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!

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Turkeys - For life or just for Christmas?

June and July are the months for hatching turkey chicks and after mulling over the idea of raising turkeys for some time I finally took the plunge this summer with 6 beautiful Norfolk Bronze poults. Armed with with a pet carrier lined with clean straw, a flask of boiling water and a small hot waterbottle I set off to collect my new additions from a North Yorkshire breeder. The chicks, who seemed to appreciate the hot water bottle beneath the straw, spent their journey home scratting and pecking and chirping happily.

. Once home I placed them in the brooder under the electric hen as I do with my incubated hens and waited for them to venture out and explore their new surroundings. Turkeys I discovered are quite different from chickens however, and they seemed to be drugged by the heat. After lifting each drowsy little chick out in turn and offering them food and water only to find them returning to toast themselves unconscious on the hot little turkey heap, I decided to dispense with the electric hen in favor of a heat lamp. This seemed to work and gradually they began to come to life and more importantly to eat and drink.

Turkeys are much more prone to illness and infection in their early development than chickens so cleaning the brooder is a daily task along with regularly freshening water and clearing the droppings from their food. As their immune system takes longer to develop than chickens, I am not able to get them out and about in the sunshine as I might have liked. I hate to keep animals confined even if it is for their own good so I have added a few features to their environment to encourage their inquisitive natures and stimulate natural behaviors.

A short narrow branch has been secured to make a natural perch which the older of the chicks have made the most of and a tray of sand has formed a dust bath. A budgie mirror on a chain glints and glistens as it moves which catches their eager eyes and receives an inquisitive peck or two. 

This morning I lined their brooder with the pages of the Smallholder magazine which caused quite a stir. They were particularly taken with a picture of a vintage tractor ( red of course!) and got very exited about a full page advert for miniature donkeys (yellow). I tried to explain that the term "miniature" was applied rather loosely and that the photos were not life size but the whole experience proved too much for their tiny turkey brains and they suddenly had to retreat to the corner of the brooder for a nap.

While they were snoozing I pinned up a large picture of a Turkey from the cover of the Smallholder magazine in order to help them stay focused on their goal ( to become lovely big turkeys) I also covered the donkey advert with straw just to avoid confusing them again.

They are a fascinating little bunch and very sweet. I look forward to seeing them grow up and mature into beautiful friendly birds who can lead a happy free range life and keep me supplied with eggs and meat for years to come. But if they all turn into bolshie stags........well I suppose there's always the roasting tin........,      .

Friday, 20 March 2015

Fairies at the bottom of the garden

Do you believe in fairies? Or that magical things do happen?

The fairies at the bottom of my garden are my three orphan lambs Elfine, Tinkerbell and Pixie. 

Elfine, Pixie and Tinkerbell make a faerie ring

 Their mum Lucy suffered nerve damage in her lower back in late pregnancy and had to be put to sleep but miraculously her lovely little daughters survived. Lucy was a quiet, placid ewe and a brilliant mum and the lambs have inherited her relaxed and friendly nature. So it’s up to me to be their bottle brandishing foster mum and take care of the girls as she would have done. 

Lovely Lucy feeding last years lambs- a sweet and gentle mother who made it look so easy

 Tinkerbell is the largest and most independent of the three with sensible little Elfine close behind. Pixie however is….well….Pixie. 

Elfine and Tinkerbell find a sunny spot

Despite being the smallest of the three and having a rather shakey start, Pixie is a tiny sheep with big reputation and quite a fan club. 

Her popularity began when I took her in to the vets for a check up concealed inside my fleece jacket. With her little sleepy head resting on my shoulder, nestled beneath my snugly fleece she was quite content to snooze her way through the car journey in to town and didn't complain about my driving. 

A weak and sleepy Pixie

 recovers from her trip to the vets

Pixie in her daffodil yellow cardigan

 She was very popular with the vet, the receptionist and the pet owners waiting to be seen and was even invited to push in the que. 

 But it was when I whisked her round the super market and popped in to the petrol station that she really caused a stir. Everyone wanted a cuddle and Pixie who accepts the demands of her adoring public was happy to oblige. 

Soon her welfare became the concern of many of my friends who requested text and facebook updates, volunteered for bottle feeding duties and even crocheted her a wardrobe of cardigans. You may think that all this attention might result in a rather spoilt and demanding little lambie but no. Pixie grows bigger and stronger each day and will soon be too big for her cardigans but she hasn’t let her fame and popularity go to her head. She is still little Pixie from the block.

Pixie dashes to avoid the paparazzi in her stylish designer fashions

She is now 3 weeks old and has finally turned a corner, putting her weak and sickly start behind her. Still as sweet and cute as ever she tries her best to keep up with the others and join in their lambie adventures.

Tinkerbell gives her sisters a lesson in how to eat grass.

My lambie girls are not really fairies, but watching them go from their uncertain start in life to big healthy bundles of new life is just as magical! 
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