Thursday 31 March 2022

Vagaries of Spring

Tulips picked from the cutting garden a couple of days ago when it was a sunny 18 degrees centigrade. Its currently 1 degree and snowing. If you have started seed sowing you always need your wits about you at this time of the year.

Edit @ 09:15: Bright sunshine now! But still very cold. We are forecast some very strong winds early afternoon which I suspect will bring a wind chill with it. Not so good for tender leaves that have recently opened up, prompted by the mild weather a few days ago.

Tuesday 29 March 2022

Avian flu update

Avian flu in the UK has been the worst on record in the UK this winter and 'lockdown' restrictions remain in place. Our poultry continue to be confined with other biosecurity arrangements that are required in place. The expectation was that by this time, with the migratory season coming to an end, cases would diminish. This does not seem to be the case so far. 

Because of the length of time birds have had to be confined, eggs and poultry for sale can no longer be marketed as 'free range'. They are being re-labelled 'barn produced'. 

One of the worst affected areas recently has in fact been Suffolk. In the last four weeks alone there have been six separate outbreaks in the county, mainly in East Suffolk and Mid-Suffolk. The latest report was yesterday near Stowmarket. In one of these incidents a commercial duck producer had 85,000 birds culled and a further 25,000 culled in an outbreak in a different location.

As with covid, avian flu presents difficult policy decisions as to how best to manage the virus for the foreseeable future. It is probably wise for poultry keepers, large and small to prepare in advance for next winter with the expectation that confinement of birds will be required again and perhaps routinely in the future.

Monday 28 March 2022

Golden glints versus fat frogs

My friend Sue gave us a present of a jar of frog spawn yesterday. This was a much appreciated gift. Sue has a small pond in her garden which is currently chock full of frog spawn. There are a number of aquatic flora and fauna that have miraculously found their way into the pond I built 18 months ago, but no sign of any frogs. 

My only reservation is that we have a few small goldfish who have survived heron attacks and there is a risk they might gobble up any tadpoles that emerge. The fish provide glints of gold which is nice to see but if there's a choice I'd rather have frogs. Still, we have them now and we can only hope that the battle of the food chain balances itself enough for at least a tiny percentage of the spawn to make it to frog-dom.

Sunday 27 March 2022

Lenten reflections from a Suffolk Smallholding - 4

If you are directly responsible for the welfare of other sentient beings, whether that be children, other family members, pets and, as in our case, livestock, it necessitates a focused commitment. Such commitments all come with responsibilities which you cannot shirk. At this time on the smallholding, having to check the lambing shed for new arrivals at frequent intervals and dealing with new born lambs, certainly accentuates that sense of commitment in this area of our lives. We currently have a rejected twin lamb who is entirely dependent on being bottle fed four times a day in order to survive.

A not infrequent comment on our smallholding life is that it must impose rather too many restrictions: "you cannot take off for the weekend on the spur of the moment". Of course this is not a view we share. We don't feel it an imposition; it is a life and associated commitments based on decisions we freely enter into. In fact, in many ways it is a liberation because it opens up all sorts of life opportunities, experiences and relationships not otherwise encountered. It has engendered help and helping from and to others in collaborating in shared endeavours. It is also liberating because it is a simpler life, both experientially and materially. Moreover, what we are doing has a serious purpose behind it and is not simply to fill the day and pass the time. As it happens, when I think back with a growing family and developing professional lives, I do not recall one instance when we have ever taken off for a weekend on the spur of the moment! But that might just be us.

We get much satisfaction from being at home and for our home-based activities. If we do want to go away it is entirely possible with a bit of planning. We are fortunate in that we have people around us more than willing to step in and help. 

Overall, we would certainly not characterise our lives as restricted. In reality any meaningful life is necessarily one of commitments. Commitments, with their associated limitations, evolve over time but they are always present. Bringing up children, professional commitments, service to the community, personal commitments and, for many, commitments to faith, are obvious examples. Life is full of commitments. Sometimes they conflict which can lead to making difficult decisions. Having commitments and being committed are not the same thing, however. Action is required.

One important dimension of being committed worth highlighting, particularly in relation to interpersonal commitments, is that it encourages and promotes looking outside of the self rather than  inward looking pre-occupations. Good things can potentially flow from such an outlook, including positive effects on mental health.

Friday this week was the Feast of the Annunciation when Mary, despite her young age and lowly status (or indeed because of it) made a supreme commitment. On Mother's Day today, a model of perfection. True to liturgical neatness, Friday marked exactly 9 months to Christmas Day.

By Sassoferrato (1609-1685)

For more Lenten reflections, go to Angela's  Tracing Rainbows blog.


Wednesday 23 March 2022

Anemone blanda

In the corner of the patio there are some steps down to the garden and other areas of the holding, so I pass by this spot numerous times a day. The last few days a sprinkling of vivid blue Anemone blanda have suddenly appeared on this corner. They look particularly well against the yellow daffodils that emerge in the same spot and are flowering at the same time. Another incident that gladdens the heart as you go about your daily routine.

They will die back during the Summer and will reliably return next Spring. They are underplanting a lace cap hydrangea whose flowers comprise different shades of pink. I don't know the variety but it is impressive when in full flower and it flowers for quite a few weeks. This will dominate the corner for much of the Summer. In the photograph below, the hydrangea is just beginning to come into leaf. The freshly emerged leaves can be a little frost-tender but if they get singed, as they did last year with late frosts, it generally recovers.

Tuesday 22 March 2022


We put a clutch of duck eggs in the incubator and so far five have hatched. They are white pekin ducks and we have a flock of seven females and one male duck, or drake, which we keep for eggs. They are very good layers and keep us, and others, supplied throughout the whole year. 

Having a drake in the flock ensures that the eggs will be fertilised and therefore will potentially hatch if the conditions are right. The usual way of distinguishing the drake from the ducks is that they have curlier tail feathers and they don't make the traditional "quack, quack" call you expect from a duck. It's more of a rasping, wheezy sound. A much easier way of identifying the drake is that he is spotlessly white, whereas the ducks have muddy footprints on their backs. All of them.

We normally buy in a batch of day old ducklings each year and grow these on separately for meat, but we thought we would try to hatch our own. The ducklings in the photo below all hatched within the previous 24 hours. They are much larger than chicken chicks. We know from experience that they will eat voraciously and will grow very rapidly to adult size by 8-10 weeks time.

Monday 21 March 2022

Two out of three

In the early hours of Sunday morning one of the ewes had triplets. I did a 2:30am check and the amniotic sac was bulging out which meant she would deliver fairly soon. I left her to it and returned at 3:30am, just after the third lamb was born. The usual process of penning the ewe up with her offspring and some checks followed. The third of the triplets, however, was unable to stand on its rear legs and in fact they were entirely floppy. In all other respects he seemed quite okay. I parked him next to his two larger sisters and left mum to continue licking all three clean. 

Back at 7am and the two ewe lambs were up on their feet suckling but the ram lamb was still unable to stand. Once all the usual feeding jobs were done around the smallholding I tube fed the ram lamb with some powdered colostrum as there was no way it would be able to suckle being unable to stand at all. 

Later in the morning, after a discussion with the vet over the phone, she visited and her view was that the ram lamb had been born with a congenital deformity. Both hips were effectively dislocated with no functioning ligaments to hold the joints together. This was not considered treatable and so the sad but necessary decision was made to put the lamb to sleep. There was also the possibility that the lamb had acquired a viral infection called Schmallenberg's Disease so blood samples were taken from the lamb and the ewe for testing to hopefully rule this out. The vet examined the surviving lambs who were both healthy. Mum did not appear to miss the third of the triplets and seemed content with her two new ewe lambs. 

Sometimes it is necessary to accept that things don't always turn out as you expect them to. On the other hand, the hard reality is that in this case the ewe would have had a lot of difficulty looking after and feeding three lambs. The outcome for the surviving two lambs is somewhat improved.

Sunday 20 March 2022

Lenten reflections from a Suffolk Smallholding - 3

If you grow your own, whether in a window box, garden or smallholding, it helps to have a sense of hope. This is because most of what we do is about achieving future goals which are not guaranteed, but where there is, nevertheless, confidence that by undertaking certain actions there is a good chance we will succeed. Sowing a packet of seeds and hoping they will germinate and then eventually produce a harvest is a good example. But that won't happen unless you act to put in place the right conditions to bring about success. Of course, the same applies to every other aspect of life.

The role of hope in general wellbeing, as well as in overcoming mental health difficulties, has been increasingly supported by research evidence. Moreover, hope has been shown to have greater power in promoting wellbeing than optimism. What distinguishes hope from optimism is that optimism is a personal attribute where there are expectations of positive future outcomes. Hope has the same expectation but is grounded in an individual's belief that they have agency to bring these outcomes to fruition. To be hopeful means not only that you have the will, but also the means of finding the way forward. Optimism and hope overlap, but whereas optimism is frequently an in-built individual characteristic, either through one's genes or early upbringing, hope is something that has to be cultivated. It requires greater intentionality.

The psychological research has identified a number of strategies that can help cultivate a sense of hope. One contributory approach is to act. But this is often the one thing many find the most difficult. The answer is to undertake small actions in the right direction. A tiny step might seem futile but, once taken, it will likely change how you look and feel about things. Another step becomes that much easier. Mother Teresa once wrote: "We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop is not in the ocean, I think that the ocean would be less because of that missing drop". And as the Romans were assured by Paul, presumably in relation to the ultimate hope which we are reminded of in Lent, "Hope will never disappoint".

Hope does not entail ignoring or denying seemingly overwhelming circumstances or problematic situations or specific anxieties. It is about seeing beyond current circumstances to something better despite such difficulties or the presence of those feelings.

The somewhat enigmatic poet Emily Dickinson captured some of the characteristics of hope in a well-known poem of hers (complete with her typical idiosyncratic punctuation and capitalisation). In this poem she conceives hope metaphorically as a bird:-

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

And sore must be the storm -

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet - never - in Extremity,

It asked a crumb - of me.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

For more Lenten reflections, go to Angela's  Tracing Rainbows blog.

Thursday 17 March 2022

A Spring view of the 'woodland walk'

The daffodils are flourishing in part of an area which I am developing into what I'm rather grandiosely referring to as a woodland walk. They have been multiplying gradually over several years without the least bit of attention, apart from mowing down the weeds in late winter before their shoots start poking through.


In other news - there is no news about anymore lambs as yet. I check the sheep in the barn regularly but the ewes just stare back at me chewing the cud.

Wednesday 16 March 2022

I Taught Myself to Live Simply - Anna Akhmatova

I have been reading about the life and the poetry of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). Many regard her as one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th Century. She was already acclaimed before the First World War but chose not to emigrate, unlike many of the intelligentsia, following the Bolshevik revolution. Remarkably, Akhmatova survived the Stalinist purges and terror, but not without enormous privation. Her first husband, also a poet, was executed on baseless charges and another husband was sent to the camps. Most painful of all was her son Lev who had three spells in the Gulag simply because he was the son of his parents. Akhmatova's most famous poem (or rather poetical sequence written at intervals over several years) is Requiem which references her son's incarceration: "In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad...". Whilst it was a personal account, many interpreted Requiem as giving expression to the voices of millions of Russians who had suffered under Stalin. Her poetry was banned from 1925 to the 1940s and any new poetry, in order to preserve it, was committed to memory by her and her most trusted friends because of the risks involved in writing it down. During 'The Thaw' in the late 50s and early 60s it was circulated by samizdat copies and some eventually passed the censors and got published. 

Anyway, I came across one of her poems that resonated because of its celebration of the simple things in life, especially those found in nature; the pleasures of home; and its generally positive outlook on life. Perhaps these are the things that contributed to her resilience, although many of her worries were far from "superfluous":-

I Taught Myself To Live Simply               

I taught myself to live simply and wisely,

to look at the sky and pray to God,

and to wander long before evening

to tire my superfluous worries.

When the burdocks rustle in the ravine

and the yellow-red rowanberry cluster droops

I compose happy verses

about life's decay, decay and beauty.

I come back. The fluffy cat

licks my palm, purrs so sweetly

and the fire flares bright

on the saw-mill turret by the lake.

Only the cry of a stork landing on the roof

occasionally breaks the silence.

If you knock on my door

I may not even hear.

                                                              Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova

Tuesday 15 March 2022

First lamb of 2022

Our first lamb of 2022 was safely delivered this morning with no assistance needed. I had checked the ewes at 2.30am and none appeared in labour. Back at 7am and a single ewe lamb was curled up in the straw. Mum was an experienced ewe so it is not unusual that there was no protracted labour.

Mum and daughter were put into a bonding pen and all the reassuring signs were there. The lamb was alert and on its feet. A test of the ewe's udder showed both nipples were producing milk. The lamb suckled so had the all-important intake of colostrum, and the ewe was attentive and licking her lamb. A spray of iodine on the remains of the umbilicus. Safe to go in for some breakfast.

Monday 14 March 2022

May is out!

 A little along the road is a hawthorn tree in full flower. But it is too soon to start casting clouts though.

Our boundary hedge is a mix of mainly hawthorn and blackthorn. It makes a first rate hedge and is the traditional field hedgerow characteristic of the English countryside. However, in keeping it trim the flowers are sparse. I have started allowing the odd shoot along the hedge to grow untrimmed. Here is one I left a few years ago and is now beginning to look like a tree. A little way to go still before it achieves the majesty of the one above.

Sunday 13 March 2022

Lenten reflections from a Suffolk Smallholding - 2

Anyone who keeps cattle or, like us, sheep, inevitably experience a recurring concern for the condition of their grazing. This is true of large livestock farms as well as smallholdings with just a few acres and a handful of sheep. Is there enough grass to last from Spring to Autumn? How will we manage if there is a Summer drought? Is there enough hay or silage, either cropped from your own land or bought in, to see the animals through the Winter? The current concern is will the new season's grass growth get sufficiently underway for when the ewes, feeding their new lambs, are turned out? Grass pastures are so fundamental for livestock farmers. They are not just background scenery. But they can easily go unnoticed. 

Lent is probably a good time to reflect on those things we should feel thankful for. There's also good reasons to do so for promoting positive mental health too. There is accumulating evidence that gratefulness improves mental wellbeing through increased social connectedness and an enhanced presence of meaning in life. If for no other reason, these are good grounds for cultivating an attitude of gratefulness and an awareness of things to be thankful for. 

We all benefit from individual, unsolicited, gifts and graces, large and small, even if for the most part we are not always aware of them. Sometimes even when they are staring us in the face ("When did we see you hungry and feed you...?"). They are like the numerous individual blades of grass in a field or lawn. They are just there. Each one, an unnoticed gift.

"Piglet noticed that even though he had a 
very small heart, it could hold a rather
large amount of gratitude". A.A. Milne

For more Lenten reflections, go to Angela's  Tracing Rainbows blog.

Friday 11 March 2022

Turkey eggs

A couple of days ago I posted a summary of the current egg-laying propensities of our various poultry. Angela asked about turkey eggs. Today our young Norfolk Black turkey hens laid their first egg. It is pictured here next to a chicken egg that was also laid today. Noticeably larger, with attractive speckles. To me they taste the same as a chicken egg. However, we will forgo eating any turkey eggs laid this Spring as we intend to hatch them.

Thursday 10 March 2022

Not a patch on Centre Court

The first lambs will be due any day now so regular checks of the barn need to be made to monitor progress and the appearance of any new arrivals. The weather has improved in a timely way which is encouraging. Meanwhile there are lots of jobs to be going on with in between times.

Sowing continues, both of vegetables and flowers, as well as potting on the early sown crops. Sweet peppers, chilli peppers and aubergines have now transitioned into 3" pots and the conservatory worktop is filling out. 

With some dryer weather, one job completed was scarifying the lawn. The new flower beds created last year enclose a rectangle of grass 40' x 12'. This was rather a rough patch of grass to begin with. The choice was to remove the grass, dig it over and sow a new lawn or indeed go to the expense of re-turfing it. Either way it would result in a rapid result or an instant result respectively. The second option was to gradually improve the lawn over several seasons. Being someone with lots of patience, I opted for the latter. 

The improvement process started last year. This involved hand weeding the newly defined lawn area, mainly of dandelions, which Janet largely undertook (also a person with lots of patience). The odd bare patch was re-seeded. Then during the summer, regularly mowing the lawn to stimulate the grass to tiller, that is to say, thicken up. The lawn was also fed with my homemade liquid fertiliser. In the autumn a dressing of bone meal to promote root growth was applied.

Now we are commencing the second season of improvement the initial task was to scarify the lawn. This involves using a spring-tined rake to scratch out the accumulated thatch of moss and dead grass at the base of the lawn. It also, to a degree, breaks up the top layer of soil. An incredible  amount of thatch  was removed in this way. Its actually quite hard work raking a lawn by hand. There are machines you can buy or hire to take the effort out of it if you lack a masochistic streak.

The effect of scarifying is to open up the lawn to allow water and air in to encourage healthy growth. The next job is to apply compost and brush it into any dips and hollows to try and level out the lawn a bit more. Then on to the regular routine of mowing and feeding, and not being caught unawares by weeds taking any liberties.

Three full wheelbarrow loads of thatch 
were removed. A nice addition to the
compost heap. You can see our Golden
Retriever, Spice, lying on the lawn
watching me work. She did not move
once so I had to rake around her and
finish that patch later when she eventually
decided to move. It looked like
a forensic scene of crime.

Wednesday 9 March 2022


We have an apricot tree we planted about five years ago. It is making slow progress and I think in that time we have had maybe two apricots in total. The problem is that apricots, like many stone fruit trees, flower early in the Spring. This leaves the flowers very vulnerable to frosts and they fail to set fruit. Or when matters look more promising the young fruit drops off. The flowers are, nevertheless, very attractive, enhanced by the reddish glow of the buds and the sepals. 

Our apricot tree is now in flower and this year I am going to see if we can enhance its fruiting prospects by flinging a sheet of horticultural fleece over it when overnight frost is forecast.

Tuesday 8 March 2022

Beautiful eggs

We sustain a supply of our own chicken eggs throughout the winter, although the numbers drop significantly. It means we have to ration the quantities we are able to pass on to those who have a regular order from us for a while. (We no longer put out any eggs to sell at the gate because the amount that get stolen is beyond a tolerable level).

Once past the winter equinox and the light levels begin to increase, so does egg laying. Now we are approaching something not far off twelve hours of daylight each day the eggs are coming thick and fast again.

Strangely enough, duck eggs seem to be a constant throughout the year with a short break every now and again. We have some duck eggs in an incubator and these are due to hatch soon.

We are still awaiting our first quail eggs from the quail we recently acquired.  

The two Norfolk Black turkey hens who escaped Christmas are also yet to lay. Their mate, a fine looking stag, is strutting around and not letting the hens out of sight. We are planning to hatch some of their eggs too, and by the looks of things they should be fertile.

Our chicken flock is a mixture of ex-commercial hens and various traditional breeds and traditional breed hybrids. One consequence of this is that we get quite a wide range of egg colours which is fun.

Monday 7 March 2022

Splashes of gold

Although for the most part the days have been grey and damp of late, time is moving on and in odd corners there are splashes of gold to add some brightness. Daffodils in flower are always a welcome sight.

I particularly like the varieties of daffodil with the reflexed petals pointing to the rear. They make the plants look so eager.

N. 'Jumblie'


Sunday 6 March 2022

Lenten reflections from a Suffolk Smallholding - 1

Lent is, among other things, a time of abstinence, but with a purpose. An opportunity to reset. Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is traditionally a day for fasting.

Being a smallholder helps promote a deeper respect and understanding of food and what it takes to produce it. In modern societies it is easy to regard food somewhat casually, as an uncontested resource, because of its abundance and the ease by which it is available. This is not the case, of course, in poorer economies where feeding the family is a daily challenge. Nor, sadly, in rich economies like ours where there is poverty in the midst of plenty. For some, fasting is unavoidable.

It helps to be reminded that food is not something to take for granted. A famous Tang Dynasty poem by Li Shen (772-846) succinctly sums this up.

Pity the farmer

Hoeing grains at noon,

Sweat dripping into the soil beneath.

Who knows the food on your plate,

Grain by grain, came from hard work?


Lent is not a time for misery, though. It coincides with the peak season for new life and re-growth, and looking forward to reaping new harvests. This is especially evident on the smallholding at this time of year. As the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote, "First comes the fast, then comes the feast".

For more Pause for Lent reflections go to Angela's  Tracing Rainbows blog.

Friday 4 March 2022

Mizzle and dimpsey weather

Today the weather has been mizzle the whole day. A mixture of mist and a very fine drizzle. No breeze and overcast, without any sight of the sky. I am not sure where or when I first came across the term mizzle but I decided to look it up. The Weather Online site describes today's weather here perfectly and also explains the Anglo-Saxon origins of the word:-

"Mizzle is a term used in Devon and Cornwall [I'm not sure if it is confined to the south west] for a combination of fine drenching drizzle or extremely fine rain and thick, heavy saturating mist or fog. While floating or falling the visible particles of coarse, watery vapor might approach the form of light rain. Mizzle is especially thick in upland areas, like its Scottish Highlands counterpart Scotch Mist, and it is particularly associated with a moist tropical maritime airstream.

The word itself derived from the Frisian mizzelen meaning - what a surprise - drizzle. However, a day with mizzle is usually characterised by dull and depressing weather and some sort of permanent twilight, or 'dimpsey' as another good old west country word puts it".

Thursday 3 March 2022

Abattoir trip

Busy week so far on and off the smallholding. Tuesday was an early start to take two of last year's lambs to the abattoir. Such trips always involve an early start. The steady closure of small scale abattoirs has meant we have had to make several changes over the years. We are now using a family butcher with a small abattoir attached in Hertfordshire, 50 minutes drive away. Here we know the animals will be treated well and expeditiously with no lengthy waits in holding pens. These were common in many towns and villages at one time but they are harder to find now. 

There is quite a lot of regulation involved, whether you are a smallholder with a few animals or a large livestock farmer with a consignment of 100. There are transport and trailer requirements, the all-important animal Movement Licence to complete, trailer and vehicle washout regulations and the requirement for a DEFRA appointed vet to inspect the animals when unloading. The abattoir and butcher, of course, have their own extensive legal requirements to adhere to as well. This all contributes to assuring both animal welfare and food safety.

The UK has high standards in this area of food production. Hence the concern about trade deals that in return allow food imports from countries where standards are much lower. In the end you pay for what you get.