Saturday 30 July 2022

Lady's Bedstraw

We had a light sprinkle of rain in the early hours on Wednesday morning but otherwise still no rain. Thats eight weeks for us here without rain of any substance. Bear in mind too that we had a dry Spring and April showers failed to materialise. It is not officially a drought but in practice it is for us. The heatwave Summer of 2018 was the last time it was this dry. We are  feeding the sheep hay and I know of a cattle farmer who is already feeding his herd silage which was intended to see them through the Winter. The lack of grass growth means that feed costs are going to go even higher for livestock farmers. All this will eventually lead to still higher prices for consumers. 

I came across another plant that seems to be coping very will with the droughty conditions. This is Lady's Bedstraw (Galium verum) which forms a dense mat of spikey foliage from which frothy yellow flower panicles emerge.  Lady's Bedstraw is common in dry, sandy grassland and hedgerows. It can be a bit inconspicuous but at the moment vibrant green patches in sunburnt grass causes it to stand out a bit more than usual. 

Its called Lady's Bedstraw as it used to be added to straw-filled mattresses for adding fragrance, particularly for women who were due to give birth. According to Norse mythology it had a sedative effect which helped during labour. Frigg is the Norse goddess of married women and it is also known as Frigg's Grass. 

Lady's Bedstraw (Galium verum)

An oasis in the burnt grass

Friday 29 July 2022

Aubergines 2022

Our greenhouse crops are having a very good year with bumper harvests from the tomatoes, cucumbers and chillies. There are plenty of peppers on the way and aubergines too. I picked the first of the aubergines today from one of the plants that have been planted directly into the greenhouse bed and which are more advanced than the pot grown aubergines.

Aubergines need a longish growing season to give the fruits time enough to grow and ripen. This means sowing the seeds in early February and then looking after the seedlings until it is safe enough to plant them out into a greenhouse. I usually eventually pot them on to 8" pots and generally they do quite well like this, although you need to ensure that they are well watered and the pots don't dry out. In a heatwave that means at least twice a day watering. This year I also planted three plants into the greenhouse bed and they have got away more vigorously, perhaps because they have extra moisture and a bigger root run.

We rather like the way Sue, who leads a quiet life in Suffolk, prepared hers and will give that a try.

Wednesday 27 July 2022

Lunchtime treats

We have been despatching some ducks this week. One of our lunch time treats when we sort out chickens and ducks is to have their offal for lunch. Plucking ducks in particular is a bit of a tedious task so it helps to have something to look forward to. Quite often this is stir fried kidney and heart flavoured with some light soy, ginger, garlic and sweet chilli. It only take a couple of minutes to cook. 

Not everyone likes offal. I think I have mentioned before that I partly put this down to over cooked liver served up for school dinners in the past. Nowadays its difficult to find anyone who sells it; even in the traditional high street butcher offal has become pretty scarce. When you take a sheep or a pig to the abattoir you have to make a point of saying you want the offal back, too, otherwise they automatically bin it which is a bit of a waste. Setting aside the offal when despatching poultry at home is of course not a problem. 

Today it was the testicular option. A quick pan fry with salt and pepper served on home made toasted sourdough.  

Tuesday 26 July 2022

Small tortoiseshell

Small tortoiseshell butterflies are common to see in the Summer, and sometimes quite late into the Autumn. This one stayed sufficiently still for long enough whilst I fumbled around for my phone to take the picture below. They are surprisingly colourful when you get a chance to see them close up rather than just a quick glimpse as they flutter by. Look at the blue scallops on the bottom edge of the wings. This one was resting on some sandy soil where earlier some drips had escaped from a hose I was trailing around. 


Monday 25 July 2022

Swallows - a second brood

At the end of June I mentioned that I had discovered a nest of swallow chicks in our barn. When I looked a week later the nest was empty and the chicks had presumably fledged. Finding the swallows nesting was a nice surprise. I thought that was it and hoped that they might return next Summer. 

Today when I went into the barn I saw two adult swallows flying in and out and heading for the same corner. I waited until both had flown out again and had a quick peek. Yes, some new eggs for a second brood. 

Friday 22 July 2022

The resilient rock rose

A few of these flowers spring up each summer, which I think is the Common Rock Rose (Helianthemum nummularium). It grows in a rough bit of compacted, weedy grass where delivery drivers reverse on to and which I use as an occasional drop off point for any orders of concrete blocks, bulk bags of sand, timber and the like. The resilience of the Rock Rose is impressive. Even the recent blistering heat did not perturb them. The plants seem to thrive with these conditions rather than merely tolerate them.

Common Rock Rose - look how fresh the foliage is
despite the heat and drought conditions.

Thursday 21 July 2022

New batch of chicks

We collected a new batch of twenty, day old chicks today to grow on for meat. We usually get a batch in the Spring and sometimes a second batch later in the year. We are sequencing this later for this year as it is likely to be better in terms of the annual distribution of workload. 

The poultry producer was on his regular delivery run and the handover was just off the Barton Mills roundabout on the A11 as he was on his way to Norwich. We'll meet there again in November.

We'll keep the chicks undercover in the workshop for four weeks, gradually weaning them off heat. By this time they will have feathered up and can be transferred to their outside house and run. They grow surprisingly quickly.

Hatched this morning. Back home and
about to be transferred to their
brooder pen.


Wednesday 20 July 2022

Ram lamb with a bright future

We sold one of our Spring born Wiltshire Horn ram lambs. The new owners want to breed from him and also to show him at the agricultural shows. They are already experienced breeders and regular show winners over the years with their Dexter cattle and have recently acquired a small flock of Wiltshire Horn ewes as a new venture. Most years we sell on one or more lambs to others to breed from which is always gratifying.

Baldwinslode Fabian, born April 2022

Tuesday 19 July 2022

Pigs in heat

I'm going to write about our current extraordinary weather so that there is a record of it on this blog. It is currently 38 degrees centigrade here (yesterday's peak was 37 degrees). It was already 33 degrees by 09:30am.

I have to go out at regular intervals to check on the livestock for whom the temperatures yesterday and today are troubling. They have shade, the water troughs are regularly replenished. The pigs have temporary pools to wallow in to try and keep cool. I also hose them down from time to time. There is not much else to be done other than to sit it out. 

The greenhouse crops have a good watering early in the day before it gets too tropically hot inside. We are having bumper crops this year. Outside it has been necessary to selectively water crops that are more vulnerable in the heat, such as salady things.

It is proving a  difficult smallholding summer overall as we have had hardly any rain for weeks and the grass for grazing has failed to re-grow with any conviction. It is the earliest I have ever had to put out hay for the sheep, although they have not taken up the opportunity yet, still nibbling what they can from the field. I put out some fresh, leafy prunings from a willow tree which they were keen on.

Of course, we can expect more of this in the ensuing years. I note none of the Tory Party leadership candidates, one of whom will be our new Prime Minister in a few weeks time, has much to say about global warming. There are some who are anti Net Zero among them and most of them have been part of a government that have approved several fossil fuel developments (coal mines included) since last Autumn's COP26 Conference in Glasgow. Or is that COPOUT26.


Monday 18 July 2022

The Big Butterfly Count

The Big Butterfly Count is currently underway from 15th July until 7th August. You can conduct one or more 15 minute surveys of butterflies spotted, giving a location, during this period. A useful identification chart is available as an aid. More details here

I recorded my first one yesterday: 3 Large White, 2 Small White, 1 Painted Lady, 1 Gatekeeper. Not a lot but it is what appears in a 15 minute period of observation. 

'Citizen science' projects can make a useful contribution to current knowledge in areas such as this.

As a matter of interest, here is a list of what I have seen on our smallholding so far this year:-

Large White (lots)

Small White (lots)

Peacock (quite a few)

Orange Tip (quite a few)

Brimstone (quite a few)

Red Admiral (a couple)

Painted Lady (Some)

Gate Keeper (One)

Comma (A couple)

Common Blue (Two)

Meadow Brown (At least one)

Small Tortoiseshell (Several)

                    A Peacock Butterfly,               
a photo I have previously posted.

Thursday 14 July 2022

2022 apricot harvest is in!

We picked our 2022 apricot harvest today. It is 50% lower than last year. I have pictured it below. Half each after dinner.

Tuesday 12 July 2022

Burnt Fen

The scarcity of rain in the last two months combined with the current heatwave means that, not only has the grass in the grazing fields stopped showing signs of re-growth, but also what grass we do have is starting to burn off. A day of steady rain would make all the difference. However, the disconcerting forecast for this area is that temperatures will increase further over the next few days, peaking next Monday. I notice some of the arable farmers have already begun harvesting their grain crops. I've been busy filling troughs and topping up the pigs wallows.

The look of the grass brought to mind nearby Burnt Fen. This is an area which stretches from Mildenhall to Littleport. We often drive through it on our way to Ely. Burnt Fen consists mostly of large, flat arable fields on rich fenland peat. The whole area is below sea level and relies on pumping stations to prevent the land being flooded. The surrounding fields are well below the level of the road as the land has shrunk as a result of drainage. The roads themselves are notoriously bumpy and undulating as they repeatedly subside as the land sinks. The risk of flooding arises because Burnt Fen is bordered by three rivers: The Great Ouse, also known as the 10 Mile River; the Little Ouse; and the River Lark. As you approach the village of Prickwillow on the road to Ely there is a twenty foot  high embankment on top of which flows the Lark.

Fen land conjures up images of marshy swamps, which the Fens once were. However, since the land was reclaimed for agricultural use from the Seventeenth Century onwards it is in fact very dry and crops need to be irrigated, drawing on the water from the wide drainage dykes that intersect the land. 

The name Burnt Fen is thought to have been derived from the practice of burning off the clumps of reeds once the land was drained. Their ashes were used as fertilizer. 

Map taken from the Ely Group of Internal Drainage Boards. 
The grey or brown area is Burnt Fen. Ely is centre slightly left.

Friday 8 July 2022

Ewes and lambs return

The ewes and lambs have spent the last couple of months, as they do each year, at a neighbouring farmer's field. They get some fresh grazing and my own fields have a chance to rest. It hasn't worked out quite so well this year as the weather has been so dry. The sheep got through their bonus grazing quicker than usual and my own fields have only put on a modest amount of re-growth. We are getting quite desperate now for some decent rainfall but the forecast for the next few days tells us we have a heatwave on the way. The arable farmers around here have had their irrigation sprays on the go more or less constantly.

I go and check on the sheep twice each day; its only about half a mile away. The field is unfenced and I rely on three strands of electric wire fencing to contain the sheep. This generally works well but for the last few days I have found one or two of the lambs on the wrong side of the fence. It has been easy to get them back in but today there are four sheep out and they were straying further afield. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. 

Time to bring them home. This was the task this evening when the temperature and cooled. Two trips with the trailer and once lambs and their mothers had re-connected they soon settled back in. 

I had to move our two rams, Abraham and heir apparent Barnabas, who had stayed home, to another field so that they were two steps removed to avoid any temptation to jump a fence and join the ewes. 

Sheep back home, carrying on where they left off.

Thursday 7 July 2022

Quail, Chinese style

We had one of the quail we hatched a couple of months ago. It was a fully grown male that was bullying its female siblings, one of which was quite badly pecked. Time for it to go.

One between two is really just a taster given their size. The meat is rich and high in protein, though. One each in a Chinese meal or two each for a Western style meal would be more appropriate. Easy to cook and very tasty. 很好吃!

Wednesday 6 July 2022

The greenhouse in early July

Harvests are on the way in the greenhouse. Cucumbers are already coming thick and fast. Tomatoes are just beginning to ripen. Chillies will soon be ready to pick. Aubergines and peppers are fruiting up well. 

We have toyed with the idea of a polytunnel for the much bigger protected growing space under cover, not least from pigeons which cause havoc for some of the outdoor crops here. However, we remain content with our 16' x 8' greenhouse which has crops growing in it all year round. Here's a photographic survey for early July.

A row of Sungold tomatoes with basil at
their feet. We use a lot of basil for when
making passata.

Cucumbers cropping well already. This is
Femspot F1. I have some late sown plants
ready for when these run out of steam later.

Aubergines planted in the greenhouse

Aubergines in pots

Chilli peppers. This one is Hungarian Hot
Wax (mild). To the right is Hot Mexican (fiery).
They will eventually turn red.

Sungold, nearly there.

Matina tomatoes.

Lettuce planted in the border trying to 
escape pigeon damage.

Tuesday 5 July 2022

Viper's Bugloss

Here is another wildflower that springs up abundantly every year on the nearby field margins. The dry, sandy soil and grass margins provide the ideal conditions for Viper's Bugloss (Echium vulgare). The flowers are a deep metallic blue with a hint of purple. The vibrancy doesn't quite show up in a phone photo.


Viper's Bugloss is in the same group of plants as borage, also with deep blue flowers. We have plenty of borage which freely self seeds and can be invasive. However, it is easy to control. Famous for its attraction to bees. I saw some Buff Tailed bees foraging on these Viper's Bugloss too.

The term bugloss comes from Greek for ox tongue and refers to the rough,  hairy leaves of the plants. The viper I am not sure about. Perhaps its the style extending beyond the petals terminating with a forked stigma resembling a snake tongue. 

Monday 4 July 2022

Cinnabar Moth

There are numerous caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth to be found around here at this time of the year. There are plenty on the arable field edge across the road. Their primary host plant is the dreaded Common Ragwort, toxic to livestock. If grassland is left ungrazed and left to its own devices ragwort will often soon dominate. We don't have a problem with ragwort on our smallholding, and if I see a ragwort plant, with its distinctive yellow daisy flowers, I pull it up by the roots. 

You can see at least 5 Cinnabar Moth 
caterpillars on this rather ragged ragwort.
Our Golden Retriever insisted on being in
the shot.

The Cinnabar Moth caterpillar is very colourful with its yellow and black banding, but the the adult moth I think looks very striking and will be a common sight soon. A saving grace of the Common Ragwort.

Cinnabar Moth, soon to be seen here.
Photo by Charles Sharp, Wiki.

Saturday 2 July 2022

Sawing a shed in half

Today I sawed a shed in half. As part of the preparations for making some changes in anticipation of avian flu restrictions next winter, I needed to reduce the height of one of our hen houses. We sometimes use an ordinary 6'x4' garden shed with a few modifications as this can be cheaper than making a purpose built hen house if you can find a good deal. They are about 7' high to the top of the apex roof, higher still if the shed is raised off the ground. This is too high for what I have planned so I needed to reduce the height. 

By cutting it half way I could make two houses by adding a new floor to one and a new roof to the other. The question was how to cut it in half. The idea of just cutting round with a circular saw seemed far too simplistic and impractical. However, this is what I did and had the two halves sorted within 20 minutes. I just need to make good for them to go into service.