Well 2018 was a poor year for us smallholding wise. My pregnancy and then recovery meant we didn’t do much. Very limited planting, limited harvesting, no lambing, we stopped keeping geese and a lot of maintenance jobs piled up.
I am finally able to get back to work a bit, although it is still limited. I’m itching to get on with jobs though. I thought I’d make a little list here of the things I would like to accomplish this year. It’ll be interesting to look back on at the end of the year.
We ended 2018 by finally moving the shed in the orchard (walking a 6×4 shed was an experience), painting it, getting a (partial) roof on and moving the young flock of chickens in. I’d like to finish the house: get the other side of the roof on, perches and poop trays in and get an automatic pophole and window in. Built in, easy access nest boxes would be great.
D’Artagnen and his 9 ladies seem fairly happy, except for one who insists on breaking out to lay in her old spot. She’s going to be a handful that one.
Next up is improving our fruit and veg production. We’re halfway there with the polytunnel raised beds and I’d like to get those finished. There’s also the beds outside to raise. The fruit patch is in dire need of weeding, mulching, more bushes planting and a cage over the top.
The area between the fruit patch and veg patch has been earmarked for ducks and will need fencing, clearing and seeding. The shade polytunnel also needs clearing and seeding for next year’s chicks.
I’d also like to get some willow planted around the holding and repair a lot of fence posts that our ram lambs knocked down. And I’d like to sort out the sheds, greenhouses and polytunnels so that we can actually find things, and maybe look into planning to replace our storage polytunnel with a small barn, we really need a better lambing place.
Ok there’s a lot of jobs I’d like to take on. I don’t know that we will manage it all, but we’re gonna give it a go. One of the big things I’d like to challenge myself with is getting out 5 days a week for more than our morning and night let out/feed/lock up runs.
Even being out for an hour with the kids I can still get a lot of work done. It may sound silly for a smallholder to not already be out 5 days a week but it’s something we’ve found really hard this past year. Between coughs, colds, flu, hospital admittance, bad hips, broken bones and wounds we’ve found we can actually go weeks only doing the bare minimum. And once you’ve been in for weeks it can be easy to slip into the habit. It’s not what I imagined when I thought of smallholding with children but we play the cards we’ve been dealt. I’m hoping for a healthier 2019!
We’ve already managed 6 out of the 8 days outside this year (Saturday I had a smallholding wool crafting group meeting and Sunday we had guests), and I’m so happy with the progress we seem to be making chipping away at jobs. The polytunnel is pretty clear and tidy, I’ve two more cockerels in my freezer and started on the duck patch.
Inside I’d love to get more comfortable with baking and finally try a quiche! Also craft a bit more, I’ve finally finished knitting Rowan’s newborn hat (which just about fits), but I’d like to start and finish more projects. Motherhood the first time round took everything, I’m hoping to carve a little more me time this time around.
We’ll see how I get on with it all, I’m really excited to see what 2019 brings. Happy New Year everyone!
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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.
We’re only in our 3rd year of hatching chicks but the learning curve has been steep. We started not knowing much at all about chickens, then through reading blogs, articles and books and asking lots of questions on forums and Facebook groups, we have found our footing. I feel quite confident now about hatching chicks with a broody, although there is always more to learn!
I’m on a few smallholding/chicken related groups and I’ve found myself answering a lot of questions with the general gist of ‘help my hen is broody, what on earth do I do?’. I’ve always given a detailed response as to what we do and then to my surprise others, who seem very experienced, liked my suggestions and even better the original poster would come back and say that the advice helped. Given that I learnt through others being generous with their knowledge, it feels really good to be able to give back. So that is what I am doing here, hoping to write a post that someone can stumble across and be helped by.
So you think you have a broody chicken, what now? Firstly is she really broody? One of the signs of a broody chicken is being in the nest box overnight (or even worse, being missing over night due to sitting somewhere else). There are other reasons for this though. Your hen could be being bullied by the others so not able to perch, they might not be used to perching or could be avoiding the house for some reason such as red mite. They can also start sitting simply because other hens are sitting in the house. They won’t actually want to sit on eggs though and will be very flighty if disturbed. A really broody hen will be in a nest box most of the day, not just at night. If you try to remove her from the nest to get to the eggs underneath her she will be very resistant to moving and may well peck at you.
So the chicken is definitely broody. The next step is to decide what you want to do. This is really important, depending on the hen if you just leave her with infertile eggs or no eggs she can waste away. It’s not healthy. If she does steal eggs from other hens they can be a variety of ages and she can potentially collect too many. If she has too many under her then they don’t all get the right conditions, develop at different rates and possibly not hatch at all. I know of someone who had a hen sitting on 20 odd eggs and only had 1 hatch of the lot.
Lastly you need to think about what you will do with the chicks. Odds are 50% will be male, can you keep the males? Rehome them? Both have their own difficulties, males can sometimes fight between each other and not many people want to home a cockerel. The last solution for the boys is the pot (which we do) but you need to think about if you will do the deed yourself or send them off to a butcher. The hens are less complicated, you can eat them, rehome them or keep for egg layers but do make sure you have a plan in place. There’s also the extra costs of feeding the chicks as they grow which you should take into account. It’s bad practice to breed any animal without a plan for its life.
So, once you have had a good think about it all, you have two options really. The first is to help the hen to have a clutch of chicks and the second is to break the broodiness.
Now we hadn’t previously tried to break a hen of being broody, although we have had some give up on us. We are having a go at breaking a broody hen (Carrie) as we have enough chicks and she went down with wry neck when she was last broody. I’ll let you know how it goes. Having no personal experience with breaking a broody I can only regurgitate the standard advice. A wire dog cage raised by some bricks at each corner with food and water inside. The aim is to get cool air blowing underneath her and no way for her to nest. Leave her in there for 2 or 3 days (making sure she is safe at night and no predators can stress her) then let her out and see what she does. If she goes back to the nest then back in the cage (sin bin) again for a few more days. It should work. We have also had hens break broodiness by being disturbed too often, but this isn’t guaranteed and they probably weren’t going to be the best broody hens anyway.
If you’re letting your hen sit then you need to support her through the process. Ideally she needs her own accommodation. Other hens will badger her to get to the nest box, stressing her out and laying eggs in the clutch that you will then have to sort through. When the chicks do hatch there is a danger that other hens may attack them if they can and also the potentially for the other hens to eat the chick food, which if it is medicated is a big no-no.
A broody coop needs some certain features to make life easy for you and the hen. The most basic requirement is to be predator proof. Rats will take eggs and chicks from under a hen. Corvids will steal from nests too. Worse still a sitting hen can go into a trance like state, no challenge at all for a fox, think of the term ‘sitting duck’. A solid bottom so no one can dig underneath, a covered top so no one can swoop down and solid/wired sides so no one can wriggle in and you’ve got the basics covered.
A nice dark area for her to nest in is good. Large enough for once the chicks start running around a bit too. If you can have a covered area with more light that’s great too, the food can go there undercover and gives then hen somewhere to stretch her legs a bit if it is raining. An outdoor run is a great addition as when the hen does stretch her legs she can do a bit of digging for grubs and vegetation as well as the standard poultry feed, a varied diet is good, it also gives her a great protected space to show her chicks the world. For your ease something that allows the roof to open will be helpful. You can easily check on the hen then and push her off if needed, grab eggs to candle and introduce chicks after dark if needed.
So you have accommodation sorted now you need something to sit on. If you don’t have a cockerel your eggs will be no good. If you have someone selling at the gate locally it may be worth asking if their eggs are fertile (we have had people do this with us). You can also buy in eggs, some breeders sell them for you to collect and there is wealth of eggs on places like ebay that can be posted to you.
There are pros and cons to this. We have been able to source a wide variety of breeds that we just couldn’t get from our local area by buying via ebay, but we have also had hatched chicks that look nothing like what the breed should and had some truly awful hatch rates (1 out of 6). It’s a gamble and if you can collect eggs in person I always would but if there is no one locally selling what you want it is worth trying a posted batch of eggs. Hens can also incubate other breeds (ducks, turkey, geese etc) but I haven’t tried it so I can’t comment.
Once you get your eggs let them sit point down at room temperature for at least a couple of hours. If it’s your own eggs then as long as they are 10 days old or younger they should be ok. Viability drops off after that. We generally wait until after dark to set eggs under a hen. All chickens get more docile after dark and are much easier to move and to fool. The postal eggs all get candled now to check for cracks (white, cream and blue eggs will show this, possibly light brown but with dark brown eggs you’ll likely have trouble seeing much). I also write a number on each egg in pencil, going over it several times. The eggs get placed in the broody coop nesting box and the sleepy hen popped on top of them.
The next day I check on the hen several times. It’s ok if she is off the nest for a little bit. It’s less work for you if she is able to get herself up to eat, drink and poo. If the hen is out of the nest every time you check and pacing up and down searching for a way out then you may be in trouble. It’s worth in this case letting her out and seeing what happens. If you find her in a couple of hours back in the main hen house (or trying to get into it if you have a penned system) then she has probably imprinted on the place she was nesting rather than onto the eggs. Take her back to the house and shut her into the nesting area for a day or two, she’ll imprint onto these eggs and nesting area.
If she is walking about as happy as Larry and showing no signs of being broody at all then she was fickle and you no longer have a broody hen. If you had left her in the house where she had been sitting she’d have likely gone off the nest at some point later. We had this happen with Aurora, she appeared broody but bolted as soon as she had the chance.
As you can get fickle hens we always test a hen’s broodiness post move now. So we place either rubber eggs or some eggs we don’t care about hatching or eating from our flock (generally small eggs that may or may not be fertile) into the broody coop and put then hen on them. If she sits on them for a day or two we give her the fertile eggs we want hatched. To do this we wait until after dark and then lift her up to take the temporary eggs away and pop the new ones under her. It only need be 1 or 2 temporary eggs you give her, hens can’t count very well so she won’t be bothered by 2 eggs being replaced by 6 or even 9.
So now you have a broody hen, sitting in a broody coop, on a clutch of eggs you want hatched. Give the hen access to her normal feed and water and a little bit of corn each evening might tempt her out. We push our broody hens off the nest every 3 days if there are no signs she has been off the nest (changed positions, been seen off the nest, broody poo to clean up). If we think she is getting up herself we leave her be.
I should say something about broody poo, it is quite awful stuff, huge and smelly. You will know it when you see/smell it. It’s more of a cow pat in consistency than a chicken poo. Do be prompt at clearing it up and do check the nest. Some hens that don’t get up have been known to poo in the nest getting it on not only the bedding by the nest but also on the eggs themselves and eggs that are kept warm for 21 days with poo on them aren’t good for anyone.
Keep feeding and pushing off your hen if needed. You are all set for the broody hatching process though. My next post will be about what to do while the hen is sitting and getting ready for the eventual hatch. I’ll do another after that about what to do once the chicks are hatched and then, if I haven’t already covered it all, a trouble shooting post for all the little tips we have picked up when things have gone wrong! I hope that one day this is all helpful to someone and if you’ve seen something in here that you think is wrong or you think ‘I wouldn’t do that’ please do tell me, we are still learning and always open to different views on how to do things.
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Ok so I haven’t actually been throwing chickens in the air and trying to catch them, but it sure feels like I have! Beware this is a little long, but it does contain pictures of cute chicks. I’ll try enticing you in with a video of our first chick of the year:
Our broody journey this year started with a Derbyshire redcap hen (green right, yellow left or yellow right leg band – we didn’t note it down). We cleared up the shed and popped her in one of the tiny triangle hutches as we hadn’t finished doing the maintenance on the broody coops over winter yet. We decided to provide her with some of our own eggs. A few cream legbar, cuckoo maran and white leghorn eggs with our Heinz 57 cockerel, Aramis, being the father. Despite Brienne being a big chicken and a regular layer of large eggs I’ve decided we won’t be hatching from her again. Her eggs have the occassional wrinkle in the shell but her daughter, Cersi, has awful wrinkles and can be quite thin shelled too. No-one else in the flock is affected so I am assuming it is genetic.
I painted up one of the broody coops (with Chi’s help of course) and gave it a good clean. We also put a panel over some of the mesh to keep it a bit drier and warmer. We had wanted to do some work on the roof, there’s a slightly rotten corner and it needs refelting, but we really needed to get the broody into better accommodation. We set her up in the orchard with a run attached to the coop. We ummed and ahhhed but a few days later we put some more eggs into the incubator. She had 7 eggs under her but we wanted to try and get the most for the work we will put in to raising the chicks so the plan was to sneak her a few extra chicks after hatching for her to raise for us. These chicks were set to be meat birds first and foremost, although if we got some more green or dark brown egg layers they could be added to the flock. Everything was looking dandy.
Then it seemed like Aurora, our veteran broody Daisy, had gone broody. We would only see her for an hour in the morning each day and she wasn’t returning to the coop at night. We caught her and gave her some random eggs that she seemed to be sitting on. At the same time Christie, another Derbyshire Redcap, had gone broody. We rushed to get the other two small houses ready, ordered some pure eggs off ebay (Copper black Maran and Cream Legbar) and set up a broody nursery in the orchard. The eggs arrived and we did a bit of juggling. The first broody hen and her soon to hatch eggs went into the woodland coop, Christie replaced her in the green coop and Aurora went into the blue coop as it doesn’t have a run and we had pretty good faith in her.
The next morning Aurora was gone and showing no signs of being broody at all. No problem, a couple of her eggs went under Christie (we had split them 50/50 3 browns and 3 blues each) and the rest went in the incubator. We had seen a couple of cracks on the Cream Legbar eggs when I candled them on arrival. One started weeping a lot on the first day in the incubator and I discarded it. Having two batches of eggs in the incubator due to hatch at different times isn’t great but it was manageable with the numbers.
Then the worst happened. The first broody was off the nest and pacing in her pen. I’d noticed her off twice the previous day but I was in and out so assumed she had gone back in. Checked on the eggs and they were stone cold. 5 days from the hatch date. We couldn’t physically fit them in our 9 egg incubator with the others (7 already in there). I did manage to get 3 more in with a bit of jiggling. The aim was to warm them up enough to see if they were still alive, I had to do it in batches though. I didn’t hold out much hope as they may well have been cold for 48 hours by now. A post on a smallholding group had a local smallholder offering to pop them under her broody hen if we needed which gave me some breathing space. We had also been talking about getting a bigger incubator and this, plus the faff of turning eggs daily, pushed that up our priority list. We ended up buying the incubator anyway as it should allow us to follow our original plan of adding eggs to a hatch whilst still having the 9 egg incubator as a ‘rescue’ one.
In the end only 1 of the eggs was still viable, a Cream Legbar one. It took a couple extra days to hatch but did so, followed a day or so later by the 4 we had started in the incubator. We ended up with a hatch of 5, 2 Cream Legbar crosses, 1 Cuckoo Maran cross and 2 White Leghorn crosses. Christie was looking a bit pale in the comb so once the chicks had fluffed up we took away the postal eggs she had been sat on and gave her the day old chicks. To start with she didn’t seem too keen to get up and about with them but then we realised she still had a Maran egg under her, once that was taken away she was up and about and has proved to be a great mum.
The postal eggs went into the incubator and another Derbyshire Redcap hen, Carrie, decided to try her hand (wing?) at being broody. Sam had commented that she was a bit crazy, quite aggressive and she looked at him funny, twisting her head back. I didn’t think much of it. We knew we had eggs in the incubator we could give her but had a couple go rotten already so we wanted to keep them until closer to hatching as with her being a bit crazy we didn’t want to be bothering her lots to candle. She sat on a couple of Daisy eggs. When I checked on her one day I saw what Sam meant about her neck, twisted right round when you opened the coop. It rang an alarm bell so I took the internet, wry neck. Varying thoughts online about it but vitamin deficiency seemed most likely so we started trying to get some baby vits in her. After one dose she was doing really well but we’d had another hen, Chickaletta (not named by us), go broody and I was worried about Carrie so we moved her to the blue coop without a run and left it open in the hopes she would graze a bit more when she got up each day. Chickaletta got some rubber eggs as we weren’t far off hatching the incubator eggs. After the second dose of being pinned and given the vitamins Carrie decided it was all too much and left the nest. She is no longer broody thankfully and the eggs under her hadn’t developed. She is much better now she is foraging but she still isn’t great so she is due to be penned up and given the vitamins everyday for a set time. Fingers crossed.
So Christie was happy with her chicks and Chickaletta was sitting, and the postal eggs were doing well in the incubator, although we were down to 5. Then both Brienne (a previous broody) and another Derbyshire Redcap both went broody. I’m running out of housing at this point! We did another shuffle. Christie and the chicks went into the blue coop as it doesn’t open from the top and we don’t need to check them much, we gave them back the blue run which had been used with the woodland coop. Chickaletta stayed in the woodland coop with the woodland coop run and Brienne went into the green coop with no run, again she had been a great broody last year so we trusted her. How foolish. Despite having a nice private suite with a clutch of 9 eggs to sit on she bolted for the chicken house first thing to sit on an empty nest… She did this for two days before we put her food and water inside and locked her in with her eggs. She was still broody but had imprinted on the main hen house. She has the door open today and is still sitting so *fingers crossed* and building a run for the green coop has risen on our priority list. The postal seller has sent us 6 more Cream Legbar eggs to make up for the damage in postage and poor fertilisation rate of the first batch (no development at all on a fair few eggs). Those went into the shiny new incubator and will be transferred to the new broody DRC as soon as we have a house for her, which Sam is picking up today.
It was hatch day for the postal eggs on Tuesday so over the weekend we gave the eggs to Chickaletta to let her hatch them. We noticed the brown eggs pushed out a couple of times and nudged them back under. When they were out again on Tuesday we took them and put them in the small incubator. Wednesday afternoon she had at least one chick under her. Today one of the Marans has hatched in the incubator and the other has pipped, I also peeked at her and she now has two chicks and an unhatched egg. If it is still unhatched this evening (when we will likely give her the hatched chick) I’ll pop it in the incubator.
So yes, that is our 2018 broody journey so far. It’s been a bit exhausting to be honest and we still have just under 3 weeks before everyone has hatched as they should, by which time we may well have more broodies!
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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.
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.
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!).
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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 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.
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.
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!
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
Time to talk about something other than the sheep!
The geese are doing well and we are expecting our first goslings on Thursday. We had 3 eggs under April and she was sitting really well but last Thursday I could have sworn it was her rather than Abigail off the nest. The next day I was certain and Sam checked to see that there was indeed a goose on the nest. It turns out Abigail and April have swapped. I don’t know if April was getting worn out and Abigail stepped in (April wasn’t in the best condition to start but we just could not break her broodiness). Or it could be that as we are getting close to hatching day the eggs have made Abigail go a bit broody too. Either way when I looked again on Saturday April was back on and Abigail was off. On Monday evening we got a surprise, a little gosling running around outside with April, Barbara and Athos. Abigail was sitting on the nest still.
When I finally got a peek at the nest today there were 6 eggs under April. It would seem that Abigail was sitting on the nest to lay eggs. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing which are the new eggs and which are the old ones with soon to hatch chicks. I think we will wait until the end of the week then try to candle to work out what is going on. We may have to take away the newer eggs to stop April from running herself into the ground sitting.
It’s the season for broodiness and Alice, one of our Brown Marsh Daisy hens. went broody 4 weeks ago. We popped 2 eggs from our Cream Legbar hens, 2 eggs from our Cuckoo Maran hens and 2 eggs from Brienne (a hybrid) under her. All fathered by Aramis of course. We candled the week before they were due and all 6 eggs were fertile and developing well – go Aramis! Friday before last we spotted 2 chicks. One from a Cream Legbar egg and the other from a Brienne egg. The next day when Alice got off the nest there were two more slightly damp chicks and 2 eggs under her, another Cream Legbar egg and a Cuckoo Maran egg had hatched. She had a poop stretched her legs and I removed the old egg shells. She went back into the nest box and sat on eggs and chicks, I figured all was fine. Unfortunately, when we went out 3 hours later it turned out she had left the remaining two eggs, they were cold. It could have been from me removing the shells but it may also have been the older chicks being 2 days old now and running about. We had a similar thing happen last year and we lost those two eggs. We bought an incubator as a back up after that.
We dug the incubator out and got the two, now very cold eggs, inside. As I put the eggs in I saw that there was a large bit of shell missing from the underneath of the Brienne egg. You could see the chick’s back and there was no movement at all. I put the remaining Cuckoo Maran egg into the incubator and slowly peeled off the shell of the Brienne egg. There was a fully formed, ready to hatch (yolk sack completely absorbed) chick inside but no movement at all, even on the eye. The only thing I can think is that Alice either stepped on it as she left the nest or crushed it slightly while sitting. As it has been so hot she removed all the bedding from around the eggs and had them on the base of the broody coop. I waited patiently for the Cuckoo Maran egg to show any sign of hatch and my hopes dwindled.
They were restored two days after we popped the chick in when I saw a small crack in the egg. It was pipping! We were away during the day and when we got back a bit more of the shell had been cracked open. We kept checking that evening but nothing. The next morning I heard a cheep and I cheeped back, it got very excited, cheeped at me and rolled the egg! We managed to actually be there for the hatching which was amazing to watch and we got a video so you can watch too. We let the chick dry off, and gave some crumb and water in the incubator. It was 3 days younger than any of the other chicks but we decided to try and have Alice raise it. We went out after dusk the day it hatched and slipped it under. Sam waited to hear any sounds of Alice rejecting it but there was nothing. We left it and crossed everything we had.
The next day we couldn’t see a chick, but we couldn’t see a body either which gave us some hope. Later that evening we finally saw the chick all fluffed up. The chicks all ran under Alice when I approached but when I spoke a little black one ran out, it had remembered my voice! It’s doing fine now, and although it’s a bit behind the others in development it’s still firmly one of the brood. As with the sheep it was another lesson in sitting on my hands and leaving nature to do its thing. If I had intervened too soon and ‘helped’ the chick hatch I could have ruptured blood vessels and caused it to bleed to death.
Just as we thought all the broodiness was coming to an end Brienne went broody. We decided this time to get some pure breed eggs to go under her. The Derbyshire Redcap is a British rare breed that is on the Priority list according to the Rare Breed Survival Trust. They are meant to be a good duel purpose breed and lay a good number of large white eggs. The only other white egg layer we have is Buffy and her eggs are on the small side. They also look very different to any of our hens. I had looked for some Derbyshire Redcap eggs when Alice went broody but I couldn’t find anyone selling them or adult birds. When I went searching for rare breed hatching eggs for Brienne I was very happy to find a listing for Derbyshire Redcap eggs, and not too far away so we didn’t have to worry about postage. We popped them in a new broody coop (needed something large enough for Brienne!) and she sat immediately and has been quite rooted. I do hope she makes a good mum. We will miss her monster eggs though!
It also turned out that the breeder had some pullets for sale. We have been running out of selling eggs quite quickly. When we first started we liked to have 4 boxes of eggs on the gate. We even got a back log a few times and took selling eggs into our own usage. Now we are struggling to keep even 1 box in stock and quite often a box is gone within half an hour of me putting it out. People had said we should advertise on the main road, and I did make a sign but we are selling out without it! It is great but I also hate disappointing people and we certainly have room for more hens. We would have liked POL hens, but finding POL rare breed hens that haven’t been vaccinated seems to be ridiculously hard. I have been searching and searching and finding very little. These pullets are only 17 weeks old so a few weeks off laying still but they should help us out. We bought 3 and haven’t given them any names yet. They are quite skittish at the moment but I am hoping they will settle down.
Right the thread title promised birds and bees. Weekend before last we went to the Rutland show, as a day trip out but also to scout it out as a potential place to show our sheep in future. It was a great day out and at the end we stumbled past a ‘bee tent’. The Leicestershire and Rutland Bee Keepers Association were there and they literally had a tent full of bees. They had suits for people to put on and go and have a bee experience. We have been very keen on the idea of bees, they would be great for increasing our pollination, provide us with some honey (possibly for mead) and would do our bit to help out the bees. We even bought a bunch of second hand equipment from some smallholders who were selling up last year. We have been a bit nervous though as Sam doesn’t think he would have the balance to work with the bees and I wasn’t sure if I would have a panic attack being cooped up in a suit and surrounded by flying things.
It was the end of the day and we were all tired but I couldn’t walk past this opportunity so in I went. It was brilliant. I was very nervous to start with but I found the suit reassuring and felt surprisingly calm in with the bees. It was great getting to see a hive up close and be hands on. It wasn’t a full hive but it was a still a good experience, exactly what I needed to make me think more seriously about courses and our local bee keepers association. The only worry I have now (other than swarms) is how heavy the hives can get when full. My back is such a weak point on me that I’m worried I would have trouble lifting things. It’s still worth further investigation though, I’m over my first hurdle in the journey to beekeeping!
Right I think that is enough waffling for today. Should be some posts on blade shearing and what we are getting up growing fruit and veg soon. If there’s anything you would particularly like to read about from the smallholding then just leave a comment and I’ll do my best to do a blog post on it.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Edit: This was written Saturday morning and just needed the pictues adding, then Arya lambed and everything got delayed.
Shearing was a bit up in the air this year. Last year I had wanted them shorn early May but we couldn’t get a shearer until late May, it wasn’t too bad but our sheep shed their fleece and we lost a lot of wool. This year we are lambing in May which meant that we had to carefully consider when to shear. If you shear too early the ewes can get cold, if you shear too late then you increase the risk of fly-strike. This is where flies lay their eggs in the sheep’s fleece and then the larvae eat away at the sheep. It’s not nice at all and can be fatal. After a bit of reading I decided that shearing pre-lambing would be best for our situation. There’s a good article here listing some pros for shearing pre-lambing.
Last year the shearer cut through the fleece and got a lot of new wool through. Each year there is a ‘break’ in the fleece which is a weaker point. When you’re working with the fleece for crafting getting the new wool along with the old wool means lots of little pieces that come away, it makes things a lot harder. This year I looked for a shearer that would cut the fleece for crafting, thus just cutting the old fleece away. I found one who said he would, but he wouldn’t touch the ewes until 3-4 weeks after they have lambed. A lot of shearers are reluctant to deal with in-lamb ewes as it can risk abortion premature birth. Later shearing would put us into late June/early July and really increase our risk of fly strike. It looked like we would have to wait until after lambing though if no-one would do it.
Then a nearby smallholder posted photos of his newly shorn sheep by some handshearers. I didn’t have anything booked in with the shearer so I contacted these guys, the Two Stand Blade Gang. I have always loved the idea of hand shearing and would love to learn to do it myself. It’s a bit harder on your hands but is meant to be on the ewe and less stressful as you don’t have the heat, vibration and noise of the electric shears. It’s also meant to be easier to cut just the new wool. There’s also the fact that it is a traditional skill. I’m all about trying to preserve the ‘Old Ways’. It’s often interpreted as me taking the hardest route to do things, but knowing that our ancestors worked for centuries to find the best way to do things before the invention of all this electronic technology, and that in some cases the knowledge is at risk of being lost really saddens me.
They were happy to shear for us but preferred to shear pre-lambing rather than after. That’s what I wanted to start with but we were now 2 weeks before Arya’s due date so cutting it quite fine. It was the Sunday that I messaged them and they were able to come the Wednesday. Getting the lambing area ready and all the girls in before the rain hit was a challenge but we managed it.
It went really well. They were nice and gentle with the ewes and limited horn handling which was refreshing. The ewes seemed less stressed by the shearing than last year, which may be due to the lack of machinery or could be due to it being their second time. We had the pregnant girls penned up separately to the empties, we had tried penning together but the empties started chasing and butting the pregnant ones almost immediately. We got nice clean cuts on the pregnant girls and the wool looks really nice, no breaks.
The empties had started to shed and this is possibly due to being on rougher grazing. The guys had a bit of a harder job with those two but they still did a good job.
Unfortunately, the weather decided to batter us with hail and sleet just after shearing so I think I will keep them in for a couple days. They should be ok outside with a bit of shelter as hand shearing leaves a bit more wool on them than machine shearing, but we also have the hassle of taking the empties across the road which will be easier when it’s not throwing hail down at us. Friday should be nice and clear and we don’t have groups that we need to take Chi to which makes life easier.
The pregnant girls have eaten the grass down in the area they were in. So, despite Sam having come up with a race system to get the ewes into the polytunnel for lambing, we’re going to move them into the Triangle for the time before lambing. The lambing box is all set up with everything we should hopefully need so now we just sit and wait.
One of the upsides of having them shorn is we can see them a bit better. Arya is starting to bag up (that’s when they start to fill up with milk), but surprisingly Aeryn (carrying twins) and Arha (possibly carrying twins) are not far behind Arya in terms of bagging up. So they may actually lamb sooner than we thought. We’ll be keeping a close eye on all of them.