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!


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!


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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


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