Thursday, 31 December 2009

And a happy new year

Is it possible, please, for 2010 to be a little more relaxing and less stressful than 2009? Please? Pretty please?
To start as I mean to go on, here are some of today's stress-free images, intended to calm all those who survey the loveliness: the gorgeous peacock butterfly; the ewes with Humphrey the llama; and the grass trying desperately to breathe through the ice.
I don't know if the latter is a metaphor for life, or just a handy one for the dying year, but either way, here's wishing everyone a blossoming 2010 with soft fluffy moments, sharp insights and 50% smile factor.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Duck in bucket

Brass in pocket, chicken in a basket, now duck in bucket. I look out of my office window to see stuck duck. A stuck duck surrounded by a sea of ice and gloom. A waterlogged duck that cannot extract itself. No danger of becoming a dead duck - far too large and vigorous to drown - but in need of a good samaritan who is prepared to tip up the bucket and get a whoosh of shitty, muddy water in the face for services rendered.
Happy Christmas.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Staying with the turkey theme... being Christmas and all that, I've just had a laugh, a splutter and an irritated from Tunbridge Wells moment reading this.
In my professional life I deal with strategies - it's kind of important to know where you want to be in order to have some vague chance of possibly getting there. But the idea of store managers having conference calls to agree strategies for selling turkeys at Christmas seems to me as barking as outlining a strategy for taking a bath when you're grubby, having a snooze when you're tired, or making a sandwich when the old tum is rumbling.
It's like this, store managers, turkey buyers and the rest... It's Christmas. The majority of meat eaters eat turkey for Christmas. Make sure you stock up on them, so that there are enough fresh, freerange, organic and frozen to meet the demand. Stick 'em in your shops with a price label on them. Wait for customers to have that light bulb "ooh, it's Christmas, I must get some mince pies, a plum pudding, some chipolatas and a turkey" moment. Bob's your uncle.
Perhaps I should charge for this little bit of insight? Nope. The idea of becoming Head Turkey Consultant would just make me a laughing stock.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Disenfranchised turkeys

My turkeys have lost their way to the polling booth. They have been done to death, plucked, gutted, trussed, packed and frozen. Forty minutes or there abouts to pluck a turkey, compared to two hours for a goose. The four of them weigh a smidgen under 11lbs to nearly 12.5 lbs, fully dressed, or as seems to make more sense, without their clothes, feet, head and unwanted innards but with their giblets.
So what with my summer peas blanched and bagged and nestling in the deep freeze and the meat element sorted, I should be able to put my feet up until the 25th December...only there's no time left in the diary for buying presents, writing cards or restocking the meagre booze cupboard.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Pet philosophy

As Claude the cat bounced from floor to bin lid to windowsill and sat stolidly over Fenn the dog's head, Fenn ducked a little nervously but refused to move.
The three cats are boys, the dogs both girls. What I want to know is, do the boy cats know the dogs ARE girls and vice versa? Do they care? Does it make any difference? Would an all male or all female pet household for mayhem make?
Do they show each other little hidden courtesies? Do they have different sets of rivalries? Is this the most steaming heap of anthropomorphism?
Just curious. Perhaps the answer is at the end of the rainbow.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


My love, my darling, my wondrous hairy beast. There you lie on your cushion, like Cleopatra or Caligula on a good day, receiving nibbles of banana and general worship. Your leg is shaved, soft and bare, vulnerable and naked, a neat stitched wound on either side. I smear on iodine gel, treacly and thick. As soon as my back is turned you lick it off with toddler glee, no sign of the geriatric years. Even the vet said he couldn't believe your age; like my mother you've been fiddling with the date on your passport.
I carried you home early, knowing you couldn't abide a night away, and there you lay, stiff, sore, drunk on anaesthetic, sleeping unnaturally, doped up, suffering. Your whole back end was unstable, the good leg twisted askew and I lurched inside; had they done something irreparable to you? In the middle of the night I crept down to check on you and your tail wagged, my fears of paralysis daft, unfounded. By morning you were willing to have a go at standing, by the afternoon you were hopping about gamely on three legs, brain clear, eyes bright.
A month lies ahead of taking you outside on the lead just to go to the toilet, absolutely no exercise allowed. For two further months it's light exercise on the lead only. It'll be mid-February before you can hurtle round the farm, roll in snow, leap with Fenn. By then your hair will have grown back, and you will be my shaggy haired monster, not my delicate girl.

More on TPLO here and here.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Chicken feet or paws

Do your chickens have paws? Do you know even one that does? If so, perhaps you might be able to help this company out? I'm afraid I can't respond to their polite request:

"Good morning. We are an importer of frozen meat in China and be very interested in buying chicken feet or paws (as the picture shows) from your company. As the final wholesaler buying all year round, we can buy 2-10 containers per month. We buy both processed and unprocessed feet or paws. Would you give us more details about the following information:
  • your best price (CIF HONGKONG or Vietnam port)
  • your monthly quantity
  • the quality of chicken feet and paws (are they processed or unprocessed? are they with yellow skin or not,with black spots or not, etc.
We will appreciate very much if you could send us some pictures of your chicken feet and paws".

My great sadness is that there was, in fact, no picture attached, but you might like this.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Where the wild things are

Down in Lower Quarry Heads is where the wild things are. My beautiful black Torwen ewe lambs, safely tucked away from the ram for another year until they have grown big and mature.
But these are big pre-pubescent gals; I don't think we've ever had such good ewe lambs and every time we weigh all the lambs to determine which are ready to go to the butcher and which need to stay back for a while, these beauties top the scale a couple of kilos beyond all the others, even though they are definitely NOT going for meat. They should make great mums in time.

Friday, 6 November 2009

And another thing....

Some days it's hard to be a sanguine soul. Some days I want to reach into my desk drawer, remove something sharp and poke people with it. These days are rare, it's true, but when I have to deal with banks or insurance companies my poking finger starts to itch something awful.
The Mopsa dog has been the cause of one or two insurance claims recently. To say the insurance company were as willing to part with their money as a dog with a bone, would be understating the case. The reasons they give for why my claim is, in fact, not a claim would amaze the most truth bending ten year old caught red-handed with their tongue stuck in the jampot ("I was just trying to save the little fly at the bottom, mum").
Even the claim that they say they ARE going to pay comes with a caveat: "the amount of £143.52 will be issued direct to you in due course. Unfortunately we are unable to advise any exact time scale at the moment due to a slight delay we have in our payment system. Please be advised we are aware of the situation and doing our upmost to improve it". Do I feel the rumble of cashflow problems? I wonder if I was to write similarly (well, perhaps without the malapropism) about a necessary delay in parting with my monthly premiums, whether they would take it as an acceptable approach?
Their reasoning is spurious, every comment nonsense, and I can feel the poking finger spark alarmingly into life, full of energy for the battle ahead. Don't they know they're dealing with the tiger?

Sunday, 1 November 2009


As a third of the farm's hedges are being trimmed before winter sets in and heavy tractors won't be able to move across the farm, there is also lots of preparation going on in readiness for delivering smallholder training. I've delivered training of various sorts all over the place but only rarely on the farm. So it's time to install an outdoor bog, to make up a big table for ten of us to sit around, put together the flatpack stools, finesse the training content, plan the menus, tidy the farm and.... TIDY THE FARM?
Oh yes. Having done my risk assessment everything I see is either a hazard or a learning opportunity. I try to look at things through fresh eyes, both stuff of interest and stuff of risk. That hurdle, so usefully leant up against the barn wall as an impromptu gate for guiding Aunt Agatha into the stock box - a stumble and fall waiting to happen. The shearing equipment hanging from the ceiling of the barn? Ready to brain someone if they step back without looking. Beautiful mossy, licheny concrete? Treacherously slippery.
My list of to-dos is long and physical. Tonight I'll be painting some signs for the new bog.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Roger rogers

The grief an overexcited ram can cause a farmer cannot be exaggerated. New chap Roger created something of a stir yesterday morning when I came to give him some fresh hay first thing and found his paddock empty. I set off across the farm to check on the various flocks of ewes but couldn't see him anywhere, whilst OH cruised the lanes in the Landrover for him - lying dead in a ditch, humping someone elses prime pedigree ewes, or butting his way through hedges and freshly washed cars.
Could we find him? No. I flag down the postman and he promises to ask at each farm he passes. We drop in on all the local farmers and they say they'll keep a look out. We go home, me to wait for phone calls and OH to retrace my steps across the farm.
There is a spluttering of "Should've gone to Specsavers" as I clearly missed what was obviously there in my trails through the fields. I hang my head in shame, and then realise that Roger has got in with a large flock (two hundred or more) of mule ewes that have yet to go to the ram. My words are blue, and we waste no time in bringing every ewe in that flock into the barn, Roger wedged firmly among them. There is hardly room to move in there which means it's not difficult to catch randy Roger and hold him manfully whilst I usher out the disappointed ewes.
I'm mortified and hope he hasn't impregnated too many of them - their matings should be with pedigree Suffolk rams. We won't know how awful the consequences are for another five months.
Roger is penned tight, and we realise we're not going to be able to keep him like this for a fortnight, when he's due to join the other Badger Face Torddus, so decide that perhaps he can stay in the barn for a week and split the difference.
This morning he has leapt out of his pen, bending the hurdles in his wake, knocked aside a ten inch thick gatepost and is bounding about the paddock, still frustrated that his semi-freedom has taken him no closer to fresh totty. We relent, unable to bear the prospect of disappearing ram for another fortnight.
All the ewes are brought in for crutching and fluking and Heptavacing, and then the white 'uns are led off with Roger, and the black with Samson. Lambing will be two weeks early in 2010.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

I'm still here...

...just in case anyone was wondering. Along with many others at the moment, running to keep up with themselves, there is just too much stuff to be done and not enough time to do it in. Not sure what's happened at the close of summer, beginning of autumn, but bonkersly busy would just about cover it. I'm leaping up at 4am to deal with emails and other deskbound tasks that have emerged whilst I've had my head buried elsewhere. Next week looks more benign (famous last words), so perhaps I'll be able to walk the dogs, take a photo or two and post something farmish.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Bush Inn, Morwenstow

No, I really don't see myself as a restaurant critic. I don't wear enough rings, have a stern enough demeanour or describe my munching in terms of literary criticisms, but I feel I should put the record straight after my mauling of Pan-ache. There are, after all, some simple places that do outstanding food in the area.
After bouncing about with multiple dogs and friends at the usual beach haunt, we headed north along the coast to pick up some strap hinges for the barn doors from blacksmith David North-Lewis. The sea air and traversing of fat cobbles had built a perfect appetite, and the pub, just yards away from the forge, called to us. They were happy for us to bring in the dogs and we commandeered a big corner table so we could tuck the canines, large and small, under our legs and out of the way.
Our eyes slithered over the starters but when we saw the pudding list decided to go mains and puds. Beer battered fish with fresh tartare and homemade mushy peas; homemade beef burger with stilton and relish with fries; steak and kidney pie with roasted veg and mash. Nought complicated there, just straightforward pub food without a gastro complex in sight. But oh my. It was fantastic. Everyone oohed and aahed over their dishes. My burger was stunning - gorgeous beef, beautifully cooked and it smelled amazing - what you always hope for and rarely if ever get. I wanted to bury myself in it. I don't know who the chef is (although he took the pudding orders from me), but the chap sure knows how to cook.
I took Fenn out for a quick leg stretch across the village green and for another sniff of the sea before it was time for almond crème brûlée with shortbread for some and chocolate brownie for me. As the waitress got close to the table I could smell the deep dark scent of good chocolate. This was clearly going to be an adult experience. A bitter sweet crumbly brownie sat in a sea of thick dark, hot chocolate sauce with what can only be called several portions of clotted cream.
We talked at length about the disappointing food we've had in pubs over the years and grinned broadly at having just experienced exactly how it should be done.
There's lots about the local provenance of their ingredients and it shows - everything was super fresh and we've already planned a return visit.
For once there were absolutely no scraps left for the dogs. Shame.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Bidding in Builth

Off to the National Ram Sale on Monday to buy a ram (obviously), but also some ewes.
The aptly named Toyboy is now too closely related to the breeding flock so has gone off to bonk his way across Exmoor leaving me to head to Wales on the hunt for his replacement.
Those auction palpitations never fail to get you. The females aren't so much of a problem as you can buy as many or as few as you have room for in the trailer, so an extra one here or there doesn't matter. But a ram? I only want one Torddu ram, and there are several possibilities in the various pens, so when do I bid, and when not? I can't afford NOT to come home with one as it'll mean yet more expensive traipsing around the country, what with the majority being in Wales and very few if any in Devon, but I can't come home with two. That really puts the pressure on. I mark my catalogue with those I don't want - too fat (loads of them are wobbly with fat rather than muscle and I want a working not a show ram), too young (I need a proven sire), too ugly (personal bias), problematic horns and so on. I bid for one that comes before my preferred choice but the auctioneer doesn't see me wave my catalogue even though I am sat right in front of him and by now have had several sheep knocked down to me, so I am a real bidder, parting with genuine dosh. Ah well. My fave then comes into the ring and I get all excited - he is a really big chap, sound, strong, muscular, great horns, with a fabulously endowed set of bollocks. Just what I need. No. Rewind. Just what my ewes need.
Just a couple of other bidders are interested as they are mostly showing folk at this Badger Face Society annual show and sale, and he has the attributes of a worker. He's knocked down to me at a decent price.
Wormed and vaccinated he is now in the ram's paddock, looking a little lost, stamping his feet, snorting through his nostrils, every ounce trembling with testosterone. If he breathed fire I wouldn't be surprised, so I'm not going to introduce him to Samson until tupping is finished. If the two rams get into a fight and something happens, that's zero lamb next year.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Sex and the single pig

Oh my. I've been at the sharp end of pig sex. Not having a boar, and not wanting to go to the hassle of hiring in a pedigree beast and having to feed it and put up with its hugeness and unfamiliarity, Aunt Agatha has been artificially inseminated. Not just once, but three times. The vet came out to show us and then decided the sow wasn't quite ready, so came back the following morning when we all played our part, me doing the sexing up bit, pretending to be the boar (major massage, rub and general physical labour stuff) whilst the others were at the business end with a half metre long catheter and a bottle of semen.
That afternoon we were on our own, and there I was, puffing and blowing and getting my pig in the mood. First thing this morning, the third and final bottle is squished down a fresh catheter and I'm done in with the physicality of it all, whilst OH does the techie bit with a squirt of Boarmate and a-twiddling of tubes and a-squeezing of bottles. A picture of the complete sex kit is attached - Boarmate spray, semen and the corkscrew tipped catheter - without the knackered helper. If I smoked I'd be off for a fag.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


What with there being nine growing and rambunctious piglets, it's practically impossible to get all of them in shot at the same time. As these three snored in the sun, the mud from their wallow caked on their backs, the other six were rushing about making their distinctive excitable woofing noises.
All of them will be in their new homes in the next week or so and I will miss their joyous, curious natures. Now weaned, they seem a self sufficient bunch, and certainly Aunt Agatha is not missing their insistent nuzzling; she is sleeping the sleep of a tired sow, catching up on me time as her milk starts to dry up.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Nick's plum sauce

With the final batch of Victoria and round red plums I decide to make plum sauce. I want it for crispy duck pancakes and to smear on pork ribs. I want an authentic Chinese recipe, and find one. I stone and chop and stone and chop. The pot bubbles and I stir on and on for hours until I have a thick hoisiny mixture. I lean in to inhale and blast my sinuses adrift from their usual resting place. The acid of the vinegar is so overpowering my eyes water. So I taste. Bleurghhh. I recheck the recipe. The ratio of sugar to vinegar is very low, so I add some more, boil and bubble and retaste. And add more sugar. And reboil and retaste. And add yet more sugar and retaste. Hmm. That might be right.
I know, as an old chutney maker, that these things need to mellow over time, but there are limits. Acrid is never good.
So, just to check that there wasn't a typo in the recipe book I email the publisher who passes the message on toot sweet to the author.
Next morning there's an email in my inbox: "I'm sorry the recipe didn't work for you. I'm not sure why. I was picking plums last weekend in Buckinghamshire with Camilla, who passed me the original recipe. Her father opened the first Chinese restaurant in the UK and would make up this recipe seasonally as plum sauce wasn't available commercially then. Maybe the tartness of the plums has affected your recipe. In any case it's not nice when you invest time in a recipe and you don't like the end result. I am making some over the next couple of days and will send you some of mine."
And guess what dropped into the post box today? Isn't that lovely of him? I've sent a wee pot of my own back in exchange. Fair's fair.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Snowmail - Channel 4 news

"And so to sheep. At Lydd Primary School, Romney Marsh, Kent to be precise, where the head has raised a school sheep to show children where mint sauce comes into play and how food really happens etc etc. Trouble is, it is now chops o'clock for Marcus the sheep and some parents are upset, complaining their precious things cannot sleep and all manner of weepiness.
Not that I am unsympathetic - this being Kent the poor darlings already have the trauma of the 11 plus to contend with. After which a little abattoir action ought to be a piece of cake, or slice of lamb..."

This wanged its way into my email box this pm from Alex Thomson of Channel 4 news. Oh gawd. More people who think meat comes in polystyrene trays wrapped in cling film. No more burgers for you, chums.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Yesterday Suffolks, today Mules

No, not MULE, Mule.
Keeping on the sheep theme, this is another of the breeds grazing on the farm.
But thinking about it, I'd love a donkey. Not sure what I'd do with it, apart from stroke its ears in times of stress.
Perhaps some uses for donkeys suggestions might help persuade me? Keep 'em legal.
Oh, and the photo's much better large - do click on it.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Suffolks in Devon

I'm having one of those infuriating days when the synapses in the brain are making far too many connections. First one idea, then another, pops into my head. I can't start to juggle half of them and my desk is strewn with stuff, stuff that needs attention, now interlayered with new things.
If there were a group of egomaniacs in the room, not one of them could get a word in edgeways, full of blabber, blather and babble as I am.
It's also slashing it down with rain, so I don't even feel able to go and stride out with the dogs until it calms down a bit.
So, when the dogs start to woof and I see a stream of chunky suffolks fill the yard, it's a welcome respite.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Sweet corn

Two years ago I moaned and fretted about the bizarrely polkadot affair that was my homegrown corn on the cob. How nature has improved itself.
Can you spot a gap? Are they not perfect? Could you nourish yourself and armfuls of friends with this harvest? Oh yes.
So whilst the celery succumbs disgustingly to the slugs, I take comfort in my corn, my tomatoes and aubergines, my outrageously fecund cucumbers and the spherical yellow courgettes, known as the holy hand grenades of Antioch. The turkeys, much grown, are kept well fed on the surplus.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Owl pellet

This morning there was a flyover. There I was, minding my own beeswax, letting the geese out for the day, when poof! A huge air balloon was travelling directly overhead. I waved, as you do, but although I could see sandbags and the like, and someone or something was clearly operating the dangerous looking firey thing, I couldn't see a soul. My theory is that the navigator was three feet tall and that the passengers were so travel sick that they were bent over honking into the basket and all invisible from the ground.
A couple of evenings ago I had a rather different flyover. Out of the threshing barn window, just a few feet above my head, whooshed a barn owl. So much excitement! Barn owl boxes have been made and sited hither and yon, but perhaps a bird was really nesting? Certainly there are large white splats typical of the barn owl, and the following day we found a huge pellet, complete with fur, bones and a yellow sharp-toothed skull.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Bletting my medlars

Three years ago when we planted up the gaps in the orchard, two medlars were included in the list of "must have" trees. I'm still berating myself for having forgotten a black mulberry, but this winter I will buy one - there is a tree guard already up waiting to protect it.
The medlars are growing nicely in their contorted fashion, and in contrast with two medlar fruits last year, they are positively blooming having produced a couple of fistfuls.
The fruit is sitting in the scullery waiting to blet, or rot, just a little before I make some medlar cheese, not unlike a quince membrillo.
The place is full of bowls and trugs and baskets and trays of runner beans, blackberries, courgettes, tomatoes, aubergines and more. We start jamming and peeling and shredding with a vengeance but start to flag by 6pm. There will be more to bottle and preserve tomorrow.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Lacking Panache

Yesterday was spent exploring parts of the local town of Okehampton that hadn't been peered at before: the castle (a pleasure), the station (a Miss Marple extravaganza of time stood stillness) and the museum (a curate's/curator's egg).
Gagging for a cool drink as the station buffet is sadly closed on a Monday, we headed back into town, and nosed into one of the more salubrious looking cafes in Red Lion Yard, mere strides from the restaurant shamed in front of millions by Gordon Ramsay.
After half an hour in the Panache Cafe (swiftly renamed Pan-ache by my disappointed companion), it became clear that the Gordon treatment should have extended here too.
Oh lordy, where to start?
Its position is great - a long frontage of big windows looking across the pedestrian alleyway; a busy busy thoroughfare but no cars, peaceful and perfect for peoplewatching. Decor slightly dull but clean and bright. In we hop. It's half full, but we sit for ten minutes or so before a waitress comes to the table and takes our order.
Meanwhile a chap with a Scandinavian accent comes in and asks if they do lunch. "No" is the response, "we only do quiches, pasties and cakes". He leaves with his family of four. I suggest that the next time someone asks that question in ooh, ten minutes time, it being lunchtime and all, that the response is "Yes, of course! We do a small range of great home made quiches and traditional pasties, which you can round off with a cream tea, or one of our fab cakes - do take a seat and I'll be over to take your order in two minutes." Better? More likely to end in tips? Yup.
As we wait, a chap comes in asking if he can have help to open the second of the double doors so his mate in a wheelchair can come in. Thereby follows a lot of flap and pathetic explanation that the door is really quite difficult to open and would man-in-wheelchair please put himself in the role of second-class-citizen and use the other door that no-one else has to use. That gets rid of two more potential customers.
Meanwhile, about six people have stopped to ask a passing waitress where the toilet is. It's quite clearly marked if you happen to have the one seat opposite, otherwise it's invisible. Suggestion number two - make up a two sided sign (write TOILET on it, obviously - both sides now, no skimping) and hang it at ninety degrees from the wall, so that everyone can see it without having to bother the staff or fret that they cannot see if that most essential room exists.
Next. Our cheese and onion pasties arrive with the comment that our drinks are not ready but she doesn't want our pasties to get cold. As I'd seen these plates sit on the counter for five minutes, not realising they were intended for us, I unhesitatingly hover my hand over the dishes. Steam? No. Heat? No. I pick them up and take them back to the counter and ask for them to be heated up. We hear panicky mutterings about how difficult it is to get a pastie to the right heat. They return, soggy from the microwave. Nil points. Served with a small handful of crisps. Zero points. Not a garnish of a lettuce leaf, a tomato or cucumber curl in sight. Somehow, I expected more in a cafe (even for my £2.45) than a soggy version of the pastie I could buy in Endacotts bakery next door for half that. Charge an extra quid, but plate it up with style and a handful of lightly dressed salad, heat it in a proper oven (crispy is what you're after mates), and if you don't know how to heat a pastie may I suggest that you are in the wrong profession?
Drinks. Pot of tea and an elderflower cordial with sparkling water. For my £1.85 I expected a long cool drink - this is cordial we are talking about after all, not champagne. No, the glass is downed in one brief slug and I'm left entirely unrefreshed, even though a chunk of orange has been pointlessly attached to the rim and bangs against my not small nose.
As we roll our eyes at each other about this desperate lost business opportunity, and how sad it is that local people and tourists can't have access to a cheery cafe serving a simple range of really great food and intelligent service, an expensively dressed couple come in. They ask the lunch question and get the same answer, but they are alert and have noticed the blackboard signs announcing broccoli and cheese or tomato and basil quiches. "No, no," the waitress says, waving her hand about dismissively, we only have Quiche Lorraine left". The couple acquiesce, and take a seat. But when no-one has come to take their brief order in five or more minutes, they too walk out.
If ever a place was run for the benefit of the staff and not the customer, this is it. "No" is their favourite word. Excuses and explanations their bread and butter. When I get up to pay, the waitress asks if everything was alright. I take possession of their favourite word. "No", I say "I can't believe you aren't making the most of the opportunity here. The position is great, but the food is a disaster and you keep turning people away". Her jaw hangs open. Well, it's about time someone said something or at least four people are shortly going to be out of work. Okehampton deserves better than this. And so do I on my day out.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Another slow worm

It's a while since I saw my first slow worm, and today, whilst picking the first blackberries of the season for a crumble, I spotted my second, only a few yards from the previous sighting 16 months ago.
This time I pick it up. It is smooth, silky and cool. It sits calmly in my hand, curling itself gently through my fingers. I can feel its strength, its muscularity. It is not as bronzey coloured as No.1 SW, and has a distinct extended middle. A pregnant female perhaps. It also reminds me of Hard Hattie, although it is shinier and the scales are less pronounced and rough.
Suddenly it turns from a no-legged lizard to a snake; its forked tongue flickers, tasting the air. It can't be more than ten inches long, but it is feisty.

I carry No.2 SW back to where I found it, and it slides into the long grass as if greased with candle wax.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Mopsa, Elizabethan style

Mopsa is not a vain dog, although she is undeniably the most beautiful dog on the planet... (pause for remonstrations), so she wasn't bothered by a couple of eye warts. But then they started to scratch the surface of her eyeball and they had to come off.
Whilst under the double whammy of miraculous but ghastly anaesthetic, her teeth were seen to and one was removed with its associated epulis.
Poor old girl, it seems as though warty growths find you irresistable. But then, so do I. Even in a plastic Elizabethan ruff.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Early one morning

No, sadly, I still don't have cows, but there are cows on the farm which is nearly as good. And here is the first calf born on the farm in many a year.
I watched it steaming, moist and surprised at ten minutes, and the first giraffe-legged steps, the falling back on its haunches, the rest and the more successful attempt to stand. Freshly born, there wasn't that much difference in colour between mum and daughter, but now, fully dried, she is a pale cream.
I took this photo as the calf approached 24 hours on earth. Mum is a first timer, it's thought, and she was a little bemused by the whole business. But early this morning the heifer lowed gently to the calf, and it lowed softly back and trundled towards her on jelly legs.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Raspberry tartoise

When you have more raspberries than you can eat, it's only fair to share.
Hattie adores red fruits: strawberries, tomatoes, raspberries. I took a bowlful into the garden and sat with her. From half asleep to fully gorged and raring to go in three minutes. Raspberries are super-charged fuel for prehistorics.
Can you imagine the size of a fruit that could satisfy a brontosaurus?
I will give her face a wipe later to keep the flies away, once she's licked up all the remnants.

Friday, 7 August 2009

The abattoir that helps with slaughter

I rarely read The Times, but I was travelling by train yesterday and a copy was shoved into my hand. Flicking through, there was yet another article telling the urban world how they could have their own good life with the aid of a back garden (and tolerant neighbours).
I read it in the light hearted fashion in which it was offered to the reader. I love the thought of hen coops scattered across urban sprawls, providing eggs and entertainment for families, and an insight into animal welfare and food production, but then Tom Whipple moved on to the marvellously bonkers notion of keeping pigs, cows, sheep and goats in a city backyard.
It was the piggy bits that had me rolling my eyes and hoping none of Tom's readers would contact me for a weaner.
Pigs DON'T reach meat weight at 12-16 weeks. 26 weeks is the minimum, and I take the Berkshires to 32 weeks. This means large animal in small garden, not cutesy wee piglet that would fit on two plates. I can just see the happy couple picking up an eight week old weaner in the back of the car (illegal) and carrying it through the house to pop it into an old dog kennel in the garden, and then the scratching of heads 18 weeks later as they contemplate huge beastie having to be corralled through french windows, past the sofa, negotiating the hallway and front door to a trailer they don't have to an abattoir they can't find.
The best bit was the comment that "most local abattoirs will help with slaughter". I had visions of said couple girding their loins to stick pig with knife as the slaughterman helpfully holds pig still.
Ah well, knock the good life if you must, but in the right environment (so NOT the city garden), with the right information and skills, it's a great life. In the city, keep to bees, hens and ducks unless you have a city farm.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Making money

Unlike Barclays bankers, no-one is paying me any bonuses, so earning money is nearly always on my mind. Will enough consultancy opportunities come in now that the economy spurns those of us on the outer edges of employment? Am I selling the farm produce effectively? Am I minimising inessential costs? And so on. I'm not the only one to be preoccupied in this way (although I'm not about to lay my balance sheet out for you).
So when I read this story, the end of the farming game for Rosie Boycott, I had cause, yet again, to stop and think - is it possible to farm on a small scale and not subsidise it from other earnings?
Possibly, possibly, but only with some major caveats:
  1. Small scale will never cover the mortgage payments, so live in a caravan, a hovel, a cave, under the stars, or buy outright with the moolah from some previous existence.
  2. It will never pay you a wage, but you may be lucky enough to live in a way and in a place that minimises expenditure (just don't go wearing any holes in your jeans, and don't forget you can't pay your Council Tax in beans or the water bill with eggs).
  3. It will certainly never allow you to pay someone else a wage (I think that's where Rosie went wrong), and because of this...
  4.'s a full-time thing; even when you're doing something else to earn some cash, farm necessities must be dealt with - life and death and welfare issues can't wait until it's more convenient - the farm dictates, not the diary.
  5. Some daft bugger desperate for short term cash will try to undercut you all the time - stick to your guns and prices or you really will be heading for doom and gloom, subsidising other people's lifestyles and choking on it.
  6. It's a business, not a flaky hobby. That might mean registering for VAT, producing accounts, keeping records, analysing the finances, planning for the future, investing lots of time and appropriate amounts of money in the right places.
  7. There is a lot of capital outlay, even if, like us, you make a huge amount of stuff yourself. You need equipment, tools (from a sledge hammer to a welder), almost certainly a tractor, animal handling facilities, animal shelter(s), the list goes on.
  8. Work out how much stock you and your land can handle - all kinds of grief comes from overstocking (disease, exhausted fields, huge feed bills to make up for the lack of grass), and other grief comes from having more on your plate than you can cope with.
  9. Don't fanny around being precious about farming subsidies - if you're eligible, get those papers in - you can't afford not to.
  10. If you want a hobby rather than a business, smallholding is great, but if that's your limit, stick to producing enough for yourself and one or two friends...and leave it at that.
I am so far from getting this right; I'm learning all the time, and moving cautiously. But I do know, for example, after two years of keeping records, that selling fertile hatching eggs really does cover all the poultry feed bills, provides us with meat, eggs and entertainment, and produces the kind of surplus that matches the costs of their breeding, fencing and housing (just), but it's very time intensive. I know that it's not yet the moment to invest in a second breeding sow, and that the notion of cows has to be parked. Having increased the flock I don't know if I will be able to sell all my fabulous lamb boxes direct to discerning carnivores this autumn, but I do know how much the abattoir will pay for them as a second best resort. I know that I can't afford to pass my wool through the British Wool Marketing Board any longer and that I have to market my fleeces directly to spinners and weavers.
But the biggest caveat of all is that you have to see the point of it, because you will be spending 24 hours a day at it.

Monday, 3 August 2009

The early birds

I have records for everything. Lambing dates, live and dead weights for lamb and pork going back years, breeding records and statistics, lists of ducklings on order, incubation setting and hatching dates, hedgetrimming and laying schedules, you name it.
I check the poultry and livestock spreadsheets and note that today is the day to turn on the hatcher and move the next batch of duck eggs across from the incubator as soon as it's up to heat. In two days time the hatching will begin.
I go into the old stable I use as the incubation and hatching room and I hear cheeping, and it's not from the swallows or housemartins in the roof. Seesawing gently as the automatic turning cradle tilts to and fro are two early birds. A pair of black indian runner ducklings have not waited to be moved into the non-swaying, non-tilting, flat as a pancake hatcher, but have emerged in the incubator leaving neatly excavated shells.
I hurtle into the boot room, turn on the heat lamp, chuck sawdust into the brooder, put in a drinker and some feed, and gallumph back to extract the ducklings and put them into their new home for the next two weeks.
With the world no longer turning under their feet they look a little dazed. I present the early birds - just a couple of hours old. More will be joining them shortly. Before they have time to catch a worm.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Piglet update

Pigs love weeds. All gardeners should have one.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Moving the pigs

The piglets are ten days old, and it's time to ear notch and turn the new pig family out into the big wide world. Well, into a large paddock with a spacious warm ark made tufty with straw.
Mum is encouraged into the stock box with a scoop of food, the door is shut and the piglets are gently contained in the barn. Each one is picked up and examined. Right number of evenly spaced teats (14)? Good shaped and sturdy body? Well marked for the breed? Properly formed mouth? All pass muster and there are a couple of exceptional ones. As each has their unique number notched into their ear I take them in my arms and cradle them. They sit in my embrace, snug, content, not struggling or squealing. I feel the most overwhelming sense of pride and pleasure. They have hot, strong little bodies and have quadrupled in size since birth. They are calm and happy. The sow is grunting softly, and one by one I put each piglet into the box with her, a separating hurdle between them so she doesn't trample on them as they are transported. In the paddock we pick up each piglet and put it into the back of the ark, deep in straw. The box is opened and Aunt Agatha sways out, looks about and then goes into the ark too. Text book.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

One hairy bat

A momentary respite from piglets. Can you believe the hairiness of this bat??
There it was, clinging to the bedroom curtain, upsidedown of course, one eye open, giving me the look. My, but you're hairy I said. I have no idea what it was thinking, but "you're one to talk" might have been in its mind.
There's enough of the fluffy matter there to create a decent portion of chest wig. I am now on the hunt for a small gold medallion to hang around its neck. Just to complete the outfit.

Friday, 17 July 2009

And finally....

...Nine piglets, popped out like corks from a bottle of fizz.
On the 118th day, at 6pm she started to nest. I was expecting 115 days, but no, the Berkshire likes to take longer than other pigs, (something I'd never read about before). By 9.30pm there were contractions. By 11.30pm there were two piglets, by 12.30pm there were seven, and sometime between then and 4am whilst I wasn't looking, two more had appeared. So here they are, no more than nine hours old.
Mother and small ones are sleeping for England between bouts of frenzied feeding. Haven't had a chance to sex them yet.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Aunt Agatha

In just a few days Aunt Agatha is due to farrow. After some military planning she was brought into the barn, and settled quickly to the deep straw, regular supplies of pea pods and frequent rubs. She shivers ecstatically under energetic fingers. When she lies down I can see the piglets move in her wonderfully large belly, and her rear teats are huge, the ones towards the front slowly filling with milk.
This evening I hung the heat lamp over the creep area and she came to investigate. She can't reach it, but she has sniffed and taken its scent into her memory bank. I turned it on to see how she would react, but after some minor curiosity she simply scratched her sides and arse against the creep bars and lay down once more. I've turned off the lamp, but I'm hoping that when the piglets come, she won't now be unnerved by the glowing red beacon.
The piglets probably don't need the heat lamp at this time of year but I want to make sure that they are attracted to the creep area and can retreat if they feel their mother flopping to the ground; inadvertent killing of small young piglets by huge ponderous mothers is not so much frequent as an expected part of every birth - no doubt that's why they can have so many in a litter.
I am all eager anticipation and nervousness, but for now we two commune, sharing oinks and snorts like a pair of biddies at bingo.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Cheerful creatures - for now

Another first. I've been and gone and bought some young turkey poults. Funny critters. They chirp and chirrup continuously, companionably, cheerily. Unlike most other birds they don't seem to show any signs of nervousness. Perhaps they are planning to eat me at Christmas?
Putting them to bed is a two person job. They happily come and greet you, but show no interest or understanding that they need to go into the cosy straw-filled hut as it gets dark. Ducks, geese, hens all learn after a few usherings that this is the routine, but the turkey's natural boldness means they don't move away from you towards shelter, they come to meet you instead.
When I was shown round the lovely farm where these Norfolk Blacks came from I was in absolute awe of the size of the stags, and chortled at the leather saddles worn by the hens. But stags can enjoy a bit of the rough stuff, and the leather is to protect the females from over amorous attention.
I've put the turkeys in the garden on fresh ground and I can hear them chortle through the window. The gobbling noise made by the adult stags is hilarious, so let's hope mine get a chance to do that before the roast tatties shout for a meaty accompaniment.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Bat splat

Remember this? I'm truly grateful the llama didn't make his mound on the windowsill. But the bats don't show the same reticence.
The front of the house and two of the windows are crusted and splatted with flying rodent (are bats rodents?) guano.
The photo shows the upstairs window sill, above which is the bat cave entrance. I hear hundreds of them squeaking and scuttling about in the loft, they then stick their arses out the hole, do a quick poo and then fly off into fly-munching land. Charming habits.
Most nights two or three whirl above my head in the bedroom, and each time you find a picture askew you can bet a bat is snoring behind it. I wonder if the bat splat is any good on the compost heap?

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Casserole mole

First it was polytunnel-toad, now it's casserole-mole. Where will it end? Bedroom-badger? Pantry-pig? Barn-owl?
"The cat brought in a mole" is muttered into my ear as I stuff my head more firmly under the pillow (not my turn to do the animals). Half an hour later I open the scullery door and a deep brown mole is scuttling about in the shadows. I shut the scullery door. I sit and think and eat my breakfast. I open the scullery door, grab a casserole and decide to carry said mole out in that. I have bare feet and vulnerable fingers. I shut the scullery door and go and get gloves and shoes. I open the scullery door and watch the mole choose between tins of baked beans and plum tomatoes before it decides to hide behind the shelving. It makes a hell of a noise rattling everything it bangs into. I shut the scullery door and finish the piece I was reading in the paper. Even louder rustling noises start. I open the scullery door (hopefully for the last time this morning) and watch Mr Mole wander across my path. Gotcha! I pick him up (gloves on), put him in the casserole and slam shut the lid. I carry the lot outside and put it in the shade while I decide what to do with him. The lid bounces off. I slam it back shut and stick a heavy weight on top. There is now a cursing and swearing mole inside my casserole.
What to do with him? We've trapped at least five moles in the veg patch this season and I don't want him anywhere near my swiftly growing foodstuffs. I could stew him without having to take him out of the pot. But because it's haymaking day and there is more than enough stress going round what with one tractor having to have new tyres RIGHT NOW, and the other waiting for me to pick up its box-fresh starter motor all before baling and carting can proceed, killing of the innocents is less than usually tempting. Casserole-mole is given a reprieve and is dumped in a field some way from the house and garden. No doubt he'll be back, and the traps are waiting.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Polytunnel toad

I do like a toad. Even when they come hopping into the house to watch the ten o'clock news, as they do. These summer evenings the doors are left open and as the toads emerge from behind the damp greenness left lazily and deliberately unweeded from round the doorway, they hop into the boot room or venture more daringly across the kitchen, drawn by the BBC news headlines.
The polytunnel is home to another batch of toads. They hunt beneath the crush of courgettes, the thicket of tomatoes, the panoply of peas, relishing the damp soil, the flies, slugs and other edibles.
This is a photo of the polytunnel-toad; not as large as the news-at-ten-toad, but a charmer, all the same.

The polytunnel is looking very green, apart from the sweet peas, that produce a big bunch of pink, lilac, purple and red for the table every evening. But I want it to look even more colourful, full of flowers, and that's just starting to happen. The courgette blooms are there but you have to dig deep under the huge raspy leaves to see them; the tomato flowers are also shy, and their fruits are completely green for now. The spherical yellow courgettes are only just starting to fruit and bulge.
There is one baby aubergine, already purple, and the mass of peas are, to be fair, dotted with white flowers. The french beans are thinking about flowering. Another week and I'll be rewarded.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

I was good!

This morning I heard a furious rustling and thumping coming from the kitchen. When I went to investigate, Fenn was looking most excited but she hadn't, as I'd feared, stolen any of the hot rolls I'd recently taken out of the oven. But something had taken advantage of the open door, and there were sweet pea petals scattered all over the floor.
A juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker had found its way in and was fluttering, terrified, in the window. I easily picked it up, its gorgeous black and white stripes and scarlet cap, long pointy beak, still in my hand but so very much alive.
I hesitated. Should I take a fabulous close-up picture for my album and the blog, or should I be kind and let it go immediately?
I opened the window, opened my hand and off it flew.

Photo courtesy of

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Too bucolic for words

First it was elderflower champagne, then it was strawberries, next tiny and delicious peas and baby courgettes. Then gooseberries for a crumble, wild strawberries as a snack and now more elderflowers, but this time for cordial.
I'm going to disappear up my own gingham pinny.
But to bring me back down to earth I removed a tapeworm segment from the cat's arse. And stuffed a worming tablet down its gob. Oh, and cleared up a regurgitated mouse (from the cat, the cat!). I did a heap of fairly stinky animal pooh related tasks too. Oh, and sat on some tar and made the seat of my pants sticky. It's an idyll.

Friday, 19 June 2009

When your world suddenly shrinks

Sheep shorn, they are moved into the orchard to graze down the long grass. The llama isn't allowed in as he can kill a fruit tree at twenty paces; not by spitting but by mercilessly peeling off the bark with his buck teeth. So he gets left in the field that now needs topping to remove the sharp tall growth unfit for haymaking, and that can cut the soft part between the toes of the sheep as they walk through it.
The tractor goes round and round as Humphrey mews in distrust. He sits right in the centre, watching his patch of long, semi-camouflaging grasses get smaller and smaller. He decides that the tractor is boss and then swiftly stands and steps sideways into the topped area, peering over the gate to check all his ovine friends are close by. Satisfied, he starts to nibble the cut stems.

Monday, 15 June 2009

A day for shearing

214 sheep sheared in the barn today, 41 of them mine.
Now the mums are shorn their lambs look nearly as big, and at just 10 weeks old.
The two rams have been penned into a small corral in the barn to get reacquainted, an annual post-shearing ritual, smelling different as they do without their hot oily fleece. I've just had fun disentangling one from the other, horns wrapped up like an executive puzzle.
The dams and lambs are chewing on the fresh succulent grass and herbs in the orchard, giving the geese a run for their money.
In this warm, wet weather it's a huge relief that none had maggots or any sign of them, and without their fleece they should now be fine until the autumn.
Shearing done, it's time to start thinking about haymaking. Again.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

My little poppy

Tissue thin and wildly coloured with sooty black nose, simple, evocative, in memoriam and seriously mind-altering...the poppy is a flower that sends thoughts darting in multiple directions from the profound to the commercially indulgent.
They emerge, singly, in the dry dust of the garden wall, flourish for a day or two and then seep back into the earth.
I was at a dinner with friends, the topic was massage, when a wonderfully erudite and knowledgeable woman in her ninth decade announced that she had once been massaged in a Chinese opium could have heard a poppy drop.