Category Archives: Children

Aims for 2019

Well 2018 was a poor year for us smallholding wise. My pregnancy and then recovery meant we didn’t do much. Very limited planting, limited harvesting, no lambing, we stopped keeping geese and a lot of maintenance jobs piled up.

I am finally able to get back to work a bit, although it is still limited. I’m itching to get on with jobs though. I thought I’d make a little list here of the things I would like to accomplish this year. It’ll be interesting to look back on at the end of the year.

We ended 2018 by finally moving the shed in the orchard (walking a 6×4 shed was an experience), painting it, getting a (partial) roof on and moving the young flock of chickens in. I’d like to finish the house: get the other side of the roof on, perches and poop trays in and get an automatic pophole and window in. Built in, easy access nest boxes would be great.

D’Artagnen and his 9 ladies seem fairly happy, except for one who insists on breaking out to lay in her old spot. She’s going to be a handful that one.

D’Artagnen and his ladies

Next up is improving our fruit and veg production. We’re halfway there with the polytunnel raised beds and I’d like to get those finished. There’s also the beds outside to raise. The fruit patch is in dire need of weeding, mulching, more bushes planting and a cage over the top.

The polytunnel

The area between the fruit patch and veg patch has been earmarked for ducks and will need fencing, clearing and seeding. The shade polytunnel also needs clearing and seeding for next year’s chicks.

Our future duck patch

I’d also like to get some willow planted around the holding and repair a lot of fence posts that our ram lambs knocked down. And I’d like to sort out the sheds, greenhouses and polytunnels so that we can actually find things, and maybe look into planning to replace our storage polytunnel with a small barn, we really need a better lambing place.

Ok there’s a lot of jobs I’d like to take on. I don’t know that we will manage it all, but we’re gonna give it a go. One of the big things I’d like to challenge myself with is getting out 5 days a week for more than our morning and night let out/feed/lock up runs.

Even being out for an hour with the kids I can still get a lot of work done. It may sound silly for a smallholder to not already be out 5 days a week but it’s something we’ve found really hard this past year. Between coughs, colds, flu, hospital admittance, bad hips, broken bones and wounds we’ve found we can actually go weeks only doing the bare minimum. And once you’ve been in for weeks it can be easy to slip into the habit. It’s not what I imagined when I thought of smallholding with children but we play the cards we’ve been dealt. I’m hoping for a healthier 2019!

We’ve already managed 6 out of the 8 days outside this year (Saturday I had a smallholding wool crafting group meeting and Sunday we had guests), and I’m so happy with the progress we seem to be making chipping away at jobs. The polytunnel is pretty clear and tidy, I’ve two more cockerels in my freezer and started on the duck patch.

Inside I’d love to get more comfortable with baking and finally try a quiche! Also craft a bit more, I’ve finally finished knitting Rowan’s newborn hat (which just about fits), but I’d like to start and finish more projects. Motherhood the first time round took everything, I’m hoping to carve a little more me time this time around.

His first handknit

We’ll see how I get on with it all, I’m really excited to see what 2019 brings. Happy New Year everyone!

Dans

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In the bleak midwinter

Today is the winter solstice, when the sun sets tonight it will start the longest night. I’ve celebrated Yule (the solstice) for about 17 years now but my understanding of it has really changed since becoming a smallholder.

I started on this smallholding journey because I felt called to becoming more in tune with nature, not just growing our own food and raising our own animals but doing it whilst following the seasons and working with nature.

It’s really worked well in that respect. You can ask Sam or I at any time of year what time sunset will be and we can tell you (we still aren’t great at sunrise, my bed calls to me too!). We can look outside and tell you how much light is left in the day. In short, smallholding has made us very aware of the sun.

The shortening days have been hard on us, especially as we were doing the bare minimum during my pregnancy. The jobs have piled up and now, when I’m starting to be physically able again, the days are so short.

Walking back from the sheep this morning I felt quite disheartened. Sam, Chi and Rowan are sick, Rowan with a very high temperature. I’m the healthiest of the lot but I’m still sniffly. The sheep are just finishing off the last bale of hay, I’ve never reversed the trailer and Sam still can’t drive the Honda with his broken foot. We need to move the sheep on but the rams broke a load of fence posts which need replacing. The bigger cockerels need slaughtering so that the smaller ones can grow. The new chicken house needs a roof. That’s just the urgent stuff, there are jobs everywhere I look and things have started getting muddy.

It feels like an awful lot on a day where my scar is hurting and a sick baby means I’ll likely be sat cuddling and worrying if he’s getting better. Our solstice morn had been bleak, I was up for sunrise but the rain made it a bit anticlimactic.

Now, walking back and feeling overwhelmed, I was blinded, the sun had broken through the clouds and was returning. The days will stop getting shorter. It was a bit of a beautiful and hopeful moment. I enjoyed it for a while and then took a picture.

It’s not all sunshine and roses though. Our weather patterns are all over the place and winter has been very mild so far. I’m fully expecting things to get worse before they get better, more mud, frozen water buckets, frozen taps and snow, but the sun is returning and every day brings us closer to long warm summer days. I’m going to try and hold onto that between now and Spring.

Solstice blessings to you all, may the sun shine brightly on you and your lands.

Dans

P.S. Sam came up with a hay solution. We can get 6 bales in the back of the Honda so I’ll do that, which should last us until he can drive the Honda again.

Harvest 2018

You may have noticed that we’ve been rather quiet over the last few months. As my due date got closer I really went into nesting and birth preparation mode. It was quite odd seeing the different fruits come into season and not harvesting them. August should have been filled with harvesting and preserving but instead instead it saw me growing in size, decreasing in mobility, organising and reading. I have to admit to feeling a bit jealous of everyone else’s harvest posts, and even my own from previous years.

We did manage to harvest a little from the land, the beauty of bath apples were first, the wasps got to a fair few but we still got a few bottles of juice from them. We harvested, quartered, froze and then juiced when we had time (and my nephew’s help). It worked well.

Pressing apples after defrosting. You certainly get more juice.

The tomatoes were next, not as good a harvest as last year by far, we lost a lot, especially the cherry tomatoes, but we did get a few jars of passata. I also finally processed the last of last year’s toms so my passata stores are looking healthy again.

We had our first experience of blossom end rot with the toms. This was our first year with raised beds but also our first heat wave year. I am hoping that if we add some more nutrients to the soil and keep steady with our watering next year, then we won’t see it again.

One thing that benefited from the heat wave was our attempt at melons. We got a few good size, really tasty cantaloupe melons. I’m really keen to try these again and see what we get when we put some effort in to them. We got a couple aubergines and sweet peppers too.

One of our tasty melons

We lost a lot of the cooking apples and pears as well. The apples were a smaller harvest anyway as one tree barely fruited but the pear trees were laden. We did manage to have our first attempt at pear juice and have enough harvested Williams pears to do some dried pear.

It was a good year for pears

We always knew this year wouldn’t be great in terms of the smallholding, my body doesn’t do pregnancy well and we ended up with an emergency C-section which put me out of action for far longer than I had hoped. We had a go at planting, harvesting and preserving but kept our expectations low.

On the upside we now have our not so little boy. I have just about recovered from the section enough to get back to work on the smallholding. It’s been a little forced as Sam broke his foot last week. It does feel good to be back to doing lots (when baby allows of course) and I’m feeling very motivated to get this place back on track.

Baby’s first trip to the polytunnel.

Dans

As always likes and comments are much appreciated. We have a new Instagram account for all the day to day posts, we are @six_oaks_smallholding

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

P.S. As always if you like the post, give us a thumbs up, and if you want to be notified of every blog post then subscribe – there’s a button to the left or below if you’re on a mobile device. It’s always nice to know people are out there and reading.

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

Best laid plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

One day’s harvest of eggs

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

The cockerels sizing each other up

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

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

Dans

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Spring has sprung!

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

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

The feathers came out really nicely after dunking in hot water

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

Chi asking questions

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

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

I’m sure she’s helping!

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

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

Dans

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R.I.P. Arwen

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

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

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

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

Wearing a saddle when she was Aramis’ favourite hen

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

Arwen this winter

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

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

Dans

The Beast from the East and a wobbly chicken

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burnham having some r’n’r

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

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

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

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

Dans