Wednesday 30 November 2022

Poplars at dusk

The light at dusk, just before it gets properly dark, is sometimes quite eye-catching. This is a fairly busy time of the day for me on the smallholding but not so pressing as to prevent one from taking in the sights. Tonight it was the black tracery of the poplar trees against the blue-grey sky in the fading light. It looked so fine.

We have a long double line of poplars on our rear boundary, by all accounts planted more than sixty years ago. I have mixed feeling towards them. They do provided a wooded area which has its own interest, but the problem with poplar trees is that they are persistent in sending out vigorous suckers which can be problematic. Their shallow but extensive roots suck the moisture out of the soil. If left to their own devices they will quickly colonise the surrounding ground. However, today the poplars went up in my estimation.

Monday 28 November 2022

English Pastoral

English Pastoral: An Inheritance, by James Rebanks, is a compelling book for anyone interested in post-war agricultural developments and in some of the ways it has gone wrong. Or, in fact, anyone interested in where our food comes from. There are increasing numbers of farmers who are attempting a rebalancing of their practices in the form of, for example, regenerative farming, James Rebanks among them. Rebanks' account is particularly interesting because, not only does he write well, he anchors it in the story of his own farm through three generations. He also draws on his observations of other local farms and farms much further afield.. 

The farm in question is a small Lakeland hill farm where he rears Herdwick sheep and Belted Galloway cattle. It was his grandfather's farm. His father farmed a separate farm nearby but after his death James continued to farm on his grandfather's farm. His grandfather was his mentor and teacher. An early reminiscence was sitting on the tractor with his grandfather as he went through the cycle of field operations for growing a grain crop and the young Rebanks is fascinated by the seagulls rising and falling “in hungry tumbling waves” behind them:-

"I sat in the back of that tractor, with the old man in front of me, and for the first time in my life thought about who we were and what the field was, and the relationship between the gulls and the plough. I was a boy living through the last days of an ancient farming world".

In his account Rebanks tells of his early embarrassment about his father's outdated farming practices, the lack of modern equipment and its tenuous finances. Later, he and his father start to use more modern approaches. However, doubts crept in for both of them. Many years after his grandfather's death, Rebanks and his father are passing a neighbouring farm and notice that behind the plough there is not a single gull following the tractor. A sure sign there are no worms in the soil. This observation and how it has come about sums up the central concern of English Pastoral.

The book tracks his own changes of view towards farming and also the tensions of being a farmer in the modern world. He critiques the post-war development of industrial farming with its loss of small family farms, the degradation of the soil (agriculture's key asset), the problematic wholesale use of of artificial fertilisers, the ripping out of hedgerows to accommodate ever bigger machinery,  and the resulting impact on wildlife. The disappearance of once abundant curlews feature strongly in his mind.

Supermarkets and ordinary consumers are included in his critique too. People are so divorced from the land they have little idea of where their food comes from or how it arrives at their table. He also points out that in the 1950s, on average, 35% of household income was spent on food, whereas now it is only 10%.  Food is cheap, perhaps too cheap. The economic might of the big supermarkets are seen as major culprits in the overall picture.

A series of illuminating experiences changes Rebanks' views from the need to 'modernise' and he has subsequently adopted regenerative approaches to farming. He has also planted 12,000 trees, allowed for some wild areas and has altered the course of a previously straightened stream in order to slow down the flow. Curlews have returned. Rebanks is not an environmental idealist, however. He discusses the complexities of agriculture and food production and some of the inherent conflicts, for example, between the profitability of farming and the price of food and responsible stewardship of the land.

As a smallholder focused primarily on producing our own food, I identify with much of what Rebanks has to say. And I feel that increasingly people who are not farmers or smallholders or gardeners do too. It is noteworthy that this book was a bestseller (as was his earlier book A Shepherd's Life). 

I would like to finish up by adding my public thanks to those expressed privately to the reader of this blog who was so kind and thoughtful to seek out and send me a copy of this book after it had been recommended by a  commentator in a previous post. It was a very good thing to do. 

Saturday 26 November 2022

A beech hedge

We were away for three days during the week. Our first overnight excursion away from the holding since pre-COVID, in fact for about four years. 

I had ordered some bare-rooted hedging plants and they arrived far sooner than anticipated, late afternoon the day before we departed. The ground was already prepared and a planting line in place so I managed to plant them at first light on the morning before we left. They would probably have been okay for two or three days but they and I would be happier if they were planted straight away.

The hedge borders the newly sown lawn on one side and what will be a path on the other side. It will screen off the enclosed poultry runs. It is sixty feet in length so I ordered thirty hedging plants, planted two feet apart. 

I eventually chose beech hedging. This will provide a dense green backdrop during the Summer and the brown leaves, which are held on through much of the Winter, will give that Autumnal look for which beech is often noted for. 

I have left enough space to accommodate the hedge eventually growing to four feet in width and I'll probably keep it to a height of five or six feet. Hopefully, it will not be too many years before it  reaches these proportions.   

The hedging plants are 2-3 feet tall. The grass was 
sown on 3rd November and is establishing very well.
The fence on the right will eventually be taken down.

Monday 21 November 2022


I was struck by this photograph of Earth sent back by the NASA spacecraft Artemis as it orbited the Moon. From about 240,000 miles away the small dot which is us is so distinctive in its blue-ness even at such a distance. This is, of course, the thin fragile atmospheric layer that has allowed life on Earth to flourish for so many millions of years. We are the generation that seem intent on squandering it.

NASA photograph of Earth viewed from the Moon 

Saturday 19 November 2022

An unusual egg

In these times of reported shortages we are collecting plenty of eggs each day, enough still for us and for our regular clientele. Among the eggs today was a rather unusual egg similar to one laid two days ago. Over the years we have seen different deformities in chicken eggs. Tiny 'fairy' eggs, over-sized eggs, misshapen eggs and eggs with wrinkled shells. They are normally a sign of stress or are produced by an aging hen. Double yokers are not unusual too. A double yoker occurs when two ova are released and they become encapsulated in a single egg.  

The egg today was massive - 178g. When it was cracked open, inside was the expected yoke and egg white but in addition a fully formed normal sized egg with a hardened shell. The day before yesterday we had a similar one weighing 132g.

Eggs usually take 24-26 hours to form once the ovum (which becomes the yoke) is released from the ovary. On its journey through the oviduct the white of the egg is added, then further along the membrane layers are formed and then the shell, which hardens off before the egg is eventually laid. 

In this instance, and the same two days ago, I can only surmise that a normal egg was fully formed but remained in the oviduct without being laid. The next egg formation process began and caught up with the first egg and the shell was formed around the whole lot and then this went on to be laid. 

I am not sure which hen was responsible but none seem to be showing signs of trauma from the experience.

Thursday 17 November 2022

Signet update

Today was grey, wet, cold and windy. Archetypal November in contrast to the mild days of late. Yesterday the sun came out for a time and so I was able to look around rather than have my head down and shoulders hunched when walking the dog.

I came across the pair of swans and their signets I have posted about a few times this year in a nearby dyke. I saw the eggs in the nest, the signets sitting on mum's back when they were a day or two old, and a few times later in the Summer as they grew. There were eight originally but yesterday there were only four. It might be that they are reaching the age when they strike out independently, but predation is just as likely. One hopes, at least, that they avoid avian flu. It was good to see them, much larger now and with white feathers beginning to come through.

One of the four remaining signets

Wednesday 16 November 2022

Despatch day

Today we had chicken livers and hearts for lunch which is a sure indicator that we have been despatching more of the latest batch of broiler hens. We bought 20 x day old chicks in the Summer (actually there were 21 when we counted them at home when placing them in the brooder pen). Three more to do which we will finish tomorrow. This will vacate the chicken coop and run we use for this purpose until the next batch sometime in the Spring. We also have a freezer well stocked with chicken meat.

It’s tempting these days to get defensive about this aspect of our lives. But we are smallholders producing nearly all our own food and we eat meat, so to us it is a perfectly sensible thing to do. So I don’t intend to present it’s defence here other than to say that although it’s not a task I particularly relish, I do get satisfaction from doing it well. It is something I’ve become quite skilled at.

Here’s what I do with the chicken livers and hearts. The livers are cut into bite sized pieces. The hearts are cut in half long ways. This ensures that they cook at the same rate. I chop a spring onion, a clove of garlic and grate a small piece of ginger. In a pan or wok on a high heat all can be stir fried together. When the offal is browned all over I add a dash of soy sauce and some sweet chilli sauce. The latter adds some mild spice but also some sweetness to counterbalance the liver. Let it cook for a couple of minutes, but keep stirring. The key thing is not to overcook so as to toughen and dry out the liver but at the same time ensure it is cooked through. The result is some very tender and tasty liver. The hearts will have a firmer texture which goes well with the softer liver. In all it takes just a few minutes to prepare and cook. I serve it on Janet’s toasted sourdough bread with a fried egg. Worth a try if you have residual reservations about eating liver.  

Monday 14 November 2022

Rams say goodbye to the ewes

Today the rams were separated from the breeding ewes having spent 28 days together to do what is expected of them. The average gestation period  for sheep is 147 days so the anticipated date of the first lamb arriving is 12th March and the date of the last lamb to arrive is 10th April, but potentially up to 5 or so days either side of these dates.

For the time being the two rams and the ram lambs are together in one field and the ewes and ewe lambs in another. There is always a little argy-bargy between the rams when they come back together again, and some bleating from the ewe lambs, but all will settle down in a day or two. Another stage in the annual shepherd's calendar complete.

Ewe lambs before the move

Sunday 13 November 2022

A shimmer of green

Anyone who has sown seeds before, whether a novice gardener or with years of experience, will be familiar with the feeling of hopeful expectation followed by a mild flutter of delight when the seeds germinate and tiny green shoots poke out of the soil or compost. This has certainly been the case for me when I sowed a new lawn ten days ago. The feeling was accentuated because I was sowing a 25m x 4m area of lawn and also taking a gamble in sowing much later in the year than advisable. I was counting on the mild weather persisting and the claim that the variety of seed I had ordered can germinate at lower temperatures. If the seed failed to take I would have to wait until next March or April before I could try again. It would also mean a  further outlay of £35 for more seed, admittedly a snip compared to the cost of a couple of pallets of turf for an immediate and certain result.

I pass the new lawn area several times a day but I deliberately tried to avert my eyes each time under the watched pot principle. This afternoon, however, when I made a sideways glance, I saw a slight shimmer of green which was not previously evident. Closer inspection revealed fresh green shoots of grass coming up nicely. Fortunately the seed has fallen on rich soil and so should multiply a hundred fold.

Wednesday 9 November 2022

Gazing at the moon

At this time of the year, when I am finishing up routine afternoon livestock-related tasks, it is already beginning to get dark. Looking across the neighbouring field today I saw an enormous moon rising. It was almost golden. I believe, in fact, yesterday was a full moon but this looked full enough for me. It is at times like this that I wish I possessed a real camera (and maybe some photography skills too) rather than making a passing shot with my phone. So the photo here does not fully capture how stunning the Moon looked today.

The Moon, 9th November 2022

Instead, here is a poem from the Tang Dynasty by Zhang Jiuling (678-740). The Chinese attach much symbolism to the Moon, more so than the Sun. After Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, the Mid- Autumn Festival, which includes the sharing of Mooncakes, is their most important celebration of the year. The poem conveys the constancy of the Moon amidst whatever life might bring. For those who are separated they can gaze at the same Moon wherever they are.

Gazing at the Moon, Longing from Afar by Zhang Jiuling

The moon, grown full now over the sea,

Brightening the whole of Heaven,

Brings to separated hearts,

The long thoughtfulness of night.

It is no darker though I blow out my candle.

It is no warmer though I put on my coat.

So I leave my message with the moon

And turn to my bed, hoping for dreams.

Monday 7 November 2022

The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks

Our nearest town is Mildenhall, which is actually a very small town, where we visit for various necessary errands. A notable feature is the substantial parish church of St Mary's in the High Street. The oldest part of the church dates from the 13th Century. I have often visited the church but over the last year or so I have gone in for about half an hour every six weeks. This is when Janet goes to the nearby hairdresser to have her regular hair trim, so I have time to kill. The reason for going to the church is that they have a book corner and in amongst the biblical commentaries I came across James Rebanks' The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District. I am about half through. I use a small chicken feather which I found in my pocket for a book mark and replace the book in the same position at the end of a lower shelf where it can be easily located for the next installment to read. I hope that the church helpers are not too thorough in tidying the book shelves. I could easily seek out my own copy but I am happy to read it slowly. I normally have two books on the go, a downstairs book and an upstairs book at bedtime, and this happens to be a third for a different location.

The Shepherd's Life is a fascinating account of hill farming in the Lake District but it has lots of interesting and insightful reflections on aspects of life generally. It conveys a great sense of time and place. Rebanks notes how his annual calendar of shepherding tasks is identical to his father and his father before that. In fact shepherds in Anglo-Saxon times would have been just as familiar with the same process of gathering from the hills with dogs (or hefting as they have it in those parts), lambing, shearing, foot trimming, feeding, dagging; little has changed. On a smaller scale this is what we do too except on our lowland holding we do not have to trouble with the complexities of the heft. 

There is such an intimate relationship with the land and the many unfenced acres they graze. It also only works because of close collaboration with neighbouring farmers who graze the same hills and carry out the same activities. 

Lambing time next, which I will read about in December.

St Mary's church, Mildenhall where I read and think
about shepherds.

Thursday 3 November 2022

Sowing a new lawn

With the hens confined by avian flu regulations, which will certainly last until  at least next April or May if not for even longer, the large area in which they previously ranged is currently vacant. It used to be grass but sixty or more chickens soon scratch it clear of vegetation. Whilst the area is free I plan some alterations which include re-seeding part of it to return it to grass. 

The space I want to re-seed is approximately 25 meters by 4 meters. The chickens have effectively dug it over and in doing so levelled the ground. They have also de-weeded and manured it. All I have had to do by way of preparation is to collect up fallen twigs and branches and rake up leaves and other debris. In the process I created a fine tilth for sowing the grass seed in. 

Grass seed generally requires temperatures of about 9 - 12 degrees centigrade to geminate. September and early October is usually a good time to sow grass whilst the soil retains some warmth and is moist from Autumn rains. I could not take advantage of that window of opportunity, however, because I had to wait for the walnut harvesting to be completed as this involved tramping around the target area everyday. Although we are now into November the temperatures are still holding up and according to the forecast this looks to continue for the next couple of weeks. 

In any case, I ordered some grass seed from a grass seed merchant which reputedly germinates at lower temperatures (as low as 5 degrees centigrade). I ordered the grass seed yesterday around mid-day and it arrived this morning. After lunch I sowed it, barely 24 hours after ordering it. I ordered 5kg which was just enough for the area to be sowed. It conveniently rained all morning before brightening up so the ground was suitably moistened ready for the grass seed. 

All I have to do now is to wait, and remember not to walk on it.

Tuesday 1 November 2022

Nasturtiums choose their moment

Two years ago I sowed some annual nasturtiums for the new long border and they flowered well. Nasturtiums are usually reliable self-seeders but are easy to pull out if they spring up where you don't want them so that they don't get out of hand. However, with the Summer drought they did not reappear this year. But with the mild temperatures we have been experiencing, and with the addition of some rain, clumps of nasturtiums have suddenly provided some sunny bright patches. 

I had sowed two varieties: N.'Peach Melba' and N.'Empress of India'. I am pleased to see their return even if its now November and much of the rest of the border is receding. Having allowed the Summer to pass them by, they are now ignoring the pull to mellow fruitfulness.

Nasturtium 'Peach Melba'

Nasturtium 'Empress of India'