Monday, 30 June 2008

Some day I'll fly away...

...but not yet. Talk about creating parental havoc! I nurtured my goose eggs through 31 incubating days, popped three goslings (with some duckling mates) under a heat lamp and fed and watered them for weeks. Then I put them the outside to enjoy the sun and the grass. They spent a couple of weeks growing gawky and mildly feathery among the fluff, and I looked on maternally, pleased at their progress, chuffed at my surrogate motherhood.
Then it was time to get them out of their small pen and into the big wide world with the gaggle of geese in the orchard. One of the geese was sitting on a clutch of eggs, so I popped them in with her, and they went running to her side and sat under her wing overnight. Satisfied that the grown-ups had bonded firmly with the youngsters, they were all let out to play and roam under the apple trees, cropping grass for all they were worth. I go back up an hour later to check all is well, and... no goslings.
I hunt high and low, in ditch, under hedge, behind logs, in secret tuffets of grass, between bales, through gates, in every conceivable place. I am a mother bereft. It is the empty nest syndrome for real. I feel SO GUILTY! And why didn't the geese give a warning shout if there was a predator about?
The hunting continues, and everywhere I can hear the cheeping of young birds, and I'm sure the goslings are about somewhere, but every wild bird is fledging at the moment and it's impossible to isolate a honk from a cluck or a trill. I go to bed forlorn.
This morning I rush about getting ready to go to town, and hear a cry. All three gossies have reappeared, unharmed, in the yard being used by the builders. The birds rush forward, terrified by their unwanted freedom, lack of food and water. They are gathered up in welcoming arms, made much of, and put safely in a pen whilst their orchard accommodation is adjusted to keep them with their elders but secured.
But of course, before anyone thinks I have turned into a complete softy, if any reveal themselves to be ganders they will become freezer fodder and served to my very best mates. With apple sauce.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Farming - a glamorous profession

33 acres of grass off the farm are now tucked under plastic, a couple of miles away, pickling in their own juices to make lush silage for next winter to feed hungry cows.
If you ever wondered what happened to the car tyres that aren't turned into chi-chi playthings, the answer is that farms everywhere can never have enough of them to hold down the enormous sheets of plastic that keep the air out of the silage clamp.
I wear gloves to load the telehandler grab with the tyres (you can see a load at the far left of the picture), eyes out for rats curled among the sun warmed rubber. Last year I found toads, but no joy today. I do get nicely splashed with the ancient rain water and mud that slops inside the tyres; a free face pack.
Week after next, if the weather does as it's told, there will be much ado about haymaking.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Extraordinary Devon farms

Reading Field Day this week I found out for the first time about Risdon Farm, not a million miles from here. Now, I may not have any Christian or other religious principles, but using farming to ground lost souls seems to me a sound pursuit (as long as I don't have to believe in god en route).
There's the marvellous Farms for City Children, set up by Clare and Michael Morpurgo, also close by. Other city youngsters get a taste of farm life through the Black Farmer, and a chance to explore art inspired by organic farming with Organic Arts, again in Devon. And then there are the LEAF farms, the South West having its fair share of those.
There are probably heaps of amazing farm projects like this in the county, using farming as an instrument for achieving a variety of social objectives.
Selfishly, my social objective is to keep me and mine fed whilst being kind to the environment, and thus to ourselves.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Bubble gum, blazers and beaming smiles

Yesterday I was on the tube, chugging along to a day's work in the big smoke. I looked around me and the carriage was full of young school children. They were chatting animatedly, all very well behaved, and obviously enjoying the novelty of being out of the classroom. Some of them were clutching pieces of paper and from what I could rubberneck it seemed to be a geography field trip to the east of the city.
And then I really looked at them and wondered what was so very familiar. It was the tie. And the school badges on the blazers. They might have been on the opposite side of London, but they were all from my old school. I looked around for a teacher, but couldn't tell which adult was with them or was just another passenger. I only had a minute or so before my stop. I so wanted to say "I used to go to your school", but I was unusually dumbstruck, it being such a very public place.
The fashions for wearing school ties hadn't changed - looped huge and very short for those desperate to look nonchalant, long and thin for the bookish. Even so, it all seemed so very, very long ago.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

The scent of paradise

The scullery smells divine. Sitting on the cobbled floor is a large bucket filled with lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, a splash of cider vinegar and heaps of elder flowers.
I keep going in there, and yes, I am inhaling.
It's a very first attempt at elderflower champagne. What with the flowers nodding at me every time I walk the dogs, and empty cider making kit taking up space until October and the apple harvest, it would have been unseemly to resist.
I can't imagine an easier harvest for picking; no thorns, no nettles, no peeling or pulping or stoning. Just a quick click of the secateurs, a gentle shake to dislodge any insects, and you're done. It's like making food from clouds.
If the flowers continue to oblige, next weekend I'll have a go at some elderflower cordial.
And having just re-read this, I can imagine folks snorting into their beer over the feyness of it all. Chin-chin!

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Getting there

Staying on the theme of building, I've not shown the progress on the cob barn for ages, and it's nearly finished!
Yes, the doors and windows have to be completed, the remaining downpipes have to go up (or should that be down?), and there is some fiddling around and general tarting up, but on the whole, the major stuff is done.
It has a roof! You can enter without taking your life in your hands. You can stand inside and dream and plan, and admire and chat, and think and pat the dogs, and grin. Lots and lots of grinning.
Those black spaces that are doorways will have doors, those top windows will have shutters, those heaps of sand and timber and stuff will go, and there will be a useful and used space. All those plans will be taken out of the head and put into practice. No more excuse for not getting an in-pig sow, cows, or delaying the breeding of guinea fowl and ducks.
Across the yard, the threshing barn has taken on the scaffold shroud shrugged off by the cob barn. And as a reminder of the sad ruinous state of the cob barn back in July 2007, here's the before shot:

Thursday, 19 June 2008


It's been raining, and chilly in the evenings, and more wet is forecast and I've been worried about Hard-Hattie getting cold and torpid. So with a little help (quite a lot of help really), I've made her a snug Hattie House that she can creep into and stay dry and wind-free. It's small scale. It's fit for purpose, and it was completed in a couple of hours.
The photo of the tortoise house was taken up on high, from the top layer of scaffolding now enclosing the threshing barn.
I look at the great works and am rather taken aback by the huge scale of it all. It won't be many weeks before roof trusses are swung into place ready to take the slate. The roundhouse walls that connect to the threshing barn are now complete and its roundiness is also scaffolded inside and out so that the thatcher can work safely once the roof timbers are up. It's all a bit eye-widening at this stage. I'm having to pinch myself.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Of runner ducks

I've always enjoyed a good runner duck. I've had various runners over the years but never managed, somehow, to get hold of my favourite colourway, the black runner duck.
These are the ducks that shepherds use at country shows to demonstrate the skill of their best dogs whilst keeping the punters chortling. They (the ducks, not the shepherds) stand very upright and have amusement written into their genes. They are also mighty fine egg layers.
They are very different in physical type from my chunky Aylesburys, and the contrast is part of the appeal. I'd finally decided a couple of months ago to start a small flock of black runners as soon as decent fox-proof pens could be made. Following two unwelcome visits, as a temporary measure the Aylesburys have been protected by three types of electric fencing, but if I give myself another jolt I'll probably lose the ability to string a sentence together, so told myself I'd just have to wait, and my runner duck dreams were put on short-term hold.
And then, you know how it is, you browse the postcards pinned up on the noticeboard at the feed merchants, and there it was, a free to good home notice from someone understandably fed up with a randy drake molesting her small defenceless call ducks.
His name is Beany, and now he's mine. And before you worry, he's safe. At night he goes into a duck hut, and by day he shares the front garden with Hard-Hattie until the pens are made and I can get him some girls of his own.

Monday, 16 June 2008

What will we be eating in 2009?

Last week the PM announced "a new approach to food policy that eliminates controls on production and restrictions on trade, and encourages a greater focus on improving agricultural production and productivity".
This week, the petrol stations in the South West have restricted each car to £10 of fuel.
I've been wondering what all this might mean for the food we eat in the near future.
Will there be a huge increase in grow your own? Will people populate window boxes with lettuces, growbags with tomatoes and rip up their concrete slabbed front gardens to sow rows of veg and plant fruit trees? Will allotments boom, will guerilla gardening emerge on every urban patch of scrub? Will public parks departments plant cabbages, artichokes and cavolo nero instead of inedible exotic statement plants? Will there be mass sowing of spuds to keep whole streets self sufficient in carbs? Every ex-battery hen could be re-homed as backyard egg producers, each village and suburb could partner local farmers by adopting cows, pigs and sheep that will travel oil-free yards between farm and freezer.
Will farmers finally get a fair price for their produce, lead the bargaining with supermarkets from a position of strength, form cooperatives and increase their opportunities for selling direct?
On the other hand, an elimination on control could mean the end of animal welfare responsibilities, an abundance of GM crops and use of terminator seeds, a chemical explosion and a return to unwanted surpluses.
I wait to see what details will be announced. Meanwhile, I'm weeding my veg patch and increasing my flock of ducks, planning runs for guinea fowl, and as soon as the barns are finished, cows are on the shopping list. There's always a surplus for friends too.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Coppiced oak hedge

Two winters ago, my favourite green lane on the farm had one of the hedges running its length coppiced. There were great fat trunks of oak poking out pathetic scrawny specimens of branches, willow keeping out the sun and everything suffering and stunted because of the dark created by overstuffed spindly growth and the resulting damp. So drastic measures were called for and the natural archway of overgrowth was temporarily lost.
But now, looking sideways on to the lane, you can see how the oaks are flourishing and gaining thick rich growth. The foxgloves have inhabited the clefts and crannies in the pollarded oak stumps which are bursting with new life, and everything is thriving. Next year I should have my archway back, and this time crowned by healthy young trees with enough space to breathe and grow.

The art of incubation

I've had and used a little 20 hen egg incubator for some years; it takes just 15 duck eggs or 9 goose eggs, so my hatches have always been small, but now I have pumped up the volume a bit with one that takes 35 duck eggs (the automatic turning cradle won't accommodate a goose egg).
But with increased volume comes increased risk and increased potential for disaster. If something goes wrong (power failure, unnoticed cracked egg, temperature variations etc) you end up spoiling a larger potential hatch. The phrase putting all your eggs in one basket has never rung so true!
My last hatch was not a success; I hadn't noticed that a batch of bought in Indian Runner duck eggs had rather fragile shells, and as the cradle turned it cracked an egg, and whatever evil humours poured forth ended up contaminating all but six of the fertile eggs.
But yesterday I set another batch of my Aylesbury duck eggs and my neighbour's Cayugas to hatch, and in a week I will candle them, and hopefully if I am properly observant at my daily checks, there will be life in 28 days.
The photo is of three week old goslings, Aylesburys and Cayugas that I put out on grass for the first time yesterday.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Sir Alan says it's ok to lie

Did millions of viewers watch Siralan Sugar's Gerald Ratner moment last night? Did we really see Claire's victory tossed carelessly to a proven liar?
Perhaps I'm being over fussy and prissy, but last week when Lee's CV lies were revealed, I thought his firing was a no-brainer. When he escaped I thought Siralan was keeping him on for a spectacular runner-up firing: "What? Hire a liar and put him in charge of important business in my organisation? Never!". He was obviously lining up Claire to slide into pole position.
But no. Suffering from the myopia that saw the Badger relegated to second place (and Claire is after all the Badger Mark II), Siralan has told the world that it's fine to lie, that we all do it, and promptly picked a prime example of the dishonest charmer breed to represent the kind of person he wants in his organisation.
The brazenness of this decision has all the trappings of the insular view that led Ratner to tell the world that his products were "total crap". Now we all know, endorsed by the small man himself, that his staff are untrustworthy. I can see the painful twisting of Margaret's mouth.
Siralan, it was great tv, but you're fired!

Sunday, 8 June 2008

A day of insects

Late afternoon in the glorious sun, a neighbour came and set a number of moth traps. "It's National Moth Night" was the surprise announcement. But it was a cloudless and chilly night, and not the best for catching these nocturnal furred insects (perhaps they aren't all furry, but I know nothing about moths, and furry is what comes to mind).
All the same, when we checked the traps this morning some beauties were caught, recorded and set free to live out their remaining hours; most adult moths live for short periods from a few days to a few weeks depending on the species, although moths that hibernate through the winter live for months.
The traps captured a number of buff ermines, a white ermine (below), a gold spot, a peppered moth and a host of others with wonderfully romantic names. But best of all, there was a great palm sized poplar hawk moth (see above). From the size of the body I could finally see why a bird would find the moth a nourishing feast.
And then I checked the sheep, with relief that shearing is planned for tomorrow morning, and that there hadn't been any signs of fly strike to date. Extraordinary what can happen in 12 hours; 2 sheep now had blow flies buzzing around them and one had dark, moist patches that indicated maggots had hatched. All plans were put aside as the sheep needed instant attention. The two ewes had a full early shearing, and one other had her tail area clipped.
One beautiful, harmless insect, another that can cause death. Truly, a day for insects.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Fairs and such

Nothing like a country fair for putting a gleam in the eye and a pain in the pocket. Last night I was at the private view (champagne reception, natch) for the Contemporary Craft Fair down at Bovey Tracey, where us bods in the arts get to swig fizz alongside those with loose wallets and great taste.
In previous years I've been tempted by the jewellery and have returned with yet another chunky one-off bangle, but I have enough, and this time was there to admire the furniture in particular, purely as a voyeur.
And it being fair season, it was off to the Royal Cornwall today, where in utter contrast to Bovey, the stuff in the massive craft tent was nothing to do with craft and everything to do with mass produced tat, but there were plenty of other marvels to enjoy, including some wonderful artisan work if you kept to the smaller stalls.
Although cattle and sheep outside of Cornwall were kept away because of Bluetongue precautions, the livestock was still wondrous to behold and smell (clean, well cared for and warm). And continuing on the strangely coloured proboscis theme, a blue-tongued skink was doing the rounds, as was some species of skunk (skink/skunk, all the same to me).
The high quality of local food was at the fore; yummy Cornish produce was highlighted - lots of wine, cider, beer, cheeses, chocolate, meats of every variety including beautiful salamis, asparagus, preserves, puds, clotted cream and more.
The sheep shearers and the pig handlers competed furiously, one Gloucester Old Spot hurtling happily across the ring, oblivious to its owners cries.
Prizes were awarded for this and that, and the commentators were so well briefed that it sounded as if they knew every competitor and their animal personally.
And then there were the tractors - most far too large and serious for me, but there was one, a refurbed Massey 35 that looked like a Noddy car in agricultural garb, that I could happily give barn room.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

First catch your llama

So, yesterday the vet rang and said "your Bluetongue vaccine is ready for collection. Bring a cool box. That'll be £56.04 for sixty doses. Oh, and you'll have to sign a disclaimer for the llama - it isn't really covered by the regs. And once you've opened the vial you have to use the lot within 8 hours."
The llama hasn't been handled for three years. Yes, he feeds from a bowl in my hand during the winter when he gets his goat mix to supplement the greenery he gnaws on (hedges, bushes, trees, hay, grass), but he keeps a wary eye and won't let me stroke him, even after the best part of a decade. He's shy. Luckily he is a self sufficient animal and doesn't have a worm problem or other ailments, so he isn't handled; it would only disturb him. But now I have no choice, and the afternoon is spent arranging gates in as unobtrusive a set-up as possible, so that he can be enticed in to the field shelter and banged to rights. As in earlier times, I intend to lasso him in a corner. He will resist for a moment or two, then kush; sit down and let you do what is needed.
So, today having vaccinated all the sheep and administered a prick of the syringe into my own finger for good measure, there were efforts to get the llama into the shelter. He nibbles from the bucket but as the field is brimful with grasses, he won't go in. Time for a regroup and a rethink. A hoard of neighbours arrive to use the barn to sort fat lambs for market. Six of us take a long rope into the field and slowly corner the llama so he has no choice but to go into the shelter. Gates are shut, three of us go in. I hand over the syringe so I can concentrate on putting a lead rope round his shoulders, but he stands quietly, and before I blink one of the group has injected the 1ml of pink juice with a sharp new needle, and we are done. The llama doesn't even notice.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

The cows are getting it on

A young bull and his four girlfriends have come on a visit to give some of the fields the cattle grazing they need. As it gets dark you can hear him trying out his lungs to let the locals know that he has arrived.
He seems very calm and unruffled, taking his new surroundings and his companions as nothing less than his due.
Once the orchids and other wildflowers have gone to seed at the end of the summer, I will open the gate to the glade of purple moor grass in Moor Wood and they will curl their long tongues efficiently round the plants, avoiding the need for swaling this winter.