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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You may have noticed that we’ve been rather quiet over the last few months. As my due date got closer I really went into nesting and birth preparation mode. It was quite odd seeing the different fruits come into season and not harvesting them. August should have been filled with harvesting and preserving but instead instead it saw me growing in size, decreasing in mobility, organising and reading. I have to admit to feeling a bit jealous of everyone else’s harvest posts, and even my own from previous years.
We did manage to harvest a little from the land, the beauty of bath apples were first, the wasps got to a fair few but we still got a few bottles of juice from them. We harvested, quartered, froze and then juiced when we had time (and my nephew’s help). It worked well.
The tomatoes were next, not as good a harvest as last year by far, we lost a lot, especially the cherry tomatoes, but we did get a few jars of passata. I also finally processed the last of last year’s toms so my passata stores are looking healthy again.
We had our first experience of blossom end rot with the toms. This was our first year with raised beds but also our first heat wave year. I am hoping that if we add some more nutrients to the soil and keep steady with our watering next year, then we won’t see it again.
One thing that benefited from the heat wave was our attempt at melons. We got a few good size, really tasty cantaloupe melons. I’m really keen to try these again and see what we get when we put some effort in to them. We got a couple aubergines and sweet peppers too.
We lost a lot of the cooking apples and pears as well. The apples were a smaller harvest anyway as one tree barely fruited but the pear trees were laden. We did manage to have our first attempt at pear juice and have enough harvested Williams pears to do some dried pear.
We always knew this year wouldn’t be great in terms of the smallholding, my body doesn’t do pregnancy well and we ended up with an emergency C-section which put me out of action for far longer than I had hoped. We had a go at planting, harvesting and preserving but kept our expectations low.
On the upside we now have our not so little boy. I have just about recovered from the section enough to get back to work on the smallholding. It’s been a little forced as Sam broke his foot last week. It does feel good to be back to doing lots (when baby allows of course) and I’m feeling very motivated to get this place back on track.
As always likes and comments are much appreciated. We have a new Instagram account for all the day to day posts, we are @six_oaks_smallholding
Well you may remember a couple of months I was saying how hard we were finding everything at the moment. My hips were starting to go, I was banned from lifting due to pregnancy, Sam’s knee was still very much out of use after the cellulitis and due to his disability he does a lot of smallholding activities kneeling so that he has a stable base, the weather was awful with everything flooding and the grass not growing and it all just felt a bit overwhelming.
We did send the geese to the freezer after that. The combination of no eggs being laid, running out of grass for them and extra work for Sam when he was already stretched thin, just proved too much. In hindsight I realise I should have either had them jointed or put them up for sale before sending them to the abattoir but hindsight is 20:20. Instead they are in the freezer and will get eaten at some big gatherings through the year. I do really miss having the geese around but in actual fact it has been a blessing, it did relieve the pressure and allowed us to look at the orchard again. The chickens now have safe free roaming of the smallholding and can forage in the orchard, we’ve also set up the broody nursery in there. I noticed a lot of ants and thus aphids on the young fruit trees in there so we will be pulling up our chicken wire ‘goose excluders’ that we have set up around the trees so that the chickens can do a good job scratching around those trunks for ants and other grubs. I like to think we will have geese again but if we do we’ll be changing our management to have them following the sheep grazing.
The other area we have scaled back is the growing. I wanted to grow something this year, maybe not expand on last year but still be growing as I loved eating our home grown passata for several months and would like to do it again. Unfortunately we also decided to work on raising the beds and having the chickens free ranging meant that they were straight into the polytunnel to have dust baths in our beds. As a result of that, and general disorganisation combined with a strong urge to nest meaning I wasn’t sowing seeds until very late, we have only just got our first plants into the polytunnel. Some netting over the unused doors has been a successful short term measure to keep the chickens out but the polytunnel cool enough. We still have nothing outside and we only have 2 veg beds raised in the polytunnel. The growing is most certainly scaled back this year.
All of this may be for the best though. The baby is due in August which is our peak harvest season in the polytunnel. We are unlikely to be able to do much in the way of food processing this year and no matter what we do the plum, apple and pear trees will be dropping their fruit on us which will likely mostly go straight into the freezer. Not growing as much and focusing on the infrastructure should hopefully set us for a good growing season next year. At least that is what I keep saying to myself when I see how empty the polytunnel and outdoor beds are! I am hoping that by this time next year we will have a covered fruit cage with planted bushes (that will mostly be 3 years old and thus should be in good production), 5 raised beds in the polytunnel and possibly the citrus trees planted, internal netted doors on the polytunnel and the 5 raised beds outside.
Reading a smallholding magazine the other week (likely a back issue as I’m a bit behind) there was an article by the author of Doing It In Wellies (a book I really really want to read). She spoke about getting the smallholding and jumping into everything and forgetting the why of it all because you were too busy trying to survive it. That really resonated with me. She said how they pulled some bits back and stopped to smell the roses and how that really helped them refocus the activities.
Sam and I got into smallholding for several reasons. The first was my health at the time, the PhD had worn me into the ground and down a few layers. We thought a slower pace of life, without as much of the pressure(!) might be helpful. I could do lots on my good days and less on the bad days. For the most part that has worked. Smallholding can be very stressful. There’s never enough hours in the day to get things done. Trying to make a business out of that makes it harder, there isn’t just the physical acts of smallholding and record keeping for animals, there’s also things like this blog, website design and management, courses to do to get the various food safety requirements, endless research, balancing books etc. Then add in the stress of pests, disease and never ending maintenance that any smallholding needs and there is the potential for stress. Throw full time motherhood into the mix and you’d start to question if a PhD might be a relaxing break! But in all honesty nothing I’ve experienced touches the PhD for stress, all the stress related illness I suffered from have disappeared. I am pretty much medication free now, just a vitamin D supplement. I’ve also lost a good 10kg and have put on a lot of muscle. I’m healthier than I have been in a long while and I have the smallholding to thank for that. Job #1 done!
Our second reason was Chi, we wanted her to know where her food comes from. Not just know where but to see it come from there, to understand the process, to know it well enough that she can do it herself. She makes cakes and custard with me, she has watched me kill and pluck and gut chickens, she’s seen me salting sheepskins, seen the wool being sheared, washed, carded and spun. We have picked apples off the tree and pressed them into juice. As her memory gets longer she will start to see and learn the process of growing, of the seeds we sow and plant and water then harvest and compost. She is learning so much and the beauty is she doesn’t know that she is. It isn’t a special trip out or an episode of a show, this is simply her life and I love it. Job #2 done.
We wanted to know the history of our food, that the animals had a good life and the crops hadn’t been saturated in pesticides. We aren’t as self sufficient as we would like, I would love a goat or two to produce milk for us as we still buy a lot of dairy. I’d also like pigs for meat and at the very least a local known source of beef, but we have a small acreage and we are doing what we can with what we have. I think the dream of a bit more land will always be with me but we are doing well in lamb (well mutton), fruit and veg, eggs and pork sourced from other smallholders. So job #3 is in pretty good standing too.
Lastly we wanted to enjoy things. This is where we are lacking a bit. We work a lot on the smallholding, we put a lot of hours into getting the place up and running, especially Sam working a full time job and then doing work on the smallholding. Sometimes I think we work so hard on it all and don’t actually enjoy it. I think that is where we got to earlier in the year. Lots of work and very little enjoyment. We’ve got a table set up in the garden for BBQs and have had more this year than the other years previously. We are getting some more garden furniture to dot around so that we can sit and rest between jobs and enjoy things rather than lugging our 2 chairs back and forth over the smallholding.
I am hoping that this year we will get more of the infrastructure done and build on enjoying the smallholding next year. Wish us luck!
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It’s amazing the difference the weather can make when you are smallholding. I can really see why sun worship has been so popular through the ages. Everything just feels so much lighter, hopeful and easier.
We had been meant to go away this weekend but due to family illness it was cancelled last minute. We put the change of plans to good use though. Friday we made into a Chi day. Trip to the local garden centre to visit the owl centre, look at plants and seeds, have ice cream and look at fish. Followed by a quick stop in some shoe shops to get me some shoes other than trainers that I can put on without bending and have a dinner out. Home with an exhausted Chi so time for a boardgame. Nice and restful with plans to get smallholding at the weekend.
Saturday started off with a smallholder’s club meeting. I’ll keep on saying that joining our local club was a really good move for us, being active in it has been even better. Sometimes you look at the long list of jobs you have and the forecast of good weather and think maybe we should skip it this month but it has always paid off when we have gone. It’s not just about the topic of the meeting (although this one was all about growing which was well timed for us as this year we are focusing less on livestock and more on growing). There is also a massive benefit to meeting other smallholders, making friends and getting ideas of how to set things up/fix things that you may not have thought of. If you are a smallholder and have a local group then I highly recommend joining it. I picked up a lot of tidbits at this meeting and of course there is always cake!
We grabbed some chips from McDonalds on the way home and headed straight outside. Sam got started on the compost heap again. The chickens now have free range of the land (which they love, although some still think the garden grass is greener) but it means they have attacked our muck heap and giant compost heap, spreading things everywhere. So we are using 4 heras panels to enclose the muck heap.
We would love to have a row of 3 or 4 neat contained compost heaps that we could use to turn the compost as it matures and keep things manageable. Unfortunately this year has a gazillion jobs we want to be doing so the muck heap is low down, we’ll contain it and just pile everything up. Hopefully next year, when we have the fruit patch contained and raised beds in the polytunnel, we can work on building some nice compost heaps. Sam managed to finish it and then he cleared out all the straw from the polytunnel from our lambing last year. We’re a bit behind on it I know!
Whilst he was working hard at that I attacked the beds again. I’m very against using products to kill the weeds. We aren’t registered organic but I really try to raise our animals and grow our crops with organic principles in mind, possibly too much so. Neglect over the end of summer, through autumn and winter meant that the thistle on our land moved into the polytunnel. We have beds of it. Some good friends cleared one bed for me at the end of last year but thistles are persistent. We had a slight problem with them last year but by weeding them pretty much daily, pulling the new shoots as soon as I can see them I managed to weaken the root system enough that over summer I had no problems with them at all. So I’m taking that approach again. Pulling up every thistle I can find in the polytunnel with as much of the roots as possible. It’s not easy as kneeling and bending are quite hard work for me at the moment but I think I am getting somewhere. I just need to keep on top of it. The beds are all a bit merged but we’ll sort them out once we get the sides on and manage to keep the chickens out!
Chi had some great fun feeding some of the flowering purple sprouting broccoli to the ewes, I think they enjoyed it too. Sometimes it’s the small moments, like seeing her barefoot, smiling and feeding sheep, that boost my confidence that we are doing something good for her here.
Sunday’s task was to be the fruit patch so we spent Saturday night going through all our notes from last year about the size of patch, the plants that are in and the distances between them. I have signed up to The Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Planner. It’s a paid for service, although there is a free trial, but I really like it. I used it to plan the garden in Scotland but didn’t really follow up with it. It can give you updates about when to plant things, spacing and means you can go back and see what was planted where and when. I have one for the polytunnel and now for the fruit patch. I don’t think we will get anything into the outdoor veg patch this year, the covers can remain in place to kill the weeds for a while longer. You can see the fruit patch plan here.
Sunday morning we headed straight out. My mum came up and joined us for a few hours in the afternoon which gave us a bit more freedom to work as Chi played with her. We managed to plant 9 new bushes, giving us 9 blueberries, 8 gooseberries, 3 blackcurrants, 7 red currants and and 8 white currants. The garden centre we visited on Friday has some very mature bushes going very cheap so if I can get down there I’ll grab some to fill in the black currant and red currant gaps.
Sam worked on clearing the weeds from the weed proof fabric, I think we may need to put woodchip down over the fabric but the fruit patch is Sam’s part of the smallholding so he gets final say on everything.
Last year we were trying to improve the soil and thought we would cover the whole patch in a thick layer of manure. It didn’t quite happen but we did pull up a strip of weed proof fabric and gave a good foot of manure to it. That has rotted down now which is great but the thistles loved it! (Are you sensing a theme here?) So my next job on the fruit patch is pulling the thistles that are there, once that is done we will cover it over with weedproof fabric again and get the loganberry, raspberry and blackberry planted down that side. We are hoping as they grow they will provide a bit of shelter to the sheep (or anyone else) who grazes in polytunnel way.
It really, really feels as though things are moving in a positive direction on the holding. Of course it is April so we have had showers this week, limiting what I can do with Chi outside, but I managed to do another bit of thistle weeding on Monday and hope to do some more on Thursday. I’ve been using the rainy time to focus on getting the inside of the house under control (I am nesting after all) and had to do some pregnancy research in the evenings but I am hoping that tonight I will get some seeds in to trays inside and really kick our growing off. Better late than never hey?
Then it will be working towards making some raised beds in the polytunnel for my nice new seedlings to go into. It feels all go here at the moment, which is exhausting but oh so good!
Sometimes you can make the best plans in the world and it all goes awry. We’re having a bit of this at the moment.
Easter weekend seemed like it would be a great time to get on top of some of the jobs that had piled up. Sam had 4 days off and we’d just had our first real taste of Spring the weekend before. We started really well, getting into the polytunnel on Friday and doing a good tidy. The chickens we had in there had merged all our beds into one which we worked at sweeping into individual beds. We are planning to make the polytunnel beds raised beds this year, we have the wood for it but we will see how that goes. On the upside they should have done a good job at removing pests and added a bit of fertiliser. I’d quite like to let some chickens loose on empty beds each year. Whilst sweeping and weeding the beds Sam spotted two parsnips we had missed, they were huge. He also managed to start work on getting our muck heap fenced in as the chickens have been spreading that too.
I busied myself with doing the second coat of varnish on the new poop tray for the chicken house. The plan was to get that in on Sunday when the weather would be drier, it will massively reduce the amount of time spent cleaning the chicken house and hopefully give us some cleaner eggs. I then cleaned out the chicken house in the polytunnel as it was no longer in use, Aurora being back in the main flock and Chihiro being in the freezer. Whilst the varnish was out and as it was nearly finished I threw a coat onto the inside of the roof. The ventilation on the house isn’t great and we found that some days there was condensation inside which was rotting the inside of the roof. It isn’t a brilliant house, I did a review of it here, but it works for housing chicks and broody hens, newcomers and anyone we want to isolate. I know the varnish isn’t a proper fix but hopefully it will help. Chi was kept entertained once she realised she could get into the house. We even managed to play a board game that night, things were looking good!
Saturday was a Chi day, we took her to her first cinema trip which she seemed to enjoy. We were meant to go swimming after but she was very tired and ratty which should have been my first clue something was up. She was asleep by the time we got home and we managed to get another game played. Sunday we had swimming in the morning then the plan was home to make the most of the dry spell. The forecast lied. There was no dry so we went to a soft play instead. Whilst there I noticed Chi was getting ill again, which resulted in a 3 day stay at hospital. Bang went the rest of the plans for the weekend and the next week as I really struggle to take her outside in the cold and wet when she isn’t well. We seemed to be getting better but something else has cropped up that the GP is looking into. Over a week after getting out of hospital and I am still worried about taking her out. Children really can add a random factor into smallholding that you just can’t account for.
On top of that the rain hasn’t helped things. We haven’t been hit as badly as some people but the land is pretty saturated, we’re about to buy even more hay, in April. It feels wrong but there just isn’t enough grass.
The chickens are laying like mad, but we’re getting less people stopping at the stall to buy eggs. Plus the chickens have muddy feet so we’re getting a lot more dirty eggs that I feel bad trying to sell. We have 20 boxes of eggs in the fridge right now for our use. I have to admit I’m feeling a fair bit overwhelmed! There’ll be a post soon about the different bits I’m doing with eggs. On top of that I was so glad to see 4 boxes had gone from the gate yesterday, only to find out that once again no money has been left. We have a repeat offender who will help themselves to several boxes and leave no money. It’s depressing to put so much work in and have people take advantage, especially when you are producing on such a small scale so every sale counts.
It’s also starting to get impossible to get to the Derbyshire Redcap cockerels as the entrance to their polytunnel is flooded, they have also started to fight with each other. The geese still aren’t laying and have eaten through their grass. We’ve made the decision to send the geese for meat. We really wanted to keep the descendants of Athos, April and Abigail but they are all boys and we are struggling with the workload this year. It will be very strange not to have geese on the land. The two cockerels are going too as they are well past time and I don’t know when I will get to killing and butchering them.
Last bit of news was some mucky bums on two of the ewe lambs (Celaena and Caitlin), they hadn’t been wormed when we did the other lambs last year so they got their first dose of wormer. Not before Celaena jumped straight over the hurdles and went for a wander around the area though. She takes after her father I think. We did Caprica at the same time as her bum was a bit mucky. I would have liked to do a worm count first but honestly I’m struggling to get things done. The ram lambs are showing no signs of needing and neither are the ewes so we left them be. They are starting to look quite smart, I’m thinking about trying to sell Cisco for breeding, he’s a great ram lamb, when he isn’t putting his head in a fence, but that’s probably to do with the lack of grass.
All in all we are finding things hard right now. We make plans to get things on track but other things crop up. There’s lots to do, the year is ticking by, Chi isn’t well, I’m pretty useless and the weather is literally raining on us. It’s probably the hardest we have found smallholding since starting and we have had thoughts about packing up. We won’t make a decision now, not in the midst of the bad, but we are longing for some good weather and a bit of a break from all the hardships of winter.
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As it turns out, we didn’t have to wait long for Arya to lamb. On Saturday morning we noticed her vulva was looking really pink and swollen. Then, as I was doing the washing up, I noticed her lying down and standing up repeatedly in the triangle, she was separate from the others as well.
I had however been thinking she was going to lamb the night before, so we weren’t putting much faith in my guesses. We desperately needed to make a trip to the local tip – trailer full of dog rose – so I went out and studied her for a bit. She was very interested in a particular spot and looked like she was licking the ground. I actually walked around her just in case she had a lamb in the long grass but there was nothing there. She wasn’t pawing the ground to make a nest, she had stopped the lie down – stand up routine and she wasn’t raising her head to the sky or showing any other signs of pain (possible contractions). Our plan for lambing was to do 2 hourly checks and the tip run should take us about an hour and a half so at 2:45 we decided it was safe to go. I now know that was a rookie mistake and she was actually licking the ground to clean up from her waters breaking.
We got back at just coming up to 4:15, to get home we drive past the area the sheep are in. I looked out and said to Sam ‘I think Arya’s lambing, or maybe I’m just seeing the tree behind her. It looks like something is sticking out of her bum.’ Sam parked up and I left him and Chi and legged it up to the field. Sure enough she was lambing. Just as I got there she was lying down and doing the classic star gazing. Sam came up shortly and asked if I was videoing, of course not, I was just standing there in awe! Sam got a little video.
It didn’t take her long at all. She put her head down to graze and the lamb popped out. She kept eating for a second and I panicked thinking she might just not notice it, possible with a first time mum, I ran to grab something to clear the nose just in case but she turned around and started licking the lamb. I’m pretty sure I held my breath at that point but then Sam heard bleeting. I have to admit my knees went really weak, it was so amazing to just watch her give birth and this new little life start moving around. I had to go and start getting the pen ready for them and check on Chi (sleeping in the car) so Sam stayed to watch them.
We have a nesting pair of crows who having been scavenging and killing things left right and centre all Spring. One of them got very interested when the lamb was born and came and sat on a fence post right by her. Crows can be really vicious and take a lambs eye or even tongue
Arya was so smitten with licking the lamb she kept jumping over him when he tried to get to her teats. Again I worried, I think it’s my superpower, that she wasn’t going to let him but within about 30/45mins she let him. The other possible danger with her lambing outside is another ewe either getting aggressive with her and/or the lamb or it going the other way and another ewe trying to steal her lamb but not having milk to give it. The other three did approach once the lamb started bleeting but as soon as it moved they scattered. I think they were actually scared of it.
We gave them an hour to bond in the field. We kept watch in that time as the crow was showing a lot of interest. By then it was starting to get nippy for the evening and we had seen him feed so crossed our fingers that the bond was ok. I did my best interpretation of what I had seen on lambing live and dragged the lamb slowly whilst bleeting to encourage mum to follow us.
The lamb had not been watching lambing live and was not as placid as the ones on tv, he wriggled quite a lot and I had to pick him up a few times. I did get to see that he was a boy though! I discovered that the ewe gets very confused if you lift the lamb past thigh height. She just starts looking elsewhere. She also got really confused when we went past the other 3, she turned to go to them but when I bleeted again and put him on the floor she came running back. That was the longest it has ever taken me to walk that distance but we got there in the end.
Sam had set up the pen with fresh straw, hay and water and we penned them up for the evening. I gave his navel a quick spray to avoid infection as we had brought him in and had a go at weighing him. I need a better set up for the next lambs as he was a bit precarious in the bucket, but he weighed in at 2.85kg. No idea if that is good or not but it’s the start of our record keeping. I was really happy with how everything had gone. One of the things I had read was that humans jumping in to ‘help’ with lambing too soon was one of the biggest causes of issues to do with bonding and ending up with bottle feeding so I was really proud of myself for keeping my distance. She passed the afterbirth about 5 hours later and all was well.
Of course I soon found something else to worry about. Whenever he went to the teat he would faff about and then you’d see the teat beside his mouth and he would give up. I had heard a couple of tests to check if a lamb is feeding ok so I tried them all. The first was, when the lamb is sleeping stand it up. If it is full it will stretch and have a round belly, if it is hungry it will stand with all four feet in one spot and its sides will be sunken. Well lamb did neither of these. He stood for a moment, wandered to mum and did the faffing then lay down again, and his sides weren’t rounded but they also weren’t sunken.
The second trick is to hold lamb up by it’s front legs supporting it’s back with your legs. Again you should see a round stomach if full and sunken if hungry. But no, his sides were pretty flat. The third trick was to see if he pees when he stands up, like in human babies, weeing and pooping is a sign they are drinking. He peed but it was a drip drip affair rather than a stream. I then checked that mum actually had milk, she had a good sized udder (in my inexperienced opinion) but maybe there was an issue. No hard spots, lumps or heat (signs of mastitis), but I also couldn’t really get any milk out (two spots on my hand) did she have no milk or was I just rubbish at milking?
It was getting late by this point, and I had read that lambs should have colostrum in the first 6 hours so I made up a bottle. I offered it but he flat out refused. I went to bed very worried we would have a dead lamb in the night. We got up and checked regularly, ready to bring him into the house or tube feed him if he went downhill. Morning came and he was still with us but much the same as the night before. I messaged a local smallholder with more experience to come and have a look. He did and said lamb was doing ok. He got lots of milk from the ewe as well. I found out from the lovely people over at TAS that primitive sheep aren’t the same as the commercials I’d have seen on lambing live, they don’t tend to be as rounded with milk and as long as they aren’t sunken will be ok. I probably interfered with them a bit too much at this stage but thankfully the bond seems to be strong with them. I will know for next time and be able to be more hands off.
The polytunnel started getting a bit warm on Sunday afternoon, our main concern with using it for lambing. We decided to close off access to the polytunnel and let Arya and her lamb out of their pen. They would have access to the whole lambing space, including a penned off area outside where they could feel the breeze and cool off. We moved them down to the polytunnel doors and had to go collect some muck so off we went. When we got back it was getting a bit nippy and the lamb seemed a little unresponsive. I carried him back to the pen with mum following and headed inside to deal with Chi. We had a look on the camera and sure enough the lamb had been running up and down the polytunnel the whole time we were out. Not at death’s door at all! I was finally able to stop worrying about his eating.
We let them out into the post-lambing area on Monday afternoon as Arya was getting really depressed and not eating anything but the ewe nuts we offered. She just wouldn’t touch the hay. She got straight to eating and her lamb followed behind. They are out in the day and in at night at the moment as the nights have been a bit nippy but from tomorrow they will be out full time.
We named the lamb Crichton and he is just so wonderful to watch, running around and nibbling grass already. We are looking forward to him having some little friends. No-one else is due until the end of the month, but Aeryn’s bagging up already and is quite huge so she may have been caught on the first tupping as well.
PS I think I have fimally worked out Youtube, so have a look on our channel for more videos from the smallholding
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.
This weekend was full of unexpected turns of events. Firstly I was booked onto a spinning course on the Thursday so Sam took the day off to look after Chi. I have been wanting to get my spinning wheel back into use for ages so was really looking forward to this. I actually booked onto the course in Feb, but it was cancelled. Unfortunately, it was cancelled again at the last minute.
We decided to make use of the day and got a bunch of tasks done. Another 12 berry bushes planted in the berry patch so we have gooseberries, red currants, white currants and blueberries planted. Still have the raspberries, loganberries and strawberries to go in but it is really starting to take shape. I am looking forward to many years picking berries in this patch.
We also planted some onions in the outdoor veg patch, to go with the potatoes I planted earlier in the week. I need to get some more bits in those beds but I can see things starting to come together.
We are facing a bit of a dilemma with where to do lambing. We were going to use our storage polytunnel but I am starting to worry about it getting too warm in there as we are lambing later in the year than I’d have liked. Sam had an idea to partially cover the shade tunnel using tarp so we gave that a go. A few false starts getting it on but we succeeded at last. So far it seems to be holding and not flapping so we may put a second one on to give a larger area.
Lastly we cleared up some big thistles from the sheep field and filled in a few ankle breaker holes. Our ground can get so dry in summer that it actually cracks, leaving nice gaps that will fit a foot in! While we were in there we noticed that one of the sheep, Aeryn, who is pregnant with twins had a slight limp. Everything I have read has said it’s best at this stage to see if it resolves itself rather than trying to catch and see to a pregnant ewe. So we noted it and left her be.
We were meant to be going away for the weekend to see Sam’s family in Dorset, including his grandmother, before lambing. We got up early on Friday morning to get all the animals cleaned out and sorted ready for the sitter coming that evening. I gave the sheep fresh hay but they were all sleepy and not bothered, as they are most mornings. After sorting the other animals I went back as an after thought to move their hay rack (3 hurdles in a triangle with hay racks over them that we move regularly), as there was some nice grass under it and we are moving them out of that area on Monday. It was then that I noticed that Aeryn had gone from a slight limp to completely non-weightbearing on one leg.
Got Sam to come out, with ewe nuts, foot spray and foot shears. At first I thought I could just grab her but even on 3 legs Aeryn can be quite flighty. We got her penned easily enough though (Sam really is a sheep whisperer). We couldn’t turn her as she is 6 weeks off lambing but we were able to pick her feet up to have a look, a bit like a horse. The worst one was the front right. Really bad shelly hoof, to the extent that the whole external wall was flapping. There was also a slight smell coming from the foot. I cleaned the mud out of the gap and we clipped away the loose bits of hoof. and sprayed it. The other front foot had a bit of shelly hoof as did one of the back so they got the same treatment. We let her go and then had a chat with one of our friends, Cassie, who is a vet. She suspected foot rot, which would need antibiotics and painkillers as well as daily spraying, so we got in contact with our vets. The trip away would have to be cancelled.
I don’t know if I have spoken out the vet situation on here but we have only 1 that covers our area. That wouldn’t be so bad but the practice is an hours drive from here so not ideal. It’s not all bleak as they have a half price call out day for our area once a week, are happy to post out meds and have an ‘outpost’ where you can arrange to pick meds up from if it is arranged in advance. The receptionist said that she would get a vet to call me back but we would need to come to the surgery to get the meds as there was no-one nearby. Not great but, as our plans had already changed, getting Aeryn sorted was the priority of the day.
The vet called and was worried about Aeryn being off her feet for twin lamb disease (TLD) but although she was lying down a lot she was still eating and she was running over (albeit on 3 legs), when she saw Sam with ewe nuts. She also didn’t have the tell tale acetone smelling breath. So we weren’t too worried about TLD. TLD is a metabolic disease that can affect pregnant sheep. Basically, the lambs take so much nutrition that the ewe starts breaking down her own supplies, if this happens too much she can effectively get poisoned by the ketones and it can lead to death if not treated quickly. The vet was very nice and when he heard where we were he said he could actually meet us in a local supermarket car park to give us the meds, a 20 minute journey instead of an hour.
Whilst I rushed off to Asda, Sam fixed the Honda (dead battery and relentless car alarm) and headed off to get some straw in case we needed to bring her in. We needed to get the straw anyway, ready for lambing, but thought we had a few weeks. I have to admit it felt very odd pulling up in the car park and standing next to the vet as he drew up the meds with shoppers driving past but it made things so much easier.
Back home and we gave her the meds. There wasn’t much improvement at first but after a few hours she was limping less. We caught her the next morning and she seemed just as bad. I decided to check between her toes in case anything was stuck there. I had been so appalled by the state of her hoof that I hadn’t thought to check the day before. There was indeed a piece of hoof stuck diagonally between her toes. It could have broken off there as the hoof wall broke away or it could have been she stepped on it after I had clipped it. I’ll be picking up any hoof cuttings in future! She got another spray and release. By that evening she was looking a bit better thankfully.
Now that we had a good store of straw we used 4 bales and an old garden table to make a goose nest box. April has been getting overly broody and sent poor Barbara out to nest in the dirt. We are hoping this impromptu nest box will give her somewhere dry and clean to lay. I was getting worried about April as she had spent 3 days on the nest without laying an egg and was no longer taking feed and water breaks so we pushed her off and locked her out. It seems to have broken her broodiness but she has also stopped laying *Sigh*. They are on the last couple days of worming so hopefully when we let them out on Monday she will come back in to lay.
When we realised we weren’t going away for the weekend we made some impromptu plans for Sunday. We had been planning on taking Chi to a few places whilst away and as that wouldn’t happen we wanted to make it up to her (even though she didn’t know about them). We decided to go to Hamerton Zoo, which isn’t too far from us. We checked on Aeryn first and she was much improved, a bit of a limp, back to how she had been on Friday. We still penned her and sprayed the feet though. We had a lovely time at the zoo and when we got back and checked her again she was walking fine. If it wasn’t for the slightly blue legs and close scrutiny, you wouldn’t have known she had an issue so we didn’t give her the added stress of another catching. Hopefully this means it wasn’t foot rot, and just a secondary infection but we will remain vigilant.
Right Sam has today off and we have the vet coming for our yearly check, worming and heptavac and 2 sheep to move across the road so I better get off the computer and onto the land! (EDIT: This was actually written on Monday morning but it has taken me this long to get the pictures in!)
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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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