Wednesday, 11 November 2015

What's wrong with that chicken?

The trouble with a chicken is that she is fine until she's not fine. One day scratching around, fighting over frog bodies and stealing toast, the next day moping under a bush refusing to go into the house at night or moping in the house refusing to come out in the morning. The corn test is the best test of the health of our girls. The slower the response rate to a handful of corn thrown on the ground, the sicker she is. If she doesn't shift her feathery backside at all, you know you're in trouble. The question is, what sort of trouble are you in?

When a chicken is ill she can go downhill faster than an Olympic skier. Glas went on hunger strike back in September, not interested in moving about, not interested in food of any kind, generally not interested. Nothing obviously wrong other than that - eyes bright, comb red and upright - but clearly losing weight, with prominent breast bone. A warm bath, gentle abdomen massage and vent inspection ruled out our first diagnosis that she was egg bound. In the isolation cage she slept all day, only pecking at bits of banana or raspberry or drinks of water when offered. Even a worm freshly picked out of the compost heap and dangled temptingly in her face failed to raise any interest, just a blink of a sleepy eye (and the sacrificial worm, duly returned to said compost heap, lived to see another day).

Second diagnosis, broody. Three days and nights in a broody cage - no straw, no floor, just a cage raised on bricks out in the run, Sounds (and looked) cruel but lack of nesting material and draught beneath her is supposed to cool her down and break the broodiness. A broody chicken can starve herself to death if she's determined enough. Three days of broody boot camp certainly made Glas more active, but only to the extent necessary to climb out of the cage, give me the evil eye for subjecting her to such an indignity and give a desultory peck at a passing slug.

Third diagnosis, worms. Perhaps her last treatment hadn't done the job. More money, different treatment and three days of hand feeding breadcrumbs soaked in stinky herbal wormer.

I still have no idea whether any or all of the above did the trick or were a total waste of time. I feel especially guilty about the three days and nights in a barren cage that might have been unnecessary, and the last thing she needed when, judging by the state of her now, she might actually have simply been feeling a bit under the weather as her body prepared for a full blown moult. The other girls are just changing a patch of feathers here and there, Bwbach has been shedding and re-growing her bottom and undercarriage feathers for weeks, Tanwen and Gwen are both tailless. Glas, however, has gone for a little bit from everywhere, head, body, tail and wings. With every gust of wind, a black feather flutters to the ground. Skinny half plucked dinosaur chicken is not a good look.


Spare a thought for poor Cochen though, as she is now nothing more than a small patch of bloody feathers in the grass. R.I.P. Cochen bach, my chicken with a funny foot who became a meal for a hungry fox.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Working with wood

To whittle. To trim, carve, slice off pieces from wood with a knife. The dictionary definition ends there. It doesn't go on to say "to create ...". Accordingly, there doesn't have to be a defined end product for the act of whittling to have taken place. Therefore, it is safe for me to say that David has been whittling.

David has often threatened to whittle, but up until now he has, to my knowledge, never actually whittled. Unless of course he has some secret whittling past of which I know nothing. But on present evidence I think we can assume he is new to whittling. For behold, here is his first spoon!

Not a bad first effort, don't you think? I'm sure you'll be even more impressed when I tell you that the first few stages of the spoon's creation were done without the aid of specialist whittling tools. It used to look like this.

I asked for a spoon with which to scoop bath salts. I got a spoon. What more could I ask for.

For his second whittling project, David has elected to create a set of salad servers to use with his new pottery bowl. He has "gone large" for this one. So far all I can share with you is the work in progress of one half of the set.


It has an interesting curve. In fact it has two interesting curves in two different directions. Apparently, David "lets the wood dictate the shape". You can't argue with a craftsman.

There has been a lull in whittling of late. I feared that mild ridicule from some quarters might have dampened the initial whittling enthusiasm. David says not. Apparently, whittling is a winter evening activity. Again, you can't argue with a craftsman. 

I'm expecting all Christmas presents from David this year to be whittled. Better be careful what you put on the wish list.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Shear hard work

"It's not as easy as it looks." Massive understatement. Huge.

One of David's many admirable qualities (tongue firmly in cheek) is his 'can do' attitude. If something isn't working as it should or at all, David won't rest until he's fixed it, or on the rare occasion that he can't fix it (tongue still firmly in cheek), until he's found someone who can, or if he can't find someone who can, until he's figured out a way around the problem, more often than not in what he calls his 'Heath Robinson style' (i.e. complicated machinery achieving a simple objective) but which I believe could more accurately be described as a 'reverse Heath Robinson style' (simple solution to a complex problem). Unfortunately there are times when the 'can do' attitude encounters a 'can't do' situation. Like sheep shearing, for example.

It's the 'can do' attitude that buys the shearing clippers.

I didn't prompt David to make this purchase. The decision to take on the shearing of our sheep himself was entirely his own. I questioned the decision. I was accused of (and confess to having) a lack of confidence. I suggested perhaps he ask one of the local shearing lads to help with the first attempt on a live animal. If he really could take this on then when fly strike season comes round each June there'd be one less thing to worry about, one less thing to be dependent upon others to do. The memory of dealing with fly strike in Rhos and Lulu last summer is certainly a motivating factor here.

Obviously the first thing to do before putting clippers to fleece is to go to the pub for a briefing. There's nothing worth learning that you can't learn how to do at the Rhos Yr Hafod. The down side of this is that everyone now knew that David intended to try his hand at shearing. Many asked for the video to be posted on YouTube. Most usefully, however, we also had a back up plan in the form of an offer to help, and from no less a local dignitary than John, dairy farmer, shearer extraordinaire and the owner of the pub to boot. But then when has our local community ever not offered to help. Have I ever told you how lovely everyone here is?

Anyway, back to shearing. I was at work on the day of the first attempt. In my absence, David and John spooked my flock and only managed to pen Babette (the greediest and therefore up for anything if food might be involved). John sheared. David watched. The clippers never went anywhere near David's hands. However, inspired by the ease with which John sheared Babette, the next morning we penned all four ewes and the six lambs and with 'can do' attitude intact David announced that he'd shear the lot without help. Go David!

Twenty long, hot, sweaty, exhausting minutes later, Bella had the world's most embarrassing back end hair cut and an equally exhausted panting Babs trailed partially shorn fleece from a sort of shorn hind quarter. What took place was not sheep shearing. It was sheep wrestling.

In David's defence, much of his confidence drained away after an early nick to Babs' back leg bled onto the shearing board. Despite my repeated reassurances that she was not in need of the crash cart, he swore he could feel the blood "pulsing" out of her. Nor did it help that it was the hottest day of the year so far - what I thought was blood dripping onto my hand turned out to be sweat dripping from David's nose. I was no mere bystander either. At one point, with Babs wedged awkwardly between his legs, David couldn't get his right hand in position to shear, meaning control of the clippers was passed to me. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Yet even a ratio of two shearers to one sheep couldn't rescue us from what rapidly became the dreaded 'can't do' situation. Clippers were downed pending arrival of the shearing cavalry. John only had a spare 5 minutes between 'proper' shearing jobs, but that was all the time he needed to tidy up Bella's bum, do five more lamb bums, finish off Babs, and shear Myfanway and Margo. And then he was gone, leaving us standing in a pen of bleating naked sheep surrounded by bits of fleece, dazed at the speed at which it all happened, and David dejected and disappointed at being defeated.

On the plus side, at least we gave everyone something to laugh about back at the pub. And don't worry about David, he soon bounced back. The 'can do' attitude is currently researching shearing courses for summer 2016.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Mart

Sometimes there's absolutely no point whatsoever in pretending you know what you're doing, and Tregaron livestock market is definitely one of those times and places where you'll never get away with it.

We'd been given a blow by blow account over a beer or two in the pub of how our morning at the mart might unfold; when to arrive, what to say to the auctioneer and when - "I'm disappointed", "on the market" - what sort of price we might expect, who would buy our stock, what to order for breakfast in the portakabin canteen. Despite all this, the day didn't start as planned when Myfanwy hurdled the hurdles (yet again, when will I learn), signing Lulu's death warrant in the process. Two sheep had to go to market and neither Lulu or Rhos had yet to develop Myfanwy's leaping skills or sense of self-preservation, so when three became two in the pen by default Lulu had to accompany her half-brother to market. This unplanned turn of events left me a little tearful. I'd said my goodbyes to Rhos and Myfanwy and mentally prepared myself for their departure. Myfanwy had been nothing but trouble for the past year, but Lulu had never put a hoof wrong in her year on the smallholding. Nevertheless, a change of plan is a change of plan whether I like it or not, especially given that Myfanwy's escape was entirely my fault for not predicting the predictable effect on her of the sound of the approaching truck and trailer.

As advised, we arrived at market soon after the 9 a.m. permitted arrival time to ensure our sheep got into the first auction shed. Luckily this also gave us the chance to confess our ignorance and inexperience to the auctioneer and stockman without an audience (as if they didn't know from the look of us, in our clean clothes, with our incomer accents, and not a flat cap between us). To their credit, both were friendly and not at all dismissive of our "idiot's guide to the mart" questions. What was said once we'd turned our backs we shall never know, though I'm pretty sure somebody said something to someone before the day was out as news of our performance at mart got back to me three days later in the local shop via someone who wasn't even there at the time! Infamy, infamy ....

The time difference between opening time and starting time wasn't included in our pub mart briefing, so having whiled away the two hours to auction by having a coffee, buying a newspaper, browsing the agricultural store (always educational), playing Candy Crush Saga on the phone, sipping mugs of tea and nibbling at pieces of toast in the canteen, we ambled back to the mart. By now the first auction shed was full and the second filling quickly as trailer after trailer unceremoniously unloaded an assortment of sheep who trotted over the concrete to their allotted numbered pen.

In our absence, Rhos and Lulu had been given pen mates, including a big ugly ram with scary bulging eyes. Judging by the nasty bite he gave his owner he wasn't happy about being at the mart. I couldn't bear to look at Rhos and Lulu, both of whom were hanging their heads and trying to hide at the back of the pen (I must not blub at the mart, I must not blub at the mart).


There was a fair crowd in the auction shed by now, but I still felt conspicuous in every way - female, under 50, wearing a jacket from Mole Valley Farmers in Somerset, more worried about welfare than price. Then the hubbub died down, everybody shuffled to the end and the auction began. Subtly raised fingers, inexplicable chatter, shouted prices, out with the spray marker, sold. And repeat. Nothing hi-tech about this stock market, with transactions recorded by a man with a clipboard using pen and paper. Rhos and Lulu were up next. All eyes turned to us. Clearly we were supposed to say something to kick the bidding off. Remembering our pub briefing I offered up "yearling wether" in a far from confident very English sounding voice. Correct answer. "Teeth up?" Eh? What? No, yes, don't know, what does that mean? The stockman stuck his fingers into Rhos' mouth. "Baby teeth", he announced to the assembled throng. "Baby teeth", "baby teeth", ripples around the group clustered by the pen. Was that good or bad? No time to ponder, bidding was underway. Sold for £73.50. And off we went again with Lulu. "Baby teeth!". Bidding. A pause. The auctioneer looked at us. We looked at him. Had someone asked a question? Was this where we say "I'm disappointed"? Hands reach between bars to give Lulu a squeeze. Ha! This time I knew what was going on. They were checking her body condition score. A number was shouted out. Bidding resumed. Sold for £63. Phew, it was all over for us. At this point the big Welsh chap who'd bought them both (who, according to what I saw scribbled on the clipboard, was exactly who we'd been told would buy them) said something incomprehensible. It sounded like "pound for helpy". Eh? "Pound for helpy?" Smile and laugh. "Pound for helpy?". Smile, laugh and keep walking. I still have absolutely no idea what was being asked of me. Three years of Welsh lessons had failed me. Come to think of it, I have no idea if he was speaking Welsh or English or Wenglish. Did he want me to give him £1 for buying our sheep? Is that some strange custom deliberately omitted from our pub briefing? Had I inadvertently committed a faux pas that would have me banned from the mart forever? I shall never know, as bidding began at the next pen everyone's attention turned back to business and we wandered out, eyes blinking in the morning sunshine as we emerged from the gloom of the auction shed. The deed was done. I didn't feel good about it. Walking away, leaving Rhos and Lulu in that shed, felt like a betrayal. My fifty pieces of silver would arrive a week later.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

You're going to have put your hand in!

Each year we learn something about lambing and put what we learn into practice by doing something different the next year.

In the first year we learned the signs of impending birth but never saw them coming, so in the second year we watched the ewes closely through binoculars.

In the second year we learned not to intervene too early but that it's easier to intervene in a smaller area, so in the third year we fenced the ewes into a small corner of the field.

In this third year we learned that when you really, really have to intervene, a small pen would have been better than a small corner of the field.

Other facts that Margo's tricky delivery taught me are:

  • A lamb can survive a surprising length of time with just its head protruding from its mother's back end, including surviving its mother sitting on her back end.
  • A pregnant ewe with a lamb's head protruding from her back end can still move fairly quickly given sufficient incentive.
  • It's hot, wet and slimy inside a ewe's uterus.
Yes, if putting my hand inside a ewe had been on my bucket list, I could now strike it off. Lube or no lube, slipping your whole hand in alongside a protruding head is not easy. I feared choking the poor gasping lamb. I felt Margo's pain. Gently pushing the head back in was not an option as the birth sac had burst and the lamb had taken its first (uncomfortable) breaths. The Shepherding Helpline (long suffering but very calm and very patient Simon who lives up the road) advised me to get my hand in, find the front legs (which should have come before the head), and ease them out one by one. Alas, I couldn't find the legs. Margo was giving birth to a legless lamb!

Frustrated by my failure, tearful for fear of losing lamb and ewe, the first emergency call was made. Simon arrived within minutes that felt like hours. After a quick examination the second emergency call was made, this time to the vet. Serious stuff. "No one can come out to you" was not the response I had hoped for. "Can you get her to us?". Really? Seriously? With both Dave and Simon being indisposed at Margo's side and inside respectively, this would require me single handedly hitching the trailer up to the truck, dis-assembling the electric fence, driving the truck and trailer to Margo whilst simultaneously preventing Myfanwy, Rhos and Lulu from crossing into the delivery corner and causing havoc. And then we would have to heave a prone, moaning Margo into the trailer, and bump her along the lanes for the 25 minute drive to the vet. The vet might as well have asked me to take Margo to the moon!

Returning to the bloody scene in the field, I shouted the bad news over the fence. "We've got a leg out", came the reply. Hallelujah! Once one leg was out, Simon could soon ease the other one out, and with one heave from Margo, out slipped the rest of the lamb. Despite the trauma, Margo immediately set to work licking her new born and, after cleaning the remaining gunk from the lamb's mouth, we all stepped back to let mother and lamb bond. A job well done. And then out slithered a much smaller gunky parcel. Lamb number two! A third set of twins for our flock!

All three of us stood back and marvelled as within 15 minutes both lambs were making their first wobbling attempts to stand and nudging around for the first suckle. What a feeble species we are to take so long to stand on our own two feet and feed ourselves.

Elated, exhausted, relieved. And that was just me, who hadn't given birth, hadn't held someone down who was giving birth, hadn't saved three lives and helped the birth happen! But there's always next year ....

Margo with three day old Simon (the head first lamb) and little sister Simone

Saturday, 11 April 2015


Animal numbers are going up and up. If I include the bees it's probably an exponential increase on a daily basis now that the sun is well and truly shining.

Rhos and Lulu, the terrible twosome who survived fly strike, are very much still with us and making their presence felt by bleating loudly and planting hooves in the small of my back to express their rage at the discontinuance of lamb finisher nuts. If I go missing, look for me in the feed bin. Rhos will be dancing a jig atop the lid. As of this month Rhos and Lulu cease to be lambs. Rhos becomes a yearling wether destined for market. Lulu becomes a yearling destined to become a breeding ewe to replace the defunct barren Myfanwy. Both have to pay their way. Unfortunately Rhos has only one means of currency. His life. Sounds harsh but I have to harden up. No sugar coating of this particular pill. Don't look into his eyes. Look away! We'd talked of keeping Rhos as a comedy ram, the joker in the flock, a court jester of the paddock, but alas our grazing is limited and with the surprise arrival of two sets of twins, our flock size needs truncating. Pascal and Cadi arrived first. Babette's first ever lambs emerged into the world two years to the day of her own birth. As her mum, Babs, and indeed all three of our ewes, had only ever had singles it never occurred to me that Babette might buck the trend and pop out a couple. As soon as I realised that Babette had four more legs than usual I realised she'd lambed overnight. I don't know what instinct prompted Dave to look in the shelter, but it's just as well he did as curled up in the corner was another lamb. Babette must have exited at the sound of breakfast too quickly for the lamb to keep up. I'd like to see you being so swift when you're less than one day old!

Cadi's sunny smile for mum Babette

It's pleasing to see Babette being an attentive mother, keeping Cadi and Pascal in the shelter when the second and third days of their lives turned out to be the wettest, most miserable of the year so far. Babette has always been a feisty madam with no fear of us or the dog, so there was no guarantee that she'd develop a softer more maternal side. I will always have a big fat soft spot for Babette, our first ever lamb born on a sunny Easter Sunday morning. I only hope that motherhood doesn't mean she'll stop rubbing noses with me.

The arrival of the second set of twins, born to Babs, was more dramatic. Again, both were born without intervention in the early hours of the morning as we slumbered unawares in our comfy bed. Bella came first. A big bouncy healthy, but strangely silent lamb. Second out was Bychan. Teeny tiny. The runt. A toy lamb. Dave found her bleating plaintively, ran to the house, roused me from my crumpled early morning duvet mound. I know the golden rule is never interfere too soon. But the bleating was too much. Bychan couldn't find mum, She walked in the wrong direction. She walked into the wall of the shelter. She stumbled on new legs. She was too small and weak to suckle. We knew Babs hadn't rejected Bychan, as sometimes happens with the second of twins, because she was responsive to Bychan's cries, But what's a mum to do? She can't tell Bychan what to do or put her on the teat herself. We were heading for four hours post-birth. Bychan had to have colostrum soon. Time for the bottle. Rush to the house, kettle on, open sachet, spill contents, try not to panic. Might as well tell a helium balloon not to rise. We coaxed her into taking a few sucks from the bottle, but she really wasn't interested. Should we let nature takes its course? Perhaps Bychan wasn't supposed to be. Half an hour break, cup of tea, contemplation and, as usual, a phone call to someone more experienced. The advice? Get her on the teat or be prepared to let her go. But it seems that Lady Luck is still looking down on us, for when we returned Bychan was quiet, she'd suckled, we saw her suckle again. Three days later and she's the cutest little scrap of a thing, taking the knocks from her bigger sibling and cousins, fighting for the teat. We take nothing for granted. There's a long road and plenty of unkind weather ahead. Life is a fragile thing but Bychan is grabbing hold of it with every one of her cloven hooves.
Bella and Bychan less than one day old 

Friday, 6 March 2015

I don't make this stuff up!

Today I saw something happen that I know happens every day but which I have never actually seen happen. I saw an egg being laid. I don't mean that I saw a chicken on the nest and then saw an egg emerge from beneath her feathered bottom as she rose and strutted off. I mean that I saw an egg emerge from the chicken's egg producing hole (more properly known as her vent, and the only hole she has, so yes, that means she poops out the same one). Anyway, the whole episode happened like this...

As you'll know from reading "Bob-bob in the House", Cochen has been having foot issues. Since she's been back free ranging we've been keeping an eye on her. So today, when I saw her all alone in an awkward looking stance in the middle of the yard I went across to ask her if she was okay. Not receiving a satisfactory answer, I squatted down to her level to ask her again. Still no satisfactory answer, so I got down on elbows and knees to inspect her feet, legs, eyes, breathing. Nothing obviously out of the ordinary for a chicken with a dodgy foot, so I shuffled forward for a closer look. Her stance was decidedly odd, and the very fact that my by now very close, eye to eye proximity did not cause her to flinch or move away was even more odd. Then I noticed a slight pulsating motion towards the rear end (hers not mine), I shifted my prone position from eye to eye to eye to vent to discover said vent was protruding - like a pouty pair of puckered lips. Sorry, that really is the best description. This being late afternoon, some seven hours past normal egg laying time, I concluded that maybe she was simply having a really big poo. Having no desire to witness this, I was about to get back on my feet when something quite different began to emerge. Bloody hell, out it came, a foot from my nose, slowly at first and then landing on the gravel with a plop, a perfectly shaped, glistening, soft-shelled egg. Translucent at first, but quickly becoming opaque. Being overcome with the wonder of it all I failed to notice that I hadn't been the only one to witness this event. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the rest of the flock rushing over. There was no mistaking their intent and with seconds to spare I cupped my hands over the egg. So there I was on elbows and knees in the gravel, protecting a freshly laid softie, suffering the persistent, insistent pecks to hands, arms and head of four greedy chickens with a thirst for yolk. Thankfully, after a few minutes of this assault, and mercifully before either of the decorators up on the scaffolding painting the house saw me, the chickens lost interest in futile pecking and wandered off. By now the soft shell was sufficiently dry for me to lift it, ever so gently, from the ground. Alas I didn't get far before Teri bounded over, knocked it from my hand and swallowed it whole. Just another stitch in the rich tapestry of smallholding life.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Bob-Bob in the House

For most of last week we shared the house with a chicken in a cage. Cochen spent her days in the dining room listening to Radio 4 and her nights chirruping to herself in the guest bedroom. I spent my days cleaning up poo from the cage, her food bowl and her water bowl (her aim is good), replenishing her food bowl and water bowl, administering vaseline to her sore legs and antiseptic cream to her wounded toe, and carrying her from bedroom to dining room to utility (and temporary treatment) room. Teri spent her days staring fixedly at Cochen's cage and her evenings staring fixedly at the closed bedroom door behind which Cochen and her cage had disappeared. When you're a dog for whom continuously following and rounding up chickens (bob-bobs in dog speak) is a daily routine, to find one in your house is a mind blowing experience. The mental struggle to maintain normal (for her) indoor obsessive compulsive behaviours while simultaneously guarding a chicken was plain to see in her furrowed brow and crazy eyes. Just one more day of this and there's the very real possibility that we would have witnessed the first spontaneously combusting collie.

So why was Cochen in caged isolation? Bumble Foot. Or rather suspected, internet diagnosed Bumble Foot. Cochen has always been missing the end of one toe and, on the same foot, with the middle toe bent upwards, pretty much at an angle of 90 degrees to where it should be. I suspect she was trampled on as a chick as when she came to us at about 24 weeks it was clear that her foot had been like that for some time. The deformity has never been a problem to her, not preventing normal scratching behaviour or causing any obvious discomfort. Until now. It started with a Ministry of Silly Walks style gait, followed by standing on one leg more often than on two legs. An inspection revealed her bent up toe to be warm and slightly swollen. A foot wash revealed a small dark scab on the pad of that toe. Browsing poultry forum photos suggested this was typical of the onset of Bumble Foot. Great name for what is essentially an infection under the skin as a result of a wound from a thorn or similar such pointy item. I don't know if the name derives from the fact that the swellings are similar to those caused by bee stings or because chickens with big swollen feet bumble about. Maybe a little bit of both. 

Cochen appeared to enjoy the warm Epsom Salts foot baths. She was less happy about the minor foot surgery to remove scab and generally dig around the little hole (sounds grim but I swear that was the advice of the poultry forum gurus and believe me, there are plenty of photos online to back this up). She was completely unfazed by life in a cage under the intense stare of a collie. She failed to make the connection as we sat nearby eating eggs for lunch. Now she's back with the flock I miss having the chirruping, clucking, bob-bob-bobbing and thud-thud-thud of furious pecking as the soundtrack to my day.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Unlucky Ewe

Last week was not a good week. I hesitated, fingers hovering over keyboard, wondering whether this is even a bloggable subject, but this isn't a censored or fictionalised account of "Banceithin Life", it's a warts and all story, an expose of the idiot things we do. As the title says, "still learning, still making mistakes".

An unplanned loss of life on a smallholding, and especially on a small smallholding like ours, is always a tragedy. We've suffered mercifully few in our five years, just two chickens (obviously I'm not counting all the bee deaths to which I've unknowingly, clumsily contributed). Alas, we must now add an unborn lamb to the body count. Myfanwy miscarried a few days ago. I'm doubly sad as she was empty last year so this was her second chance to prove that her first born, Ceredig, was not a one off. A "proper" farmer would not have given a second thought to "having her killed then eating her" (that very advice was given to me just yesterday). There'd be no second chance. The harsh truth is that without identifying any external cause for the abortion - such as dog attack or some other fright - we have to face the fact that Myfanwy may not be a viable breeding ewe.

Much of the foetal development of a lamb occurs during the last six weeks of pregnancy, so with at least ten weeks still to go there wouldn't have been much to abort, and there was certainly little evidence besides a bloody patch of grass and a bloody sheep's arse. Veterinary advice was to "get in there" to check for "retained material", which if left inside would lead to infection pretty quickly. Never having been required to go anywhere near "there" before now, we enlisted neighbourly help to supervise our first time. However, Myfanwy had no intention of letting anyone or anything near her "there". She jumped the fence in one and left us standing open mouthed at her agility for one so bulky. In hindsight, we probably shouldn't have arrived as a team of four carrying buckets and syringes, wearing high-vis jackets, and striding purposefully towards Myfanwy's temporary prison. Never underestimate a sheep's sense of self-preservation. It is surprisingly strong for an animal with a reputation for spending its life trying to die.

That was Friday. Two further attempts the following day to pen and treat Myfanway also failed. The rest of the flock milled around, nudging me, sensing the possibility of tasty nuts or crunchy hay, but no amount of bucket rattling or hay rustling would persuade Myfanwy to come anywhere near me. She has always been the wariest of the flock, and now she was on high alert.

Sunday morning arrived and with heavy hearts we filled the buckets with hot water yet again, primed the syringes and headed out to the field. Luckily Myfanwy was showing no signs of infection and appeared as normal, if jumpy. On the plus side, this rendered an internal inspection unnecessary. The antibiotic injections, however, were still a necessary precaution, so we couldn't allow another refusal. We abandoned the pen and opted for hiding Dave in her blind spot, waiting until she was nose deep in the nuts bucket, then going in for the ambush. Third time lucky and Dave is on the ground spooning Myfanwy, one leg thrown across her woolly bulk, firm hand under her chin, whispering reassuring words into her twitchy ear. As wonderful a photo opportunity as this was, Myfanwy would not put up with this undignified embrace for long, so it was down to business - tail up, peer in, wash down, two jabs, hooves clipped, feet sprayed, back on four legs, one less ewe to lamb come spring.
Does she even know what happened?  I guess it doesn't matter whether she does or not, as long as she recovers, and besides, I think I'm sad enough for the both of us.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Science Lab

David is unhappy with his leeks. He's been unhappy with his leeks for weeks. They're thin, They're short. They're not growing. He loves his leeks, and they're a vital crop to for filling the winter hungry gap. His concerns are no longer allayed by my reassurances that Atlanta is a late developing variety for harvesting December to April, and deliberately chosen by me for that very reason. It's January. Some of the leeks are still little more than fat pencils. The variety is no longer an acceptable excuse for poor performance.

He maintains the leeks were transplanted too late. My (admittedly defensive) response as Chief Plot Planting Planner (not an officially accepted title) is that as we only have one onion bed in the crop rotation, the leeks cannot go in any earlier than the garlic comes out, and the garlic cannot come out any earlier than when the bulbs are ready or we might as well have not planted them in the first place. See how I used inescapable logic here. He maintains that the soil is to blame. Too acid, he says. My response is "so test it then". Not defensive at all really. I found the as yet unused soil testing kit in the cupboard, placed it in a strategic position in full view of anyone passing through the utility room and waited. A few days passed and I put it away again. Nothing more was said about the leeks. Unfortunately nothing more appeared to be happening in the leek bed.

To be fair to Dave (which I always am, of course), it wasn't entirely beyond the realms of possibility that he was right about the acidity. When we bought Banceithin the land hadn't been farmed for years, and the field we'd ear-marked for the plot and polytunnel had certainly never been used for vegetable and fruit growing. We had the soil tested, sending plastic bags of soil samples off to the Royal Horticultural Society Soil Advisory Service (yes, I know, very posh). According to the soil boffins our soil has acid tendencies (probably due to proximity of the bed rock, i.e. we've hardly any top soil) and a potassium deficiency (probably due to a lack of bananas). Whilst we diligently followed the boffin advice for liming and feeding the soil before creating the growing beds, that was six years ago. That six years is a full cycle of our six year crop rotation, and while that is six year's worth of us putting in manure, compost, fish blood & bonemeal, seaweed, egg shells, comfrey tea and our own highly nutritious blood, sweat and tears, not to mention digging out boulders, picking out stones and flicking out the occasional cat poo, it is also six years worth of roots, brassicas, onions, potatoes, legumes and salads sucking out nutrients.

So David turned soil boffin and set up his lab on the dining room table. Soil samples were collected, the little piles in the ice cream tub carefully labelled, and placed on the boiler to dry. Then came the science. Everyone loves a test tube and an acid-alkali colour chart. Mix in the magic soil testing fairy dust, give it a shake, and wait. Hey presto, the leek bed is too acidic.

Interestingly (well to us anyway), from the middle of the field and the start of our veg plot where the acid-alkali level is roughly neutral, the acidity gradually increases across the beds and towards the poly tunnel. More interestingly, the performance of our potato crop, a cultivar with a preference for acidity, dropped off as its planting position moved in the reverse direction. Well what d'you know, there really is a correlation between soil quality and crop performance. Obvious perhaps, but it's always good to see the science confirm it.

None of this is of any help to this year's leeks, which have to remain lying (or rather standing) in their overly acidic bed even if they didn't make it themselves. David will have to remain disappointed, but at least he now has an answer and I no longer have to come up with excuses.