Friday 25 February 2022

Goose march in Germany

I recently wrote about drove roads and the practice of driving livestock to market, including geese. It appears to be still the practice in Zennern, Germany.


Thursday 24 February 2022

Booster jab (for the sheep)

The main task today was to give our Wiltshire Horn sheep their annual booster vaccination of Heptavac P. A common question if you are buying or selling sheep is "have they been heptavaced?" Heptavac P is a vaccine that provides protection against a range of clostridial bacterial diseases (typically fatal), the source of which is commonly found in pasture. It is administered by sub-cutaneous injection and is recommended to be given to breeding ewes 4-6 weeks prior to lambing. This means that new lambs will acquire some residual protection for a short period after birth. 

Lambs, from three weeks of age onwards, will require two injections weeks 4-6 apart - similar to the double vaccination against coronavirus most of us are now familiar with. Thereafter, if the lambs become part of the breeding stock they will fall into the routine of an annual booster.

Once the vaccine bottle is open it needs to be used within 10 hours. It can't be saved for later, for example, when the new lambs are due their first dose. Any surplus needs to be disposed of. A new bottle will have to be purchased, and again for the second dose. So that's three lots of Heptavac P all told each breeding season. And it is not cheap.

For sheep keepers like ourselves with small flocks the smallest available vaccine bottle contains much more than is generally needed. To help get round this we co-ordinate with our smallholder friends Mark and Anne who also have a small flock, in their case Shetland sheep. In this way we can share the vaccine and its cost and little goes to waste.

So first thing this morning Mark and Anne came over. They gave me a hand vaccinating my flock and later returned to their own smallholding to do theirs. I have an injection gun which makes administering the vaccine much easier than having to draw up individual syringes. This is a system that works very well for us.

Tuesday 22 February 2022

Local wildlife

In the farmland across the road from our smallholding, where I walk the dog, a herd of roe deer are frequently to be seen  grazing the young shoots of wheat. Each year  they turn up late winter time and remain until the autumn. I've counted up to 15 in this herd. Today I tried to take a photograph of a group of six about 100 yards distant. Too far for a decent shot with a phone camera. They were staring straight back at me ready to run if I came any closer. Here's the photograph. You can make out the deer in the centre. Not much of a wildlife photograph. But what a sky! A typical fenland view.

Better luck with swans. In the brief interlude between Eunice and Franklin on Saturday I had to nip into Mildenhall. This photograph of a group of swans is taken next to Sainsbury's car park not far from the High Street. The line of trees at the back marks the bank of the River Lark which flows from Bury St Edmunds and eventually into the Great Ouse at Prickwillow, which in turn flows into The Wash at Kings Lynn.

The swans are heading directly towards me. I was no attraction but just in front, out of shot, was a very large puddle and several of them stopped there for a drink.

Monday 21 February 2022

A welcome bee sting

We keep bees for honey but I don't think of myself as a beekeeper. Rather, a smallholder who keeps bee who are. We do have our successes, and whilst we get modest amounts of honey, and bees themselves are fascinating creatures, things don't always go as well as planned. For example, I set up two new colonies during the summer past but neither have survived the winter. One reason is that I don't think that they reached critical mass by the end of the summer to sustain themselves through the winter. This is essential for temperature and humidity control, as well as ensuring that there are enough bees within the colony to maintain the minimum capacity required taking into account the expected losses.

I saw some bees from our strongest colony flying a few week's ago when we had a relatively mild spell and some sunshine. But not recently. When I checked their supplementary feed not as much of it had been consumed as I had expected. I did not want to open up the hive and let cold air in to check so I began having doubts about whether this colony too had survived or not.

With the recent gales I decided to strap the hive down down to reduce the risk of it blowing over. In the process my doubts were allayed. A few bees flew out, disturbed by what I was doing, and one stung me on the back of the neck. Keeping bees, you do get the odd sting now and again. This one I was strangely grateful for.

Friday 18 February 2022

Eunice here for the day

There is still very strong winds blowing this evening but the worst of Storm Eunice, for us at least, appears to have passed at last. Having livestock meant  that periodically I had to go outside during the day to carry out necessary tasks and every time I came back in I felt a bit battered.

Some minor repairs to sort out around the smallholding when the weather settles, and lots of branches and tree debris to collect up. The most destructive incident was that a field shelter got smashed to smithereens. The road by our house was temporarily blocked by a fallen tree from the farm field opposite. A neighbouring farmer soon came along with his tractor and moved it out of the way. 

I feel for those in the West country and South Wales who got the worst of it including house roofs taken off and other disruptions.


Ex-sheep shelter



Thursday 17 February 2022

Bringing the sheep in

The first lambs are not due for another three weeks but I decided to move the ewes into the barn today. This is partly a pre-emptive move because of the imminent arrival of Eunice. When she has passed by we have wet and windy weather forecast for a few days, at least, afterwards. We have seven ewes expecting and with them are two other ewes too young to breed from this year. Hopefully they will observe and take note of what is going on. 

There is not much grass to be had  and the ewes are eating mostly hay in any case. The two rams, who have been kept separate, will have to grin and bare it. Our Wiltshire Horn sheep are a primitive breed and are in fact hardy enough to cope with the weather, but with the ewes being in an advanced stage of pregnancy it makes sense to get them comfortable and used to where they will deliver. 

If the wind speeds tomorrow turn out to be as currently anticipated (80 mph plus) I expect some trees here to go down. Lets hope they fall in the right direction. I did what I could today to try and minimise potential damage around the holding but we will have to see what the state of play is once the dust has settled.

The ewes

The barn

Tuesday 15 February 2022

Happy Chap goh mei

Today is Chap goh mei, the 15th day of the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year celebration, bringing the festivities to a close. Chap goh mei is actually a Hokkien phrase, a Chinese dialect spoken in parts of the south of China and in Taiwan in particular. In mainland China it is the Lantern Festival, or Yuan xiao jie in Mandarin.

For us this means preparing one of our supply of home reared ducks from the freezer, slow roasted with barbeque sauce. Janet makes her own sauce and includes her home made Chinese plum sauce as one of the components. The left over sauce is always saved and added to for the next time it is needed. Don't ask her for the recipe, its all done by eye and taste

We have not had the traditional Chap goh mei treats of yuanxiao or the similar tangyuan for a while now as we cannot easily access a Chinese grocery. These are balls of glutinous rice with different types of filling such as black sesame or red bean paste. The round balls symbolise family unity and togetherness which continue to be powerful cultural aspects of Chinese New Year.

We have always celebrated or at least signified Chinese festivals and there are certain things Janet will do or not do on Chinese New Year's day. She will get many messages from family and friends from abroad and video clips of their local lion dance. Our three daughters will always send their greetings too.  

 Image b
y Conbo at vi.wikipedia 

Monday 14 February 2022


We have had thoughts of getting some quail for some time but never acted on them. However, today we collected seven quails: six females and one male. It was a bit of a drive across to the far east of Suffolk, but at least we can now say we have been to Uggshall.

They are Japanese quail, otherwise known as Coturnix quail. The smaller European quail, which is native to Britain and now relatively scarce, is Coturnix coturnix. Japanese quail derive from Asia, hence Coturnix japonica

We want them primarily for their eggs. It is very rare that we have quail eggs as Waitrose is not our natural habitat. And we might quail at the price. But like, say asparagus, its nice to be able to have a 'speciality' food  occasionally, especially if you have produced it yourself.

With the decision to acquire some quail, it meant another housing project, so over the last couple of days I have put together a quail house made from a combination of bits I already had and some additional timber bought for the job.

Friday 11 February 2022


We have a hazel tree (Corylus avensis) near our front gate and at present it is covered in catkins. Trees that flower early, before they come into leaf, I always find particularly  attractive.

Hazel, like many of our native trees, are wind pollinated and the catkins are designed to catch the pollen that is carried through the air. This strikes me as a rather random means of fertilisation but many of the plants we depend on, such as grains, are fortuitously successful at wind pollination.

The design of flowers in wind pollinated trees and plants are suitably adapted, as is the case with hazel catkins. Another major factor is that wind pollinated plants produce billions of pollen grains that are much smaller and lighter than found in insect pollinated flowers which considerably improves the chances of success. 

Although we cannot see it, the air is full of tree pollen at this time of the year. Many will feel it, though, if they suffer from hay fever. The season is just getting under way. 

Hazel tree covered in catkins

A closer view of the catkins

Thursday 10 February 2022

Pine lines

If you drive along the A11 from Mildenhall towards Thetford and beyond, into the deeper obscurities of Norfolk, you might notice lines of strangely contorted Scots Pine trees. This is an area of West Suffolk and South Norfolk known as The Brecks. The landscape makes a distinct change from the flat fenlands, on the edge of which we are located.

The Brecks is characterised by sandy heathlands, acid soils and, famously, flint. Brandon is the historical centre of the flint knapping trade. The area is notable for its flint houses, churches and walls and, of course, finds of pre-historic flint weapons and tools. Not far from Brandon is Grimes Grave which is the site of a neolithic flint pit where flints were 'mined'. 

One other distinctive feature of the Brecks is the Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris). Since the 1920s the Forestry Commission have bought up large tracts of land and established wide-ranging tree plantations which they manage, including Thetford Forest. Scots Pines were extensively planted. But their origin in the area goes much further back.  

Some have argued that the Scot Pine in this area, being a very long lived and ancient species in paleo botanical terms, is possibly a remnant of post Ice Age spread of the species as its distribution headed north with the retreating ice. The Scottish highlands is where its natural home is now in Britain.

For the most part, however, the Scots Pines we see here have been planted initially as field hedges as an alternative to hawthorn. Where they remain they have been left untrimmed and allowed to grow into mature trees. As a result, a typical feature of The Brecks is pine lines. They can be seen dividing agricultural fields or lining  field edges like the ones on the A11. In many places the original pine line has been allowed to develop into a larger stand of pines to provide cover for gamebirds. In Mildenhall the pine lines have been left undisturbed when overspill housing was built in the 1960s and 70s so that they line the residential roads.

On our holding we have some Scots Pines on one of our boundaries, as have the boundaries of some of the other land and properties further along the road. They are very old trees and in high winds branches and debris often break off. 

The neighbouring farmer has some pine lines to be seen dividing some of his fields. I guess they were once hedges many years ago. They have a stark look about them in an otherwise uninterrupted view across flat fields.

A pine line in our neighbouring farmer's field.

A self-seeded Scots Pine growing in a 
farm ditch bank.

A photo I have posted before. A pine line lining the field opposite our house, at dusk.

Wednesday 9 February 2022

Starting a wildflower garden

A new addition to part of the garden area this summer will hopefully be a wildflower garden, a sort of pre-herbicidal meadow effect. We have a small orchard area approximately 40 feet by 40 feet that has been designated as the location for this initiative. 

The recommended method for establishing a wildflower garden or meadow is to strip off the turf, dig over and rake to create a seed bed. Then a mixture of wild flower seed and grasses is sown broadcast and watered in. Soil improvement is not required as wild flowers generally prefer poor soil, so no extra nutrient need be applied.

I can foresee the potential for matters not to go to plan with this approach. In particular, poor germination from direct broadcast sowing. Aside from which, I don't have the appetite for more large scale turf removal at the moment having undertaken a fair bit this time last year when I created the new flower beds. 

My plan is to sow in modules and pots to get the plants established and plant them out as plug plants into the closely mown grass. Success will depend on sufficient plants growing on to flower, taking into account some losses on the way, and for them being able to keep up with with the grass growth. We shall see.

Today I sowed 15 different varieties of native wild flowers which should produce the sufficient quantity and diversity I have in mind. Here is the list:-

Borage (Borage officinalis)

Red valerian (Centranthus ruber)

Simpler's joy (Verbena officinalis)

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

 White clover (Trifolium repens)

Betony (Stachys officinalis)

Wild sage/ Wild clary (Salvia verbenaca)

Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor)

Ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi)

Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)

Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia)

Orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum)

Wild cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)

Corn chamomile (Anthemis arvensis)

Common Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)

The genesis of a wildflower garden.

Saturday 5 February 2022

Ram lamb hanging back

We currently have three ram lambs, born last March, which we have kept on because they were still on the small side when their remaining siblings went off last autumn. They are with two adult rams, making a group of five who have been kept separate from the ewes over winter.

The rams have some supplementary feed (primarily for the benefit of the ram lambs) in addition to good quality hay, which is always available, and whatever grass there is to be had at this time of the year. First thing this morning all was much the same with them except one ram lamb was a little slow coming to the trough. This lamb, one of twins, had been rejected by his mother when he was born and had to be bottle fed. Despite being under-sized he is normally unhesitant in taking his position along the line of troughs for the supplementary sheep food. So, although in every other respect he looked fine, it was uncharacteristic for him to hang back. 

Sheep are well known for not displaying signs of ill-health until, or unless, it reaches a critical stage which might well be the point of no return. This is perhaps an evolutionary defence strategy against potential predators who might otherwise pick off the weak members of the flock or herd. Hence the need for vigilance and regular observation of the flock and gaining an understanding of sheep behaviour. This lamb was up on his feet and feeding and he was holding his head up, but as a precaution I have brought him into the barn and given him some lamb boost which is a high energy nutrient normally given to new born lambs. In the barn he will be out of the elements and it will be easier to keep an eye on him. Hopefully, just a short term measure.

More sowing today: Leeks ('Musselburgh') begin their long journey to harvesting next winter; Broad beans (ever-reliable 'Aquadulce'); and Shallots. I grow the 'banana shallots', a variety called 'Zebrune', from seed as we find this type are the most useful in the kitchen. I have never seen them sold as sets but I find growing them from seed is fairly straight forward. All today's sowings were placed in the unheated greenhouse where they should germinate well being hardy crops.   


Shallot 'Zebrune'. I get  the
seeds from Kings Seeds.

Friday 4 February 2022

To a snowdrop

For much of today we had cold rain here. Rumour has it, it even snowed in Bury St Edmunds, 16 miles distant. Further afield, in Long Melford, the appearance of snowdrops was a source of justifiable excitement. This is the time to recall William Wordsworth's poem To a snowdrop. Daffodils more famously have their place of course, but not yet.

Flowers of Hope: Snowdrops in Long Melford today.

To a snowdrop                                       by William Wordsworth

Lone Flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they

But hardier far, once more I see thee bend

Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,

Like an unbidden guest. Though day by day,

Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay

The rising sun, and on the plains descend;

Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend

Whose zeal outruns his promise! Blue-eyed May

Shall soon behold this border thickly set

With bright jonquils, their odours lavishing

On the soft west-wind and his frolic peers;

Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,

Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,

And pensive monitor of fleeting years!

The rain provided an opportunity to stay under cover to sow aubergines ('Moneymaker'), chillies ('Demetra'; 'Long Slim'; 'Hungarian Hot Wax'; and 'Early Jalapeno') and sweet peppers ('Beauty Bell'). Tomatoes can wait until March. These all benefit from a long growing season so its good to get them started early. I sow them in seed trays placed in a heated propagator (I have two). This is the simplest of devices, providing a little bottom heat which is enough to improve the speed of germination and the rate of germination. An annual task which is another harbinger of Spring, despite today's weather.

Thursday 3 February 2022

Pig fertility issues

Its fair to say that overall we have had mixed fortunes breeding from our pedigree British Saddleback pigs. One of the two breeding sows we currently have has regularly been 'in pig' whilst the second (her sister) has so far had only one litter plus a couple of false alarms when we thought she might be pregnant but no litter subsequently materialised.  

There are a number of issues in respect of this. Firstly, if there is too long a gap since the previous pregnancy then there is a risk of the sow becoming infertile. Pigs need to have regular pregnancies to remain fertile. The minimum would be one litter per year (which is what we have aspired to up to now) but more reliable in maintaining fertility is two litters per year. Once a litter is weaned at eight weeks of age the sow can be put back with the boar after four or eight weeks. The length of gestation is commonly cited as 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. Or 115 days or more or less 4 months, so you can see how the two litters fit in over the course of a year.

The second issue is that sows often do not show obvious signs of pregnancy until quite late. Close observation is needed to see if she stands still for the boar, which is a good sign that she is in heat, or whether she won't stand still which might indicate she is already pregnant, or that there is some problem. Not being kept under constant observation, a further potential sign is muddy hoof prints half down the sow's back.  Another observation to look out for are changes to the sow's vulva which can indicate when the sow is cycling (normally every 21 days). The latter are harder to discern with black pigs like ours. Added to this is that a sow is only fertile for around 2 days each cycle so the window of opportunity for the boar or for using artificial insemination is quite small. 

A third related issue is that nearly four months could go by waiting to see if a sow is pregnant. Once it is confirmed this is not the case further valuable time has been lost and the risk of infertility rises.

One potential way out of these scenarios is to scan the sow. We have recently acquired an ultrasound scanner to see if we can improve our management of pig reproduction. So far I have tried it out with one of the sows. Obtaining the scanned image is one thing, but interpreting the image is another, not having had any training in sonography. As is often the case, reading  text books or scouring the internet for sample images don't readily translate into your own lived experience. Anyhow, after a few attempts I think I have produced an ultrasound image which indicates the sow is in the early stages of pregnancy, although I stand to be corrected and eventually time will tell. I have had a chance to confer with a smallholder friend who scans her prize-winning herd of rare breed pigs which has been helpful. 

The ideal time for scanning a pig is between 24-35 days gestation. Later in the pregnancy the key identifiers of pregnancy in the scanned image will change, for example, skeletal features will become evident. In about 10 days time I will scan the second sow, the one who has as yet had just the one litter, to see if there are any developments with her. By this time it will be 24 days since the boar was showing a distinct interest in her.

The way I read this is the rough sphere marked A
is an amniotic sac with the dark representing 
amniotic fluid. The small feature marked F is a
piglet foetus. The same can be seen less clearly
to the right. 

Wednesday 2 February 2022

Last of the Brussels

Today I stripped the Brussel sprout plants of any remaining sprouts. This was partly because some of the sprouts were beginning to blow, that is open out instead of remaining as tightly packed green balls. I also wanted to clear the area to prepare the soil in readiness for the next crop to be planted in the space they vacated. The stalks were passed on to the chickens to strip them of their leaves and any remnant sprouts. This they did in no time in a frenziedly consumed treat. 

We have had regular pickings of sprouts since early December and it looks like we have enough for several more meals to come. Not everyone likes sprouts. We do. Grow what you like. You do need a reasonable size vegetable bed, though, as Brussel sprout plants take up a fair bit of space.

Last of the Brussel sprouts.
The variety is 'Maximus'.