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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.