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.
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.
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!
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.
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Aside from the usual festive season and a late tupping, December had the added surprise of bird flu, which although we had known about it being in the continent we were hoping it would pass us by. For those that don’t know bird flu was spreading through Europe in November and a Prevention Zone was set up in the UK on 6th Decemeber. That basically means that everyone with birds had to do everything they could to keep wild birds away from thier birds. At the bare minimum that meant keeping the wild birds away from your birds food and water as bird flu is spread through contact with bodily fluids. Cases of bird flu were reported in December, in wild birds, in a turkey farm in Lincs and in several backyard flocks, mainly where there were ducks and chickens together. Waterfowl can get bird flu but don’t show symptoms very well. Chickens drop dead quite quickly though. If you want to read more about the current bird flu situation in the UK the DEFRA page is up to date.
As it affects waterfowl differently we started by getting the geese into the shade tunnel. It’s a large polytunnel with butterfly netting over it and weed proof fabric down but no doors. We cleared out the left over plants from the last owners (we haven’t used this tunnel for anything yet), patched up some holes in the netting and nailed some tarp to the door frame. We also set up a small shelter using an old door and some chairs so that there was a dry spot for thier food and somewhere to get out of any heavy rain. Netting isn’t ideal as wild birds can still poop on it and it gets washed in with the rain, but it is better than the birds using the goose baths or drinking water as a bird bath or hopping all over the ground they graze on. The geese made it into a slippery muck bath pretty quickly so we had to shovel it all out and threw 3 bales of straw down. That seems to have done the trick but it’s starting to get mucky again now so will need to refresh.
Geese are grazers though, and grass is the bulk of our geese’s diet. There was some grass growing over the weedproof fabric in the polytunnel but they ate through that pretty quickly. We tried them on some hay (with grit available to help them break it down) but they weren’t interested. They did pick at grains from the bales of hay though. They were having corn each night anyway as the weather had gotten cold and they kept eating that but seemed to have little interest in the goose food mix we bought for them. I saw an oppertunity and switched them to the flubenvet worming layers pellets in the hopes of getting them wormed before the breeding season hits. They weren’t interested at first but are eating it now. They are still looking in good condition (apart from April who has alway had a very prominent keel, even after they were wormed with an ivermectin injection), so I guess they are getting enough to eat. I’ll be so very glad to let them out again when the time comes though!
The chickens were a bit more difficult. If we put them in either of our other polytunnels there would be nowhere foxproof for them to perch. After losing Bellatrix to what I suspect was a goose attack I really didn’t want to put the chickens in the shade tunnel with the geese, even if it was partioned off. They also don’t do as well in the wet as geese do. The best option seemed to be to keep them in thier current house, but even though it is a shed rather than a coop it still isn’t big enough for them to be in there 24/7. We ordered some aviary panels the night the prevention zone was announced with a 3-5 delivery. We wouldn’t be complying immediately but at least we would have something in the works. Unfortunately the seller was awful. I emailed on day 3 to find out if there was tracking and was told the parcel would be with me on day 5. I emailed again on day 5 as it hadn’t arrived (after cancelling all our plans on days 3-5 just in case it came) only to be told it had been dispatched that day and would be with me in 3-5 days. Ebay were awful and just said I could refuse delivery and get a refund if I wanted. They arrived on day 8 and as soon as the chickens went to bed I set about building a run with cable ties, tarp and some scaffold netting. It was pretty tricky building it as the light went, without a torch (because I was too gung ho and just rushed into it), especially when I dropped the black cable ties on the floor!
The chickens seemed to be a lot happier in there than I expected but slowly the layer of fallen leaves and bits of grass poking through started to turn into mud and they started to look unhappy. I didn’t want to use straw as I had heard about that harbouring bacteria and giving the chickens respiratory problems. I took the plunge and threw some of thier indoor bedding down. It’s schopped straw treated with pine oil and isn’t the cheapest but they were over the moon with it. Scratching about and nice clean feet again. It’s lasted about a week and what I put down went further than I thought, so I’ll get some more down tomorrow.
The chicks were the easiest to deal with. I used the estimated 3-5 days before the run would arrive to intergrate Aurora and Buffy into the flock (our last broody hen and her 15 week old daughter). Buffy was a bit younger than I would have liked but I didn’t want to introduce them into the pen as there wouldn’t be much space for hens to hide before the pecking order was sorted. I had been thinking of killing the boys before Christmas so they wouldn’t be in too long and the coop they live in comes with a run so we just threw some tarp over it. That was fine until I went out one day and was greeted by 3 cockerels running around. I thought I must have left the side door unlocked when I put them to bed, or the wind something open. Well the wind had blown something open, the roof off the coop had been ripped off it’s hinges and was over the fence in the goose area. We had a rush job of herding them into the big polytunnel then moving the house and run and getting them inside that. They would be ok in there as we could still open the polytunnel doors for ventilation with them being self contained. It’s the last time I buy a commercial chicken coop though.
The prevention zone was due to be lifted on the 9th Jan but instead it was extended until the 28th Feb, which is very depressing. I think the chickens will be ok but I am not sure how the geese will cope with the breeding season whilst still in there. I was hoping to get them back out on grass before then, and I don’t know where they will lay as it is all so open in the tunnel and they like to be under bushes to lay. I’m now trying to come up with some sort of additional housing in there so that they can lay inside. Any suggestions are welcome.
On the upside we are getting eggs again finally. One of the Brown Marsh Daisies is giving us the odd egg which is nice. Buffy and Brienne (the two female chicks we hatched last year) have started to lay as well. Brienne is laying nice >60g eggs whilst Buffy is laying <30g eggs. I have no idea what breed Brienne is, the egg was advertised as Copper Brown Maran x Rhode Island Red, but she is pure white. Either way I think I might hatch some of her eggs this year, as she is a big bird producing big eggs, and a cross with Aramis (also breed unknown) could produce some nice chicks.
The chicks weren’t very happy in the polytunnel though and had started to fight each other, so when the news came that they would have to be in for another 2 months we decided that d-day was upon them. We killed them the other weekend and got ok weights from them 1.2kg and (Bifur), 1.4kg (Bofur) and 1.6kg (Bombur).
It’s still not a task I relish doing, and I was a bit grumpy and stressed out leading up to it, but I was able to give them a quick end and we now have food in the freezer. Serving up our roast chicken and veg to my family for Christmas dinner was a really proud moment. Next year our own goose! Looking at how long it takes me to process them though, we may end up sending them away in future. We reckoned about an hour to pluck and then another 40 mins to an hour to process in the kitchen. That isn’t too bad if you have the time, and I am sure I will get quicker as I get more experience, but at the moment, with a toddler and still trying to get everything to set up here, it may well be a better use of time to have someone else do them.
I had another butchery task this month. We were gifted two phesants, shot the day before. Unfortunately, this was a few days before Christmas. They got hung up and I stressed about them until I could see to them after Boxing Day. I skinned these ones and I hated it, I do definately prefer plucking. I was quite shocked to see that they had full crops and gizzards, and that they were full of corn. Then I saw how much fat they had on them and how yellow it was. I had thought that with phesant shoots they were released and then you went huting them, but these birds can’t have been released much before they were shot and were fattened up ready for the shoot. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that, but I’m not sure I will be accepting any more phesants from shoots, fresh roadkill may be ok.
The last achievment of December was that I finally braved facebook. We have a page! Pretty much just random updates from the smallholding but hopefully interesting enough to people. I’m trying to get some advice from trading standards as to what we need to do to start selling our produce and hopefully get this smallholding somewhat productive in 2017!
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