Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A Cock that dosen't crow....?

I recently sold a cock bird to a lady who returned him within the hour, as his crowing (from within a dog crate in the conservatory) was attracting the attention of the next door neighbours who she suspected would object to the noise.
Now this wouldn’t be the first time that someone has found they are unable to keep a cockerel as a result of the noise, nor is it the first time that someone has asked me if there is a type of cock that doesn’t crow.  The answer unfortunately is always “No, but there should be”. After all, hundreds of years of selective breeding have gone in to the development of poultry for almost every other feature other than their vocal chords. We have birds bred for leg length, egg colour, feather pattern, size, temperament, productivity, broodiness, palatability and growth rate so why not crowlessness?

Like me, those who develop and champion a specific breed are always keen to promote it to new keepers and what better way to ensure the success of your chosen breed that to make it accessible to back yard keepers in the most built up areas by being able to boast that your breed doesn’t crow! Someone may attempt this I suppose, but in the mean time and to help those who need a quick fix solution to a crowing cock ( that doesn’t involve dispatching it that is ) here are my top tips!
Cocks and cockerels crow to announce territory just like song birds and like songbirds a cock will be prompted to “sing” for the same reasons such as to announce the break of day, in response to other cocks, to establish his dominance over other birds in the flock, during the breeding season and if he is a dominant character.

You won’t stop a cock from crowing but if you want a cock to crow less, ( or your neighbours to complain less) you could try keeping the coop very dark and only letting the birds out into the light at a civilised hour to reduce the chances of a dawn chorus. Or line the coop with sound proofing boards to limit the sound of early morning noise. Don’t keep more than one cock as this can lead to crowing contests. Use the sound absorbing effects of trees and shrubs to reduce the chances of your cock hearing the crow of another cock carried on the wind. Use of trees, shrubs and buildings can also serve to absorb the sound of your cock’s crow. Choosing a more placid and gentle breed often results in males that crow less often. Site the birds as far away from your neighbour’s property as possible and try and limit the birds access to places where they can perch up high as crowing from these vantage points allows the sound to travel further.

And lastly, if your cocks crowing really is a problem for you or your neighbours, try and find him a good home by all means but be prepared to accept that humane dispatch may be the only responsible solution.


Sunday, 17 November 2013

Blossoms Broody Blog

Buffy the eggs layer dozing in the coop
 As the weather forecasters are predicting snow here midweek and my hens have all recovered from the moult and are taking a well earned rest from laying, you would think that hatching chicks is far from any body's mind. After all, the cocks are more interested in stocking up on their energy reserves for the winter than courting the hens and the hens who spend most of their days dozing in the coops or roosting in the fir trees seem quite happy with this arrangement.
Except Blossom that is. Blossom's mind is on chicks, Blossom is broody. She has been broody for what seems like such a very long time and despite my attempts to reason with her she is determined to see it through. She has one lonely little egg which she assures me is about to hatch any day now ( probably on Wednesday when the snow is forecast!)
Blossom has chicks on her mind.

But she can always be interested in a snack!

Blossom is such a sweet little hen who usually accompanies me about the place so I miss her company and marvel at her determination and will power. I visit her every day to take her a little corn and to chat about the progress of her little egg and express my concern about her deteriorating condition.

When I do this I am reminded of this beautiful piece of prose by Val Bradley. A friend and fellow chicken lover sent me it some years ago and I loved the way that Val had captured the patience and self sacrificing endurance of the broody hen . I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do.

“With every passing day the eggs grow more precious, more insistent. They call to her from the moulded nest, growing already in her mind. She spends longer with them, adjusting the eggs,
the smooth ivory curves of them. She moves them a little bit here, a little bit there.
Anxiously she eats and eats with an inner, urgent knowledge of the long, long wait, and rushes to the cockerels dinner calls with frantic, driven, careless haste.
She settles her billowy feathers over the white bowls of life and her small hen mind closes down, to the timeless contemplation of the brood. Days slow to nothing but rhythm, the calcium melts from the shells, reforming like coral into delicate bones of chick. DNA knits away, microscopic fingers weaving ribbons of chick.
 Eyes half closed, in the slow half beat of her heart, she shuffles the eggs, cooling and warming, feeling the tiny pulses beating in the echoing shells. So much chemistry in  that little hay filled box. She dwindles. When hunger and thirst cannot be ignored she scrambles to the corn strewn yard, a furious, frantic, pecking machine.
She calls constantly to the open nest, vulnerable as a wound in the soft spring sunshine. Then she is back, with little comforting, crooning calls to the expectant eggs. She hardens her mind against the protests of her body. Her labour of abstinence.
The origami folded chicks scrape the stony shells. She sings against her thirst and minute cheeps call back.
Then sodden feathered, bulging eyed, the mini dinosaurs break free, flopping from their blood streaked cups. She lifts away the sad remains of the confining, guardian shells. Four eggs are silent, the shells too hard, the chicks too weak, the little puff of air, harboured in the drying shell, has gone; gentle suffocation melts them away.
She rises stiffly. From beneath her draping feathers, towelled to fluffy perfection, four tiny heads peep out.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Last of the Summer Whine

Well it’s been a long and all together lovely summer here which I am sad to see the end of. Eventful as ever, the highlights have included the arrival of a curious but cute little bull calf named Cuthbert ( who was the size of a spaniel but with the body of an ox!), Naughty Nellie eventually succumbing to the ram, Teddy the ram lamb finding a lovely new home and a visit from Mozart the borrowed Bull.
Yes that mole hill does come up to his knees!

The weather has been great and the rain has always arrived just when I have needed it. The lambs and calves have all grown well on the grass and so I really shouldn’t complain...but of course I will.

I’m not complaining about the summer though, I’m complaining about the fact that it’s finally over. 
Mozart spent his bulling holiday snoozing and bellowing to have his hair brushed
 I usually look forward to the autumn, the cooler nights and misty mornings, mellow fruits, glorious sunsets and golden leaves. After the long, hot, busy  summer days I tend to enjoy the cool rains, cosy fires and the welcoming glow of lamp light in the window as I finish my chores and head indoors for an evening of reading and relaxing.

Teddy finds a new home and a flock of his own
But somehow the autumnal promise of life at a slower pace just doesn’t have the same appeal this year and I find myself lamenting the end of the summer.  I’m not sure why I’m so sad to see it go this year as along with the halcyon days it has also been a summer of red mite in one of the chicken coops, fly strike in the lambs, a mole invasion in the cow field and periods of parched grass and wilting flowers in the garden.

Perhaps my sense of not wanting to let it go arises because it’s also been a real summer to remember, a summer of firsts.  Our first cows, my first book, registering my first lambs and my first art exhibition and sale to name but a few. It’s has been tough at times too but the extremes only serve to heighten the senses and the memories seem all the more vivid because of it.  

But go it must as autumn advances and brings with it the opportunity to reflect and plan for the new year ahead. So I will just have to console myself with the warm crackle of the fire, the soft glow of the standard lamp and the purr of the cat on my lap as I raise a glass of the old peapod Burgundy to the summer of 2013. Cheers!

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Wrestling with Ragwort

I spent this afternoon wrestling with my conscience while pulling up the Ragwort plants which had escaped our recent weed spraying in the big field. This is an ongoing and essential task for me as Ragwort contains a number of alkaloids which make it highly poisonous to animals and earning it a very bad reputation, particularly among those who keep horses and cattle. Having said that though, the proven instances of Ragwort poisoning are actually very rare, as fresh ragwort has a bitter taste which tends to deter most animals from eating it. But it does become much more palatable when it’s dried and can therefore be very dangerous if mixed into hay bales or left where naughty sheep like mine can find it!

Pulling up when the plants in full flower
 is the best way to remove the roots
Despite its designation as one of the five plants named as an injurious weed under the provisions of the weeds Act 1959, and the fact that as a land occupier this act requires me to prevent the spread of the plant as part of the Ragwort Control Act 2003, I think Ragwort gets a much worse press than it deserves. So despite its lethal qualities and its unpopularity with many smallholders, I’m going to tell the other side of the Ragwort story.

Ragwort is a tall and elegant plant with wonderfully golden clusters of daisy like flower heads on straight, ribbed stems and surrounded by dark green frilly edged leaves. I manage it on my land for the sake of my animals (and my equestrian neighbours), but I love to see it growing abundantly and freely where it can do little harm.

A haven for bees
After all, it wasn’t always seen as the scourge it is today, and from medieval times to the mid 20th century, Ragwort was used as a cure for inflammations of the eye, cancerous ulcers, rheumatism, sciatica, gout and painful joints. The ancient Greeks and Romans also used it to make an aphrodisiac called satyrion but please don’t try this at home! The last figure of Satyr that I saw looked as though he would have terrible trouble playing the piano! The Ragwort leaves were also once used to make green dye and the flowers used to create the colours yellow, brown and orange. So this is a plant once famous for far more than its poison.

You see in my opinion, nothing’s ever all bad, and even though Ragwort is no longer used to keep us bright eyed and bushy tailed, the plant still has a very important use. The alkaloids that make Ragwort poisonous to humans and animals are also what make it an ideal source of food for the caterpillars of the rapidly declining Cinnabar moth.  By absorbing the plant’s alkaloids, these little caterpillars become distasteful to predators, a feature that they advertise by their black and yellow warning stripes. The red and black, day-flying adult moth is also distasteful to many potential predators as a result of snacking on this much maligned weed.

cinnabar caterpillar
In fact Ragwort provides a home and a food source to at least 77 insect species in the UK and 30 of these species use Ragwort exclusively as their food source. 10 of these 30 are rare or threatened insect species, including the Picture Winged Fly, the scarce Clouded Knot Horn micro moth, and the Sussex Emerald micro moth. Ragwort also provides a significant part of the diet of a further 22 species of moth, along with 117 species of solitary bees, hoverflies, moths, and butterflies etc who use it as a nectar source.

So, for me Ragwort is not just beautiful and deadly, it’s also a very important part of the natural environment and ecosystem. The next time you pull it, cut it, spray it or burn it, perhaps you will wrestle with your conscience too. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

No Nellie, no!

I didn't wee in the mineral lick...honest!

It’s been a little while since I last updated the Nellie fans amongst you on her recent antics. I know that some of you were keen to read another instalment, so here you go. Well, she was sheared along with the others in early May, which was a new experience for both her and the shearer.  Watching her lurch about as he wrestled to contain her was like watching Rod Hull and emu, but without the safari jacket and false arm.
Being fleece free has sadly only resulted in a more energised (is it possible?) and aerodynamic Nellie who can nip through a slightly open gate like a greased piglet, slip under fence rails with the ease of a double jointed limbo dancer and wriggle into the lamb’s creep feeder like a hungry ferret up a thong wearer’s trouser leg!
Sadly she has now been banished from the lamb’s field for excavating rabbit holes, teaching the lambs bad habits (like how to excavate rabbit holes) and repeatedly filling up her naughty, fleeceless little frame with the lamb’s rations.
After a leaping lesson from Nellie
As you will see from this picture of Tiger Lily, my ewe lamb, after a leaping lesson from Nellie, keeping her on the ground is proving increasingly difficult.
...THIS expression!
So Nellie was moved to the orchard, along with Alice and Charlotte. Despite my best attempts to protect my trees with netting around their trunks, she has taught the others how to balance on their back legs and eat the leaves. That is only when she isn’t head butting Charlotte, harassing the hens, and weeing in the mineral lick!
Any attempt to curtail her wilful ways or dissuade her from destroying the farm is met with this expression and a flash of her tail as she bounces off into the distance. Am I the only person with such naughty sheep?

Monday, 24 June 2013


As a smallholder I conceder myself to have a pretty unsqueamish nature when it comes to farm yard manure. I’m far from faint hearted in the face of faeces and don’t get deterred by detritus. In fact, I am one of the few sheep owners who can still enjoy a bag of chocolate covered raisins without the slightest feeling of unease. But yesterday however, I met my match!
When it comes to poo, I prefer the nice healthy normal stuff like the black and shiny or the fresh smelling and firm. I’m also unphased by the fibrous and flaky or the slightly sloppy and starting to set. But the stinky, soup-like dollops of revolting nastiness which greeted me this morning had me on the ropes.
The recent heavy rains, fresh grass, broody hens and visiting ducks have all conspired to result in wretched pools of grey/green smelly sludge just about everywhere I looked. I chuntered to myself as I scraped it all together for the muck heap and hosed off the sloppy stuff - then decided to take a breath of fresh air in the garden.
It was a beautiful day and the vivid pinks and purples of the rhododendrons stood out against the yellows and greens of the new leaves on the shrubs and hedges. The striking red of the ornamental poppies and crisp white of the lilac trees in the border contrasted nicely with the dark leaves of the copper beach and glossy green and cream of the variegated ivy in the distance. Everything looked so cool, fresh and inviting and it made me smile to think that all this colour, scent and beauty is in many ways thanks to the muck heap.
So here’s to the humble but essential FYM. Be it firm or flaky, fresh or fetid, solid or slimy, or dry and disintegrating. It puts food on our tables and flowers in our gardens, posies in our vases and grass in our meadows. It may be occasionally unpleasant but it’s always essential.
Now...where did I put those chocolate raisins?

Monday, 17 June 2013

Sunshine after the rain

What’s the weather like with you? It’s been pretty wet here off and on, and sunny in between. As a result the grass has been shooting up and the pasture’s like a jungle. In fact it is now so long that we have had to call for a bit of back up in the shape of a few cows to eat it down.
As the rain clouds finally cleared yesterday and the evening sun came out, my friend arrived with a couple of her Dexters, Buttercup and Sunshine, and their calves.  Buttercup has stayed with us before and soon recognised the place and settled in. Sunshine and the calves, Earnest and Algernon, took a little longer.
Lilly took great exception to the unannounced arrival of the cows in her field and marched Lucy and the lambies to the gate where they set up a protest. The lambies held a sit in (though I suspect this was in fact because they couldn’t be bothered to  stand up). Lilly did the next best thing to chaining herself to the railings by forcing her head through a gap in the gate and yelling, while Lucy paced up and down and joined in the synchronised bleating.  
They kept this up until I eventually gave in and opened the gate, whereupon they all ran out of the field and into another one nearby where they chose to spend the night. 
This morning however, the rain had passed, the sun was shining and everyone seemed to have settled down. The ewes were bleating to be let back in to their field, the cows had made themselves at home, and peace was restored again. All is quiet and calm. Until our own cows arrive in a couple weeks that is...!
Lilly and Elvis are distinctly underwhelmed!

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

A Diamond Dove for the day!

I realise that the life I lead is a little less than mainstream, that my animals are rather eccentric and that I myself could be described as somewhat unorthodox. So when a friend of mine asked if I could bird sit her diamond dove, Piff, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
After all, I had met Piff at his home on a number of occasions and he had popped round to my house once (not on his own you understand) and preened himself at the kitchen table. However, despite looking after my own animals, taking care of other people’s pets can suddenly feel like a huge responsibility and by the time he arrived I was doubtful that he would survive the day.
I needn’t have worried though, as Piff is an experienced traveller who loves meeting new people and animals. He put me at my easy straight away as we discovered a mutual interest in vintage radio comedy. He sat on his cage preening and cooed happily in response to the sound track of a parrot in an episode of Dad’s Army. 
After a light lunch of mustard cress and linseed (that was Piff’s lunch, not mine) he spent a little time with my other half in the workshop, before winding up his day wandering along the living room window sill surveying the garden and chatting to himself.
By the time his owner, Cathi, came to collect him later that evening, we were all quite settled and even the cats were sad to see him go (though they may have had their own reasons for this). Despite being only a small bird, Piff has a big personality and the place seemed quite empty when he had gone.  I do hope he visits again soon.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Ewes’ new do’s

It’s a tough life for us ladies living on a smallholding, and the hard work and inclement weather can play havoc with a girl’s looks. I gave up glamour a long time ago, along with all hope of having the frugal, flushed and feminine look of Felicity Kendal, but my ladies still take a pride in their appearance. So, last weekend I called upon the services of the mobile hairdresser, aka Philip The Singing Shearer, to give them a brand new hair do.
The Singing Shearer
In no time at all Philip had the ladies trimmed and tidy and, although they did end up all having exactly the same hair style, being sheep they didn’t seem to mind. When Phil and his family had gone on their way to another Ryeland breeder in the next village, I gave the girls a pedicure and few squirts of Crovect to keep the flies at bay.
They seemed very pleased to be free from their thick, heavy coats and all pranced off to enjoy the sunshine while I cleaned up after them. It took the lambies a little while to adjust to their mums’ new appearance after their makeover, but they were soon suckling and wagging their tails with delight. 
Why is Mum naked?!!!

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Chig-lees!

Those of you who enjoyed watching my early hatch of Blue chicks brooding in the kitchen might be interested to see how they have grown. They are fully feathered now and the little dark blue rooster has started to crow.
They are really friendly and sociable, as you might expect. This is, in part, due to their time indoors and also that two of them are Blossom’s chicks. Blossom, as you know, likes to get in on the action and her little son is a chip off the old block. Fortunately he lacks the confidence to be as cheeky as Blossom, but he does follow me around the place chattering and looking up at me hopefully with his head on one side. 
They still don’t have names yet but answer to the call of Chig-lees! Without fail!
They get on well with everyone - especially the cats. Polly and Toby spent so much time staring at them through the brooding box that they were in danger of the chicks thinking the cats were mum!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

In the shake of a lamb’s tail

"Will you stop trying to take pictures of our bottoms!"

Today’s exciting, if slightly gruesome lamb milestone was them losing their tails. I placed rubber rings around their tails when they were born to cut off the circulation and cause the lower part of the tail to drop off. Now, 3 weeks on, my little lambies are looking all grown up.
Some Highland breeds are left with tails intact to afford them some protection against harsh conditions, but lowland breeds like mine, who need less protection and suffer more from insects, have them removed to prevent flystrike.
I think their little bottoms look great with their tidy little tails, but I do miss the enthusiastic tail waggling which accompanied their meal times.
What do you think?
"Has anyone seen my tail?"
"Can you feel a draft?"
"I keep feeling like I've left something behind!"
"I was relying on my tail to take
attention away from my ears!"
"Oh no! My tail's gone too!"

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Dabbling with Ducks

At around this time every year, a pair of wild duck come to stay and brood their ducklings.

We have got used to their annual visit and provide them with a trough of water for washing and snoozing in and a supply of chicken feed. The chickens and the cats are all quite happy about this, but Joseph, the large fowl cockerel, is struggling to get used to them. He announces their arrival with his pterodactyl like call to warn everyone of ‘an aerial attack’! Unfortunately for Joseph, no one pays any attention to him and the ducks touch down and go about their business.

The female lays her eggs in the garden between the plants, and covers them carefully with moss and twigs whenever she leaves them to find food and preen.

She sets about a dozen eggs as a rule, and once they hatch she walks all the ducklings the quarter of a mile back to the lake that will be their home.

The little ducklings are so beautiful and even the chickens have to stop and stare at the cuddly, web footed caterpillar formation of ducks waddling across the orchard!

Impressive, huh?

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