Sunday 30 December 2018

Internal Drainage Boards

Much of the farm land in the Fens is below sea level. This is the result of land drainage and, in the peaty areas in particular, subsequent land sinkage. This makes the high grade farm land liable to flooding. To combat this the land is criss-crossed by a network of substantial ‘drains’ and artificial water ways. They often have romantic names such as Hundred Foot Drain (i.e. it is 100’ wide), Forty Foot Drain and The Cut Off Channel. 

These waterways drain into the four main rivers or their tributaries, that eventually flow into The Wash on the Norfolk and Lincolnshire coast: the Witham and the Welland traversing the Lincolnshire fens, and the Nene and Great Ouse draining fenland Cambridgeshire.

There are some areas, such as at Welney in east Norfolk, which are treated as washes and when necessary allowed to flood to prevent flooding elsewhere. During the summer the washes are used for conservation grazing and farmers graze sheep or cattle on them. The drains themselves are crucial water sources for farmers to irrigate their crops. All round us great arching sprays of water are a common sight during the summer months. This was especially the case during the recent droughty summer. Farmers were kept busy, often quite late at night, moving the irrigation hoses.

The management of the drainage system is the responsibility of Internal Drainage Boards. The whole fen area is divided into smaller districts each with its own drainage board. We live within the Ely Group of drainage board districts. The drainage boards look after the pumps and the sluices which regulate the water flows in this flat, low-lying landscape. They also maintain the drains and collect the Drainage Rate to fund their activities. We are liable to pay an annual Drainage Board rate, as is everyone who owns property of more than two acres within an Internal Drainage Board District. 

We have a fen drain on one of our boundaries. It is called Baldwin’s Lode (lode is an Anglo-Saxon word for drain). It’s name and it’s sinuous route, in contrast to the dead straightness typical of fen drains, suggests a more ancient origin. It is 58 km long but is relatively modest in width compared to some fen drains. It connects the Eriswell Drain near Lakenheath to the River Lark near Prickwillow just outside Ely. In fact Prickwillow is home to the Drainage Museum where some of the old drainage pumps can be seen. 

Although we benefit from this drainage system we are relatively safe from flooding where we are because we live at altitude, some 3m above sea level. 

Baldwin's Lode

In the neighboring farmyard irrigation hoses are
ready to be stored at the end of the summer

Anyone one who lives or works the land in the Fens rely on the Internal Drainage Boards to do their job.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Club hammer phenomenon

A smallholder friend recently commented that he had to buy yet another club hammer and that somewhere dotted around his holding are likely to be found all the other club hammers he owns. 

I know the feeling. I recently came across a club hammer myself I’d lost (and subsequently replaced) nearly two years ago. It was by that fence post that was loose. 

The problem is that there are jobs to do out in the fields sometimes some distance from the workshop. It’s so easy to put a small hand tool down and incredibly you simply can’t find it again. 

Many people are of the view that any self-respecting gardener or smallholder will always carry a pen knife in their pocket for the many occasions it is inevitably called upon. The club hammer phenomenon means this just doesn’t work for me. I lost my cherished Swiss Army Knife which always managed to keep a sharp blade. I assume I’ve put it down mid-task rather than directly back in my pocket and now it’s lost. 

Now, rather than carry a knife with me constantly, I have several Stanley or craft knives dotted around in strategic locations instead:-
  1. In the feed shed for opening up feed sacks.
  2. In the barn for cutting the baler twin to open up bales of hay.
  3. In the greenhouse for cutting string for tying in tomato plants.
  4. In the workshop for miscellaneous cutting tasks.
  5. Another one in the workshop reserved for tasks for which Stanley Knives are actually intended for.
This is a solution that works well for me. But I do miss my Swiss Army Knife.

Its somewhere

Friday 14 December 2018

December wren

After a period of winter gloom weather-wise, this morning was still, cold and sunny. As I was going about my business, I heard a wren call. Not a continuous spring time sing-song, but a few short bursts anyway. I occasionally see a wren darting in their low level, straight line, flight into the base of a viburnum bush. Perhaps because of their unobtrusiveness, it’s surprising to know that they are the commonest breeding bird in Britain. 

Although they are tiny, not much bigger than a walnut, they are distinctive because of their short stubby tail which is often displayed in a cock sure way. 

Source: Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust

There is plenty of bird life about taking advantage of the hanging nuts and fat balls. However, apart from the cawing of crows, the meow call of buzzards and the honking from a skein of migratory geese, I’ve not heard much by way of bird calls just recently, perhaps not unexpected at this time of the year. But the wren has a very loud voice for a bird so small, and with the viburnum just outside the back door it was not hard to miss. A cheery contribution to the day. It needn’t take much.

Speaking of which, another poem by John Clare, that astute observer of nineteenth century rural England and the countryside.

The Wren
Why is the cuckoo’s melody preferred
And nightingale’s rich song so fondly praised
In poet’s rhymes? Is there no other bird
Of nature’s minstrelsy that oft hath raised
One’s heart to extacy and mirth as well?
I judge not how another’s taste is caught:
With mine, there’s other birds that bear the bell
Whose song hath crowds of happy memories brought.
Such the wood-robin singing in the dell
And little wren that many a time hath sought
Shelter from showers in huts where I did dwell
In early spring the tennant of the plain
Tenting my sheep and still they come to tell
The happy stories of the past again.

Tuesday 11 December 2018

"I love you, rotten"

There's a group of fruit trees that have a medieval aura to them - medlar, quince, mulberry, cobnut - and smallholders and keen gardeners sometimes like to grow them, if they have not been inherited, because they are unusual or in the name of diversity. A bit like keeping rare breed livestock. 

These fruits are unusual in the sense that you don't often see them for sale, certainly not in a supermarket. And its not always clear what you can do with them. They are forgotten fruits. More recently they do seem to have acquired a degree of metropolitan trendiness, encouraged no doubt by a certain strata of cookery writer. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for growing them if you have the space, including their ornamental value if not for their culinary contribution.

We have a quince, but not a mulberry nor cobnut. We do now have a medlar. We have had a growing familiarity with the medlar and make use of the fruit, so there are reasons for growing it. I generally use medlar jelly in the same way as redcurrant jelly, to flavour and add a little sweetness to meat dishes.

The relative rarity of medlars has not always been the case. Seventeenth century recipe books have instructions about how to use them in among today's more familiar fruits. Shakespeare refers to the medlar in several plays in the knowledge that the audience would be familiar with the fruit and understand his references or puns. In Romeo and Juliette, for example, Murcutio makes the following somewhat salacious comment:- 

    "If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
      Now will he sit under a medlar tree
      And wish his mistress was that kind of fruit
      As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone. - 
      O Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
      An open-arse, thou a pop'rin pear." 

The fully grown fruit is green and hard but not yet ready for consumption. They have to be allowed to begin to go rotten or ferment. Medlars become soft and mushy, and turn brown with wrinkled skin. Frost helps matters along the way. Although this sounds unattractive the 'bletting' process, as it is called, causes the starch in the fruit to turn to sugar. This is when medlars are ready to use. 

The rottenness might be off-putting for some. D.H.Lawrence, in his emotional-laden poem Medlars and Sorb Apples described them as "Wineskins of brown morbidity, Autumnal excrementa", which is not really intended to stimulate the appetite. To put people off further the medlar is known in France as 'dogs arse' and to the observant the semblance is apparent. (The 'open-arse' mentioned by Shakespeare I suspect refers to a  more gender specific term for a part of the anatomy used in Elizabethan England). Anyway, I actually prefer to think of it looking more like a very large rose hip.

Medlars, not quite bletted

Medlar jelly is the usual, although not the only, consumable to produce from the fruits. I've previously bought medlar jelly from farm shops (a bit pricey) and more recently from a smallholder friend (a snip). This year we were gifted a basket worth of medlars from another smallholder which we have turned into jelly. We decided that it was time to grow a medlar of our own.

Today I planted a couple of new apple trees ('Spartan' and 'Gala') and a medlar tree. The variety is Mespilus germanica 'Nottingham' which is commonly available from fruit tree nurseries. We now look forward to continue to be able to enjoy rottenness for many years to come.

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Hay security

With the droughty summer seriously impacting on grass growth, I had to resort to commencing feeding the sheep with hay earlier than usual. I currently put out the hay twice a day rather than a large quantity for them to eat ad lib. This is because of the problem of too much wastage. Sheep, mine at least, won’t eat hay that’s been spilt on the ground or if it’s too wet. This way they will clear the hay rack completely, which I replenish again later in the day. I also give a small amount of coarse feed, enough to keep me in their good books for when it comes to rounding them up or moving them. I’m pleased to say that the flock is looking in good condition so it looks like they are getting enough to eat.

The other day I needed to replenish hay supplies so that there is enough to see us through into the new year. I picked up 30 more bales to stack in my small barn. That’s three trips as my trailer can accommodate 10 bales at a time. Fortunately I do not have far to go, barely half a mile. A friend, Sheila, buys in a large quantity of hay each year and factors my requirements into her order. This is very convenient for me as I know there is ready hay supply stored close by. It’s good quality hay too and smells summery when a bale is opened up.

Sheila is not a smallholder but keeps thoroughbred horses. (Newmarket race course and associated stables and studs are not far away). They are either retired race horses or horses that did not quite make the grade for racing. They are nevertheless beautiful, majestic-looking creatures. Her daughter uses two of them for show jumping and eventing. 

If you keep livestock, a barn full of hay engenders a feeling of security in the same way as having a full tank of heating oil, or when the wood shed is full or having well stock food cupboards.

Sunday 2 December 2018


December is the month of the darkest days. Fellow Suffolk resident Sue at The Cottage at the End of the Lane points out that during December day length deceases down to 7 hours and 49 minutes on the 21st, at least in these here parts. 

If you are of a certain disposition, the darkness might get you down and for many this can be a real problem. For me, being a smallholder, there is always something to look forward to. Filling the barn with hay bales in the summer to see livestock though the winter. Manuring the vegetable plots to prepare the earth for the next season. Winter pruning fruit trees for greater returns next autumn. Sowing seeds for future crops. Putting the ram in with the ewes for new spring lambs.  Actually, despite the dark, December is a time of anticipation.

Behind us a flat arable field stretches out, and in the distance a line of Scots pines marks the field margin, with an expansive grey sky above.  The field is dull brown after the potato harvest. It will soon be ploughed, though, and re-sown with wheat. It won’t be so long before new shoots come though and the field turns bright green; the prospect alters once again. I look through our rear window daily, anticipating the changes.

After the winter solstice the days will ever so slightly begin to lengthen and nature perceptively signals the changes: buds begin to swell, snow drops appear from nowhere. Our hen's come back into lay. We anticipate the birth of the lamb.

Having something to look forward to is a way of letting in the light. 

The view from my window

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Nearby heaps

In the field directly in front of the house the farmer has only just started harvesting the sugar beet. This heap is about 10 feet high. I remember when they were all seedlings. The beet will  be going to the sugar factory at Bury St Edmunds.

The next field along grew wheat this year. The farmer has been delivering great heaps of manure to be ploughed in to prepare this light, sandy soil for the next crop. This is one of several heaps dotted along the field margin. The straw from previous crops is used by a livestock farmer for bedding and this gets returned to the arable farm it came from with dung added. Full circle.

Here is a heap of wood chippings a nearby tree management company dropped off for me. I use it for the chicken runs. 

Friday 23 November 2018

Livestock review

With the fruit and vegetable plots bedded down under a generous layer of compost, fruit bushes pruned and mulched, and rows of remaining ‘winter crops’ tidied and to be harvested when needed, I’ll soon make a start on some regular maintenance tasks. Some stock fencing needs repairing, a field gatepost has to be replaced, the long boundary hedge of hawthorn and blackthorn will get its annual trim. The fruit trees will also need pruning. I’ll continue where I left off last winter doing some clearance in the southern woody boundary. In the process there’ll be wood for next winter. There’s also a couple of new projects on the holding l’ll be undertaking.

In the meantime here’s an overview of the livestock which governs much of my daily routine.

Our two Saddleback sows. I'm very much hoping
that the one on the left is pregnant having AI'd
her a few weeks ago. If so, she's due in February.

The Wiltshire Horn ewes are in with the ram.
When his work is done lambs should ensue
from mid-March through to mid-April.

We have meat chickens, meat ducks and turkeys
as short term residents which we grow on during 
the year. At this time we have turkeys still with us. 
These are Norfolk Blacks which we've had as day
 old poults  (twelve of them) back in May. Most of 
them have been been claimed for Christmas. 

We've got about 80 hens for eggs. They include
Ixworth, Cream Legbars, French Copper Marans
and some of mixed parentage. Most, however,
are ex-commercial hens which we acquire when
they are 72 weeks old but continue to provide a
steady supply of eggs. With the shorter daylight
hours egg laying is much reduced and demand 

outstrips supply. As soon as we are into the new 
year production will increase quite quickly as the 
days become gradually longer. They are 
remarkably light-sensitive.

With the colder conditions, the bees have hunkered
down for the winter. Hopefully, they will make it
though to next year. 

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Mist in the meadows

It’s more like November today. A cold, fine drizzle and yesterday’s blue is now grey and low. I’ll save hedge cutting for another day.

Mist in the meadows

The evening oer the meadow seems to stoop
More distant lessens the diminished spire
Mist in the hollows reaks and curdles up
Like fallen clouds that spread – and things retire
Less seen and less – the shepherd passes near
And little distant most grotesquely shades
As walking without legs – lost to his knees
As through the rawky creeping smoke he wades
Now half way up the arches disappear
And small the bits of sky that glimmer through
Then trees loose all but tops – I meet the fields
And now indistinctness passes bye
The shepherd all his length is seen again
And further on the village meets the eye.

John Clare

Saturday 17 November 2018

Reasons for growing Jerusalem artichokes

I rather like Jerusalem artichokes. They have a sweet, nutty taste and make a pleasant addition to your choice of root crop. At the moment, and through the winter, they are in plentiful supply if you happen to grow them. When they are needed, just fork a few of the tubers up. We boil them with their skins on. They should not be boiled too long as they turn mushy so you need to keep an eye on them and use a knife to check when they are soft enough to take off the heat. We also like to bake them with a coating of olive oil. 

Jerusalem artichokes have a reputation for producing certain anti-social digestive side-effects. There is a reason for this. They are composed of a different form of carbohydrate than potatoes. The carbohydrate in Jerusalem artichokes is in the form of inulin which is a type of starch that the body cannot digest but is metabolised by bacteria in the colon. Personally, I don’t experience this problem to any extent myself (but then I’m very similar to the Queen in many respects). Garden writer Alys Fowler, who says she tucks into lots of Jerusalem artichokes each winter, suggests that the way to obviate the problem is to eat small amounts and become gradually accustomed to them. 

Apart from their unique taste, Jerusalem artichokes are high in potassium and B vitamins as well as being a source of dietary fibre. Another reason for growing them is that they are vigorous growers and make a useful annual wind-breaking hedge (I know, ha ha). I grow mine along one end of a vegetable plot for this very reason.

Jerusalem artichokes are easy to grow. Plant tubers a foot apart about 4 inches deep. It helps if the soil is enriched so that you get larger tubers. They can grow about 10 feet during the summer, but I trim mine when they reach 6 feet to reduce the risk of wind rock pushing the stems askew. The leaves die off as winter approaches and the stems can then be cut down. It’s best to harvest as many of the tubers as you can so that the following year larger tubers result rather than an over abundance of small ones. There’ll always be enough left in the ground to regrow for the next season’s crop. 

If you’ve not tried them before then have ago, just go easy to begin with.

Monday 12 November 2018

Grow Your Own as therapy

Today, after some initial rain, it was relatively mild and at times sunny. In between routine tasks around the holding I spent time tidying the vegetable plots, including some easy weeding, in readiness for spreading compost. It was good to be outside. Pleasant? Definitely. Enjoyable? Actually, indeed it was. Therapeutic? In a general sense of increasing well-being, I'd go so far as to say 'yes' to that too. 

In my early days working in the mental health field, in a large mental hospital, some patients attended ‘horticultural therapy’. The hospital had a small market garden supplying other local hospitals with tomatoes and salad vegetables which the patients helped to cultivate. At the time there was a movement promoting the idea of horticultural therapy. The thinking behind it centred on the assumed benefits of regular constructive activity, instilling a sense of achievement, the rehabilitative potential of keeping to a normal work routine, working and interacting alongside others in a shared task, and the promotion of a sense of being a contributing member of society. The ideas behind the therapeutic benefits of horticulture have continued to develop and nowadays, with the demise of the long stay hospital patient, horticultural and gardening projects have moved to community settings where they increasingly flourish. 

For myself, a long-standing amateur gardener and subsequently a smallholder, I can certainly identify with the potential benefits of  physical work outside, and in engaging in horticulture specifically, on well-being. With a career as a mental health practitioner and academic, as well as being a smallholder, I’m naturally interested in this area of activity.

In recent years there has been accumulating research on the benefits of physical activity on mental health. The evidence indicates that the benefits apply to feelings of well-being in the general population as well as having a positive therapeutic impact on those with a specific clinical diagnosis such an anxiety disorder, depression and psychotic conditions like schizophrenia. 

The research appears to suggest that even a small amount of physical activity is beneficial if done on a regular basis, and that moderate activity has greater efficacy than vigorous activity. The type of activity undertaken does not seem to be critical but it helps if it is enjoyable. So if you are not keen on gyms, running, swimming, competitive sports and so on, then gardening, DIY projects and going for a walk can work well too. 

This might seem obvious but there are three points to bear in mind. Firstly, research has now generated a strong evidence base to support these claims. It’s more than just common sense or a reasonable hunch. 

Secondly, the relative benefits of physical activity on mental health have also become apparent. For example, for mild depression it has been found that physical activity is just as effective as anti-depressant medication or psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Thirdly, neurophysiological studies are providing biological evidence of some of the reasons why physical activity is beneficial for mental health. It has an effect on dopamine and serotonin. These are neurotransmitters that help regulate activity, motivation, mood and feelings of well-being. (Many commonly prescribed anti-depressant medications’ mode of action intervene in dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain). More recently it has been found that physical activity helps stimulate increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). These are proteins which help sustain existing neurons and also generate new neuron growth thereby contributing to increased cognitive functioning and acting in those areas of the brain that influence mood. 

The benefits of growing your own are more than the produce itself and eating healthily. It potentially has an anti-depressant effect, it  can contribute to anxiety management, it can be a useful stress coping mechanism, it can help raise self-esteem, and possibly acts as a dementia inhibitor. I'll be having another dose tomorrow.

Tuesday 6 November 2018

Chopping, scratting and pressing

Today the weather has been mild and still. It was very pleasant to be outside; you could enjoy the visual and olfactory delights of autumn without getting cold or wet. It was perfect weather for apple pressing, part of our annual cycle of activities. In fact I find it to be one of the most satisfying of smallholding jobs with the added benefit of immediate rewards.

We've already pressed most of our crop of apples and some more from a friend's orchard. We have bottles of juice on the go, in the freezer, and some more juice transforming itself to cider. Today a non-smallholding friend came over to our place with some of his windfalls to take back home again as juice. We spent a couple of hours chopping, scratting and pressing. He did not know what varieties of apples they were but the apple to juice ratio was impressive, producing 14 litres (30 odd pints) of juice.

The pigs, hens and turkey's, of course, enjoyed a share of the apple mash, so nothing went to waste. 

Non-smallholding friend filling the scratter with roughly 
chopped apples to get them ready for pressing. The apples 
in the picture produced 14 litres of juice.

Monday 5 November 2018

Fallen stock

Today I had to arrange the collection of a ram lamb that had died yesterday evening, despite earlier veterinary intervention. All its vital signs were normal, as was a blood test. Worms (always high on the suspect list with sheep) were not an issue, and we are passed the time of year when fly strike is a concern. It was nevertheless out of sorts. It seemed to more or less stabalise but ultimately there followed a rather rapid deterioration. Its not clear what the problem was. Sheep can be like that.  

'Fallen stock' is the term used for livestock that die on the farm. It happens from time to time as a result of illness or culling at the end of its productive life. There are, as you might expect, rules and regulations regarding the disposal of fallen stock - you can't just bury them (as you might with a pet) or burn them.  

By and large, livestock are ordinarily required to be tagged with a flock or herd number and an individual number specific to the animal. A record should be maintained of their movements on and off the holding so that in theory every animal is traceable. These records will be looked at should you ever be inspected by APHA

The regulations are fairly rigorous but not onerous. This includes their disposal. Pigs, sheep and cattle have all been the source of significant disease outbreaks in times past and there is a consequent concern that diseased animals don't enter the food chain.

What this means is if you play by the rules (and I believe in this area you should)  if livestock die on your holding you still need to be able to account for it, including its proper disposal, with the appropriate paperwork to support it.

Fallen stock companies are licensed to carry out such disposals. I suppose they used to be called in, less regulated times, knacker's yards or the knacker man. As it happens the fallen stock company I've had to deal with, on two occasions now, is run by a woman. 

If you join the not-for-profit National Fallen Stock Company (NFSC), for a mere £10 you can be sent a list of local fallen stock companies and they also oversee payment and the administration of collection and disposal. 

A sad morning but part and parcel of smallholding.

Saturday 3 November 2018

Tucking up the asparagus for the winter

It’s worth spending time and effort with asparagus. It is a rather special crop to enjoy each year in late spring and early summer. Asparagus is also a ‘permanent crop’ and the asparagus bed will be in place for many years to enjoy. Its such a reliable vegetable. 

All this means the asparagus bed needs to be maintained well to keep the plants strong and productive. Part of this includes keeping the weeds at bay, above all preventing any pernicious weeds establishing themselves. It pays not to neglect the bed once the asparagus season comes to an end in June.

After a day of heavy rain, temporarily saturating our otherwise dry soil, it was time to prepare the asparagus bed for winter. The yellowing fronds were pruned down to the ground. Next the bed was weeded. This was easily accomplished with just a few annual weeds to pull out. The ridges along which the crowns were planted were renovated by drawing up fresh soil with a draw hoe. The vital addition, and main part of winter preparation, was applying a thick layer of bulky compost along each row. 

Finally, I used the roughly chopped up asparagus fronds as a mulch between the rows. This is an idea I picked up from one of Charles Dowding’s admirable No Dig You Tube videos. It is after all a no dig crop in essence. It seemed a good use of the asparagus prunings and will help contribute to suppressing any weeds that might otherwise take their chance popping up in the asparagus bed.

The cropping season (late April to early June) might seem a long way off, but good preparation at this time of the year will be heartily rewarded.

Friday 2 November 2018


An abundant crop of walnuts this year, probably benefiting from the long hot summer. We have a very large walnut tree, as high as a house. We also have a smaller tree about ten feet high. I’m not sure if it was planted or whether it has self seeded. The latter is very likely nearer the mark as we watch squirrels going back and forth along the fence line collecting the nuts and no doubt burying them for later. There’s plenty to go round for all of us.

We pickled some back in June when they were still green and before the shells become hard. They’re sitting in the cupboard preparing for Christmas 2019.

We have found that the best way of harvesting the mature walnuts is to collect them up as soon as possible after they drop. To this end, my wife Janet (a meticulous walnut collector) has been out collecting fresh falls of nuts twice a day for the last few weeks.

A large amount of nuts have been shelled, dried, and then placed into Kilner jars and stored in the fridge. We have dried them in a low oven but now use a dehydrator. Eventually walnuts, despite drying, are likely to turn rancid because of the constituent oil going off. In the past, shelled nuts kept at room temperature lasted until about January.  Unshelled walnuts kept in the garage were still okay when shelled in March.

Our walnut harvest has gone into ever popular coffee and walnut cake, of course. I also have a handful a day added to my morning porridge. Perhaps a few more later in the day when I get milk from the fridge. Maybe when I put the milk back, too.

This morning's portion

Another thing about walnut trees is that the smell of their leaves is one of the most glorious foliage smells to be found. It is most distinctive: citrusy and aromatic. Its enough to lift your spirits. It’s probably a bit late in the year now, but if your on familiar terms with a walnut tree, give the foliage a stroke next year.

Friday 26 October 2018

Night noises

Spice, our Golden Retriever, unusually started to bark about 3 am last night. I thought I had better go and check in case it was an intruder so that I could give them short shrift. Luckily for them there was no one around, so there was no need to deploy a kung fu dragon's claw strike (as demonstrated on You Tube). 

Anyhow, as I waited in the still of the night while Spice quietly wondered around to find the best place to pee, it was interesting to hear the various animal noises in just the ten minutes I was standing in the pitch darkness. A Tawney owl was calling with the familiar twit twoo. I hear them virtually every evening at dusk coming from a small wooded area across the road. The British Trust for Ornithology is currently carrying out a survey of Tawney owls and are inviting people to take part if they hear any. 

More concerning was the regular bark of a fox. Our poultry are shut up each day as soon as they all go in when it begins to get dark. Clearly, vigilance needs to be maintained.

Every now and then a pheasant let out a screech. This is a common sound here as they nest in the tree-lined boundary to our holding.

In what was otherwise silence in the dead of night, there seemed to be a lot still going on.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Hurtling towards winter

The clocks go back this weekend, a sure indication that winter is on its way. The weather has in fact been rather mild during September and October making it very pleasant to work outdoors. 

The new ram has now joined the ewes for what should be his busiest time of the year. I've put them in the smaller of our fields to make it easier for him. We had three ram lambs born this year and these are separated out. One of them has grown big and sturdy and a smallholder in Suffolk who is building a flock of Wiltshire Horns has bought him. He looks big enough in all departments to do the job this year. We also sent off two elderly ewes. One of them needed help giving birth this year so I did not want to breed from her again. Both were more than eight years old.

One of our young sows was AI'd three months ago but is still not showing any obvious signs of pregnancy. In fact she appears to have continued to come into season. However, I gather that this is still possible. Sows have two uterine 'horns' and it is apparently possible for a small litter to be confined to one of the horns while the other has a regular oestrous cycle. I'll be bringing her into the farrowing house just in case.

The bees have still been flying on warm days. I've started to feed them sugar solution and will switch to fondant at the end of the year. They got through last winter's harshness okay so it makes sense to continue with a regime that seems to work.

A lot of time has been spent harvesting, storing and preserving summer crops. In the greenhouse some pepper and chilli plants remain, as well as a couple of tomato vines. Not for much longer though. Most of the greenhouse I have cleared  to make space for some Little Gem lettuce and some tatsoi, an oriental leaf vegetable. Outside leeks, parsnips, chard, Jerusalem artichokes and mangolds are still in situ. Apart from some impressive early cauliflowers, the brassicas have performed poorly this year so the remaining raggedy specimens have been removed.

Archetypal autumn crop. We'll eat some but I really grow
gourds for their ornamental value for indoors

Some of the regular 'winter jobs' are underway. Gradually clearing the vegetable plots and adding a layer of compost, making next year's compost in the process. I've pruned the fruit bushes and tied in canes and finished by adding a thick  mulch ready for next summer's fruit bonanza. 

Lots more to do as always.

Monday 3 September 2018

Our new tup

September. Thoughts of autumn and planning the new breeding cycle for the sheep. We still have to do some sorting of the flock as not all will be retained over winter, including two of our oldest ewes. One of them struggled giving birth and needed some assistance lambing this year so I would not want to breed from her again. 

After this year’s lambing it was also time to replace our ram to introduce new blood into our small flock of Wiltshire Horns. Today we went to collect a new ram which we had been to view and select a couple of weeks ago from the Abbess Flock in Abbess Roding in Essex. We have a wether (castrated ram) to keep him company until the time comes to allow him in with the breeding ewes.

Thursday 30 August 2018

Return of the flock

Today I brought back home our small flock of Wiltshire Horn sheep. They have spent the last couple of months in a field lent to me by a nearby farmer. My own  pastures suffered in this summer’s drought and by June the grass, which had been grazed down, had stopped growing. 

Enjoying the hay if not the grass. They have put on more
condition since this photograph was taken.

The sheep had some new grass for a time but then I inevitably had to start feeding hay supplemented by a little hard feed as the dry period continued. However, I still had the additional benefit of resting my own fields and hopefully reducing the worm burden. Being just half a mile away, it was not a problem making twice daily visits to the sheep.

With the return of some rain my fields have gradually greened up again. However, the dandelions seem to have responded more vigorously than the grass and, in one of the fields in particular, their fresh green leaves have formed quite an extensive mat. I’m hoping that the sheep will graze them down to allow the grass to come through. If that doesn’t work I might need to do something more radical to ensure the pasture is in good condition for next spring.

Tuesday 28 August 2018

Dehydration for preservation

As smallholders we are always looking to how best to preserve our produce for future consumption and to avoid waste. This time of the year is a particularly busy time in this respect as we try to manage the abundance granted to us, not with a little effort, from the vegetable and fruit plots. 

One gap in our range of preservation techniques was the use of dehydration. This was a shame because we bought a hardly used, good quality dehydrator at a bargain price a little while back.

The Grow Your Own Group of which I am member, and which meets regularly, has helped put this omission right. One of our smallholding friends has accumulated considerable experience of using a dehydrator for all sorts of things and she gave a very practical demonstration of what can be achieved using this method, accompanied by many samples of the end products to try out.

This was just the inspiration needed to get started. I've begun with plums and this first attempt has produced very satisfactory results. I'm sure I will return to this topic in the future as I discover more about dehydration for preservation.

Monday 27 August 2018

Ducks for meat

We have regularly bought in day old meat chicks to grow on in batches to 12-14 weeks. Once a year we do the same with day old turkey poults which, unlike the chickens which are a commercial variety, are traditional Norfolk Blacks which are slow grown for six months. This year for the first time we have done the same with ducks for meat. 

A smallholding friend kindly sourced and organised on behalf of some of our smallholder club members the supply of pekin duck chicks. We collected 20 to grow on. And grow they did -  amazingly quickly. They are now ready for dispatch. 

We processed one last week as a trial, not having previously plucked a duck. True enough it proved to be a lengthier and more laborious process than we are used to with chickens with whom we have become quite proficient in producing a clean finish. We used the same dunking in hot water method to loosen the  feathers but  ducks seem to need hotter water and a longer period of dunking to saturate and loosen the feathers more sufficiently. Care is still needed not to scald the flesh in the process so a little trial and error is required.

We've done six so far. Their dressed weight ready for the freezer has so far ranged between 2.58 and 3.33 kilograms which is quite acceptable.

Monday 13 August 2018

Cute snake

I was doing some sorting out of the compost heaps this morning and came across a small snake. Because of its size I thought at first it might be a slow worm but it was a darker green and had a distinctive yellow neck band. Googling confirmed it was in fact a small grass snake. I didn’t have my phone to hand to take a photograph but the image below is virtually identical in looks and size which settled the matter of identification. What a delight.

Small grass snake. Image courtesy of the interesting and informatibve
Frog Blog Manchester: