Wednesday 27 December 2017

In defence of bureaucracy

There's a fair amount of paperwork that goes with being a smallholder, at least there is if you keep livestock. In fact the requirements are the same whatever size of livestock operation you operate. 

A County Parish Holding (CPH) number needs to be applied for where animals are kept. Each type of livestock has to be registered with the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). An annual census of sheep and goats, if you keep them, is required to be returned. A livestock register should be maintained and tagging details recorded so that each animal is traceable. Each animal movement on and off your holding has to be recorded and a movement licence completed. All medications administered have to be recorded in a medicines register, and lots more. There are also a whole range of regulatory requirements that should be adhered to. If you undertake any activities at a commercial level then further regulations and guidance come into play.

If you don't know what the requirements are it can seem a little overwhelming. I’ve met several farmers who decided to give up keeping livestock on their mixed farms because of the paperwork requirements. It also helps to explain the disappearance of so many of the smaller abattoirs.

I can understand farmers, after a hard days work outside, finding the paperwork side of things rather tedious. Others complain that it all seems unnecessary. It does not take long before the 'bureaucracy gone mad' position is put forward.

Despite all this, and the occasional puzzling regulatory anomalies one comes across, I would have reservations about any ideas of a wholesale sweeping away of  regulations and record keeping. The reason behind them is the welfare of animals and also of consumers. While it's tempting to feel that the extent of the regulations is over the top, it has to be remembered that there have been outbreaks in recent years of disease or threats of disease that have been very serious if not catastrophic. Even in recent weeks there has been yet another food scandal involving a major meat processor which supplies the big supermarkets. In an unregulated system such consequences of the tendency to cut corners are likely to become endemic. 

This is not to say that efforts should not be made to improve the regulations (including removing those that are unnecessary or anomalous or overly pedantic) to ensure they are fit for purpose. Many of the regulations are made with large scale producers and processors in mind and don't always quite fit for the smallholder. Some of the regulations around home slaughter, for example, don't all make sense. After all, one of the arguments for smallholding is that livestock can be better cared for in a smaller operation.

One of the fears of Brexit is that in the process of securing alternative trade deals there will be a scrapping or drastic reduction of regulations under pressure to create a ‘level playing field’ with new trade partners. The risk is that this will undermine the relatively higher animal welfare standards maintained in the UK. 

There will always be a tension between animal welfare and profit or cost effectiveness, but it is right to give preferential bias to the former over the latter. Even if that means forgoing three frozen chickens for a tenner. 

Monday 25 December 2017

Piglets with too much space

Despite their reputation, and the resulting turns of phrase adopted in common parlance, pigs are in fact surprisingly clean animals. Generally they choose not to defaecate where they sleep and eat. I would feel quite comfortable lying in their ark as the bedding usually remains clean and dry and only needs changing, or rather topping up, ocassionally. I suspect young pigs learn the correct protocol for pooing at a young age from their mothers before they are weaned. 

However, this can sometimes go wrong. I moved 5 (male) piglets from the farrowing house to an outside paddock with a new pig ark for their housing. I acquired a large ark measuring 8' x 8' which is a lot of floor space for five piglets. Pigs generally like to sleep side by side and piglets often in one big heap. This way they keep warm however cold it might be. It also means that their sleeping quarters do not have to be as big as you might expect. Bigger is not always better.

Whether these piglets didn't pay enough attention to their mother when they were with her, or whether it's just because they're boys, some of them are a bit lazy and have been pooing in the ark. I’ve not previously encountered this problem. 

The fact of the matter is that this ark is too big for them. There is enough space for them to poo in one corner and for them to sleep in the opposite corner where it remains clean and dry. Having to clean out a low roofed ark on a regular basis because of this is a nuisance to say the least.

The solution was to reduce the floor space. I put a line of straw bales along each side and along the back wall. This leaves them a much smaller area in the middle where they can continue to huddle but with no space to poo. They have to go outside of the ark to keep their sleeping area clean. This has had an immediate positive effect with the ark remaining clean and dry. As they grow I can easily remove the bales.

Smallholding involves a lot of problem-solving as you go along, and you learn to expect the unexpected.

Bales used to reduce floor area
Inspecting the changes

Wednesday 20 December 2017

Beans for beans

Even when the weather is inclement during the winter months there's always at the very least routine smallholding jobs to do outside each day, especially if you keep livestock. However, when conditions are bad and with limited daylight hours, inevitably more time is spent indoors. Now is the time to formulate plans for the spring and summer. Keen vegetable growers will be compiling their seed order. What needs to be replenished? What new varieties will be tried out in the forthcoming year?

Today, prompted by stew for dinner, I've been thinking about beans. In the UK the emphasis tends to be on growing beans for their pods. The challenge is choosing the best varieties and picking them whilst they are still tender. French beans, broad beans and runner beans spring to mind. I grow these in moderate quantities and they are picked and consumed as they ripen. Broad beans and French beans are good for freezing to use later. We don't find runner beans do so well when frozen. 

However, John, a smallholder friend and keen vegetable grower, is a great advocate of growing beans for, well, the beans. They can be dried, stored and then used for cooking in their own right. Perhaps added to winter stews or maybe for bean salads. This is in fact a good, if indeed not better, reason for growing runner beans. When the summer glut and other competing vegetables makes the novelty of fresh, crunchy runner bean pods finally wear off, leave them on the plant to dry out and harvest the beans later.

There are a range of other beans that can be grown in this way, some of which are not only tasty but are also attractive in appearance. Borlotti beans are a good example; both the pods and the beans themselves. John has introduced to me to the Giant Bean. These plants produce enormous beans, twice the size of a runner bean. They are just as easy to grow and are a great addition to a stew.

Borlotti bean

Dwarf French bean 'Yin Yang'
Giant bean & borlotti ben

Incidentally, now is the time to save your cardboard toilet roll inserts. Beans like a deep root run, and if you prefer to sow your bean seeds indoors and then plant out, rather than sow directly, then toilet rolls are ideal. There are purpose designed root trainers that can be purchased but they can be on the costly side, particularly if you grow lots of beans. The whole toilet roll can be planted out too, so avoiding root disturbance. It will rot away in due course.

So here is what I'm planning to grow in 2018:-

  • Climbing borlotti bean usually sold as lingua di fucou
  • Greek Gigantes bean
  • Climbing French bean 'Cobra'
  • Dwarf French bean 'Yin yang'
  • Broad beans 'Aquadulce Claudia' and also 'The Sutton'
  • Runner bean 'Scarlet Emperor'

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Simon & Garfunkel mix

If you grow parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme you are quite at liberty to feel a little smug right now. These herbs tend to be mobilised at this time of the year for understandable reasons and generally fresh herbs make a difference. Because people like to make a special effort with Christmas season meals, the supermarkets stock up at this time more than usual. In Tesco today (who were themselves fairly smug once) small sprigs were on sale for 70p. 

Sage, rosemary and thyme are easy to grow shrubs and require little attention. I grow mine in containers. Rosemary is easy to propagate by placing a sprig in a jar of water and when it roots (it will) potting it up. Sage cuttings are best taken in late spring and inserted into a pot of compost. The same with thyme, but even easier is to buy a small plant and once it's established break off some bits with roots attached and pot them up. Parsley involves a bit more effort as it involves sowing seeds in pots and and pricking out when they germinate. This year I grew Italian flat leafed parsley which has survived the recent frosts. It has a strong flavour.

Of course there are lots of other herbs to grow but these are stalwarts in the kitchen and to be able to step outside the door to pick your own adds to the delight of the meal as well as the flavour.

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Avian flu update

It's one year ago today that H5N8 avian flu restrictions were imposed on all UK poultry keepers whether large scale commercial enterprises or those keeping a couple of hens in their back garden. The restrictions were eventually lifted at the end of February this year. 

One of the most irksome aspect of the restrictions, for those that troubled themselves to apply them, was the requirement to keep birds indoors or, if that was not possible, to net run areas to ensure wild birds had no access to poultry. This generally meant poultry had a much smaller area to range, whether indoors or outdoors, and consequently greater effort was needed to keep their housing and run areas clean. For commercial free range poultry keepers there was potential loss of the 'free range' appellation and the premium price at which their eggs sold. Eggs were re-labelled 'barn produced'. 

Fortunately, so far there have been only limited avian flu outbreaks in Europe this winter even though the wild bird migratory season is well underway. DEFRA's Animal and Plant Health Agency, in their latest update, report incidences of avian flu in wild birds in Germany, wild birds and poultry in Italy and in a poultry in Bulgaria. No outbreaks in the UK to date. With any luck we will be able to avoid the experience of last winter.

I have previously written of some preparations  I undertook last summer so that I can restrict our 40 or so birds to a fully enclosed area in a trice should I need to. Hopefully, this won't be necessary. I have, however, continued with additional bio-security precautions, such as keeping food and water covered and having a disinfectant foot bath at the entrance to the chicken enclosure.

So far so good.

Saturday 2 December 2017

Unexpected death

It's often said that sheep have a death wish and if there is a disease to catch they will. Whilst this is an exaggeration there is no doubt that sheep keepers do have to contend with a lot of health and welfare issues, and to be constantly vigilant for any signs of illness. They have to know their flock. Because sheep can be adept at hiding sickness, as a protection from predation, small changes in behaviour can be a sign that something is wrong and therefore worth investigating.

Those who keep sheep will be familiar with routine preventative treatments and times when sheep health becomes vulnerable: birthing problems, vaccinations against clostridial diseases, worming treatments, hoof care, protecting against fly strike and so on.

Our Wiltshire Horn sheep are a primitive breed and generally have robust health. However, we seem to have had more than our fair share of health concerns this year. Wiltshire Horns are a short coated, self-shedding breed which much reduces the risk of fly strike, which is an annual worry for sheep keepers. If this is caught in time it can be treated successfully, but if the tell tale signs are missed then it often results in an unpleasant death with maggots eating away at the sheep's flesh. 

Despite the reduced risk of fly strike with Wiltshire Horns we had a lamb who succumbed unusually late in the year, in mid-September. This was after a bout of humid and mild weather which were ideal conditions for the culprit blue bottle and green bottle flies to lay their eggs. Fortunately, the fly strike was seen early enough, treated successfully and the lamb recovered.

However, this week we had a poorly ram lamb who died. It had been a bit 'off' for a few days with some mild diarrhoea. I treated all the lambs, currently separated from the breeding ewes and ram, with a worming drench. The ram lamb seemed to pick up a day or two later and then, rather unexpectedly, I saw it flat out in the field. It was still alive but quite weak. I called the vet out who arrived within the hour but the lamb died as the vet was treating it. It is not clear what the diagnosis was but there were signs and symptoms of an infection and it was quite dehydrated. The other lambs seem fine. 

Our sheep are not pets but are kept for their meat. Nevertheless, there is still a sense of loss having engineered the lamb's conception and overseen its birth and early development. It's natural to wonder what else could have been done. The reality is in this case, probably not much.

The ram lamb last March