone with birds had to do everything they could to keep wild birds away from thier birds. At the bare minimum that meant keeping the wild birds away from your birds food and water as bird flu is spread through contact with bodily fluids. Cases of bird flu were reported in December, in wild birds, in a turkey farm in Lincs and in several backyard flocks, mainly where there were ducks and chickens together. Waterfowl can get bird flu but don’t show symptoms very well. Chickens drop dead quite quickly though. If you want to read more about the current bird flu situation in the UK the DEFRA page is up to date.

As it affects waterfowl differently we started by getting the geese into the shade tunnel. It’s a large polytunnel with butterfly netting over it and weed proof fabric down but no doors. We cleared out the left over plants from the last owners (we haven’t used this tunnel for anything yet), patched up some holes in the netting and nailed some tarp to the door frame. We also set up a small shelter using an old door and some chairs so that there was a dry spot for thier food and somewhere to get out of any heavy rain. Netting isn’t ideal as wild birds can still poop on it and it gets washed in with the rain, but it is better than the birds using the goose baths or drinking water as a bird bath or hopping all over the ground they graze on. The geese made it into a slippery muck bath pretty quickly so we had to shovel it all out and threw 3 bales of straw down. That seems to have done the trick but it’s starting to get mucky again now so will need to refresh.

The goose set up pre-straw

Geese are grazers though, and grass is the bulk of our geese’s diet. There was some grass growing over the weedproof fabric in the polytunnel but they ate through that pretty quickly. We tried them on some hay (with grit available to help them break it down) but they weren’t interested. They did pick at grains from the bales of hay though. They were having corn each night anyway as the weather had gotten cold and they kept eating that but seemed to have little interest in the goose food mix we bought for them. I saw an oppertunity and switched them to the flubenvet worming layers pellets in the hopes of getting them wormed before the breeding season hits. They weren’t interested at first but are eating it now. They are still looking in good condition (apart from April who has alway had a very prominent keel, even after they were wormed with an ivermectin injection), so I guess they are getting enough to eat. I’ll be so very glad to let them out again when the time comes though!

Happy geese post-straw

The chickens were a bit more difficult. If we put them in either of our other polytunnels there would be nowhere foxproof for them to perch. After losing Bellatrix to what I suspect was a goose attack I really didn’t want to put the chickens in the shade tunnel with the geese, even if it was partioned off. They also don’t do as well in the wet as geese do. The best option seemed to be to keep them in thier current house, but even though it is a shed rather than a coop it still isn’t big enough for them to be in there 24/7. We ordered some aviary panels the night the prevention zone was announced with a 3-5 delivery. We wouldn’t be complying immediately but at least we would have something in the works. Unfortunately the seller was awful. I emailed on day 3 to find out if there was tracking and was told the parcel would be with me on day 5. I emailed again on day 5 as it hadn’t arrived (after cancelling all our plans on days 3-5 just in case it came) only to be told it had been dispatched that day and would be with me in 3-5 days. Ebay were awful and just said I could refuse delivery and get a refund if I wanted. They arrived on day 8 and as soon as the chickens went to bed I set about building a run with cable ties, tarp and some scaffold netting. It was pretty tricky building it as the light went, without a torch (because I was too gung ho and just rushed into it), especially when I dropped the black cable ties on the floor!

The finished run. It was just a tad dark!

The chickens seemed to be a lot happier in there than I expected but slowly the layer of fallen leaves and bits of grass poking through started to turn into mud and they started to look unhappy. I didn’t want to use straw as I had heard about that harbouring bacteria and giving the chickens respiratory problems. I took the plunge and threw some of thier indoor bedding down. It’s schopped straw treated with pine oil and isn’t the cheapest but they were over the moon with it. Scratching about and nice clean feet again. It’s lasted about a week and what I put down went further than I thought, so I’ll get some more down tomorrow.

The hens were surprisingly ok with the confinement

The chicks were the easiest to deal with. I used the estimated 3-5 days before the run would arrive to intergrate Aurora and Buffy into the flock (our last broody hen and her 15 week old daughter). Buffy was a bit younger than I would have liked but I didn’t want to introduce them into the pen as there wouldn’t be much space for hens to hide before the pecking order was sorted. I had been thinking of killing the boys before Christmas so they wouldn’t be in too long and the coop they live in comes with a run so we just threw some tarp over it. That was fine until I went out one day and was greeted by 3 cockerels running around. I thought I must have left the side door unlocked when I put them to bed, or the wind something open. Well the wind had blown something open, the roof off the coop had been ripped off it’s hinges and was over the fence in the goose area. We had a rush job of herding them into the big polytunnel then moving the house and run and getting them inside that. They would be ok in there as we could still open the polytunnel doors for ventilation with them being self contained. It’s the last time I buy a commercial chicken coop though.

The roof flew straight off the coop

The prevention zone was due to be lifted on the 9th Jan but instead it was extended until the 28th Feb, which is very depressing. I think the chickens will be ok but I am not sure how the geese will cope with the breeding season whilst still in there. I was hoping to get them back out on grass before then, and I don’t know where they will lay as it is all so open in the tunnel and they like to be under bushes to lay. I’m now trying to come up with some sort of additional housing in there so that they can lay inside. Any suggestions are welcome.

On the upside we are getting eggs again finally. One of the Brown Marsh Daisies is giving us the odd egg which is nice. Buffy and Brienne (the two female chicks we hatched last year) have started to lay as well. Brienne is laying nice >60g eggs whilst Buffy is laying <30g eggs. I have no idea what breed Brienne is, the egg was advertised as Copper Brown Maran x Rhode Island Red, but she is pure white. Either way I think I might hatch some of her eggs this year, as she is a big bird producing big eggs, and a cross with Aramis (also breed unknown) could produce some nice chicks.

A Brienne egg vs a Buffy egg

The chicks weren’t very happy in the polytunnel though and had started to fight each other, so when the news came that they would have to be in for another 2 months we decided that d-day was upon them. We killed them the other weekend and got ok weights from them 1.2kg and (Bifur), 1.4kg (Bofur) and 1.6kg (Bombur).

The boys

It’s still not a task I relish doing, and I was a bit grumpy and stressed out leading up to it, but I was able to give them a quick end and we now have food in the freezer. Serving up our roast chicken and veg to my family for Christmas dinner was a really proud moment. Next year our own goose! Looking at how long it takes me to process them though, we may end up sending them away in future. We reckoned about an hour to pluck and then another 40 mins to an hour to process in the kitchen. That isn’t too bad if you have the time, and I am sure I will get quicker as I get more experience, but at the moment, with a toddler and still trying to get everything to set up here, it may well be a better use of time to have someone else do them.

I had another butchery task this month. We were gifted two phesants, shot the day before. Unfortunately, this was a few days before Christmas. They got hung up and I stressed about them until I could see to them after Boxing Day. I skinned these ones and I hated it, I do definately prefer plucking. I was quite shocked to see that they had full crops and gizzards, and that they were full of corn. Then I saw how much fat they had on them and how yellow it was. I had thought that with phesant shoots they were released and then you went huting them, but these birds can’t have been released much before they were shot and were fattened up ready for the shoot. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that, but I’m not sure I will be accepting any more phesants from shoots, fresh roadkill may be ok.

My first phesant

The last achievment of December was that I finally braved facebook. We have a page! Pretty much just random updates from the smallholding  but hopefully interesting enough to people. I’m trying to get some advice from trading standards as to what we need to do to start selling our produce and hopefully get this smallholding somewhat productive in 2017!

Dans

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December catch up part 1: Baa Ram Ewe

Wow December was a hectic month. There were the usual suspects; Yule, Christmas and New Year, which we tend to start the prep for and feel the pressure of at the start of the month.

Our first big smallholding related job of December was finally going to collect our tup. We had decided to hire a ram lamb, but as the time came the owner was a bit worried that the ram lamb was on the small side and may not be up to the job. We changed the plans then to hire the ram lamb’s dad when he had finished covering his ewes. It pushed lambing back but, with everything that was happening  with sorting out my stepdad’s funeral, pushing it back seemed right. We had been hoping to collect him mid November but it just didn’t work out until Dec 3rd.

The ram lamb we were going to have

We decided that taking Chi up to Sheffield and coming straight back would be too much, so Sam braved our first animal transport on his own. When he got here he unloaded no problem and was promptly wormed. He was a little nervous, especially of cats for some reason. The intention (this post seems to be full of intentions!) was to have him in for 3 days, like we did with the ewes, so that the zolvix could work it’s magic. His wool was full of burrs, so I planned to cut them out and do his raddle paint on day 3 before we let him out. Akbar, the tup, had other ideas though!

Akbar ready to come stay with us

I was driving home on the afternoon of the second day and saw a tup wandering about our smallholding! Thankfully he hadn’t got in with the ewes yet. Sam managed to get him out of our veg patch area (not yet made thankfully) and into a sheep area. From there we managed to pen him up with only one half hearted attempt at butting us and painted him up orange. In fact Akbar has proved to have a lovely temperment and, apart from that first running round trying to catch him, he hasn’t even attempted to butt us. Sam has found penning him up a piece of cake. As far as we could see he used the hay rack to get over the hurdles as the hay rack was only hanging on by one hook. I’m still nervous as to what effect it will have on our worm burden, but 2 days may have done the job.

Safe and sound in his quarantine…

The girls were initially very wary of him, running like hell whenever he approached. I started to worry that we weren’t going to have any lambs, but sure enough one morning we had an orange bum. In fact any coloured bums we got were spotted first thing in the morning. December was a very foggy month and I think he used the combination of fog and dark to catch them overnight! For those that don’t know, I should probably explain the paint. Sheep have a 13-19 day cycle, with an average of 17 days. Commercial flocks will use a harness with a raddle crayon on it so that when the tup covers the ewe he leaves a paint mark on her bum. Then you know when she was covered and can estimate lambing. After a cycle you change the colour, if the ewe is coloured again then you know that the pregnancy didn’t take the first time. There’s some possible reasons. Ram didn’t get a go? Stressed ewe? Infertile ewe? Infertile ram? A lot of the native breeds are too small for the propper harnesses (raddle), so we mix up some raddle paint and smear it onto his breast instead. For Akbar he needed a top up half way through the cycle as they started getting a bit pale.

He covered 4 of the girls in the first cycle, then we painted him up green and he covered a different 4. So everyone has been covered at least once. He’s due a repaint again tomorrow, so fingers crossed he doesn’t cover anyone this time. Our lambing will be late, May currently, but possibly June if he covers in the third cycle. I’m a bit nervous about that but it is what it is. We are thinking about seperating him from the girls but we have no-one to keep him company if we put him far from them and I’m a bit worried about him escaping back in with them anyway. Now to try and arrange a scanner to come and check our girls are actually in lamb and start prepping for it, but more on that later!

Varying shades of orange

I started this as being one post covering all of December but it got very long, so later this week keep an eye out for part 2: Bird flu

Dans

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A journey into smallholding