Friday, 21 April 2017


In one hand is a bucket of pig nuts. In the other a bucket of ewe nuts. Tucked under one arm is my gardening kneeler pad. The mobile phone is in my pocket. If I had another hand I'd be carrying a mug of tea, but animal breakfasts always come first. The metallic scrape and twang as I pull back the gate bolt sets off the bleating. The bleating sets off the squealing and grunting. Wriggling weaners at my ankles, I throw pig nuts in the pig trough, losing at least a handful to the mud as nuts bounce off the heads and bodies now in the trough. Keeping the other bucket held high out of reach of Babette's greedy mouth and moving swiftly enough to keep myself out of reach of her front hooves, but not so swiftly that the lambs get left behind, I cross the field and throw the ewe nuts into the sheep trough. Feeding done, I do the round of water buckets. Watering done, I drop the kneeler pad to the ground, pull my hood up to protect my ears and neck from the nipping wind, pull out the mobile ready for a close up shot, plonk my butt on the kneeler pad, and wait for the lambs to put on a show. Bounce, bounce, bounce. A daily dose of lamb play. This is my therapy.

The older lambs, Bobby, Betty and Bonnie, now nearly two week's old, are the boldest, and their experienced mums, Babette and Babs, graze unconcerned, giving the lambs the freedom to chase, hump (each other) and jump. The younger lambs, Jake and Florence, really want to play too, but their mums, Bychan and Pascale, keep the apron strings tighter. Given that both are first time mums and both had difficult first time lambing experiences, their reluctance to "let go" is perhaps understandable. For the first few days after lambing neither would allow either of us anywhere near them or their lamb, heading determinedly in the opposite direction each time one of us came into sight. Hardly surprising - big lamb, small exit, long labour, hands in, messy birth, stabbed in the leg with a needle, enough said. Both have now regained their composure and dignity, so I can sit in the field with the flock once again, observing their behaviour, keeping an eye out for signs of fever and infection.

A game of chase

Pascale won't allow Florence to stray too far from her side, following Florence when she bounds towards the other lambs, intervening and guiding Florence away after a short play. Bychan goes a step further, not just following and intervening, but actively head butting the other lambs away from Jake. I've seen similar behaviour before, often by Babs if lambs of other ewes get between her and her breakfast, or between ewes when the pecking order needs to be re-established, but Bychan's instinct to protect her lamb can be noticeably more aggressive. The other day Bobby & Betty led all the lambs on a chase into the sheep run. Bychan followed and cornered them all at the end, against the fence. She nosed Jake, her own lamb, to her side, then turned on the others. All but Betty nipped round Bychan and got out, but Betty tried to escape by going through the fence, getting stuck at her shoulders. At this point Bychan turned nasty, continuing to butt Betty. Fearing Bychan would break Betty's neck, I jumped up to intervene, bouncer style, but Betty yanked her head back and out of the fence, and scarpered sharpish, going straight to mum for a comforting suckle. No harm done this time, but Bychan needs to chill out soon or risk being separated. And then who would Jake play with?
Bychan and Pascale turn to intervene as Babette, Bobby & Betty approach Florence and Jake

Babs & Bonnie waiting for the ewe nuts bucket to arrive!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Beginning with B

It started with the chiff chaff. It always starts with the chiff chaff. Followed by the cawing of the jackdaws carrying down the chimney and echoing through the fire place into the front room as they once again set about stuffing twigs, moss and general detritus down the chimney pot for their nest. Last week David heard the reeling song of the grasshopper warbler. A few days ago, as the sun shone strong and warm, I saw my first orange tip and red admiral butterflies. The white and buff tailed bumblebees are so abundant and busy that you have to be alert to the buzzing for fear of a head on collision. A pair of mistle thrush regularly have a noisy chest off with the magpies residing a few trees away, while another pair have set up home hidden in the tangled depths of ivy enveloping one of the ash trees in the corner of the sheep field. Their new neighbours appear to be the wheatears, but a more reliable identification with binoculars is required, instead of an "is it, isn't it" identification through two pairs of squinting, ageing eyes. I know the swallows have returned down the road at Pennant, but so far no sign of them here at Banceithin. I'm watching. I'm waiting. For swallows. For housemartins. For the cuckoo. For a lamb.

Lambing has been the usual waiting game, although this year the twin technologies of scanning and crayon have at least narrowed our watch and wait window to a workable two weeks as opposed to the long drawn out six weeks of lambings past. There is a pronounced path across the field in a diagonal line from the gate by the house to the stile in the corner. To and fro. Checking. Feeding. Watering. Last Friday, Babette did her usual trick of slipping out twins early, unseen and unaided, presenting us with two licked clean lambs at the morning feed. A ram lamb - Bobby. A ewe lamb - Betty. Babette, Bobby & Betty. A lovely family trio. 


The ram had clearly been having a good day because within the hour, in the time it took me to go back to the house for a quick breakfast and return to check Babette, Babs popped out a single and immediately set to work cleaning her up. Usually when the umbilical cord breaks as the lamb leaves the ewe, the "tail" left at the lamb's navel is short, about 2 inches or so, or if it's longer the ewe might nibble it shorter. Babs, however, left her new born with a two foot long, dark red, slippery monster of a "tail", as thick as a finger at the navel. Standing for the first time within minutes of birth is miracle enough, so to expect this lamb to do that with an umbilical snake tripping her up at each attempt was too much. Tap, tap, tappity tap on the internet forums ...... carefully tear it away at the correct length was the advice. Yikes! A smallholder is never too experienced to face another new experience! Pinching the cord tightly closed with one hand, David pulled away the rest of the snake. Yuk. That felt instinctively wrong. But a quick spray of iodine, back to mum, and she's up and suckling straight away. A bonnie wee ewe lamb with floppy ears. Bonnie. The miracle of life.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Uninvited Guest

You work tirelessly to provide your family with sufficient stores to get through winter, but food is now scarce. Your stores are low when spring arrives. The work to keep the family fed begins all over again. Every day you're out there, bringing home what little you can find. Now is not the time to be entertaining any guests, and especially not an uninvited guest. Worse still, your uninvited guest is a hungry one who eats not only your food, but also the cupboards you store it in and the walls holding up the cupboards. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the mouse.
A couple of weeks ago, I inserted inspection boards under each of my four beehives. As you know, I treated them in mid-winter to reduce the levels of varroa infestation. The purpose of the inspection board is check the extent to which varroa mites could be building in number again within the colony. Even though I hadn't yet opened the hives, I knew each colony must have brood (bee larvae) as on warmer days the bees were returning with full pollen bags (brood food). The female varroa mite lays her eggs within a brood cell, so her babies hatch out with a pupating larva on which to feed. A growing brood nest brings with it the risk of a growing varroa mite population. Mites that die, or are dislodged from busy bee bodies brushing up against each other or during grooming, fall to the floor of the hive, through the mesh and onto the inspection board. I count the bodies.
Last week I removed the inspection boards to do just that. As I pulled out the first board, varroa was immediately of secondary concern, for there, to the rear of the board were bee body parts and mouse droppings. #@!*&💀↯

I whipped out boards two, three and four. More body parts. More mouse droppings. #@!*&💀↯#@!*&💀↯
To add insult to injury, only a few days earlier I'd washed and patched up my nearly new bee suit after discovering it had been a winter home for a nesting, nibbling, peeing, pooing mouse.

Perhaps, being smarter than the average mouse, that same mouse made the connection between bee suit and beehives, and swiftly abandoned its cocoon in my suit to sniff out my apiary. Such a shame he didn't meet Steve, Nessa or Charlie on route and become the dinner not the diner.
Colonies 1 and 2, my strongest colonies going in to winter, put up a fight. Their uninvited guest appeared to have pooped and left, for there was no sign of comb chomping. Colony 3 was less successful, with one frame eaten through and a pile of dead bees amongst the comb crumbs. Colony 4 fared the worst, with three frames tunnelled through and a greater number of bee body parts (mainly heads and legs, the crunchier and less nutritious bits). No sign of the twitchy nosed intruder himself.

Inspection complete, I closed up the hives and pinned a mouse guard to each entrance, the sound of tens of thousands of tiny voices shouting "too little, too late" buzzing in my ears. Never having suffered a mouse intruder before, the guards have sat for years unused at the bottom of my kit box. Lesson learned. Just because it hasn't happened, doesn't mean you shouldn't protect against it happening.
There is a happy ending to this tale of whiskered woe, for the bees, though perhaps fewer in number, seemed none the worse for hosting a mouse. All queens are present and laying, the new season's brood nests are starting to expand across the frames. The only sting in the tale was the sting in my finger.