Thursday 2 July 2020

Nijinsky 2005-2020

Everyone rightly feels that their cat or dog is special. We certainly felt this way towards Nijinsky. Because of this I wanted a tiny memory of him lodged in the historical record of the human species somewhere within the infinite vastness of the cybersphere.

Nijinsky was named after the ballet dancer (not the racehorse) by my dancing daughter. He was the cat our three daughters grew up with and it was they who I took with me to the farm to collect him as a young kitten 15 years ago.

Nijinsky was the most mild mannered of cats. He liked to be around us: sitting on the kitchen table watching us cook; following us around the garden like a puppy dog; sitting by you as you hung out the washing; waiting on the window sill for you to return home, alerted by the crunch of gravel. If you spoke directly at him he would make a chattering noise back in reply. Even if I say so myself, he was a very handsome-looking cat and maintained his youthful appearance right to the end. Fortunately, the medical problem that he recently developed, and which proved terminal, was quite brief.   

Although his best hunting days were over, a renewed playfulness and vigour arose when we acquired two new kittens (Margot and Rudolf) a year or so ago. Nijinsky joined in their games of chase and was totally accepting of these additions to the household. He was also entirely unperturbed by our attention-seeking Golden Retriever, Spice. I don't think Nijinsky ever left the boundaries of the smallholding of his own volition.

Cats and dogs can bring much pleasure and good cheer to a household. There's lots of research to suggest they are good for your mental health. But I think they can also be a partial antidote to excessive ego-centrism. I don't think it too strong to say Nijinsky played a significant role in our lives.

Nijinsky - a photograph taken quite recently

Monday 8 June 2020

Marking out time

Yesterday seemed to me to be the right time to plant out the leeks. Two twenty foot rows, six inches between each plant and twelve inches between the rows. The variety was the ever-reliable 'Musselburgh'. Leeks have the great virtue of being happy to remain in the ground until needed whatever the weather, so no harvesting and storing involved. They will see us right through next autumn and winter until the spring. Any leeks remaining by then will be dug up to make space for next year's crops - carrots and parsnips most likely. Already thinking about what will be on our plates in 2021. Strangely enough, but actually no real co-incidence, when I checked, I had planted out the leeks on exactly the same date last year. Another regular event marking out the passage of time.

Its is commonplace in these covid times to hear people say they have lost track of what day in the week it is. Or that everyday is the same - because for many it is, being more or less confined to home. The usual signposts are missing. Who noticed it was Whitsun the other day, or even that it was a bank holiday weekend? Not only that, but the lockdown has also seen the absence of the usual rituals which mark significant life events such as birthday celebrations, weddngs and funerals. 

The usual state of affairs is for our time to be structured in a continuing cycle. In times past, daily life was structured by the seasons and the agricultural year: ploughing, sowing, harvesting, weekly and annual markets and fairs. Or by the Church year: Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Christmas. The influence of both of these continue to mark out our time to some extent. Hence the school year still with its six weeks summer holidays, for example. In more secular times other things mark out time for us: work routines, leaves on the tracks, the academic year, public examinations, moving up a year, the football season, wimbledon, the Notting Hill Carnival.

What stays constant is the growing year whether that is for keen gardeners, growing fruit and vegetables or livestock. Little has changed for the arable farmers nearby. The fields opposite have still slowly evolved from brown to green to gold. And the routine here on the smallholding has continued much the same too. I know what I will be doing, all being well, in the ensuing days, weeks and months.


Thursday 21 May 2020


As predicted earlier in the year when lamenting the continual wet weather, now spring is here and summer beckons we are contending with an increasingly forlorn hope of rain. There were some showers forecast for this morning but as usual they seem to have passed us by here. Dry East Anglia combined with light soils is not a good combination for growers at this time of the year. 

Fortunately, a neighbouring farmer has lent us a field with some good grazing for our ewes and lambs. This will give some time for our own fields to replenish themselves, although a long, steady downpour will help the process no end. We have kept the ram and his companion wether back as they are the least likely to co-operate when it comes to rounding them back up for the return home.

Last week we had several frosty mornings, enough to scorch the potato plants. With the warmer temperatures, especially overnight, it now looks like it is safe to start hardening off and planting out some of the more tender crops. 

The dry conditions have seen the local farmers setting up their giant hose reels used to irrigate their fields. They draw the water from the network of drains and waterways that criss-cross the fen landscape. I wouldn't mind if they pointed them in the directions of our fields occasionally.

Rotating arc of water spraying the winter wheat

One of the big hose reels

A pump drawing water from the lode. This pump was home-
made many years ago but still does the job. The farmer who
constructed it recently celebrated his 100th birthday.

Thursday 7 May 2020

Wasps or bees?

I got a text message this morning from a near neighbour walking her dog to say there was a swarm of "wasps" in our boundary hedge. When I went to investigate there was a substantial cluster of honey bees which had swarmed. Whether they originated from my hives or not I was very keen to secure them for the sake of an additional colony. 

They were about four feet above the ground in a typically dense cluster on a hawthorn hedge. I swept the swarm into a box.  I got most of them but inevitably a fair number flopped onto the ground, while others were stirred into a whirling flight around me. I had laid a piece of white sheeting on the ground in readiness. The box was left on the sheet with the lid open a crack and a piece of wood for a ramp so that the remaining bees would wend their way up into the box attracted by the pheremones of the queen. I expected her to be in the box as she would have been in the centre of the cluster. I had rubbed the box with lemon balm leaves as smallholder and beekeeper friend Sue recommends as this is a known attractant for bees. Sue has quite a bit of experience with collecting swarms so I am happy to copy her practice on this.

I left the bees to it until nearly dusk and on inspection I was pleased to find that the swarm was virtually entirely in the box, at which point I closed the lid on them. Doing this too early could mean leaving behind too many stragglers. 

The next part of the operation was to 'hive them', that is put them in their new accommodation. I had an empty hive set up all ready. There are a couple of different approaches to hiving a collected swarm. I chose the dumping method. Basically, turn the box upside down and give a firm thump on the bottom to dislodge the bees and they drop into the hive in a large clump. Additional frames were then carefully added and the rest of the hive put together. As I had no frames of honey reserve to spare I put in a feeder of sugar solution for some 'fast food'. The bees will have gorged on honey before swarming so they won't be immediately hungry. The box was left by the hive for the remaining bees in the swarm to find their own way in before nightfall.

I don't really see myself as a beekeeper, more a smallholder who keeps bees. I'm always impressed at the knowledge of long-time serious beekeepers, but then, as is often said, if you ask advice of three different beekeepers you'll get five different answers back (or some variation of this). No doubt others will have gone about the exercise differently. But the main thing is what you find works for you. Hopefully, this swarm will decide to stay put and do what bees do. Ultimately, its their decision.

Most of the swarm are in the box. The remaining
bees had the rest of the day to find their way in.

Saturday 2 May 2020

Morning after the night before

Yesterday evening we had a new litter of pigs at the most convenient time of 5:30pm, and all complete by 7:30pm. Twelve in all. The thirteenth, and last, was born dead unfortunately. The last ones born have the furtherest to travel along the uterine tract so tend to be more at risk.

This was a first time mum and once again motherly instincts were evident. There is a one piglet which is about half the size of the others but seems just as keen to suckle and be close to mum so hopefully it will thrive okay.

Al present and correct...

Wednesday 29 April 2020

Corvid not Covid

On my way back from feeding the orphan lamb today I saw this young crow that looked a bit lost and maybe is an orphan too. It did not flinch even when I went up close. Unfortunately, if it survives, it is going to be a potential nuisance. On several occasions in the past we have had chicks, ducklings and even fully grown hens taken or picked clean to the bones by crows. Lambs are at risk at this time of year too.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Potting compost conundrum

With the Covid-19 lockdown I've found it difficult to get hold of sowing and potting compost. My pre-lockdown supplies have been used up. Because I mostly sow in modules and trays and then pot on rather than  sow direct I tend to get through a fair amount of compost. And of course now is peak time for propogation.

The garden centres and nurseries are all closed. The supermarkets I've have been to in recent weeks, on the odd occasion I have done a bit of shopping, are not selling it, or it is otherwise snapped up, perhaps by the same people who buy up all the flour. I quite often get compost from Lidl because it is cheap and also peat-free. I'm not sure if they had any, but there was a monumental queue to get in when I went by the other day and I couldn't bear the thought of more of my life slipping away if I joined it. It would also warrant thinking up some 'necessities' to buy which I had just purchased elsewhere. So for practical, moral and life affirming reasons, and needless to say, the health of the nation, I carried on home. 

Consequently I resolved to make my own potting compost. I have done so before but this time it was not a self-sufficient nicety but something that had become more or less essential. For the first time ever I welcomed the sight of some fresh mole hills - about 4 or 5. I scooped up enough to fill a wheelbarrow. Moles do an amazing job of sifting the topsoil to leave a neat heap with a nice, even crumb size. The next stop was my 'special reserve' compost made in the green composting bins. This is well rotted and weed seed free. I  sieved it to remove lumpy bits and to produce a finer texture and then mixed with some of the mole hill soil.

For the potting compost I used a 1-4 mix of molehill soil to compost. The important thing for potting compost is that it is both free-draining and at the same time is able to hold some mositure. Young seedlings or plants easily rot off if the compost is too wet and claggy. As soon as they have established themselves with a good root system they will be planted out.

For the sowing compost I used a 1-3 soil to compost mix. Sowing  compost does not need to be nutrient rich as most of the nutrients a germinating seed requires is in the seed itself. What is more important is for the sowing compost to be sufficiently fine-textured so that small seeds remain in close contact with the sowing medium. This is more readily achieved with a higher soil content. Once the seeds have geminated they can be pricked out or potted on to to a richer mix when the first true leaves are produced. I'll see how it goes and make adjustments if needed for future mixes.

I now have a supply of home made sowing and potting compost that will keep me going for a while. I am pleased with the results and my thoughts have already turned to next year and ways of escalating home production of potting compost significantly.

A sample of the home produced sieved compost mixed with
a bit of molehill soil for potting compost.

Friday 17 April 2020

Weather wishes

Our Blenheim Orange, the most mature of our apple trees, is now in full bloom. We wish to avoid hard frosts right now. Or any very windy conditions. The apple and pear crops were poor in 2019 and we look for this year to make amends. 

With the sheep rotating around the grazing fields, after our so far dry spring, we wish for some steady rain. If that can be repeated so that there is a good soaking about once every ten days, that will be most welcome. And also for the temperatures to be in the high teens or low twenties, and not fall much below 10 degrees centigrade overnight. This will help enormously with the grass re-growth as well as the crops gradually filling up the vegetable plots. 

Always looking forward. How quickly the bewailing of the constant winter rain has been forgotten. In the event we take what comes.

Thursday 16 April 2020

Cries of a lamb

Unless you have tendencies towards a psychopathic personality disorder or some other condition that inhibits feelings of empathy you are sure to agree that that there are few things more cute than a young lamb. In a similar vein the cries of a lamb, even more so a solitary orphan lamb, can pull on the heart strings.

When a friend called in a few weeks ago for eggs (she is a mother of three young children) she heard the plaintive bleating of our orphaned lamb which, being only a few days old, was being kept in our utlity room. She had that uneasy agitation women often report experiencing (and perhaps men too) at the sound of a crying baby. 

The lamb is now out in the field with the other lambs and ewes but is being bottle fed. The trouble is that when she catches sight of you she calls out continuously. We try to take a different route to avoid this, not unlike creeping up and down stairs when the children were babies and had finally settled to sleep.

If you keep livestock you get to know the various types of calls they make and can usually dicipher whether it is in distress and warrants immediate investigation or not. For example, the cry of a lamb that has temporarily lost sight of its mother compared to a lamb that has got itself stuck in the stock fencing. 

Today the orphan lamb was crying out as we were doing jobs outside. It was more attention seeking (understandable perhaps in a baby)  than a sign of being in difficulties. For Janet, though, it evoked that agitated feeling that persisted until it became unbearable. Not from irritation but from a strong maternal response. "It feels like she is going to make me leak milk" she said as she 'threw in the trowel' and retreated indoors. (I didn't say anything to this but, even though I'm no Zacharias, I momentarily pondered these words in my heart).

The lamb is eating more grass now so we are reducing the number of bottle feeds. It looks healthy and strong so it should grow into a fine ewe.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Seasonal diet

The very first spears of the season. Asparagus will now regularly feature in our diet for at least the next six weeks. After that we'll wait again until 2021. From West Suffolk, not Peru.

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Fresh pillow case

In a few weeks time the greenhouse will be filling up with fast growing, high yielding fruiting vegetable plants such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Container grown plants will also be springing to life. Both will benefit from regular feeding to get the best from them.

The conventional solution is tomato feed but for those who like to adopt a more self-sufficient and 'lighter earth' touch, making your own manure tea is the long established route.

Having needed to repair a leak in the container I use, I took the opportunity to refresh my set up. So this morning I filled a fresh pillow case (the selection of which had been fully approved) with some newly deposited sheep manure. Because the lactating ewes are currently being fed a coarse feed supplement their poo is not yet in the form of Maltesers but rather larger lumps which are ideal for the purpose. Generous bunches of nettles were also added. Nettles are high in nitrogen and their roots delve quite deep, drawing up minerals and other sub-soil nurients. The comfrey plants, grown for the purpose, have not yet leafed up, so they will be used later in the season. 

The bag was tied up and left to soak in a large lidded container of water. Because I happen to have some around, a couple of litres of pig uirne was also added to the mix, but this is by no means essential.

In a few weeks I'll fill some empty milk cartons with the brew and add about 1:10 ratio to a watering can of water to provide a weekly feed for those plants that would benefit.

It is not a case of 'the more the merrier', though, because for some fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and peppers it is possible to overfeed with too much nitrogen and the outcome is leafy growth at the expense of fruit formation. This is not so much of an issue for plants such a hostas, grown for their foliage. 

This resulting liquid fertiliser is not, of course, scientifically fomulated as you would get from shop bought fertiliser. But then the uptake of nutrients, whatever it states on the bottle, will vary according to the growing conditions the plant finds itself in.  The main thing is that the 'Big Three' nutrients (NPK) are available to supply the plant: nitrogen (for leafy growth); phosphorus (for fruit formation); and potassium for plant processes, in particular photosynthesis. Plant physiologists might not agree, but for those growing their own this is quite adequate and I have no complaints about my yields or the quality of produce.

Some feel that growing plants 'hard' (that is a judicious and conservative approach to feeding and watering) results in more flavoursome fruit. I'd agree with that. That dosen't mean starving them, however. Its the difference between the ubiquitous imported Spanish greenhouse tomatoes and home grown ones. If you have tried both you will know what I mean. 

Pillow case and contents put to soak

Lid shut - it will be needed


Monday 13 April 2020

The not so common King Edward

The first earlies and second earlies are already in, and today I started planting out the maincrop. We still have 2019 potatoes in storage and they should see us through until this year's start being  harvested. Its worth noting that the variety that has stored best (out of several types I grew last year) is the King Edward and they remain in excellent condition. 

The King Edward is, of course, a famous variety and if you asked riders of the Clapham omnibus to name a potato variety the chances are they would name this one. These days they are far less likely to be eating them, however. Despite their commendable culinary attributes they are not a particularly high yielding potato so they are not the variety favoured by farmers. Or should I say supermarkets?

Most consumers will get their potatoes from the supermarket with whom farmers have contracts. The table below, published by AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board), shows the top ten most widely planted potatoes in Great Britain in 2019. (It would be interesting to compare a similar list for amatuer and other small scale growers).

It seems odd that the once almost obiquitous King Edward is becoming a 'speciality' variety which, if you don't grow them yourself, you might have to search out.

Their kitchen-worthiness and their good storage charcteristics are reasons why I will grow King Edwards again this year. I normally grow at least one other maincrop and this year I will be growing one I've not tried before - Pink Gypsey - as well as Pink Fir Apple.

I'm always interested in the origins of notable fruit and vegetable varieties. If you had assumed that the King Edward, which dates from around 1902, was named after King Edward VII you would be correct. Royal approval for the name was sought and was forthcoming.

In the The History and Social Influence of the Potato by Redliffe N. Salaman (1949),  the following information is provided about the origins of the King Edward:-

"The variety 'King Edward VII', whose parentage is unknown, was raised by a gardener in Northumberland who called his seedling 'Fellside Hero'. From Northumberland it passed into the possession of a grower in Snaith, Yorkshire, who brought it to the notice of a Manchester potato merchant. The latter could make no immediate use of it and gave his tubers to Mr J. Butler of Scotter [in Lincolnshire], who eventually bought all the stocks that were in the hands of the Yorkshire grower. Mr Butler grew on, until he had 50 acres of the variety in hand. On the advice of a Mr Paxton, potato merchant of Manchester, he rechristened the potato 'King Edward', and placed his stocks on the market in 1910 at £12.10s. a ton. This variety is to-day the most popular in England, and commands the highest prices on account of its excellent cooking qualities. This account, which I derived from Mr Butler himself, illustrates not only the spirit of the period then drawing to an end, but the fact that the producer of potato varieties is the last to reap any reward. Bred by an amatuer, chance dictated its birth, a native flair its survival, and the juggling of names its successful debut".

King Edwards with the characteristic red blush


Monday 6 April 2020

Bee feed

With the sun out and the daytime temperatures a little warmer dandelions have opened up in large numbers. So long as they avoid the ornamental spaces they don't trouble me too much. At this time of the year they are a valuable source of nectar for bees, particularly in these arable lands where the range of forage is relatively limited. No oil seed rape is grown in these parts.

Our bees have become very active in the last few days and it is reassuring seeing them busy flying about the hives as I am aware of people I know losing colonies, possibly because of the unduly wet winter. Cold, bees can cope with but not damp.  

The bees have been fed fondant over the winter which they have gradually nibbled away at. This week I changed to a syrup solution to tide them over until they re-build their reserves during the spring. 

The hive stand for one of the hives was bowing in the middle causing the hive to be askew. This is not helpful because it means the frames will be hanging at the wrong angle too in the boxes and are more likely to become glued together. There is also the risk of the whole thing collapsing later in the summer with the weight of honey in the supers. So early one frosty morning, before the bees became active, I quickly replaced the stand with another that was placed ready to use. When I lifted the hive it was much lighter than I expected which indicated that the honey reserves must be quite depleted. All the more reason to provide some supplementary feeding.

We have some warm days forecast for this week so this will provide an opportunity to do the first full inspection of the year. 

Saturday 4 April 2020

Lamb update

Seven of our breeding ewes have lambed so far with 10 lambs between them. There is one more ewe to go and although she looks pregnant she seems some way off giving birth. She must have played hard-to-get when the ram was in with them last autumn.

One lamb I had to deliver was breech and legs all-a-tangle. Sadly the ewe, which was our oldest in the flock, did not survive beyond the next day having needed to be put to sleep by the vet. This left us with an orphan ewe lamb which requires bottle feeding four times per day. We kept it in our utility room for the first week as the overnight temperatures were below freezing most days and she had no mother to keep her warm. She is out in the field with all the others now but follows me around close on my heels if I am out there with them.

Today the sun is out and temperatures are beginning to feel more spring-like at last, and right now the ewes and their lambs are dotted around in their family groups. Later this afternoon the lambs will have a burst of energy and run and jump around together in a big group. I'm hoping our orphan lamb will begin to join in too.

Bottle fed four times a day
Some of the lambs out in the sun with their mothers
The orphan spotted me across the vegetable plot and started
calling out to me. I was on my way to feed her in any case.

Tuesday 31 March 2020

Fleeting perfection

We've been picking tulips from our cutting garden, the one flower that we have available there at this time of the year. Tulips are not the best flowers for cutting as they don't seem to last very long in the vase before they go over as the ones here are beginning to.

But it is important to enjoy fleeting moments of perfection. It is also an excuse to post another of Shakespeare's sonnets (which is not really about horticulture despite the first couple of lines).

Sonnet 15

When I consider everything that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check'd even by the selfsame sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

Friday 27 March 2020

Premier greens

At the beginning of January I mentioned that I had planted out a late sowing of pak choi in the greenhouse. We have been eating the mature plants for a couple of weeks now and there is still plenty more to come. However, we will have to finish them off soon as I will be needing the greenhouse space for summer crops. For me pak choi is the premier leafy green vegetable and well worth growing. 

One pak choi plant picked for today's dinner in an
admittedly somewhat posed picture. You can see in the
colander that the plants are beginning to flower. It all
goes into the wok. 

Aside from the pak choi, I picked the last three red cabbages which have stood well in the ground over the winter. These were finely chopped and put in the freezer after a rapid blanch. The last of the  leeks and celery have just been
finished but we still have some parsnips in the ground. And of course potatoes and onions in storage which will see us through to this year's crops.

Saturday 21 March 2020

Bacteria rather than viruses

Today I turned my attention away from viruses back to bacteria, penecillium roqueforti to be specific. For the last few months I have been trying to get to grips with cheese making. I have made some cottage cheese and ricotta-type cheese which are easy enough, but I wanted to throw myself in at the deep-end and focus more on complex cheeses. 

Like many practical skills the only way to learn effectively is by doing it. The smallholding club I belong to has a cheese making interest group. There are varying degrees of experience within the small handful of aspiring cheese makers in the group. We are all essentially novices or 'advanced beginners' engaged in mutual learning. But because the process can be lengthy, cheese making is inevitably a largely solitary activity at the domestic level.

Apart from the soft cheeses, goats milk Wensleydale and a Stilton-type cheese have been gratifying successes. I have some 'Cheddar' currently maturing so judgement is still a couple of months away to try the first one. 

Today I have been making another Stilton and I will be more than happy to reproduce the last effort. This is where the penecillium roqueforti comes in, for this is what produces the green veining.   Because conditions are difficult to control and standardise in making cheese at home the outcome is likely to be more variable than commercially produced cheese. If the final product is tasty then this is not a problem and in fact makes it more interesting. 

Stilton in the making, using a home made press

After pressing but before maturing.
About 4" x 3" in dimension

Wednesday 18 March 2020

Sheep Don't You Know the Road

Lambing continues. One breech delivery that was not progressing and which needed untangling internally before pulling the single lamb out. The lamb seemed fine once it got its breath. Other than this the other deliveries have gone smoothly. So far 8 lambs from 5 ewes; three more to go. The sheep seem to know what they are doing.

Thursday 5 March 2020

Lambing 2020 off to a good start

The first of this year's lambs arrived yesterday evening. None of the ewes appeared to be in labour as darkness fell but when I went to check on them around 9pm there were two twin ram lambs standing together in the middle of the barn with ewes looking on. It was easy to spot who the mother was and the three of them were penned up together so that they could get on with bonding. 

The mother had already cleaned them up and the afterbirth had also been fully delivered. Not much for me to do other than spray iodine on their navels, checking each of the two ewe's teats were producing milk and direct the lambs in their general direction. The ewe and two lambs had a matching number 1 sprayed on them so that eventually it will be clear which lamb belongs to which ewe when they are let out to the turnout paddock.

At this point it is best to leave them alone to work things out for themselves but to return for a periodic check to be sure that the lambs are suckling. The all-important thing is that they suckle within the first 6 hours to ensure they have their share of the high nutrient and protective antibodies of colostrum. This makes for a long night but when matters go smoothly as Nature planned, it is a reassuring feeling.  

Monday 2 March 2020

Motherly instincts

One of the new gilts we acquired last summer farrowed last night, producing a modest but healthy litter of seven piglets. Well done, too, to our young boar Alfie for his first litter.

Pigs being so large, and piglets being so small, means that generally there are few obstetric issues, certainly far less than with sheep. It makes sense, however, to keep a supervisory eye over proceedings but there is little need to intervene. This amounts to wiping any mucous and membrane from the mouth and nose of the new born piglet, snipping off most of their trailing umbilicus and giving the remainder a spray of iodine. Then point them in the direction of a teat.

It is fascinating to watch the behaviour of the sow, or in this case gilt as it was her first pregnancy. Its always slightly nerve racking looking on expecting a tiny piglet to get squashed. 

With first timers, from my observations, there is an initial seeming perplexity on the part of the pig when a piglet arrives and is scrambling around her legs. After a few more arrivals mum appears to realise they she has some responsibility for  these miniature pigs and begins to take ownership.

She soon lies on her side to allow them to suckle whilst delivering the rest of the litter, although she will stand up at intermittent intervals. This is often after a new piglet is delivered and the action of standing up breaks the umbilical chord. Then comes the process of lying down again with her growing brood milling around her feet.

One of the most remarkable things is how the new mother deploys a technique to avoid crushing her off-spring. First she makes a rapid low grunting call to signal to the litter. Then she leans against the farrowing house wall and slowly slides her back down, lowering herself to the ground. As she does so the piglets gradually retreat backwards out of the way of her great bulk. Mum then shuffles herself over a bit more so that her teats are exposed and the piglets scramble to latch on. 

Normally when you feed a pig they are entirely focused on consumption and focus completely on this task until all the food is gone; there is no interrupting them. This morning when she came for her food her litter was behind her and after every few mouthfuls she return to her litter to check on them before resuming her feeding.

New born piglets have only one aim: to search out for a teat a suck on it as if their life depends on it. In fact it does. If you move them aside, for example under a heat lamp, they are immediately determined to get back to mum to suckle. 

Its best not to handle the piglets too much at this stage in any case as they will let out a high pitch squeal which will immediately alarm mum and her protective instincts are triggered. Best let her get on with it if there are no problems.

All of this and much more comes naturally to the new mother. This is both amazing and, for me, exceedingly helpful.

The scramble. The eldest of these piglets
 its just 
a couple of hours.

Tuesday 25 February 2020

Why we need small abattoirs

Smallholders in Suffolk are having a particularly difficult time finding suitable slaughter services because of the continuing closure of small abattoirs. Here, in the west of the county, we are encountering these difficulties ourselves. Just a few weeks ago a small abattoir just over the border in Norfolk has closed its slaughter operations although remains open as a butcher. Unfortunately, this is not a local issue but a national trend and one of concern.

The loss of abattoir businesses has been striking. In 1930 there were over 30,000 abattoirs in the UK. By 2017 this had fallen to 249 (not all of which can be counted as ‘small abattoirs’). 

The Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) has been instrumental in drawing the crisis in small abattoirs to Government attention. They highlight the essential importance the role small abattoirs play:-

“Small abattoirs are the unsung linchpins of our local food systems. Without them, we could not have local, traceable meat production. Small-scale, high welfare farming, rearing of rare breeds, organic or pasture fed and the success of local food businesses, including direct sales like meat boxes and farm shops, all depend on the services of small, local abattoirs.”

                                          (Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2018)

Despite their importance, the UK’s smallest abattoirs are currently facing an unprecedented crisis. With high running costs and a food and meat industry increasingly orientated towards centralised, industrial food systems, many of them are losing money and struggling to remain viable.

There are now only 56 small ‘red meat’ abattoirs left in the UK, with a third having closed between 2007 and 2017 according to the SFT.

One reason for the crisis is due to a collapse in the value of hides and skins. There has also been a significant decline in cattle numbers. At the same time, waste disposal costs for most small abattoirs have increased significantly due to consolidation in the rendering industry and higher minimum charges for small quantities. Small abattoirs find it increasingly difficult to compete economically with large meat processing plants.

Small abattoirs are consequently at a major disadvantage compared with the very large slaughter-houses which process animals for multiple retailers. Large slaughterhouses often receive significant amounts of public money in grants and also benefit from economies of scale, but the animals they slaughter generally travel many hundreds of miles at the cost of their welfare and the environment. In contrast, consignments to small abattoirs are typically far fewer in number and in small trailers travelling much shorter distances in their aim of serving local customers or simply supplying the household. The benefits of small abattoirs for animal welfare are being lost.

The concerns about abattoir closures has been picked up by the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Animal Welfare which commenced an investigation and consultation into the matter in March 2019. They were due to report at the end of last year but this has been delayed because of the General Election. It is not yet clear how the regulatory framework for animal welfare, including for abattoirs, following the UK’s departure from the EU is going to impact future policy and provision.

In the meantime, we are now looking for yet another abattoir where we can take our livestock when the time comes.


Ruse was a fine example of a small abattoir with whom we had great trust in them in the way they handled livestock and in their butchery knowledge and skills. Alas, they closed their abattoir a couple of years ago and just recently their famed butcher shop too after 160 years presence in Long Melford.

Saturday 22 February 2020

Fen blow

Another very windy day today and yet more rain is on the way. Storm Ciara, followed by Storm Dennis on successive weekends, both caused us some damage in our rather exposed location. The most serious was Ciara which ripped off the roof of our barn in its entirety, depositing it half way down the bank of the dyke on our rear boundary. This was not good timing in view of lambing starting in a couple of weeks when the barn is most needed.

Here is a photograph looking across the field opposite us on Sunday morning of the 9th of February when Storm Ciara was going full pelt and before the rain came. It shows a Fen Blow when farmland topsoil gets caught in the wind and eventually banks up on the field margins. It is often associated with the Fen peatlands but we also experience it on our light sandy soil. The field, about 40 acres, had not long been sown with onions. I don't know if it needs to be re-sown. Perhaps onions will crop up in odd places during the summer.

A Fen blow caused by Storm Ciara in the field opposite us.

A new roof for the barn has been constructed with a more storm proof design. 

The rain has been unrelenting this winter which for livestock keepers presents a real challenge. The pig paddocks in particular are very muddy and I am thankful we are not on heavy clay which would make conditions far worse. I'm already planning for next year (and subsequent years it looks like) to avoid this winter's pig-keeping difficulties.

Working on the smallholding has been on the irksome side recently. But then again, we have not had our home or business flooded as in the west and north of the country, and our crops and livelihoods have not been devoured by locust swarms as is currently the case in parts of North Africa, nor our house burnt to a cinder from uncontrollable bushfires.

Saturday 8 February 2020

I enjoy silver birch trees

The main task this week has been the annual challenge of trimming our front boundary hedge. I've left it a little later to do than usual but its not yet coming into leaf so too early for a nest site. I did come across two tiny  abandoned (wren?) nests made up mainly of woven wool collected fleece shed by our sheep. 

The hedge is about 200 yards altogether and a little over 6' high, and made up of hawthorn, blackthorn and dogwood. The blackthorn is very spikey and on one occasion one of the thorns penetrated the sole of my wellington boot which was followed by some impulsive hopping around. It takes about two days to complete the job including collecting up the trimmings.

We have several mature birch trees. Not the garden cultivars but ordinary native silver birch, Betula pendula. I say ordinary but they are very attractive trees all the year round. As their name suggests, they have a somewhat weeping habit and the distinctive white bark. In the autumn their leaves turn a stunning yellow and during the winter their thin, black, weeping growth on their extremities make for a fine tracery effect against the sky. 

Our largest birch is right in the corner of our property and during the hedge cutting I looked at it for a while.

Here is a different birch tree nearby but pictured in October.

Wednesday 5 February 2020

Preparing for lambing

Four weeks to go before the first lambs are expected to arrive. I have started to give the ewes some additional supplementary feed as it is in the final four weeks of gestation that lambs put on most growth. The ewes need to be in a good condition to cope with giving birth and its aftermath. 

Friday 31 January 2020

Pristine peacock

I know that it has been a relatively mild winter so far but I was still surprised, on the last day of January, to come across this peacock butterfly in pristine condition. 

Thursday 9 January 2020

Late pak choi

I was rather late sowing pak choi for a winter greenhouse crop. I didn't get round to it until well into October (the end of August or early September would have been more appropriate). I sowed them in modules and although they germinated well they were slow to leaf up. However, now they are looking very promising and I finally transferred them from the modules into a greenhouse border (fortified by my special reserve compost). I expect to be able to start cropping from them in four or five weeks and they should continue until I need the space again in late spring.  

This is a crop well worth growing, especially if you see the price of them in supermarkets. These are severely trimmed and the small plants are generally packed in cellophane. This is painful to see as when we once lived within striking distance of a big Chinese grocery, thick bunches of pak choi (and other asian leaf vegetables) were cheap to buy. Alas, flown in from afar.

All the more reason to grow your own. The seed is readily available (Wilkos, 50p at the end of the season discounted price). Actually this is the best time to grow them as they are cool season plants. They are prone to bolt in high summer temperatures and won't tolerate drying out. Pak choi are easy to germinate and are surprisingly hardy, even tolerating a degree of frost. They can be grown outside but you will get a better crop undercover. They like a rich soil and kept well watered.

Individual leaves will be picked off
when they are ready, and in this way
the plants will keep cropping for
 a couple of months at least

Sunday 5 January 2020

Climbing out of the valley

Although there is still a lot of winter ahead, the turn of the new year does feel as if the bottom of the valley has been reached and the climb up out of its shadow is underway. Daylight has noticeably begun to lengthen. The main way for me to determine this is noting what time the hens need to be shut up for the night. They take themselves in on their own, of course, prompted by the descent of darkness. A couple of weeks ago they were all in by 4pm but today it was nearer 4:20pm. This part of the daily routine moves gradually later and later and by mid-summer I won't need to shut them in until nearly 10pm.

At this time thoughts and energies increasingly turn to preparations for spring both in respect of livestock and for vegetable and fruit growing. And indeed the more ornamental flourishes within the smallholding.

The feeling of ascent has been helped by the current cessation of the seemingly constant rain (except the relapse last Saturday overnight) as well as a few days when the sun also came out. In addition, by our back gate there is the reliably delicious scent of the evergreen Christmas box (sarcococca) shrubs planted adjacent to it. Their tiny yellow-tinged flowers provide a powerful aroma for anyone coming or going.

Sarcococca or Christmas Box. I'm not sure the variety.

Today the focus was on the asparagus bed. This had already been cut down, weeded and the soil ridges tidied up. The task now was to cover the lot in a generous layer of compost and manure. I have five 20' rows of asparagus which required two barrow loads of compost per row. Its a winter job I rather enjoy. The pay-off comes in May and June with a new crop of fresh asparagus.

I'm able to generate a good supply of compost. I have five large main composting bays and I know I will use four of these for the winter manuring of the vegetable plots over the next couple of weeks. The fifth bay is currently being filled and will be ready for use this time next year. I also have a separate supply of my 'special reserve' of extra quality compost that I save for the greenhouse beds, the perennial borders and for reinvigorating a bed or row once a crop has been lifted and a new one is to replace it in the same space. The special reserve is made in a number of the green plastic composting bins with lids, and in which I fuss a bit more about what goes in to produce a well rotted, weed seed free, crumbly mixture within a year.

Because I poo-pick the hen houses each morning to keep the bedding fresh for longer I visit the compost bins at least once daily so I also keep a check on how they are doing. Yes, things definitely feel on the up as we commence 2020.