Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Dear Santa

I have no memory of ever having set foot in a grotto. I don't recall ever sitting on Santa's knee. I have no shortage of both vivid and blurry childhood Christmas memories - browsing mail order catalogues marking items for the wish list (pausing briefly in the homeware section to draw faces on all the dinner plates), placing my wish list under the front door mat for Santa's helpers to collect, watching the Poseidon Adventure on Christmas Eve with Grandma sat next to me preparing a colander full of sprouts, filling the red plastic beaker with milk for Santa's midnight refreshment, genuinely believing my brother and I could open and re-pack our stockings at 4 a.m. without anyone else in the house knowing - but no matter how hard I rummage in the memory bank, meeting Santa himself just isn't in there. I'd like to meet him now. I know his local schedule so it wouldn't be impossible to track him down somewhere between his appearance at his Ceredigion Museum hide-out and his walk through on the Rheidol Railway Santa Special journey up to Devil's Bridge.

After 30 plus years the Mr Frosty slush puppy maker that regularly appeared on my wish list but never in my Christmas sack has been knocked off the top spot. Assuming a 42 year old woman can stalk a bearded old man in a red suit and sit on his knee without being arrested, and assuming also that he believes my claim to have been ever so good this year, I would ask Santa for a handyman. I don't expect my handyman to be one of those manly Diet Coke swigging chaps who are the advertising industry's idea of the ideal handyman (not least because he'd catch a terrible chill being bare chested during a Ceredigion winter), just someone who turns up when he says he will, works without back-chat or complaint and accepts payment in cups of tea and packs of biscuits. I don't even expect my handyman to do everything on my extensive task list, just those chores I dislike the most but either can't leave David to do on his own without feeling guilty or which David won't do because he doesn't consider them necessary but which I need to see done for reasons born of obsessive compulsive tidiness.

Any job related to the reed bed is in the former category, but the winter cutting and clearing of each year's reed growth is right up there in the "most hated" section of the "chores I dislike" list. I have no issue with handling reeds that grow in poo-ey water. Apart from the occasional nose wrinkling whiff as the septic tank liquid flushes through, the reed bed is surprisingly odour free. No, my issue is with the reeds themselves, their itchy scratchy cut ends. Despite the gauntlet gloves, for days afterwards I have to keep my forearms covered to avoid looks of concern and raised eye-brows. Plus it's one of those tedious jobs where you can break into a serious sweat working for hours and yet each time you stand to survey your handiwork there always seems to be more to do than has been done. I should confess that due to illness my contribution to this year's reed cutting was minimal, and that only serves to increase my guilt.

Jobs in the latter category include leaf clearing. And when you have a lot of trees, you also have a lot of leaves. Leaves fluttering in the breeze on trees are pleasing to the eye and ear. Leaves piling up in gutters, on paths and around the bins are a drainage problem, slip hazard and an eye sore respectively. I can only persuade David of the first of these. He accepts that an acidic leaf mulch is required for our blueberry bushes, but I cannot persuade him that the needs of those six bushes are reason enough to rake up, bag and drag every fallen leaf. His punishment for maintaining this patently unreasonable position is to stand at the lower side of the sloping Games Room roof and scrape towards him, into his face, into his eyes, the leaves, twigs and general tree detritus that I gleefully push down the slope towards him. My punishment is spiky beech nut cases down my sleeves. If Santa doesn't put a handyman in my stocking I shall be forced to clear the rest of the leaves on my own!

Monday, 22 December 2014

Down in the Dumps

Rhos has lost his mojo. Does a lamb have a mojo to lose? Whether he does or not, he certainly struggles to raise a smile these days. He used to be such a bonny sprightly lamb, but he's never been the same since the dreaded fly strike, subsequent near death experience, and final indignity of being separated from the mobile all-you-can-drink milk buffet that was his mum. His eyes are downcast. His bleat is a pathetic plaintive "bleurgh" with an accusatory tone (or maybe just those with a guilty ear hear that). One Christmas when I was a child, Santa left a "Baa Lamb" toy in my stocking - a small can from which the bleat of a lamb emanated when the can was turned over and back again. There was nothing I could do to help this trapped unhappy lamb and I found the sound so heart breaking that eventually I had to hide the toy under my bed. I feel much the same now. Although this time it's a living breathing lamb staring into my soul (when he can bear to lift his eyes to mine) and shoving him under the bed is not an option. Even the return of mum and the rest of the flock from their annual pre-Christmas sex holiday hasn't put the spring back into Rhos' step.

In a bid to lift his spirits, and more importantly his weight, he's been given two multi-vitamin doses. is on a diet of extra lamb nuts, is restricted to a smaller area to minimise weight loss due to excess mileage whilst grazing, and has a bed of straw in the field shelter to encourage him to stay in out of the rain and wind. 

Needless to say we didn't come up with this regime ourselves and are acting on the advice of those older and wiser in the ways of the lamb. Always listening, always learning, but never quite making it to the top of the learning curve.

Babs, Margo, Myfanwy & Babette return home
Teri drives the flock back home into the field

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

From Poly to Plate

It was Hallow'een. I was in the mood to be amazed. I was feeling ropey after a turbulent night arguing with a dodgy prawn (or at least that's what I thought it was at the time, though it subsequently turned out to be one of it's more deadly relatives, the winter virus). Feeling weak and feeble and very sorry for myself, I was gazing blankly through the window watching leaves fall outside in the garden of my parent's house. I needed something amazing to happen to lift me up out of my funk. Water and glucose energy tablets weren't doing it for me. 

A red admiral butterfly fluttered by. That was pretty amazing for the time of year. But having read an article in the morning paper about the many sightings of the red admiral throughout October, my amazement was somewhat diminished. Unfair to the butterfly. Blame the media. A large dragonfly made its staccato flight left to right across my view through the window. That was definitely an amazing thing to happen on Hallow'een. And all the more amazing for not being an event my morning newspaper had told me to expect. 

I realised that I wasn't seeing the bigger picture (clearly my inner philosopher is roused from her slumber by a dose of the runs and a morning spent in sporadic prayer to the porcelain God). My self-indulgent, woe is me, entertain me, dance for me, state of mind was clouding my vision. Everything I saw through the window that morning was amazing. It's amazing that nature in myriad forms was out there to be seen and, dicky tummy aside, that I was there at that point in time in that spot to see it. The more you look, the more you see. A white-tailed bumble bee was foraging in the begonia. A common carder bee emerged from the trailing lobelia. The bees were still flying - amazing! The flowers were still flowering - amazing! And then I started to think about tomatoes. I had my phone in my hand and I happen to have a lot of photos of tomatoes on my phone, so that wasn't as great a leap of imagination as you might think. I'm sure that every smallholder has a photo gallery consisting mainly of fruit, vegetables, animals or food in varying stages of growth or consumption, but it's possible that this condition is specific to me. But back to the tomato .....

We grow tomatoes in our polytunnel every year. Each plant starts its life in March as a small seed. It's no bigger than a piece of fluff from a belly button. We give it a bed of damp, organic, peat-free compost and a warm spot on top of the biomass boiler. Three, sometimes four or five days later a seedling appears, its head bowed down by the seed case that it wears like a tiny crash helmet. The temptation to free the cotelydon leaves from this burden is great, but we leave the seedling to bear the weight so it can grow strong and healthy in its own time as nature intended. Before too long we have a whole tray of seedlings, a mini-forest on our kitchen windowsill. The three inch tall seedlings are lovingly pricked out, held aloft by the lightest possible touch on their delicate first true leaves, and with a few words of encouragement and some apologies for the disturbance, each is eased gently into its own little pot. It's at this point that failure to label each pot can be disasterous. How else will you know pre-fruiting whether your plant is a Matina or a Saint Pierre, or a Zuckertraube or a Costoluto. Examining plants for minute differences in leaf shape is no substitute for good labelling.


Every spare windowsill is now home to tomato plant. We allocate responsibility between us to ensure that at least one person remembers to tend the plants in each room. At this point we have to hope that the point at which the plants hit 6 inches tall and their roots fill the pot, corresponds with a warming of the weather. We check the forecast daily, trying to assess the risk of late frost, as even in the polytunnel the plants can take a potentially fatal knock-back if the temperature plummets overnight, but once they're settled in their final growing site the real magic begins. Manure, water, stinky comfrey tea, warmth and sunshine are the fairy dust. The plants grow, and grow, and grow some more, until that tiny seed is a four foot high plant laden with trusses of tomatoes, a cascade of green, yellow, orange and red. Now that's amazing!



And do you know what's more amazing? The smell of a bowl of warm freshly picked tomatoes. Bury your nose in it and breath deeply. Everyone says this, but it's true, it's a bowl of sunshine, sunshine that can be sliced, drizzled with oil, sprinkled with basil and munched for summer lunch, or roasted, mushed and stashed away for a taste of summer on a rainy November day like today.


Thursday, 25 September 2014

Struck Down

A smallholder's life is not all sunshine, bountiful produce and skipping gaily through meadows (that's just on a Tuesday). If you keep animals it's your responsibility to keep them healthy. When you lack Dr Dolittle's conversational skills, keeping animals healthy can sometimes be a struggle, and if we're talking cats and pills, pigs and needles or sheep and anything, that struggle can quickly escalate into a battle of both wills and bodies.

As any pet owner knows, doling out fistfuls of cash for worming pills, flea treatments and annual booster injections is the price you pay for affection, loyalty and companionship (and in the case of two out of our three cats all are grudgingly given, accompanied by the swipe of a claw-laden paw or not on offer in the first place). Add chickens, pigs and sheep in to the mix and the cash (yours for them) increases while the affection (theirs for you) decreases. Actually, to be fair, in our experience pigs are the least troublesome animal health-wise as long as they're fed and watered and have company and plenty of rooting and playing space. Understandably, given the size and weight of a healthy 6 month old sow, if play or food envy gets overly boisterous there can be injuries. This is usually nothing more harmful than a scratched ear, but having once been called upon to administer an anti-inflammatory injection I can confirm that the skin of a porcine posterior is not easily pierced.

In contrast, when caring for chickens you can find yourself engaged in some rather strange and sometimes icky tasks - dripping drops in a pus oozing eye, wiping blocked snotty nostrils, clipping solidified poo from bottom feathers, gently massaging a swollen balloon like abdomen, dabbing soothing cream on pecked parts, providing warm baths and blow drys (I can tell by the low level cluck, cluck, clucking in my ear that they LOVE a trip to the hen salon).

Which brings us to sheep.

I love my ewes. I know their individual characters. I recognise their faces. I've looked deep into Babette's eyes and seen myself reflected back. Given the effort that goes into keeping the girls tickety-boo I choose to take the head butts, stamping and occasional hoof to the back of the leg as signs of affection and gratitude. Recent events, however, have made me see the seemingly endless folding, tipping, trimming, dagging, fluking and dosing as enjoyable tasks, tasks I would gladly repeat ad infinitum if someone, anyone, would promise that we would never ever have to deal with fly strike again. I thought "tax returns" were the scariest two words in my life, but not any more. The "fly" is the blow fly. The strike is its offspring hatching out in moist, warm wool and then munching their way into the flesh of your sheep. Hideous, Horrific. Horrendous. And other "h" words that fail to convey quite how awful fly strike is. Try this instead: "Eggs hatch within 24 hours and first stage larvae penetrate the skin using their hook like mouthparts and secrete enzymes which liquefy and digest the tissue. Larvae are very active and cause further skin and muscle liquefaction with secondary bacterial infection as they develop". Have I put you off your food yet? Don't worry, there are no photos to accompany this. Well, no "during" photos anyway.

In June we cried wolf - the signs of fly strike in Myfanwy which induced panicked calls for help turned out to be nothing more than grumpy, hot and bothered, out of sorts behaviour. So the next time we saw the same behaviour we were less quick to react. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and hindsight tells me that this is where we should have intervened. Meanwhile, without the benefit of hindsight, we let ourselves be distracted by the development of a limp. Nothing unusual, easily treated, and hiding the real problem. When the hanging back from the flock, lurking in the shed and back nibbling started, Rhos and Lulu were rounded up for inspection. Suspecting fly strike, but never having seen fly strike before, I expected to see maggots in the fleece. No maggots. Lots of crusty scabby skin, but no maggots on the back of either lamb. So not fly strike then. With only three days to go until the one way trip to the abattoir, an insecticide dosing was not an option. A day later and the situation hasn't improved. Both lambs were reluctant to move, with Rhos only dragging himself to his feet to run when approached. Knowing that sheep have a blind spot immediately behind them, I even got down on all fours to crawl up behind him and inspect his back, but still failed to see any sign of writhing maggots in the fleece. Mystified, we called for help. Something was desperately wrong but we didn't know what or how to treat it.

Help arrived the next day, with his dog (a proper working one not our fake one). Being at work all I could do was wait for the phone to ring with news and moan and wail at anyone who would listen. I didn't have to wait too long. The diagnosis was in, fly strike confirmed, Rhos in a bad way, another day's delay and that would probably have been his last. We'd been looking in the wrong place, the fly strike was on the flanks, down to the belly, great handfuls of maggot riddled fleece falling away exposing bloody eaten flesh. Oh the guilt, the "why didn't we do x when we saw y" self-recriminations. Liberal spraying with huge doses of insecticide, isolation from the flock, the bleating and wailing, followed by daily, then every other day, then weekly inspections for re-strike, lifting off scabbed dead skin, smearing with protective and anti-septic cream. For weeks Rhos was blue with insecticide and yellow with cream, a brightly coloured sorry looking specimen, but alive. And here he is now .....

... still a little yellow and crusty at the rear, but I'm pretty sure there's a smile back on his face. The fleece is gradually growing back, the first soft downy regrowth masked the track marks left by the maggots. Lulu was never as bad, the fly strike was caught early. But neither will be heading for the abattoir any time soon, if at all. Any "real" farmer would laugh, any "real" farmer would know this isn't a financially viable way to run a smallholding, but there's something about bringing an animal back from the brink of death that makes it harder to then send it to its death. Nonsensical. Soft-hearted. Sign of a g guilty conscience. But one thing's for sure, we never want any of our flock to suffer fly strike ever again.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Health & Safety at Work

Ignoring stress related illnesses and discounting entirely the debate on the health risks associated with excessive use of a mobile phone, my life as a desk-bound corporate slave was low risk. Most injuries were self-inflicted and consisted mainly of bruising to the head from bashing it against either the brick wall or the glass ceiling (I'm speaking metaphorically of course, I didn't work in a tiny, glass-lidded brick box).

Bruising still occurs on a regular basis in my new life (actually, it's been five years, but who's counting), but then I've always bruised easily, just ask my older brother. The Top 3 causes nowadays tend to be lack of co-ordination while man-handing a full wheelbarrow, miscalulating how many logs I can carry at once and generally bumbling my way around misjudging corners and angles. Spatial awareness is not and never has been one of my greatest strengths. However, I now have to contend with a myriad of hazards. It's not the obvious smallholding hazards that cause me problems - I know to keep my distance from a moving chainsaw, I know not to stand behind a tractor that has rusted, nearly non-existent wing mirrors, and I know that angry bees sting when you blow smoke in their eyes, kill their sisters and steal their honey. It's the small, seemingly insignificant until they get you hazards that really mess me up.

Let's start with the courgette. An easy to grow vegetable with a tendency to triple in size overnight but no obvious health risks unless you try to swallow one whole. Think again! Reach in to harvest your supper at your peril. The stems and leaves can be seriously spiky, and this year we appear to have grown the spikiest spiky variety in all of spikydom.

The criss-cross scratch pattern on my lower right arm is testimony to the damage a courgette can inflict. But these wounds are nothing in comparison with the hogweed burn. Mum, if you're reading this look way now....

Yes, that's my upper right arm. Yes I know you warned me about hogweed. Yes, I'm an idiot. And yes, I was hiding the scars under long sleeves when I saw you for lunch last week!

Like many people I knew to keep away from the highly toxic giant hogweed and I'd taken some care to check that the 2 metre high plants lurking out the back near my washing line were definitely common hogweed. What I didn't know then but certainly know now is that for some people, and in some circumstances, the common hogweed has similarly toxic sap. Something to do with furocoumarins. Not a new Chelsea FC player but the substance in hogweed sap that causes sensitization of the skin. Although not every common hogweed plant produces these, and when a plant does it's only in small amounts, the sap is photosensitive, meaning that strong sunlight on the sap on the skin can cause burning. There's no warning though because it's not until the next day, or the day after, that the burns really start to appear and to blister. Having failed to make the connection with my hogweed clearing activities, there were a couple of days when I variously thought I had contracted a serious skin disease, developed a nasty case of eczema or had become so absent-minded that I was burning myself while cooking without noticing (the latter being the most worrying possibility). By the time common hogweed came in to the frame, I was so relieved to have alighted on an answer that the scaring on my arms felt like a small price to pay for an afternoon of garden clearing stupidity in the sunshine.

Next on my hazards hit list is the nettle. An obvious candidate, but not for an obvious reason. Anyone who spent their childhood running and rummaging in the countryside is well aware of the dangers of the nettle, the sting of nettle rash and the magic properties of the dock leaf. What you might not be aware of is that the nettle has a revenge reflex. Once cut or pulled the plant remains a danger, so you bundle the cuttings and lift them oh so carefully into the wheel barrow. The bulk of the cuttings deliberately wave around to ensure that your attention is firmly on their whereabouts. This is a cunning ploy to distract you from the fact that one of their number is still on the ground, lying in wait. You take a step back, catch one end under your foot, flicking the other end upwards and into contact with the nearest patch of unprotected skin. Never fails. Of course, by this point you've already dug up all the docks.

If you've ever been trodden on by the trotter of a 90 kg pig, had the toe of your welly nibbled by a curious pig, or met an over-amorous sexual active boy pig, then you know that pig keeping can be a hazardous activity. Again, these are the obvious risks. Racing across the well rotivated ground of a pig run is tricky, especially if your ground is stony so the surface is littered with unearthed trip hazard boulders. I could walk the distance between gate and trough but that increases the risk of the aforementioned trotter trampling and toe nibbling, plus if I don't get to the trough before Mary, Mungo and Midge it gets really difficult to pour the nuts into the trough without interference and the longer you take to get the nuts in the trough the greater the levels of salivation and the greater the risk of being salivated on. Much to my embarrassment (although to my knowledge only the sheep and Teri saw it happen), I have also learned that it is hazardous to back away from the trough after feeding as it is highly likely to lead to you ending up on your bum in a strategically placed pig crater. Those pigs sure can dig!

There's no end to the hazards a smallholder faces on a day to day basis: hot jam splash-back; the sheep hurdle finger guillotine; precarious Jenga-style log stacking; the hungry chicken who really, really wants your sandwich/biscuit/crisps; bird box bumble bee nests; pickling vinegar fumes; the burp of a tipped over ewe; wasps in the raspberry bushes..... I could go on but I'm afraid the insurance company might be reading this.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

There's been a murder

I've always defended the magpie, jay and their corvid brethren. Yes, they steal and yes, they munch on the odd baby bird or two, but their plumage is magnificent and as a nation of avid meat-eaters (which very few of us catch and kill ourselves), who are we to pass judgement on the corvid's roll in the avian food chain.

Having said all that, I shall now proceed to pass judgement on certain aspects of their behaviour....

Sharing the premises with a recently fledged family of six magpies and one of four jays is like living next door to a family of juvenile delinquents. First, there's the noise, that clack, clack, clacking laughing call. The one benefit of this racket is that it gives away of the location of the latest act of mischief:

- the woodshed, where they harangued the swallow family on a daily basis right up until the day the four chicks fledged (I've run the length of the top field on more than one occasion trying to get to the shed before the magpies get to the nest);

- the fruit patch, where they compete with the jays to see who can grab the most redcurrants in one snatch through the net (so much so that the weight of all those corvids proved to the the last straw for the rotting wooden post holding up the netting);

- the sheep field, where they take it in turns to hop on and off the back of a sheep like kids on a playground roundabout;

and worst of all

- under the horse chestnut trees, where poor old Charlie was attacked mid-toilet. Did they mistake his hunched black and white form for an over-sized enemy magpie? The poor cat hasn't run so fast since the onset of arthritis in his back legs. When I finally caught up with him he was at the top of the stairs in the house, wide eyed and panting like a dog, with a messy back end and a chunk of fur (complete with a small patch of skin) missing from his side. 

When these asbo magpies are not assaulting ageing cats, they're snacking on the chickens' layers pellets (which might account for the high number of family members), stealing WHOLE fat balls from the bird feeder (serves me right for snapping off and losing  the lid) or dodging between snuffling snouts to snaffle pig nuts from the trough. Funnily enough, every member of the family is big and glossy! 

I have yet to catch anyone in the act, but I'm pretty sure it's a magpie with a talent for thievery and a nosey beak who plucks the white seed label from the end of the rows of seedlings in the veg plot, gives each label a good pecking, then tosses it aside. Right now I can't tell my purple sprouting from my tat soi or my leaf beet from my beetroot. Brazen, totally brazen!

Dave stands at the bedroom window, air rifle in hand, pretending to take pot shots as a magpie swoops from left to right heading for the chicken run. But that's all it is, pretending. Like the moles who pepper the lawn with mud mountains, the squirrels who strip bark from the sycamore and the housemartins who drop poop on the path, we put up with these little nuisances because life wouldn't be the same without them.

Here's an interesting fact - the collective noun for the magpie is not a murder. I assumed that perhaps the same collective noun would apply for all the corvids. Hence the blog title. Silly me. It seems a number of birds merit a collective noun all of their own. For the magpie it's a "conventicle", which my online dictionary tells me means "secret or unlawful religious meeting, typically of nonconformists". That pleases me immensely. However, I find the concept of "a herd of wrens" rather perplexing. 


Thursday, 3 July 2014

Mad as a Box of Bees

"There's quite a few bees in the wood shed", said Dave one morning.

It's not unusual for this to happen. Every year a keen foraging bee will sniff out my stack of super boxes (the bit of the hive where the bees store their honey and where I steal it from) and invite a few of her sisters along for a robbing party. If there's so much as a drop of honey clinging to the frames in the super boxes the bees will find it. However, on this occasion as soon as I got within six feet of the wood shed I knew that this was no robbing party, but an illegal rave. A peak under the lid at the top of the stack confirmed my suspicions that Dave's "quite a few bees" was a full on swarm!

Obviously, given my far from perfect track record as a beekeeper, my first thought was that my own colony, purchased for the princely (or should that be queenly?) sum of £150 just  two weeks earlier had done a bunk while my back was turned. Bees do that sort of thing. Just because they can. But no, for once I was in possession of someone else's bees instead of the other way round. The scout who found my stack of super boxes will surely be nominated for "Scout of the Year" at the annual colony awards, for not only did she find them a home, but a fully furnished show home with a well stocked pantry. At the latest they could only have moved in three days earlier, but the ever efficient worker bees must have been hard at it from the off, cleaning up the mess of the previous occupants, making the cells nice and shiny, getting their queen popping out eggs to order. Unfortunately for them, this show home was spoken for and I was the white suited busy body coming to evict them. Unfortunately for me, this was one of the hottest days of the summer yet and after two hours in a beekeeping suit I was as hot and bothered as the bees, and probably just a little bit stinkier. It was worth the effort though - now the colony has a new home in my apiary and I have a new colony in my apiary. Everyone's a winner. Except for the lost flying bees. You can move a colony, but you can't re-program the internal navigation system of the bees quite so easily. For the next few days Dave would report "bees in the wood shed again", "there are still bees in the wood shed", "how much longer will there be bees in my wood shed". Each evening, as the temperature fell, lost, hungry, docile flying bees would form a small cluster on the hive parts I'd deliberately left for them to sniff out. So each evening I carried said hive part to the apiary, whispered a few words of encouragement, carefully brushed the bees back into their hive, then pressed my ear to its side to listen for the sound of the homecoming party.

I love having bees again. I really must make more effort to stop accidentally killing them.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The bugs are back in town!

There are good bugs and there are bad bugs.

We like good bugs so much we've built a hotel for them. Another masterpiece from the whittler's work bench. No pets allowed, but bugs welcomed! A range of accommodation is available - if you like a round room we can offer smooth walled pipes, hogweed stems for those who prefer rougher spikier decor, or for something more rustic try a log hole, but if your taste runs to modern but functional, try a brick. Booking facilities for this latest accommodation offering will soon be available n our website. Book early to avoid disappointment.

A good night's sleep is guaranteed, but with neighbours of the inquisitive poultry variety there's a high risk of being breakfast the next morning rather than having breakfast.

Meanwhile, in the bad bug camp, the baddest bad bug in the entire bad bug kingdom is back with a vengeance. This menace is invisible at first, lulling you into a false sense of security while its nibbles remain miniscule. You watch, you wait, you take pleasure in seeing your fruit bushes go from flower to budding fruit. All seems well. Then BAM! Overnight each caterpillar-like sawfly larva has grown in size ten-fold, its nibbles now clearly visible munchings on a vast scale, clusters of voracious little beasties devour every single precious leaf on your gooseberry bushes and every scrap of green on your redcurrant bushes.

Three years on the trot we've suffered the injustice of the sawfly larva attack and seen our fruit bushes stripped of all foliage. One year we tried companion planting with flowers said to deter these larvae, but by the time the seeds germinated I'd forgotten they'd been sown at all and suspecting an infestation of previously unidentified weeds, promptly plucked out every single seedling. First failure. Another year we tried replacing the top 2 inches of soil (the winter home of larvae to be) with a layer of fresh mulch, with no visible reduction in subsequent larvae hatchings. Second failure. Daily sprays of Soil Association approved "Bug Clear" didn't appear to clear a single bug. Third failure. And before you ask, no the chickens aren't interested. Fourth failure. Finally, in a last ditch attempt to save our four year old gooseberry plants, we dug them up last winter and relocated them at the other end of the field. How foolish of me to think I could fool the all seeing, all sniffing, sawfly with such a simple trick. Fifth failure. Now its back to the good old fashioned chemical-free but rarely effective pest control technique of spraying with warm soapy water. 

I'm determined not to be defeated. This is now one woman's fight to save her dreams of gooseberry fool and summer fruit pavlova. Every day I pull on my Marigold gloves, get down on hands and knees, inspect each plant leaf by leaf, and shake, flick and squidge the little b*****s to death. Small ones turn to slime. Big ones pop. Stuff the bad karma, I'm on a mission. I look down from above to find the larvae peeping out from underneath. I rummage in the middle to catch the larvae inching their way up the central stem. I look up from below to spot the larvae silhouetted against the sky. As a parting shot I stomp on the bodies of larvae strewn around the base of each bush just in case anything still has sufficient wriggle power to make it back to the mother ship.

... during ...
... after.
Hour upon hour passes in this way, and I have a "dot to dot" pattern of midge bites up my arms and around my face and neck to show for it, but I fear all is in vain as when I return the next day a million more have hatched and the bushes have become more and more skeletal. So long gooseberry jam, farewell redcurrant jelly.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

As pink as a pink pig

There was method in our madness when we chose the runt of the litter. Black pigs, like little Midge and her bigger sister Mary, don't burn.



Pink pigs like Mungo, however, get pinker and pinker and pinker.


Despite this Mungo just loves to lie in the sun nose to tail with her dark skinned siblings. Mungo refuses to use the wallow. She refuses to stay in the shade. Even when she lies in the ark she finds the spot in the straw where the sun streams in through the door. And the unsurprising result of such reckless disregard for her skin colour? Why sunburn, of course! And Dippity Pig Syndrome. Yes, that's right, Dippity Pig. I hadn't heard of it either, but apparently it's common in pot bellied pigs (the specific breed not just greedy beer swigging pigs of any breed) and according to my pig forum research the symptoms of Dippity Pig Syndrome - dipping of the back and dropping of the rear end, bum, legs and all, to the ground - are also brought on by sunburn. Perhaps this eases the tension of tight, sore skin. Whatever the reason for it, although Mungo didn't appear to be in any distress, she clearly couldn't get any more burned than she was already. Besides, I'd already heard one too many jokes about crackling. So Mungo now smells of Nivea sun lotion, and Mary and Midge snuggle up to her creamed up skin and go to sleep dreaming of holidays on Mediterranean beaches. They'll be wanting a lilo for the wallow next!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Keep Calm & Carry On

Have you ever wondered how a sheep spends its day? Neither had I, and neither did I ever expect to find myself spending quality time sat on a deckchair watching the back end of a sheep through binoculars. Nevertheless, that's exactly what both of us have been doing this month. Thankfully all this ovine voyeurism has come to an end, a messy stressy end.

When you have just three ewes to be tupped (i.e. getting jiggy with the ram), things like crayon raddles (the successful ram's unsubtle calling card) and pregnancy scanning are luxury items, Unfortunately these are also the items you need if you're to have any idea whatsoever when your ewes might lamb. For us the lambing period is a six week window within which the ewes may or may not pop out a lamb or two or maybe three or heaven forbid four. We can't pen them into their little field shelter for the whole time so its to and fro, to and fro, watching and waiting for the telltale signs of the onset of lambing - restlessness, pawing the ground, curling back the lip, throwing back the head. Last year I think the stork delivered our three lambs because not one of Margo, Myfanwy or Babs displayed any one of these signs at any time. One day there was no lamb, the next day there was. Thus leaving us none the wiser as to the ins, and more importantly the outs, of lambing. This year we were determined to catch them in the act. Afterall, there is never any guarantee that problem free births one year mean problem free births the next year. Hence the deckchair and binoculars.

Babs foiled us yet again. "She doesn't look like she's anywhere near lambing, how about popping out for an hour for a quick pint." One pint became one and a half pints, as it does, so an hour became an hour and a half. On our return, there he was, sticky, yellow and wobbly getting an all over wash and blow dry from mum. The Rhos Yr Hafod is where we were when he was born so Rhos is his name.


A week later and Rhos was still a lone lamb with no one to play with, whilst Margo, always a large lady, looked about ready to explode. You don't have to go too far for advice on all things sheep related - we tried her on raspberry leaf tea (apparently it works for pregnant sheep as it does for pregnant women, and sheep are given dill to bring on lactation, though I'm not sure if that works for women as it does for sheep); we confirmed that her "titties" were sticking out at angles (I was reliably informed, together with appropriate hand gestures, that this is a dead cert indicator of birth within days); a frisky ram would mean ewes lambing within days of each other and a lazy ram would mean up to two weeks between births (we had no way of retrospectively assessing friskiness levels of the three potential fathers). The best advice, and the only advice we failed to heed in its entirety, was "keep calm, don't panic, have a cup of tea and wait".

Wednesday's false alarm that sent us scurrying for the lambing kit bucket, flask of coffee and sandwiches, was a yawn that looked like a lip curl.

Thursday's false alarm that sent me scurrying for the lambing kit bucket while cursing Dave for being at work, was a lip curl coupled with pawing and heaving that turned out to be a yawn and getting comfy in the sun.

On Friday there wasn't even so much as a false alarm and all we saw Margo do (close up through binoculars) was graze, snooze and occasionally throw a knowing smile in our direction.

Saturday passed in much the same way as Friday. Maybe she'd reabsorbed the lamb? Maybe she was just obese? Friends come round for dinner. We start cooking. Five minutes before the lamb steaks are ready (oh the irony!) I suggest one last evening check. Off to the field I go, expecting nothing, and there she is throwing her head back and lip curling like she means business! And judging by the hideous mess hanging out of her back end (also known as the water bag), she wasn't pretending this time. 

This is where things started to go wrong.

Ten days of being the only lamb in the flock had clearly turned Rhos into a spoiled little boy, and like all spoiled little boys he's greedy, naughty and wants to be the centre of attention. Auntie Margo bringing a rival lamb into the world was clearly not part of his plan, so he intervened. As Margo alternated between lying panting and staggering around, Rhos moved in and began suckling her. This was bad news. The first milk contains the all important colostrum through which the ewe passes on immunity and nourishing goodies to kick start her new born lamb. Rhos was stealing it. It certainly made him frisky, leaping about as he followed Margo, who by now had decided Rhos was her new lamb and began cleaning him. Trying to part the pair was causing stress. Running around mid birth is probably as bad for ewe and lamb as it is distressing to watch. By now an emergency call had been made to Simon up the road, who arrived minutes later armed with a bag of powdered colostrum for the yet to be born lamb and calming words for us. The best we could do was to give up, eat our rapidly cooling dinner and let nature take its course.

An hour later we head back out. I could see Margo lying prone in the field. I can see blood. Ever the pessimist I'm convinced she's dead, but we'd arrived bang on time and the poor old girl was simply giving birth! Unfortunately Rhos was still bothering her. He wouldn't leave her alone even as the newly emerged lamb lay by her back end. Now the risk was that Rhos would interfere with the mother-lamb bonding process. Our attempt to scare Rhos off caused Margo to leap up, breaking the umbilical cord between her and her lamb. We immediately realised our mistake and backed off, but fortunately this was enough to send Rhos scurrying back to his real mother, Babs, whose disciplining of her offspring had been notably absent up until now. Relief at seeing Margo beginning to lick her new lamb turned to worry as we could see the lamb fail to suckle. She butted Margo's flank, her leg, her belly, but never seemed to find a teat and hang on to it. We moved in with the bottle of warm made up colostrum, but the lamb wouldn't or couldn't suckle that either. We moved away again for fear of intervening in the cleaning process for too long. An hour later, still no sign of suckling. I now know that the cleaning process can take up to three hours, and only then may the ewe lick the lamb's bottom and so trigger proper suckling. I also now know that the colostrum can be fed up to 24 hours from birth and still be effective. But I didn't know that then and by now it was dark and the flashlight was distressing Margo, so all we could do was walk away and hope the lamb would make it through the night. I set the alarm for 6 a.m. - "if the lamb dies overnight it will be as dead at 7 a.m. as it is at 6 a.m. so why get up so early" said Dave. Harsh but true. I didn't sleep much that night. By 6:30 a.m., in pyjamas, dressing gown and wellies I was heading back to the field, heart beating fast, tears ready to roll. But there she was, white and fluffy just like her half-brother Alan last year, very wobbly but very much alive. The tears rolled anyway. By 9:30 a.m. she was suckling mum without a problem, and as you can see, Lulu is now a bonny little ewe lamb. 


Monday, 7 April 2014

Not a pretty sight

If you're squeamish, look away now. I have two words for you, one is "pus" and the other is "chicken". Here's another word, "yuk". When you're squeezing pus out of a chicken's eye it becomes "yuk, yuk". I did warn you.

We've had a bit of a time of it with our six new chickens. Things didn't improve after my last blog post - for the first few weeks they wouldn't leave the house without supervision. If a big tall Mother Hen with two legs and a pair of wellies stood in the run they would put on a show of bravado, come out of the house, peck around, eat and drink (provided that I squatted by feeder then drinker in turn). The moment Mother Hen moved away and watched from a sneaky hiding place you could almost see the panic take hold as first one, then another realised Mother Hen had gone, and in a flurry of feathers they all rush back to the house and up the ramp. Form an orderly queue ladies! Shutting the door of the house only sent them scuttling under the house. This is how we ended up taking the chickens for walks. At first the trips were short forays into the grass outside the run - oh how they loved that first taste of green, green grass. We would take them a little further from home each time, perhaps up the steps to the yard, maybe across the yard to the bird feeder, bolder still how about up the steps from yard to front garden, and then quick as a flash they were up the steps, through the front door, pause in the porch, hop over the threshold, across the hall, into the living room. Our rug has seen many a dog or cat related accident, but chicken poo, never, until then.


The happy consequence of this Mother Hen role playing is that we now have five friendly, easy to pick up, fearless chickens. The unhappy consequence is that just occasionally they can be a little bit over-friendly, running to greet us, running behind us, running in front of us. The faster we move to keep ahead of them, the faster they flap to keep up the pace. Gwen is the worst. As soon as she see's me come out of the house, she lifts up her frilly knickers and heads in my direction. Moving the car is a blindspot nightmare. Carrying logs into the boiler room is a high risk activity. I've taken to hiding behind the wall, peeking round the corner to see if the coast is clear, then making a dash for it. Obviously such behaviour is for her safety and not just my sanity. On current form she will be spatchcocked alive under a wellie boot before her first birthday!

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that six became five. This is where the pus comes in, or rather out. This isn't a story that ends well. Du is no longer with us. About two weeks ago her early snuffles and occasional nostril snot bubble became something distinctly nastier. One side of her face puffed up, hot and swollen, her eye gummed shut. People round here tell me to toughen up, and think I'm a fool for taking a chicken who cost me £8 to see a vet who charges me £12 just to say hello. But when it comes to animals, I'm a softy, a melted marshmallow of a softy. Yes, I'll admit to feeling slightly foolish as I sat in the waiting room, surrounded by puppies, cats and rabbits, holding a chicken in a box (not a basket and not with chips). I honestly didn't expect to be bringing her home, but she had an antibiotic shot and her and the rest of the flock had a three day course of antibiotic water. A week later we had five perky chickens starting to lay and one very sorry for herself chicken with a face like a boxer, breathing like a snorkeller and a pus oozing eye. Could be an infection. Could be a peck in the eye gone bad. Maybe she'd pull through but always be blind in one eye. Maybe she wouldn't. I lied to a pharmacist to get her some eye drops. Twice a day we emptied her eye and dripped in the drops. She stopped hanging with the flock. She hid under the house. She lost interest in corn. It broke my heart just to look at her. It was time. One of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make, but the right one. And she never even got to lay her first egg. Rest in peace, Du.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

A whittling he will go!

If I had a pound for every occasion when Dave has offered to whittle, carve or otherwise knock up something for me, I wouldn't be sitting here writing this, I'd be taking a trip in my private helicopter for a week in the sun on my private island. If I had a pound for every item Dave has actually whittled, carved or otherwise knocked up, I could probably scrap together enough to buy a bag of pick 'n' mix. There are signs, however, that I may yet be able to swap sweets for sunshine.

It began with Valentine's Day. I wanted gifts for our Valentine's weekend guests. I'd seen various bric-a-brac, shabby chic, crafty type shops selling slate hearts bearing assorted printed words of love, but wasn't convinced that the workmanship matched the price tag. Ever hopeful, but with little expectation of success, I showed a picture to Dave and enquired as to the likelihood of him knocking up something similar. Well blow me down, if before I could say "don't worry, I was only asking, I can always buy some from that shop in Lampeter", he'd whipped out his Rotozip and was off rummaging amongst his scrap yard off cuts. OK, so the prototype was a slightly wonky, strangely misshapen heart, but armed with a cardboard template there were soon not one but two slate hearts flying off the woodshed workbench production line. I let the side down with some dubious handiwork with brush and paint (which in Dave's opinion did not do justice to the quality of his own workmanship), but all in all I think that between us we did a rather good job for the princely sum of 45 pence for a strip of ribbon.

He didn't stop there. Next up, the tree lamp. We'd been following the fortunes of our friend Sarah on the BBC's Great Interior Design Challenge (which she won by the way, so if vintage, quirky unique interiors are your thing, I recommend you take a peak at her website before she's a rich and famous designer to the stars!). Anyway, shameless plug over, on one episode of Great Interior Design Challenge Sarah created a lamp from a silver birch tree (not the whole tree, obviously). This idea lodged someone deep within Dave's brain, where after a few days of mental whittling, it blossomed into a new project. A redesign of the dining room in Cwt Mochyn cottage has been in the cards for some time, with a new lamp having been on the "to buy" list for months but with no junk shop find or eBay listing having taken my fancy. Dave was now on the case. Dead tree identified, chopped and lopped, stripped and whittled. Handy tree surgeon log cast off re-located to the woodshed, stripped and whittled. Of course, our version of Sarah's tree lamp would have to be "eco". The retro filament bulbs she used look very cool but are about as eco as a hot tub is, so Dave sourced an alternative and needless to say our eco but cool bulbs came at eco but cool prices. It's still neither easy nor cheap to be green.


Right now I'm sourcing the wildlife for Dave's tree. I have a felt robin ready to nest in its branches, and one of Sarah's very own blanket birds should be flying this way very soon (well they are made from Welsh blankets so it seems appropriate that one should come home to roost). You'll have to wait for the birds to arrive for the "after" picture and the grand unveiling of the finished article.

As if those two masterpieces weren't enough, before the varnish on his tree lamp was dry, he was plucking willow whips from the grassland, then back in the woodshed, whittling knife at the ready, knocking up a couple of willow hurdles. 

Is there no end to this man's talents? I intend to find out! I will be shamelessly exploiting this sudden burst of creativity. I've already put in my order for reclaimed wood shelving for Cwt Mochyn cottage. Dave may now be the whittling king, but I am the queen of lists, so I'm pretty sure that his enthusiasm will be on the wane long before my "to make" list will be complete.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Inside Out

I'm inside looking out. I'm inside sitting by a warm radiator watching the rain falling outside. I can see the chicken run. I can't see any chickens, but I can see two pinky beaks poking out of the chicken house doorway. I think it's fair to say that our six new chickens are unimpressed with their change of circumstances. Today they have refused to come out of the house. As there are no older birds to show them the way, I'm not sure if today's no show is reluctance to face the harsh reality of Wales in February during the wettest winter on record, or simply lack of free range experience. I'm not convinced its the latter as although their 20 week life to date from hatch to market has been confined to a barn, yesterday evening instinctive behaviour kicked in and all six birds knew what the drinker was for, knew what they would find in the feeder and knew to go to bed in the house before dark. I'm starting to worry that reluctance will be stronger than instinct and that dislike of rain will lead to dehydration and starvation. Letting your chickens die within 24 hours of arrival would not be a good thing. I think it's time to drag myself away from the warm window seat, get the waterproofs on and go have a word with the girls.


I put a tub of pellets inside left of the door. I put a tub of water inside right of the door. Judging by the rush to get to both I'd say thirst and hunger were becoming an issue. Judging by the eagerness of certain chickens to get from water to food and back again, and the clumsiness of a chicken moving in haste, I'd say I was right to wait around and refill both upturned tubs. Twice. And again an hour later. Clearly until the girls learned either manners or the size of their feet, this was not a practical way to keep them fed and watered. Thankfully, if there's one thing a chicken can't resist, it's corn. Once the tasty corn morsels within reach of a neck at full stretch have been gobbled up, there's nothing for it but to take the plunge and emerge from the house. Once one goes, the rest of the flock will follow. I'm not ashamed to exploit the competitive greediness of chickens if it means it gets them out of the house. Of course now that they're out, I have to be sure that they've gone back in. I think it's time to drag myself away from the warm window seat once again.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Why did the chicken... ?

This year, instead of resolutions, I have questions. Let's start with how long is too long? Or more specifically, how long is too long to wait for a chicken to come back into lay? Or put another way, how soon is too soon to start considering flock redundancies and redeployment? Four weeks? Six weeks? Longer?

Egg production started to drop off in October. No surprise there - shorter days, moulting time (changing your feathers one by one is an exhausting businesses so you can hardy blame a girl for diverting energy from egg production to quill making) - but three months have passed and we're still on a work rate of one egg (or, on a good day, two eggs) from six chickens. I have my suspicions that there is some tag team egg laying going on. The one egg is never quite the same as the previous day's one egg - small, large, elongated, dark, light, scratched (does someone have rough edges on the inside?), broken shell (thank you, Mr Magpie), soft shell or no shell at all. Neither is the one egg necessarily laid in the same location as the previous day's egg - nest box one, two or three, middle of the house, halfway down the run ramp (does someone get caught by surprise?) or, current number one spot, the makeshift nest in the woodshed.


We've tried stalking the chickens to see who is laying when and where (as a watched kettle never boils, so a stalked chicken never lays). We've tried sawdust versus straw in the nest box (they poop in equal measure on both but two out of two poop cleaners expressed a preference for the more absorbent sawdust). We've checked the house for mites and dusted the feathery bottoms. We've wormed them. We've given them grit (as if they don't get enough while free ranging all the way down the drive). We've put garlic and cider vinegar in their water, poultry spice in their pellets. We've assessed combs for redness and legs for scaliness. We've squatted down to chicken level, looked each bird in the eye, and asked "where are the eggs?". All no avail. It's one egg a day and one egg a day only.

Are we being greedy? Are we expecting too much of our 2-3 year old birds in winter? Last year four of them laid eggs throughout winter, setting a level of service they can't now lay up to. But then last year those same four birds didn't bother to moult. Perhaps I'll wait a little longer, delay that call to the chicken man up the road, and run a warm bath to clean Blodwen's mucky bum.

But before I go, just one more question.... how on earth (no pun intended) does a mole manage to make a molehill between a concrete step and a stone wall?