Monday, 7 May 2018

Kidding Countdown

Its been a busy year so far as time has flown by and it seems only yesterday that Luxor the stud goat came to Stay. But now there’s only 5 days to go before Saffies kids are due and just enough time to start my kidding countdown.
As ever Saffies benign and stoic nature means that I am much more anxious and excited at the prospect of her kidding than she is. Although she is still taking her daily excursion into the pasture to browse and trotting back home for her tea, as the big day draws closer the burden of her enormous tummy is taking its toll on her tiny legs and making her a little tired and subdued.

Saffies little legs are getting tired

Pygmy goats gestate for between 150 to 155 days so the week before kidding is spent watching for signs that her babies are on their way. As Saffie is likely to be carrying twins there is a chance that they may come early so to cover all bases I have been busy preparing the kidding shed with a fresh communal bed just in case she catches me out and separate kidding pen which is kept clean ready for the big day.

Keeping the birthing pen clean until kidding reduces

 the chances of joint ill.

Goats are sensitive, social animals who form strong and lasting bonds and Saffie and her sons are no exception. As a result, they are all kept together until Saffie goes into labour when she will be moved into the kidding pen to ensure that the babies don’t absorb bacteria from dirty bedding through their navel. 

An over the door feeder is a safe and convenient 

place to keep kidding meds

Applying iodine to the navels of new born sheep and lambs also prevents this absorption and dries the navel quickly. So a bottle of iodine forms part of my kidding meds along with hand steriliser, gloves, lubricant, anti-biotic and pain relief just in case I need to assist.

The cctv camera has been set up a few days in advance so that I can keep an eye on her and spot the onset of pregnancy.  Cameras offer a great way to observe the goats natural behaviours without the disruption of continually popping in and out to check on progress.

 Saffie loves being brushed and in the last week of pregnancy, brushing and stroking is a great way to build up a bond with your doe prior to kidding as well as relaxing her and creating an opportunity to check for signs of impending birth. So I use this time to check on the development of her udders and feel for any movement in her tummy. Although Saffies tummy looks equally rounded on both sides, only one side, the right holds the babies. The bulge on the left side is her rumen. 
Around 24 hours prior to kidding the does rump changes profile from its usual soft, rounded shape to a more triangular one as the ligaments relax and appear to drop away in anticipation of delivery.    As the contractions begin the nest building behaviour starts and signs of discomfort and agitation are apparent. Brushing can be really appreciated at this stage along with a few soothing words. 

Goats often make a sound in late pregnancy known as humming and in the absence of a reply from their unborn kids, well-handled goats can appreciate a response from their keeper in the form of a few gentle words of kindness or encouragement.   

Over feeding in the second half of pregnancy can lead to the development of kids that are too large to deliver. So Saffie remains on her usual ration until the kids are born.  

As labour advances the cervical plug dissolves and a sting of mucus appears as an indication that birth is imminent. The pressure on the cervix gradually causes it to dilate as the contractions increase in frequency and intensity. During this time does show signs of pain and agitation by pacing around the pen, pawing the ground, lying down briefly, straining and getting up again. 

This behaviour can start several hours before delivery, but once the sack of fluid appears then the babies are arriving. I like to allow my livestock the chance to have their babies in as calm and natural way as possible by keeping a watching brief from a comfortable distance and the comfort of a camping chair. Only stepping in the pen to assist the pregnancy if I feel they are struggling. 
Saffie has kidded once before as a first timer and successfully delivered twins so I am not anticipating any problems for her this time. I have kept her feed ration consistent to avoid overly large kids and have used the same billy for the same reason. I expect her to deliver twins this time too which makes the babies smaller and easier to deliver. Unless they both present at the same time!

Despite all my plans and preparations however, things can occasionally go wrong. So the phone number of my vet is programmed in to my mobile phone and clean towels and a kettle of hot water will be on standby in the shed. Hopefully the vet wont be required but the kettle will come in handy for the most essential kidding tool of all….the cup of tea.    

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Buffy the eggs layer - what's in a name?

I buried my oldest hen today. She was the first hen I ever owned and lived to the ripe old age of 10.

Her name was Buffy the eggs layer, though she was rarely given her full title. She was known mostly as Buffy or Buf-Buf, often Buffalo and sometimes Buffle coat.
Although her beautiful buff feathers had mellowed with age to a soft wheaten shade from the fiery ginger biscuit tone of her youth, the contrast of her deep red comb against her plumage was always striking. 

Buffy - you were always such a smart little hen.

She was a confident, intelligent and low maintenance little hen who knew her own mind.  A strong but gentle leader who maintained her status in the flock despite her advancing years with nothing more than a low pwork, a fixed gaze and very, very rarely, a measured but well timed peck.

Buffy - a strong but gentle leader

I loved her and deeply admired her. And I am grateful for all the years that I shared with her. She taught me so much and was the inspiration for me to write a book about chickens in the hope that others could learn from all that she had taught me.

Her name reflected the fact that she was a prolific egg layer. Never interested in being treaded by a cock and never going broody.   Calm, capable and dignified, she never squawked or screeched her objections when her preferred nest box was occupied, but simply selected another or quietly waited her turn to lay her egg.

She refused to perch at roosting time. Preferring instead to nestle in the straw of her favourite nest box which she secured by going to bed a good 40 mins earlier than anyone else.

Buffy - so excited at your first experience of straw, you never lost your love of it.

A robust little hen she never ailed for anything. When occasionally some of my other birds developed respiratory infections brought in by the visiting wild birds she never ever succumbed.

Buffy - My special little hen

Towards the end of her laying life as her tiny muscles grew weaker she developed egg peritonitis as a result of egg impaction. I loaded her into the car and we drove for hours on a sweltering hot day to get to the poultry specialist. The vet wasn’t hopeful as most hens fail to survive this condition, but Buffy wasn't ready to let go just then and neither was I. So although she never laid eggs again she bounced back within a day or two and continued to live an active and happy life until it was time for her to say farewell.
I loved her and I miss her, and all that she represents. A chapter in my life that we shared. A journey of innocence, adventure and discovery that leads to experience, knowledge and wisdom but that only ever takes us forward. In our excitement to learn and explore we open so many doors but fail to notice that they close behind us, barring our way back.

Goodbye Buffy you were such an exceptional hen.

Perhaps one day we may meet again my little feathered friend.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Life in Black and White

If there is one thing that sharing my home with with animals has taught me it's that life is far from Black and White. Nature has her own ideas and reserves the right to change direction at any time. This makes life feel like a bit of a roller coaster ride for me from time to time, as my much loved critters can lurch from deaths door to rude health and back again in a matter of hours or seem to undergo personality transplants at the drop of a hat.

Now I'm the kind of person that likes to get things sorted and know what I'm doing. In my mind it either is or it isn't with no grey areas. But when it comes to my animals life is never Black and White and just as I decide on a plan, my farm yard friends seem to turn it on its head!

It didn't take me long to realise that animals don't read books or listen to vets advice and as such, they rarely feel obliged to do what's expected of them despite my expectations. But it has taken me a while longer to realise that I don't have to conform to my expectations either.

Well as the saying goes - "If you can't beat 'em join 'em" and my animals approach to life does seem to be much more exciting than mine.  

So as my stray, feral farm cats (that were supposed to live out doors) became tame and trusting indoor pets.............,

and the notoriously broody Silverlaced Wyandotte decided to become a serious egg laying career girl.............,

and my "non rooting" pig decided to plough up all my pasture...........,

and the lamb that was initially declared dead by the vet.......had other ideas.  ( much to the delight of his mum!)

it would seem that their Black and White world is only skin deep.

So for all of you who find change and transformation a little unsettling and the unpredictability of life makes you anxious. Just remember that although life may not always be Black and White....,sometimes it's richer and all the more colourful because of it.    

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The School for Naughty Piglets

As a regular contributor on a number of livestock groups I often find myself reading posts from exasperated owners of pet pigs appealing for help with their piggies bad behaviour. Many of these naughty pigs are Kune Kune so I suppose it's no wonder that I occasionally get asked "Are Kune Kunes naughty pigs?"

How could anything this cute possibly be naughty?

The answer of course is no. Kunes are very docile, friendly pigs and in the most part are much less determined and destructive than many other breeds of pig. Kunes are however a popular choice of pet pig and their confident and intelligent nature means that they can learn bad habits as quickly and easily as they can learn good ones much to the delight or distress of their owner.

Kunes like all animals learn by association and just like dogs they will work out very quickly just what they need to do to get our attention and our foodie treats. Once they have discovered that sitting nicely, begging  or squealing hysterically results in you throwing a tasty morsel their way then they will, rather sensibly, keep doing it.

Who me?

Ideally the best approach is to reward good habits and discourage bad ones but this can be tricky if your piggies bad behaviour has been allowed to continue well into adulthood as old habits die hard. 

The most common bad habits that I come across when visiting other people's pigs are, nudging and nipping, shoe biting and my least favorite, using me as a scratch post. If you take the time to observe your pigs you will notice that these behaviours are not ones that the pigs subject each other to, so why should they do it to you?

The answer of course, because you let them! 

Young growing piglets are very receptive to training and respectful of those who are bigger and stronger than they are so this is the best time to teach them the lessons that you want them to remember for life. I teach my piglets a number of verbal commands one of which is the word "no". Now pigs don't speak English so for them "no" is not a word but a sound and I use this sound to deter them from anything that I don't want them to do.  

Sitting nicely always gets a reward of affection

When they are small they are cute and inquisitive and it can be easy to find things like watching them nibbling your shoes or unfastening your laces quite endearing but as they grow this behaviour could result in a fall or a painful foot injury for you so it's wise to nip it in the bud. In order for piglets (or pigs) to recognise the "no" sound as a deterrent I combine it with the physical sensation of gently but firmly squeezing the ridge on the top of their snout.

By bending my first finger into a hook shape and placing the flat of my thumb on top I make a soft pinch point which is more than sufficient to discourage a little Kune from unwanted behaviour. Before using this on your piggie pals however, try it out on yourself by pinching the soft pad of skin at the base of your thumb on the palm of your hand. By increasing the pressure you will get an idea of how much you need to squeeze to make your point. Your aim is not to harm your pig or inflict pain and suffering, just simply to squeeze with enough pressure to make your pig stop what he or she is doing. As soon as he stops, release the pressure and reward him with affection and kind words softly spoken.

Make sure to use your deterrent word or sound at the same time as your pressure pinch and your clever piggies will soon learn to respond to the word without the pressure on their snout. The other side to this type of training however is to initiate and reward the behaviour that you do want to encourage. So once your little piggie has dispensed with his shoe biting in response to the "no" command you can praise him, stroke his head, scratch his back or rub his tummy. This will teach him to see you as a source of comfort or affection but not something to be chewed or knocked over whenever he has an itch.  

A chin rub is a preferable alternative to shoe biting - well for me at least!

It may seem like tough love to teach your piglets this way but when they are big strong adults capable of biting through your boots and knocking you over in the mud you will be really glad that you took the time to train them when they were young and impressionable. 

Saturday, 24 October 2015

When Pixie Met the President

It was a big day for little Pixie when the President of the Ryeland flockbook society honored me and my flock with a special visit. This years President is Steve Hipps who is not only experienced in breeding and showing Pedigree Ryelands but is also a really keen to share his knowledge and enthusiasm with others. 

Steve kindly offered to give me a tutorial on how to card and trim a sheep for a show and little Pixie obliged us as a model.

Little Pixie - Meeting the President is a big deal for a little sheep
A previous and well deserved winner of "Wool on the Hoof" -Steve shows off his expert trimming skills
Once on the trimming stand little Pixie wasn't too keen on the carding process so we kept it short and sweet and moved on to the trimming.
Pixie soon got used to standing on the trimming stand but wasnt too keen on the carding

Steve learnt his skill from watching his wife Margaret who was highly respected in Ryeland showing circles so Pixie was in expert hands.

Due to her shakey start in life Pixie is a little too small to cause a stir in the show ring and my trimming skills are a far cry from Steves expert hand but I thought Pixie looked rather spended with her special show trim and I think she did too!

Kune Kune - The best tasting pork ever!

Ok...perhaps the title of this post should end in a question mark rather than an exclamation mark but hey, its my blog and they are my Kunes so let me tell you why I think they are the best.

If you don't know much about Kune kune pigs (pronounced Cooney Cooney) then it's no surprise as they are not only very rare but are not a native British breed.  Kunes are a small and extremely friendly little pig from New Zealand, though they are not native of New Zealand either. There are many theories as to how they got there and they may in fact be the result of the breeding of a number different pig breeds, but whatever their origins, they have evolved into the most delightful little pigs.  

Hamish- Ranging as pigs were meant to do - as happy as a pig in clover

Having formed a staple part of the indigenous peoples diet, the Kune pig eventually fell out of favour with the Maoris and by the 1970’s they were on the brink of extinction. It was then that two wildlife park owners, Michael Willis and John Simster bought every Kune Kune they could find for sale and began to revive the breed from a breeding stock of only 18 pigs. By 1992 though the Kune Kunes had worked their little piggy charm on Zoe Lindop and Andrew Calvely who were responsible for bringing the first specially bred genetically varied herd to Britain.

Kune Kunes come in a wide range of colours  

So what makes Kune Kunes so great...? 

Well for me the secret to great tasting meat lies in a number of factors and perhaps the most important one is that it comes from an breed that matures naturally over a period of time rather than over a few short weeks. The Kune is far from fast maturing but the result is clearly evident here in the taste, texture and look of the meat.

Beautiful leg of kune kune pork 

Another very important factor is feed. The rapid growth of commercial pigs is fueled by high protein concentrates but Kunes are great grazers and rummagers who mature on a diet of grass, fruit, fresh veg and acorns as well as a small amount of low protein feed and hay in winter. This free range diet results in a wonderful flavor in the meat and reminds many people of "how pork used to taste"

Angus - enjoying finding acorns in the Autumn sun


An often misunderstood factor is the percentage of fat on a piece of pork. Pigs fall into two types: Meat (or Bacon pigs) and Lard pigs. Meat pigs were developed to have more lean meat with moderate marbling of fat but bacon from these modern pigs can often be injected with liquid to avoid the inevitable drying out as a result of the lack of fat. However, in the days before commercial farming when lard was highly desired for everything from making soap to baking, preserving wood and leather or lubricating machinery, the  lard pigs were greatly praised. Lard pigs still have lots of good meat to offer and when raised in a natural way (which is not in an intensive pig farm) the meat and fat from these breeds can be healthy and utterly delicious. So Kune pigs that are kept this way produce meat and lard that are full of flavor and nutrition as well as being succulent.

Meat with fat is meat with flavour 

Lastly, for me a key element the production of my high quality meat is a natural, stress free environment. My Kunes range in woodland and pasture enjoying stimulation, variety and an opportunity to exhibit all their natural behaviors. They are all handled daily and  happily come when called or follow a bucket when moved around the farm. They are not subjected to sticks or electric prods and do not have their teeth cut or their tales docked as commercial pigs do. 
The sows give birth in straw lined sheds not farrowing crates designed to prevent them turning round. The piglets are left with their mum to wean naturally at 8 weeks and not taken away abruptly at 4 weeks as in commercial systems. This means that the sows are relaxed and contented which results in higher survival rates for the piglets.

Kune Kune sows make great mums

Because Kunes are such a people friendly breed who love to have a back scratch or a tummy rub, they are able to take life in their stride and even a short journey to the abattoir is a quiet, laid back affair of snoozing in a trailer full of straw for my pigs. As livestock go, pigs seem to suffer more from stress than cattle and sheep and this can be an issue for commercial pigs and can result in the pale colour, soft texture and extruding moisture content of the meat. 

Kune Kunes- Always in the mood for a tummy rub

So there are faster growing breeds, leaner breeds, larger breeds and native rare breeds.
But I defy anyone to find a breed that is tastier or more adorable! 

Kune Kune - being this cute can be exhausting!

With thanks to Rea Jones, Alison Stephen and the Kune Kune Pigs UK Facebook group.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Speak like a sheep

Among those who keep sheep there appears to be two schools of thought. One is that sheep are stupid animals who are committed to finding ways to die. The other is that sheep are smart and keen to ensure their own survival. Well they can't both be right can they? 
It's true that the more highly strung breeds of sheep can be given to such extreme acts of panic that they seem almost self destructive or that in an attempt to find food just about any sheep can get themselves into all sorts of trouble. So I suppose the end result of that blind terror or strong survival instinct can be seen as an act of ovine stupidity.Though it is equally true though that with calm, consistent handling, routine, repetition and reward, sheep can can clearly demonstrate their intelligence and willingness to cooperate and communicate with each other and with us.

Nelly demonstrates how far she is prepared to
stretch herself in order to reach a tasty morsel

Sheep live in family groups and as their shepherd we become part of that family. They use smell and sight to recognise us and each other also respond to our pattern of speaking and tone of voice. A lamb learns to recognise its mothers bleat as different from all the other ewes in the field and can also learn to recognise it's shepherds voice as a source of food and comfort. 
A chin scratch for little Bruno

Despite having a very thick fleece, sheep are very sensitive to touch and even when squashed up with other sheep and with their head buried in a trough, they can still tell the difference between the contact from another sheep or the touch of their shepherds hand. Once a sheep or lamb has become familiar with the experience of being stroked or scratched by their shepherd, then most sheep find it a pleasurable experience which they will solicit at any opportunity.

Just how comfortable sheep are with all this human contact however does depend very much on the breed and also on individual sheep. This is in part because sheep also learn by watching each other and if a lambs mum is confident and happy to have a cuddle from her shepherd then the lambs will be too. Nervous sheep, create nervous sheep and one skittish ewe can communicate a sense of danger to a whole flock of otherwise calm sheep.  

Elvis prepares for a head butt

Sheep use body language to communicate with each other, standing tall and pulling ears back to threaten a charge, lowering the head and side swiping to assert them selves and mounting to dominate others and get their share at the feed trough as well as kicking or scraping with the front leg to stimulate feeding or petting. Although the non verbal communication between sheep is limited they are capable of learning lots of signs and signals from their keeper. I use clapping, leg patting, waving, crouching, kneeling, running (away from ) and pointing to communicate a range of messages to my sheep along with a small number of verbal commands.

The secret however to all successful communication is to seek first to understand and then be understood. So taking the time to interpret what your sheep are thinking and feeling and how they communicate this through their bodies and expressions is very important. This enables two way communication as you are able to read your sheep and respond accordingly. Successful handling also comes from knowing what your sheep are likely to do in any given situation and planning ahead for that.
Nose to nose with Tiger-lilly- Trust is hard to earn but can be easily lost

 Sheep will always opt to move towards well lit places rather than dark ones and will prefer to go uphill when herded rather than down hill. If the route that you want them to take is cluttered, partially obscured, has dark areas or moving shadows this is likely to make them bolt the other way. Creating a clear route or race for your sheep with a food treat at the end of it will work like a charm. 

Inciting them is always more effective than chasing them but make sure that you always reward them as they have very good memories and wont fall for the same trick twice if the experience is a bad one. So if you encourage them from one place to another by shaking a bucket. Make sure that they receive the contents of the bucket when the get to their destination. 
Poor Lucy looks for the reward in her bucket only to find that is is full of lambies!

Lastly, no matter how fed up and frustrated they make you, don't take it out on them. Sheep like all animals live in the moment. They don't brood over things, bare grudges, have bad moods, act spitefully or take revenge. So they don't understand it when we do. Admittedly they can test the patience of a saint at times particularly when we are not in the mood for their "unhelpful" behavior. But treating them with anger, punishment or cruelty will never achieve the desired effect and will destroy the trust necessary for their cooperation.. Kindness, patience, reward and understanding always wins the day. Oh and 4 strong hurdles and a bucket of feed come in handy too!

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