Category Archives: Setting up

When the sun shines

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

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

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

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

Finished compost/muck heap enclosure.

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

Making headway on clearing the lambing side of polytunnel

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

De-thistled veg beds

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

Feeding the sheep

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

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

You can just about see the plants

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

Clearing the weeds

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

You can just about see the uncovered, manured patch

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

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

Dans

Chicken house renovations

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

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

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

Longer, level perches

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

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

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

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

Already queuing

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

Dans

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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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Livestock update

I had been trying to do posts on different topics here, but things pile up, I find myself waiting to post until a particular project is finished and finding lots of other things that I’m wanting to talk about but feel I should wait until the earlier stuff has had a post. So I’m going to try forgetting about all that and have a go at doing a post once a week on the various goings on. I can always do a special post on a particular project/adventure when they occur.

So I guess I’ll do a bit of a catch up starting with the livestock. All of the chicks are going like weeds. We found Alice randomly joined the flock one day and had no inclination to go back to her chicks so I guess she was done with motherhood. Her chicks (the cross breeds) will be joining the flock in a couple of weeks. We managed to get 3 definite hens and 2 that I think are cockerels but they have no tail feathers to speak of so far.

The cross breed chicks

The Derbyshire Redcap (DRC) chicks are so flighty that we are having a bit of trouble keeping them contained, they just fly over the heras panels, but we got 4 hens and 2 cocks, 1 of which is really quite stunning so will try selling him. We are about a month of having them join the flock. I was a bit nervous given how much trouble the DRC pullets had given us but thankfully they are all now going into the house and have even started laying (had to wait until 30 weeks!). Just waiting for the eggs to increase in size a bit and then we shall hopefully start having eggs on the gate again. We’ve been in a bit of a low patch and I’m pretty sure we have an egg thief/eater. We’re getting a camera set up in the house to have a peek.

The lone chick (Ixworth) is starting to feather up now, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a hen. It won’t be ready to join the flock until Christmas time though. Not our greatest hatch ever but Aurora is happy with her chick.

We also had some surprise hens. A neighbour is moving away and had 3 hens that she wasn’t taking with her. We agreed to take them in so have 3 Rhode Island Red hens that were born in 2016. They are laying well so should have their eggs in our boxes soon. We’ll introduce them to the flock at the same time as the cross breed chicks. They aren’t a rare breed but I’m a bit of a sucker for taking in animals.

We lost Boomer, one of the Cuckoo Marans, about a month ago. Like Aino we have no idea what happened. Happy and healthy in the run up, no marks, no swelling and a good body weight. I guess it will just be one of those things. So we started the year on 8 hens and a cockerel and now have 23 hens, 3 cockerels and 3 possible cockerels. I have a lot of naming to do! The chicken house had a bit of an update so we have more space and better perching in there for the birds. Just need to update the poop trays and nest boxes.

Boomer, RIP

The geese really are growing like weeds. They are huge. Really huge. They still have a couple of their baby feathers but are well on their way to adulthood. There’s at least 1 gander, possibly 3. They have just started making adult noises so we’ll be watching for their behaviour and sounds to attempt sexing them. The two white ones are destined for the butcher but I would like to keep the other 3 if we can. We are just in the process of getting them some new housing built (our first real building project) but for now they are in the trailer, safe from foxes at least.

The sheep are doing really well. We have just separated off the lambs from the ewes, and the ewe lambs from the ram lambs and Cisco was having a bit of a try with one of the ewe lambs. Really hoping we didn’t leave it too late and aren’t surprised by lambs in January! They have all just turned 4 months. It’s a bit noisy out at the moment but that should settle . Once the ewes have dried off we will put the ewe lambs back in with them.

Ram lambs (left to right) Crais, Cisco and Crichton

Three of the ewes are off to slaughter at the start of next month. I’m quite nervous but so far things are coming together. We have people interested in the meat and will hopefully secure the orders and get deposits before they go off. I’ve talked to the butchers about cuts, the food safety officer should be coming around soon to give us our hygiene rating for selling the meat, I’m looking into distance selling as one buyer is quite far away, I’ve applied for our registration to handle Animal By-Products so that we can get the skins and horns back and been in touch with the tannery so they can process the skins. I’m also doing my food safety course, although we won’t actually be handling the meat. There seem to be a lot of different plates spinning with this but  it should be a good learning experience. The abattoir is a small one, attached to the butchers and there has been some good feedback about it so hopefully the girl’s last journey will be as smooth and non-stressful as it can be.

So I guess that’s a very long way of saying that despite being quiet on here we’ve been busy busy, and that doesn’t include all the harvesting and processing. More on that in the next post!

Dans

Lambing preparations

We are a bit late this year but it’s nearly lambing time here at Six Oaks!

There are two options for how to lamb. You can lamb indoors, like you may have seen on Lambing Live if you ever watched it, or you can lamb outside. Generally the more commercial, ‘softer’ breeds will lamb inside as they may need more help, whilst the primitive ‘hardier’ breeds will lamb outside, are more likely to get on with it on their own and are able to cope with weather changes. It also depends somewhat on the shepherd.

Our sheep are a primitive breed, one of the reasons we got them was their reputation for being ‘easy lambers’. Despite this it’s our first time lambing, as well as theirs, and there are a few more dangers when both parties don’t know what they are doing. As such we decided on a compromise in terms of lambing. During the days the ewes would be out and we would check them regularly. In the evenings we would bring the ewes inside where we can easily check on them. Once lambed and bonded the mother and lamb(s) will go into a mothering up pen for a day or so and then be turned out into a new area. We had a plan in place.

You may have pieced together from our posts that whilst we are well endowed with polytunnels we don’t actually have a shed that we can have animals in. It’s on our list of things we would like to have but we haven’t got there yet. Our first thought was to use the storage polytunnel, we used that when the ewes first came, for shearing and when Akbar came. The shearing was in May last year though and I had been very worried about the ewes being in there with the afternoon sun. We decided that a sunny May afternoon it may be too hot for a young lamb. So time for plan B.

The girls in the storage polytunnel last year

The second thought was the shade polytunnel. This has fine netting over it and is much cooler, but it does get wet. We need a way to keep the rain off. We bought a very large blue tarp and threw it over the top (somewhat comically, it took a fair few tries!). We pegged it down to see how it coped with the wind. Suffice to say it didn’t cope very well with the wind, and after a few tears we took it down. Time for plan C.

Our makeshift cover

We started looking at temporary structures we could put up, in my searching we came across polytunnels with mesh sides. I briefly considered if we could alter the cover and structure of our storage polytunnel before I realised that our big polytunnel has mesh sides. We have planted half of it with veg beds, the other side has these large sliding tables that we don’t really use. Time to convert it into a lambing area.

The polytunnel when we first moved in.

We started by cleaning up the whole area which was long overdue. Then we lifted one of the table tops up and popped it on top of another. Tied the other two tables together so that they no longer slide. Next we put weedproof fabric over the bare earth floor and got the hurdles in. Straw down and it was ready to use for this year’s shearing.

After shearing we turned the ewes out into polytunnel way and the triangle. From there they can access the polytunnel freely but not get through to the veg beds. Plus there’s plenty of grass there.

Free access in and out

The final touches were to get the lambing box in (£100 worth of equipment, most of which we hopefully won’t need). Move across the tea urn, so we have some hot water for handwashing. Set up the security camera, so we can be nosey from inside the house. And lastly, remove all trip hazards for when we are stumbling out there at night.

Everything we could need

So that was housing sorted. Now for where to put them after. We have an area called Car Park area, just between the gate and the storage polytunnel. We haven’t really grazed it and there is no fencing separating it from the outside veg beds, berry patch or polytunnel way. Sam set to work putting up some temporary fencing, we still don’t know exactly how we want to use that area so don’t really want to hammer fence posts in only to need to move them next year. His solution used up bits of fencing we had left over from other areas and bamboo canes. Despite being primitive sheep our girls don’t test our fencing much at all, and as long as there is an upright barrier and food on their side they will respect it. We have a couple more fence posts to put in to give the fence along the road a bit of support but that goes on our list of jobs for today.

Bamboo fence posts

It’s all sorted now. I’d still like a shed, but I think we have made the best of what we have, which is a big part of smallholding. I’d have liked to remove the supports for the table, but they are cemented in and if we took the arches away there would have been stumps sticking out of the ground.

Now we sit and wait for the lambs. Arya is due today or tomorrow, has a nice big bag and a swollen vulva so fingers crossed!

Dans

Edit: This was written Saturday morning and just needed the pictues adding, then Arya lambed and everything got delayed.

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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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