Tuesday, 24 January 2017


We get our kicks where we can these days. A tiny dance of joy when the strimmer starts at the first attempt. A surreptitious fist pump when the truck gets through another MOT. A silent cheer at finding glowing embers in Bertha's belly the morning after you forgot to fill her with logs before bed. So when David confessed to feeling a "frisson of excitement" on seeing the new shed in all its green clad, roof on, completed glory, I didn't bat an eyelid. Seemed to me like a perfectly good reason for a frisson. I can add a frisson of my own to this orgy of excitement in celebration of the fact that it wasn't me who had to crawl atop the 3 metre high timber frame to clad the roof. I had fully expected that it would be. It was never going to be David, whose sense of balance is on a par with that of a drunken, vertigo suffering, one legged ape sat on the high end of a see-saw.

The knight in shining armour (fluorescent orange work jacket) who came riding in from the east (in a car coming from Kent), was Andrew, David's brother-in-law. We shamelessly exploited him as an unpaid work force for a full five days. We have form for putting visiting family and friends to work in the name of "it'll be fun, it won't take long, we'll go to the beach as soon as we're finished" - "The Shed (can he fix it? yes, he can!)", "Help is at hand", "Sunny Easter" "All hands", "Hooray for cheap foreign labour", "With a little help from a friend", "Many hands make light work"... I could go on. As I said, we've got form.

Even as the light faded on short January days and the drizzle came down, Andrew toiled uncomplaining until the job was done and the shed was clad. He even knocked up some fine Yorkshire boarding on the side too. Indeed, so pleased was David with his and Andrew's boarding that as I took photos for this very blog he said "make sure you get a side shot", and "try taking one from inside with the light coming in between the boards". Now there's a man who loves his shed. I love it too and have demonstrated my love for it by wasting no time at all in claiming an area next to Trinny for "my stuff". Actually, I think we're going need a bigger shed. When are you next free, Andrew?

Saturday, 21 January 2017

It's twins!

You know how it is, you think you're pregnant, you eat for two, turns out you're not, and now you're a fat ewe. No? Babs does. She knows all too well where eating for two but being one gets you. I believe the technical, and perhaps unkind, terminology is "big old unit". In truth she isn't entirely to to blame. In truth, she isn't to blame at all. We are.

We've never scanned our ewes after tupping. Who would be prepared to hike out here to scan just three or four ewes? Not cost effective for anyone. So we've always relied upon the "signs of pregnancy". This is not, however, a fail-safe form of pregnancy testing. And there is no way of getting a ewe to wee on a stick. Unless it happens to be lying underneath her at exactly the right moment. But those aren't the right sort of sticks anyway. The problem was that last year neither of us could agree if Babs was pregnant. I spent A LOT of time on hands and knees, lurking behind, below and alongside her, trying to spot sticky outey nipples under her all encompassing fleece cloud. I was sure she was pregnant. David said no. I was wrong, he was right. Don't you just hate that. She was faking it, enjoying four weeks of supplementary feeding at our expense. And thus, she became an enormous cloud with legs and a face.

This year we decided that this could not happen again. Not good for our bank balance. Not good for our ewes. Some tip tapping on the keyboard later and we found our saviour, Mr West Wales Scanning. No flock too small. No ewe too big. There's always a downside, and that came in the form of fitting us in while he's en route to bigger better and more financially lucrative flocks, meaning an early start in the dark. I am so not a morning person, but every time I drag my sorry backside out of bed as the sun rises, it's worth it ....

The fleecy ladies had a rude awakening, but Mr West Wales Scanning had an excellent bedside manner; "this will feel a bit cold" (no kidding, the outside temperature was still below zero, so goodness only knows what temperature the lubed probe was at). Who was he telling? Me? I winced in empathy. Babette was up first. Fumble. Pause. Baited breath. Announcement. Twins! Man handle the flock. Moment of disaster averted as an errant lamb gets tangled in the scanning kit. Bychan, first time mum, next. A single! Pascal makes a bid for freedom. Almost lost her in a gap in the hurdles as I was momentarily distracted by trying to get a photo for the blog, this blog. Back in control, fumble, pause.... a single! Last but not least it's Babs' turn. Her last chance saloon after coming up empty last year. She's 7 years old. Has she come the end of her productive life? I hold my breath.... a single! Hooray for Babs! So that's five potential new lives to look after. How to celebrate? Why, with hay of course! 


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Blood sucking dinner plate

Imagine if you had a dinner plate attached to your body. Wherever you go, the dinner plate goes too. Even when you're sleeping. Imagine if that dinner plate was a blood sucking dinner plate, feeding on you to keep itself alive. Imagine if that dinner plate made you weak, susceptible to infection, left you with deformed legs, unable to leave the house. Imagine if there was absolutely nothing you could do to get rid of the dinner plate or stop the rest of your family being overcome by yet more blood sucking dinner plates.

Welcome to the world of the honey bee and it's parasitic sidekick the Varroa mite, or Varroa Destructor to give it its full and graphically apt name.

I have done many unpleasant things to my colonies over the years in my battle against Varroa infestations. Today I added to that list. Let me introduce you to "The Vaporiser". No, not another Marvel comics character dragged onto the big screen in yet another excruciating performance by Nicholas Cage. This is a tool. Oh, so not that different then (snigger). As I was saying, this is a tool designed to vaporise crystals of oxalic acid within a closed up hive, the vapours rising up and permeating the hive, then re-crystalising on the hive surfaces, including on the bees, and including on the mites that are on the bees. Why it is fatal to the mites, but not to the bees, is beyond my knowledge and quite frankly, if it works, I don't care. Many beekeepers have been treating their hives this way for a number of seasons now, so I trust those who have gone before and am arriving late to the vaporising party. Fashionably late, naturally, and with glitter and sequins (okay, no glitter or sequins, more grubby fleece and mucky wellies).


There were the usual mishaps to be expected when using a new toy. Like forgetting to close the hive entrances earlier in the day and trying to coax errant sluggish bees back into the hive so I could gas them. Like not realising the jump starter was already powering the vaporiser and accidentally scorching the instructions for use (thankfully still legible, if a little crispy in places). Like not totally sealing the hive and running away, nose in jacket, from the wisps of toxic oxalic vapour curling up out through the gaps. 

Take note, this is a live action blog written by a fool and not a painstakingly researched how to guide written by an expert.

Tomorrow I shall count the bodies of dead mites fallen from the bodies of my beloved bees and dance a merry jig. Take that you pesky Varroa mites! 

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Angry Birds

It's not until DEFRA orders you to keep your flock indoors that you realise just how much poop one chicken can produce in a day. Poop, poop, poopity poop. Then squeeze out a little bit more.

Converting the polytunnel into a temporary chicken barracks seemed like a great idea when the avian flu prevention order was for 30 days only. I told the girls they'd be out by 6th January, and now ,thanks to outbreaks across the UK, their prison sentence has been extended to 28th February. I haven't told them this in the hope that their sense of time passing is not as highly developed as their sense of injustice.

By the end of week one they had stripped every shred of greenery from the rocket plant, flattened the chicken wire protecting the strawberries, flattened the strawberries, found a way under the netting protecting the over-wintering herbs & greens, eaten the spinach, covered the tat soi with soil, kicked over the chive pots and trampled the parsley. By the end of week three, one bed was peppered with dust bathing bomb craters and the top soil on most of the other beds was no longer in the beds but liberally distributed hither and thither. The girls spurn the carefully constructed roosts and reject the nest boxes transferred from their usual home, preferring to lay in the cat box and roost and poop on top of and all around it. The polytunnel is not a happy place.

Poultry forums and magazines are awash with suggestions for keeping your chickens entertained during this prolonged period of confinement. Hanging greens are ignored by my girls. They flung soil over the half apples I provided, but must have descended upon them the moment my back was turned for by tea time no trace of apple remained. Perhaps they buried them.This week I shall be testing their vanity by dangling shiny reflective CDs from the polytunnel crossbars. When they tire of those I'll wow them with the multi-coloured baler twine streamers. The transformation from polytunnel to poultry poop and play palace will be complete.

I wrote the above on Monday. On Tuesday I realised that all was not well with the flock. Whilst the girls were scratching about and eating as usual, closer inspection revealed tell tale signs of an outbreak of scaly leg mite. We've never encountered this in our seven years of having a small free ranging flock. Confinement to the drier environment and bare soil of the polytunnel must have provided perfect conditions for the mite to flourish. Not all the girls have been affected, but a couple have bad scale lifting, making their legs look enlarged, rough and white in colour instead of smooth and pale yellowy-brown. I'm furious that this is the result of trying to abide by the DEFRA orders, when plenty of chicken-keepers blithely make no attempt to separate their flock from wild birds despite outbreaks of avian flu that get closer and closer to home.

I don't want my chickens to catch avian flu and be the reason that my and my neighbours' chickens are culled by DEFRA, but neither do I want to compromise their health in any other way. We made the decision to return them to their run and house but to use the fruit netting as a temporary roof, propped up with a wonky washing line. I had specifically avoided doing this in the first place for fear of the garden birds becoming entangled - we've had to free angry, terrified blackbirds and robins on more than one occasion when the same netting protects the black and red currants in summer. I hope that perhaps the absence of the chicken feeder for over a month might have disrupted the routine of our garden birds. So far so good. So far still scaly.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Building a home

Trinny was aged and heading towards decrepitude when we got her. Seven years of exposure to the elements has hastened progress, to the point where I fear bits of her may start to drop off. Loyal to the end, David is in no hurry to replace her and, with one eye on the bank account, neither am I. The illogical step would be to spend a sum many times in excess of her worth to build a home that provides year round shelter and prolongs her life. So that's what we decided to do. Having made the decision to build, it made sense to add in space for my expanding beekeeping paraphernalia and for lambing indoors, protecting both hive parts and ewes from the increasing range of our resident barn owl's impressive and ever improving talent for projectile toileting.

And lo, the wood shed extension has been slowly taking shape.....

It looks considerably larger out there in the real world than it did when sketched on graph paper sitting on our dining table. I don't recall anyone telling me that I would be expected to hoist timber aloft while standing on tip toes at the top of a step ladder set up on the back of the truck. And I'm not exactly small in stature either. Perhaps David had Trinny confused with a bigger, more monstrous tractor, or perhaps he's planning ahead. Note to self, don't let him near any tractor magazines or agricultural auctions.