Tag Archives: Bad days

Tooth and Claw

This is a bit of a long one.

Smallholding has its ups and downs. It’s highs (home grown food, births, wildlife spotting, summer days) and it’s lows (pests, mud, frozen water, deaths). On Wednesday we reached our lowest low.

I went to bed at about midnight the night before and all was peaceful. I woke up at about 8, late for the day and heard a goose calling out. It kept calling intermittently and we thought the gosling was running through the fence again, as it often does. It wasn’t a panicked call, more a ‘where are you’ call. We rushed about to do the morning things, I took Chi off to one of her groups and Sam did the letting animals out before a morning meeting.

On the way back home Sam called me. The geese had escaped sheep field 1 and were in the veg patch *sigh*, but one of the geese and the gosling were missing. He thought it was likely April (the more mothering one) taking shelter from the rain. He searched for 30 minutes but couldn’t find her. Not too unusual, she she would happily sit with the gosling under her without making undue sound. I asked about feathers but there were no clumps of feathers indicating an attack.

When I got home I changed and set about looking for them. I checked the back garden first, then the orchard (where the geese normally are). The triangle was next as it has a few sheltered spots then a quick look around the fruit and veg patch. Then I got to where Sam had penned the geese up, I then saw that it wasn’t April that was missing. It was Athos. My heart sunk a bit. If I had walked past where Athos had the gosling he would have charged me, he wouldn’t have sat idly by. So no chance that he was anywhere I had already been. I checked polytunnel way, listening for his hiss. Then I heard the geese calling again. I ran back in case they had spotted him but they were just standing in the middle of the area. And that is when I heard it. Silence. Athos is a pain but he is a good gander. If his girls called to him he would always respond. Silence meant he couldn’t reply. I prepared myself to find a body.

I checked sheep field 2, which they had to go through to get to the veg patch, expecting to see him in a bush dead or dying. No sign. I went into sheep field 1, where they had been, stepping over the fence that they had knocked down. I saw some feathers, but not may, could have just been a fight between the girls, as they do, or the start of a moult. In the very corner of the field, along the road and the side boundary of the land (where a dry ditch runs) I found him. He was pointing towards the fence and his head and neck were missing.

My thought was that they were sleeping there, they have been known to, and a predator went past, maybe a dog, fox or badger. Athos went into protective mode, and stuck his head through the fence, which he always did, and the predator got hold of his neck. At some point the gosling went through the fence and was taken too. The girls, in their panic, ran away and knocked down the fence in the process. We wondered why the others were still alive and figured that it must have been a dog or badger, too big to get through the fence. That assumption cost us dearly.

We went to bed at around midnight/1am and again all was peaceful, except Abigail’s occasional calls to Athos, she had been doing that all day. When we woke, again at about 8, there was silence. I thought maybe she had given up calling. I got Chi ready and Sam went to do the morning run. He came back in and just said to me ‘it got them all’.

Barbara was in the middle of the area, intact but her neck had been bitten. Abigail had been dragged towards the fence that borders the road, her head and neck gone. April was deep in the dog rose bush and I had to get to her from the road side. She was missing a head and neck and had been partially skinned.

I have all kinds of regrets, as you do with any preventable death. I should have realised it was a fox and it could get in, I should have taken extra precautions, I should have locked the geese away that night, I should have locked the geese away every night. We had our reasons for leaving the geese out overnight. Neither of the people we got the geese from, both local, locked away. Abigail was incredibly mean, she would attack April if she got too close and I was worried she would do her damage if locked together. We bought Barbara to give April company but April in turn attacked Barbara in the same way Abigail attacked April. Athos tried to keep the peace but confining them over night seemed like a recipe for trouble. When we lost Athos I spent the afternoon looking at goose houses and finding ads for trailer bases so we could get to work building a portable secure shelter for the geese. Too little too late it would seem.

Aside from my recriminations, and the lessons we have learnt, I have been struck by how this has affected me. Anyone who has talked to us about the geese know that they are not our pets. We may not cull as quickly as some smallholders or farmers but Abigail was on probation because she hadn’t laid eggs this year and Athos was frequently eyed for sausages in the breeding season, his only redemption being how good he was with the girls, and his respect for us most of the time. If he stepped over a line where we felt safety was a concern he would have been gone for meat and I would have thoroughly enjoyed eating him.

Despite the fact that we are perfectly happy killing and eating our animals we were devastated by these attacks. It wasn’t just the loss of the gosling (who was set to be Christmas dinner), or the loss of 3 egg layers, it was the manner of their deaths. The fear and panic they will have gone through. The brutality of it. I am a pagan and a biologist. I understand Tooth and Claw. I understand the need for survival. But still these attacks still shook me.

We came to smallholding to know where our food comes from. Not just our veggies but also our meat. We are moving towards buying the meat we cannot produce ourselves from other smallholders. It matters to me where my meat comes from, the life and death it had. And I think that is the root of my upset. I do everything I can to make sure the animals in my care have good lives, with all their needs met, safe, happy and healthy. I name them all and know them individually. When the time comes for their end, I ensure that it is unexpected, quick and painless. My poor geese were given none of these and they deserved better.

I guess that is what sets humans apart from the world of Tooth and Claw. In Tooth and Claw there is no deserving better. Life is a battle to stay alive and your end is met through disease or a predator. It is only my sentience that can allow me to stand apart from that and wish for a peaceful end, not just for humans but for the animals around me.

Night before last we set about working on our defences. We haven’t arranged to have the fox shot. Looking at the time of year it is likely a vixen with cubs to feed. She is looking for food for them and saw an easy meal in a gosling, that was likely more than she bargained for when Athos came into the picture. She won though, came back for the rest of the meat and found 3 defenceless geese. We wanted to make sure she doesn’t get a third free meal. I understand and respect Tooth and Claw but that doesn’t mean I can’t tip the scales in favour of my animals.

We moved the sheep out of the field that borders the dry ditch and has long grass, into the Triangle with shorter grass. We bottled up some human pee, apparently it has to be male, and sprinkled that around the edge. Radio 4 is being played in the polytunnel where the light has also been left on. The automatic pop hole has been disabled on the chickens (it shut away at dusk and let out at dawn) so that we can let them out later in the morning. A motion sensor light is over the chicks (our most vulnerable housing) and we will set to work on a secure pen on Saturday. The pullets were literally barricaded into their house. The fox passed us by. Maybe because our efforts made it too risky or maybe because she and her cubs have full bellies. I am writing this at 4am (more about that in another post) so I am hoping we make it through tonight ok.

Our geese weren’t pets but 3 of them were part of our first livestock and we had come to care for them. RIP Athos, Abigail, April, Barbara and gosling. We’ll miss you

Dans

Parenthood and smallholding

I remember back when we were still in the early days of planning for smallholding, reading everything we could, and spending a lot of time on The Accidental Smallholder (TAS) forums. One of my many questions there was about babies and smallholding, would I be mad to start both at the same time?

In my utter inexperienced view I figured I would be pregnant and be working away at the land and whatever house we were renovating until the late stages. Then, as new born babies sleep a lot, I would continue working on things after baby was born but with baby asleep in a sling or pushchair. As baby got older I’d just use a play pen or something wherever we are to keep baby contained and occupied. Then when I have a toddler I’d incorporate them into what I was doing and all would be fine and dandy.

Oh how differently things turned out. I got quite bad SPD during the pregnancy which had me on crutches from 20 weeks. It took me a fair while to be able to move freely after the birth, talking 4 or 5 months before I could move like I could pre-pregnancy. My new born did sleep a lot, but on me and we didn’t get along with the whole baby wearing. I did manage to get her down in the pushchair but only for a single 2 hour nap a day. During the summer I used those two hours well, working away on some project while she dozed. If she woke mid-project I’d often try and carry on whilst holding her.

All hands on deck - even if you only have one free!
All hands on deck – even if you only have one free!

As she got older and was tottering about I tried the whole play pen but my Chi is very *ahem* strong willed and independent, she needs to be doing what you are doing and doesn’t like to settle for pretend ‘baby’ things when you are doing the real thing. Apparently very similar to me as a baby… Unfortunately, she isn’t quite at the stage of being helpful. We did manage to get her picking red tomatoes, but she had a tendency to throw them into the basket, and she would stay in one spot, pick the red ones, then the orangey ones and then start on the greens unless you quickly diverted her attention to a new patch of reds.

Picking red tomatoes
Picking red tomatoes

Don’t get me wrong, starting this smallholding with Chi has made it so very special. It’s an amazing feeling to see your 12 month old watering the veg beds, your 13 month picking tomatoes, your 15 month old digging for potatoes and your 17 month old sorting through the windfall apples and pears. She even baaas at the sheep now. Seeing her interacting with the animals and land, knowing the food she is eating is fresh and seeing her get involved with preparing the food (she can now peel leeks and garlic) makes me think ‘Yes, this is why we are doing this, this is what it is for.’.

Washing the harvesting baskets
Washing the harvesting baskets

But, and there is always a but after a ‘don’t get me wrong’, sometimes I do think we were mad to do smallholding and starting a family at the same time. The past week Chi has been down with the flu which has gone to her chest. I’ve been keeping her in and looking out the window wistfully at the apples on the floor, the shed that needs work, and (when I do a quick morning or night run) the beds in the polytunnel that need sorting.  I tried taking her out the other day for her nap and she just kept being woken up by a coughing fit, only seems to be sleeping at the moment whilst lying on me.

It’s not just when she is ill either, sometimes she is just too inquisitive to take out when she is wide awake. I can’t have her running around in the goose area whilst I’m tackling the brambles that are swamping their house and she gets too frustrated awake in the pushchair. Or it’s raining and no matter what rainsuit I buy she always seems to be soaking if we go out in the rain. Or, as has been the case the last few weeks, it is just too dark. I felt really disheartened the other week as Sam had the day off and we prepared the polytunnel for the tup. We were really getting into the swing of things and making progress. We were about to start another job but we checked the time. Half an hour until sunset, time to have one of us do the night run for the animals and then we head in. 3:30pm. If we didn’t have Chi with us we would have got the lights out and worked in the polytunnel after the night run but just no can do with Chi.

Apparently not waterproof
Apparently not waterproof

Tonight I’m feeling slightly disheartened again. We have to drive up North, over to Sheffield way, to collect the tup tomorrow (so late I know). Sam made the suggestion that I should stay with Chi. It’ll be 3 hours there, load him up and do the paper work, then 3 hours back, unload him and get him settled. Chi is still ill and grumpy and crying over everything. 6 hours in a car seat, eating lunch in the car, will not be pleasant for her, or for us. I feel like I should be there, I have been talking with the guy to arrange this hire, I’m the one who wants us to have sheep, I’m the more physically able. But it’s not in Chi’s best interest, so I will stay, do what I can here and have a cup of tea and dinner ready for Sam when he gets home.

I was reading an article in Country Smallholding the other day about a family that are doing flowers on their smallholding. They had started with animals but it was too much work with young children. The lady said that when they are both in nursery/school she might get the animals back. It reminded me again about thinking we must be mad to try and do it with Chi and be thinking about baby #2 at some point. It would all be so much easier if we didn’t have Chi, if we had set everything up before her, or waited until she was older to set things up. But writing this post and looking through the pictures of her on the smallholding I don’t think we are mad. We’ve made it harder for ourselves for sure. It certainly isn’t as easy and rosey as I expected, but seeing it all through her eyes, seeing her interact with it all makes the delay in getting everything done worth it. I’m still banking on her being really useful in getting things done in a couple of months though!

Up close with the sheep
Up close with the sheep

Dans

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Smallholding and ‘life’

Life has a way of getting in the way of living sometimes. You don’t speak to friends and when you do you apologise because ‘life’ got in the way. With having a little person around 24/7 and a husband who works full time I often find that ‘life’ is getting in the way of smallholding. We try and limit our trips away and make sure we have a few weekends a month to get on with the tasks.

This autumn though ‘life’ hit us hard. My stepfather, Paul, died suddenly. I knew he wouldn’t live forever but I thought we had at least another 10 years. He had been instrumental in my life, he even bought our smallholding for us whilst we sold our previous house, thankfully we paid him back in full a few months ago. My family was hit hard by his loss and as he died abroad the burial proceedings were drawn out. It ended up being a month from his death to his funeral. In that month I was home maybe 2 or 3 days a week, the rest of the time spent with my mum in London. Sam was home a bit more but for the majority of the time we got sitters in.

In terms of the smallholding it wasn’t what I wanted at all, every time we’ve been away previously we’ve had someone staying over. The sitters were coming in for the morning and night runs, checking up on the animals and doing food and water. When I was home I would do the cleaning out of houses, water buckets and some harvesting.

Literally just before we found out about Paul I’d been really happy about how we were doing on the holding. My vet friend Cassie had been over for a weekend and showed us how to trim the sheep’s feet, we’d put up the first of 2 fences to subdivide the sheep field and I was filled with that feeling of pride you get when you see your holding through someone else’s eyes. It felt like we were finally getting on track, I had some things to plant in the polytunnel, our local garden centre was selling old stock of organic manure dirt cheap and a trip with the trailer was planned and the apple and pear harvest were approaching. Life was good. I came in to do dinner and Sam did the night run, as he stepped in the door the phone rang and the world fell apart for me.

On the times we came back to the smallholding we did what we could but you could literally see things falling apart. The first time back after a week away the polytunnel was heaving with fruit flies all over the tomatoes and the peppers, the onions that I thought were ok still in the ground had started to sprout green stems again, the fruit trees we’d impulse bought in  our garden centre’s sale were looking worse for wear, the felt roof of the goose shed Paul had helped us build was flapping in the wind and I didn’t have the energy to make the calls needed about our incoming ram lamb.

I felt awful about it. Paul had been so proud about what we were doing, he’d boasted to people at my daughter’s birthday in June that nothing goes to waste here, but things were. All in all the smallholding survived. The animals were ok. I guess that goes to show that whatever is happening life does go on, and that my gold standard of care for the animals can slip in emergencies without the world ending for them.

Now we are back, have been for about 2 weeks, and we are ‘cracking on’ as he would say. We’ve done the second fence in the sheep field so we now have 3 areas to rotate around. The buying of the ram lamb has been replaced with the hire of 3 year old tup as the owner isn’t sure the ram lamb is up to the job, we’ll buy him in the spring and not use him on his half sisters. We are trying to get on top of the apples and pears but a lot have been lost. We did two large batches of pear wine (neither worked) and 2 batches of apple wine (both very tasty) last year. This year I don’t think we will have enough fruit for wine. We also stored cooking apples through until the new year but we currently have about 3 that are ok to store. Tomorrow we are back out on the land so we’ll be focusing on apples and pears, hopefully I’m just underestimating numbers.

I guess I’m feeling disheartened by the loss that I have seen around the holding in the last month. Or maybe that’s part of the depressed stage of grief. I keep reminding myself that what happened was rare and in such times as ‘life’ gets in the way in such a massive way things will slip. I learnt a few lessons:

~ The smallholding can be managed in the short term by someone coming in morning and night.

~ ‘Life’ will get in the way sometimes, and that is ok.

~ Life is too short – I think we will be going on holiday more than I had originally thought.

~ I do want to do this – sometimes I have thought that smallholding isn’t working but I want to succeed at this. Paul put effort into helping me get into this way of life and was proud of my achievements so far. I want to keep making him proud.

Maybe this is more a personal post than a smallholding post but I am sure this will happen, and indeed has happened, to other smallholders. Before it did I wouldn’t have thought it would be possible for me to be there for my family whilst I had the holding to look after but it can be done, sometimes ‘life’ is important enough that you have to allow it to get in the way.

Hopefully more smallholdery posts soon.

Dans

Goose house in the making
Goose house in the making