Sunday, 9 November 2014

Little Blossoms Massive Moult

Every now and then I receive a frantic call from an anxious new poultry customer to tell me that something terrible has happened to one of their hens which has resulted in “all their feathers falling out!” I of course inform them calmly and confidently that their hen is merely moulting and no matter how alarming this sight may be for them, this is simply a normal part of a hens yearly feather regrowth cycle.
I explain that this process is uncomfortable for the hen and that it places high nutritional demands on her in terms of protein levels. So although a little extra high protein ration won’t go amiss along with protection from severe weather, the hen will feather up in no time without requiring any special treatments.

Blossom demonstrates the mother of all moults

Having kept hens for a number of years it’s easy to get a little complacent with your poultry and your customers, as experience can trick you into thinking that you have seen it all before. So occasionally nature takes things to the extreme and teaches me that there is always the exception to the rule and a little more to learn.

I have seen some pretty severe moults over the years in both my own birds and particularly in rescued ex battery hens but Blossoms moult this year has really blown me away. November is a little late in the year for my girls to moult but it does occasionally happen and the moults can be quite heavy but never as late and as heavy as this one!

Poor Blossom has lost so many feathers that she has had to be brought indoors to keep warm and recover. Every time she moves a shower of feathers fall from her bald little body and settle on the floor around her. As result she is in rather a terrible state and has no way of keeping warm without her plumage. So I put her in a guinea pig cage with a  nest made of sheep fleece and a dish of tasty, high energy snacks.
Blossoms fleece and feather bed is looking a bit the worse for wear
Although Blossom usually takes every available opportunity to dart into the kitchen and eat the cats meat, she is clearly not enjoying her indoor confinement and is very gloomy.

 Her appetite is poor and the sensation of all these feathers forcing their way through her skin is clearly making her feel uncomfortable. Despite my attempts to entice her eat with the offer of all manner of exciting treats she is struggling to enthuse about any of them. 

Poppy was more interested in eating Blossoms porridge
 than cheering her up

So today I decided to invite a couple of her friends in to cheer her up in the form of Buffy and Poppy. Buffy had a bout of egg peritonitis a couple of months ago and also lost a large amount of feather. Having made a full recovery she seemed like an excellent choice of visitor to inspire Blossom in her convalescence

 Poppy does not have the same experience to draw from as Buffy but is the kind of visitor who sits quietly by your bed side, oozing sympathy while eating all your grapes. So I was hoping that a visit from Poppy might spark Blossoms apatite and competitive 

Sadly the visit from Blossoms feathered friends did little to cheer her. So I waited until the  the sun had melted the morning frosts and took Blossom out for a walk in the garden.

The sun was warm and the wind was still and although Blossoms scant plumage was a cause of great interest to the other hens she was clearly bald but proud and glad to be out and about.

We headed towards the greenhouse and as I slid open the door Blossom slipped quickly inside. With a flightless hop she took up a sunny position on the staging and set about trying to release her tiny new feathers from their sheath of waxy dander. At tea time she ventured out to join the others for afternoon corn but a brief spell of scratching around in the shade soon sent her purposefully trotting back to the warmth of the green house.

Blossom enjoys her afternoon in the sun
As the sun began to set I gently carried her back inside to her makeshift coop and she eagerly set about filling up on corn and pellets before settling down contentedly on her sheep fleece nest. I have a feeling that she might just become a little too accustomed to all this TLC......Well...wouldn't you? 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The North Wind Doth Blow

As a gardener, shepherd and owner of a rather impractical open topped car I often find myself a little preoccupied by the weather. Like most true Brits, chuntering about the negative effects of whatever weather we happen to be currently experiencing, lamenting about the weather conditions that I feel we have been denied or issuing an optimistic request to the heavens for the weather that I hope may eventually arrive, forms the basis of much of my conversations with the postman, the local shop keepers, my farming neighbours or strangers that I feel obliged to make small talk with. 

My sandy pasture loves the rain but my sheep prefer it dry and cold. Sunshine and a light breeze is the weather of choice for me and my impractical little car.

As a child I spent much of my time with my retired Godfather who shared with me his passion for gardening and vegetable growing along with his love of nature and knowledge of a number of occasionally unfathomable but always reliable old weather sayings. He also shared his knack of predicting the weather with an uncanny degree of accuracy.

Coming as he did from an old farming family he recognised many of the ancient feast days and Pagan saints days which formed an important part of the traditional farming calendar and played an essential role in marking the key climatic patterns that influence our weather for the coming months. 

An early Autumn sign of a harsh winter to come?
The robin takes up residence in your garden
adjacent to the back door

Over the years, so many of these dates have disappeared from modern calendars along with the sayings that went with them and as a result the ability to predict the long term weather without technology has been lost to all but a few. Though it’s probably fair to say that with the exception of farming folk like me and the occasional anxious bride, very few people really care about the weather to come in the seasons ahead.

 The majority of the population are probably only harboring a passing interest in the weather prediction for the next 24 hours and are therefore content to ignore natures signals in favor of watching a well groomed though possibly under dressed breakfast TV presenter gesticulating anxiously from an ice gripped Blue Peter garden and wittering on about the combined weather effects resulting from a ridge of low pressure, unruly isobars and an the activities of the jet stream on our little green isle. All of which is usually summarised by the symbol of a sun, obscured by a rain cloud and accompanied by a snowflake. This type of "cover all bases" forecast tends to result in most of us leaving the house armed with sunscreen, a showerproof jacket, windsceen de-icer and a snow shovel.
Octobers omen of the cold winter ahead?
Dead-nettles proliferate the hedgerows

Well I like to know what’s round the corner when it comes to the weather and sadly the Met office stop short of making long term predictions or short term commitments. In fact even the 10 day forecast is amended daily which makes it less of a prediction and more of a running commentary. So I was delighted when I stumbled upon a rather fascinating gentleman called Dave King and his charming Weather without technology website. 

Although Dave is fully conversant with modern computer modelling technology. He restricts himself to using only the tools that previous generations would have trusted and relied upon for their life and livelihood. 

 By combining a selection of proven established data such as Met Office quiet and stormy periods, Buchanan cold and warm periods, Quarter days, Saints and Holy days plus moon phases and tides Dave establishes a reliable weather pattern for the months ahead. He also uses the information that nature provides which includes the seasonal arrivals and departure dates of birds, the flowering times of blossoms, the flowering times of certain wild plants as well as the behaviors and populations of insects and wild animals to tell him what nature has in store for us.

The sheep of things to come? The ewes have already developed thick woolly coats
 to withstand the winter weather. 

So inspired by his methods and keen to establish the best months for my sheep to lamb, I decided to use my own “weather sense” and with a bit of help from Dave in the form of a month by month winter weather prediction and wonderfully detailed rational, I have decided to lamb at the beginning of March 2015. I am anticipating a dry, cold window between the last moon in February and the first one in March so the rams have been put in and tupping has begun! 

I will keep you posted on my progress and if the prediction proves to be correct but if you would like to find out more about how to predict the weather the old fashioned way then visit for more fascinating information or tune into Dave’s monthly broadcasts on Radio York. 

Friday, 15 August 2014

Poppy the Perpetual Broody

Nothing gives me more pleasure than to see my animals looking happy, healthy and exhibiting their natural behaviours. But sometimes, allowing them to do what comes naturally can have an adverse effect on their well being.

During the warmer months, when a hens natural behaviour often includes a burning desire to incubate eggs, few things cause the caring poultry keeper more frustration and concern than the persistent broody hen. 

Fortunately for me, only a few of my hens are what you might call the maternal type and those that are tend to just to take themselves off to a quiet corner of the coop and are up and about along with a brood of fluffy little chicks in less than 3 weeks. 
But then there’s Poppy….., 

Poppy - my determined little hen!

 Poppy is a bright eyed, friendly and easy going little hen who has spent most of her summer stuck in the coop in attempt to hatch a little family of her own. 

Unfortunately an appetite for dust bathing and what could be described as a somewhat “relaxed” approach to the responsibilities of incubation combined with an unerring tendency to sit on clutches of infertile eggs have scuppered all her chick rearing plans. Determined in the face of disappointment however she has brooded on relentlessly over the past 12 weeks much to my distress. 

At the end of each incubation period I have had to dispose of a dwindling clutch of sloshy, spoilt eggs and try to persuade her to take a break from brooding for the sake of her own well being. But her determination is equaled only by her hormonal urges and what she lacks in incubation skills, she more than makes up for in her calm but enthusiastic chick raising abilities. So as I’m such a sucker for that appealing little pwoork and the twinkle in those big brown eyes, my acts of persuasion stop short of any attempts to “cool her off”. 

Each time a clutch fails she quickly manages to acquire another batch of eggs from one of the more “career minded” hens and starts the process all over again. Despite being a gentle, placid little hen she’s clearly made of tougher stuff than I am. So as I could bear her cycle of stoic confinement and disappointment no longer, I reluctantly left her in the stuffy, half light of the eggless nest box and headed off to set a small clutch of eggs in the incubator.

 After candling the eggs every few days to avoid further disappointment I finally removed the only developing egg a few days before it was due to hatch and presented it to her on the palm of my hand. 
She stared at it for a short while, wide eyed and curious, before cooing contentedly and drawing it gently beneath her with the underside of her beak.

 I must confess that I wasn't entirely convinced that it would continue to develop if left to Poppy’s liberal approach. Especially as she was spotted dust bathing less than an hour after taking custody of her precious charge. But having been broody for almost 3 months, I reckon that she deserves a bit of pamper time now and then. 
Poppys passion for dust bathing makes incubating eggs a little tricky

 Over the years as a poultry keeper I have stopped marking the hatching day on the calendar and rely instead on a sixth sense when it comes to preparing for new arrivals. So when I went to check on her and to ask if her chick had finally hatched, a triumphant chirp and change of posture told me that it had and that she was clearly delighted! 

Poppy's tiny chick!
It’s hard to say how long she would have continued surviving on her broody ration of one meal a day or if her body's needs would finally have become greater than her hormonal urges. But her pale comb and wasted frame was clearly far more of a concern for me than it was for her. 

Slow down mum I'm sleepy

As a result I am delighted that she finally has a tiny chick of her own and that her admirable patience and perseverance has finally paid off. 

Meeting Daddy and finding bugs...a big day for a tiny chick

Never a hen to make a great fuss Poppy chatters encouragingly to her new arrival, parading it proudly and enthusiastically teaching it all that she knows. 

Poppy's tiny chick

After all our joint efforts, it’s a truly wonderful sight to see a mother hen and her chick looking happy, healthy and doing what comes it turns out to be a cockerel!

Monday, 21 July 2014

Silence of the rams

There is an old saying amongst sheep breeders that “a ram is half the flock”. That’s saying refers to the genetic value of the ram rather than the ratio of course. But nevertheless I often find that despite the important role that rams play in sheep production, many rams spend 10 months of the year out of sight and out of mind.

I suppose it’s easy to see why the boys can easily be left in a far flung field and forgotten. After all, so much of the shepherding year is focused on the ewes and lambs.  At any given time of year a shepherd will be flushing, feeding, weighing, lambing or weaning off the ewes. In fact even at tupping time the focus is often more about which ewes bottom has been marked with the raddle crayon than the rams own achievement.
Tupping time!

Another contributing factor may be that while the breeding ewes are retained for a number of years the rams are often swapped, borrowed, and regularly replaced so are not always viewed as a long term investment. In addition to this, a ram with a large set of horns and a cantankerous disposition is unlikely to make his keeper want to spend much time in his company.

Regular readers will not be surprised to discover my rams are not the mean and moody types even in the mating season though they do sometimes get frustrated with each other and occasionally a little “over friendly” with me!

"I'm a lover not a fighter" says Luke -
 Humn? A lover of pies if you ask me Lukey boy!
The Ryelands that I keep are a laid back little bunch who don’t kick up a fuss and in fact very rarely bleat. Even at weaning time the lambies separated from their mums settle quickly with the help of a shearling ewe or two as chaperone. The separated ewes too, only bleat during this period to tell me that the short dry grass that they are put on to help their milk dry up is not what they are used to or that their udders are aching and require a gentle rub. In fact this minimal bleating is pretty useful as it means that on the rare occasion that they are bleating, I know that they are trying to tell me something.
"Last one to get to the grass is a commercial breed!"

The rams however never seem to bleat regardless of the grass quality, separation or discomfort so ensuring that they are happy and healthy requires a little more close observation on my part. My rams love a cuddle and a chance to get out and about so they regularly get let out of their field to potter around the farm yard for a back rub and to “help” with farm yard tasks. This “time out” means that they get lots of attention as well as an opportunity to graze the grass verges, have races along the drive and jump on and off the muck heap.  It also means that my tasks take a little longer as their playful and inquisitive natures get them ( and me ) in a spot or two of bother from time to time.
Luke "tidy's up" the Muck heap

Caught in the act- Buddy tries to eat the evidence
Despite their mischief though they are gentle and good natured chaps who behave more like a pair of large playful dogs than adult rams. So spending time with them this way is always lots of fun and ensures that they are never neglected or forgotten! 
Buddy and Luke -the strong, silent types

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Dotty's Decline

Dotty at the bird bath
When you love your livestock as much as I do you find that all your animals earn a place in your heart regardless of their destiny or disposition. The cute and affectionate amongst them are easy to bond with but from time to time the fleeced and feathered members of my farmyard flocks pose more of a challenge.Yet despite their occasionally extreme or unorthodox behaviours, they are often all the more endearing because of it.
Dotty the Wyandotte bantam

That's how it was with a little barred wyandotte bantam I had called Dotty. Dotty had a visual impairment from birth which made it difficult for her to accurately peck up food. The others would grab food from under her beak while she frantically pecked away, frustratedly missing her target about 4 times out of 5.
This used to make her very agitated and she would try and block the other hens with her body by stepping sideways round the food source while lunging and gulping, desperately trying to get what she could. Occasionally she would loose her temper and lunge at the others or try to chase them away. In the meantime another hen would seize the opportunity to eat the food that she had momentarily stopped guarding which only added to her distress.

Her poor eye sight also meant that she could easily be taken advantage of by the young males in the flock who would if given half a chance, sneak up on poor unsuspecting Dotty and pounce on her in their enthusiasm to breed. So I had to keep her separate from them once they had reached a reproductive age. Her vulnerability meant that she soon learnt to lash out first and ask questions later if any hen (or cat) invaded what she considered to be her personal space. Despite her proactive defense though, she was far from an aggressive hen.
Dotty's frantic pecking puts Buffy's feet on the menu!

My other hens tolerated her occasional frustrated outbursts however she only ever managed to form a real bond with just one hen friend and not until she was about 3 years old. Sadly a little blue hen who was her constant companion had her little life cut short by a bout of infectious bronchitis brought in by the wild ducks that nest here in Spring. Unfortunately Dotty never quite managed to make another friend. She seemed happy and healthy enough though for most of her life but was always a bit of an outsider.
Dotty enjoys a long as it's at eye level
We accommodated her special needs by always giving her treats separately from the others and in a concentrated heap or in a dish so that her pecks were more productive.  Ruffus the resident cock took great care of her, accompanying her on foraging trips and displaying the patience of a saint when it came to finding food for her and guarding her while she pecked it up. If any of the younger males ever showed a romantic interest in her, then Ruffus would chase them away and she quickly learnt to seek him out for protection. 

 Her unusual behaviour and uneventful little life continued much the same for years, with all of us making allowance or ministering to her needs. But when it was finally Ruffus’s time to go we lost a gentle, patient little cock and Dotty too lost a little something which never returned.

Dotty takes a break from her lonely sunlit spot
So while the other hens ranged happily, Dotty took to standing in the coop all day in a little pool of sunlight which shone through the pop hole door. She would occasionally venture out into the run to peck at a little food and sip some water before returning to stand, patient and alone in her solitary sunlit vigil. It soon became apparent that this was probably a sign of further deterioration in her sight exposed by her loss of Ruffus as companion and escort. So with much sadness we decided that it would be kinder to to let her go too than to leave her to slowly fade away into a world of loneliness and gloom. 
Farewell Dotty our special little hen

We opted for a quick if sad end to our little hens life as an act of helpless compassion on our part, for a much loved hen with a wonderful character.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Toby’s Return

After a short stay at the vets Toby our fake, feral, farm feline has returned home to rest and recover from his serious viral infection. He’s been very ill and would surely not have made it had he not been the kind of feral farm cat that masquerades as a placid, affectionate and much loved family pet that lives indoors. That and lots of nursing and drugs from me and the vet of course!
Well it’s great to finally have him back and on the road to recovery even if he is a little clingy and demanding. A period of syringe feeding, medicating and hospitalisation is bound to have an effect on an impressionable young cat and in Toby’s case it seems to have manifested itself in a preoccupation with joining the veterinary profession.  
"Washing your hands is an important part of being a Vet" says Toby

Is there a  Doctor in the house? 
Since his return he has established a make shift surgery in the kitchen which seems very popular with the rest of the animals. So popular in fact, that a number of them now appear to be inventing symptoms in order to receive his attention.
I'm sure it was here last time I looked?

Yesterday Buffy turned up on the door step with a suspected case of lost leg syndrome and Polly feigned her own death in order to get to the front of the queue! 
Polly the queue jumper makes a convincing corpse
Now that Toby is feeling much better he is keen to get out and about, especially as he has a number of house calls to make. From what I understand it appears that an urgent case of contagious broodiness seems to have broken out in the chicken coop which demands his attention, along with a large number of the local rodent population who he suspects may be suffering from imminent dead mouse disease.  
If you can't beat 'em...Join 'em. Broodiness can be contagious!

I’m delighted with his return and recovery of course, and incredibly grateful to the Vet…… It’s just a shame that there isn't a cure for his eccentricity…….
Toby's attempt to cure a mole of hiccups by giving it a fright did not go to plan.....

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Shear brilliance

For me there are two high points in the shepherding year. The first and perhaps most obvious is lambing time, when my ewes get to reap the fruits of their labour and I get to savour the surprise and wonder of seeing the quantity and quality of my latest crop of lovely lambies.  The second high point for me is shearing time when I get to see how the previous year’s lambies have shaped up.
A Close Shave-Phil tackles Buddy's tackle!

The Ryelands heavy fleece hides a multitude of sins so it’s not until my flock is freed of all that wool that I really get to see how my youngsters are put together and in the case of the chubbier members of my flock…just how chubby they are.
Alice's aborted lamb is her excuse for a little extra condition 
Chubby Luke however does not have that excuse! 
This year’s sheepy hair cuts revealed that Buddy my coloured ram had grown up to be a rather a superb chap. Well defined, solid, dark fleece and looks in great condition. His roomie and great grandpa Luke however is rather portly so it’s easy to see who was getting the lion’s share of this winters fodder beet ration! 
Super Buddy with go faster stripes

Sweet little Tiger-Lilly was sheared for the first time too though the results were a bit mixed. Her little sheepy body looks just great but her lack of wool reveals the fact that the disproportionately large ears that she had as a lamb had not diminished with age.

Poor Tiger-Lilly seems a little embarrassed by her lack of fleece..
or is it her ears that she's trying to hide?


Despite the discomfort of an itchy, heavy fleece they clearly miss it when its gone and Buddy and Luke spent much of the weekend revisiting the sacks of fleece and smelling it as well as “helping” me to sort it and clean it. Perhaps I should knit them some chunky sweaters to wear after shearing next year to help them acclimatise…..  

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Angels with dirty faces

If you've never kept sheep or have only kept those breeds of a scared and skittish disposition then you can be forgiven for thinking that all sheep are fearful, timid and given to bouts of self destructive panic at the slightest suggestion of human contact.
Someone has been eating Dandelion flowers...
"Who me?".,Yes ewe Lucy!

But not all sheep are on a lemming –like mission to self destruct, especially the lovely laid back Ryeland breed. That’s not to say that they are not spirited and cheeky with a mind of their own of course, but for me that only adds to their appeal.
Running buffet? Buddy thinks it's funny to wear his dinner

In addition to their lovely temperament they are the woolliest of sheep with abundantly thick fleece from nose to toes. 

All this fleece along with their cuddly nature is what earns them the nick name of teddy bear sheep and is somewhat of a mixed blessing. Their woolly faces mean that they always seem to be wearing some object or another and close inspection of their farm yard apparel tells the story of their latest mischief or adventure.

Trying to remove the evidence by rubbing your face on your woolly  jumper just isn't working Kylie.

To me however, their silly, straw strewn, sheepy faces are still angelic and their sleepy, snugly dispositions make them irresistibly cuddly, even if they are rather grubby!

Who could resist the offer of a nose rub from a sleepy,
sheepy little angel like Tiger-lilly?... even if she does have a dirty face.

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