Goodness, it’s that time again. I always know when 3 months are up and it’s time to write the next newsletter as when I am going around feeding chickens etc. I have snippets of what I want to write bubbling around in my head. It’s hard to believe this is our 16th Newsletter. Wow… what a lot to tell you this time; by way of warning, it might be a long one…
We’ll start by working our way through the various animals… the sheep first. We planned to ultimately increase the number of Shropshire’s to 20-25 ewes in total and having kept-on several of our home bred ewe lambs, now needed to buy a new ram this season, so travelled up to Cheshire to collect ‘Hunter’ (the breeder we bought him from has a tradition of naming rams after fighter planes - British or Russian - and we were having trouble finding one she hadn’t already used; until we were gathering in the June hay and a vintage Hawker Hunter flew over, Ian identified it and it seemed like a sign, so stuck). He is a fine chap and has already won a first at his local Staffordshire county show, so a good prospect. He is now with his first few ewes and we will try running him with our largest 2010 born ewe lambs in November. We don’t usually breed ewes in the year of their birth but some of them are so well grown we thought we’d try it this year; I weighed one today and she is as heavy as the lighter of the adult ewes already after only 8 months. If they don’t take to the ram this season we won’t have lost anything.
The Balwens are looking great now they have been weaned for over 2 months. The ewes have put on condition and the lambs continue to grow. We are keeping a few of the better marked ewe lambs back as flock replacements and all else are sold or booked for meat… They are still my favourite but I have to admit that our few Gotland’s are looking gorgeous. Their fleeces are so soft, silvery, long and curly just now and are strikingly different from the black of their head and legs. Ian is not so keen on them - they are difficult to manage when mixed in with the other breeds as they just don’t behave the same, they are so friendly and would rather follow you than be driven through gates to move around the farm. The lambs are fine boned and will never be a meaty sheep but they are grown more for their wool and skins. We had this year’s lambs shorn in late August to allow the wool to grow just long enough before they go ‘off’ to give a superb lamb skin… As we don’t have a Gotland ram this year, we are going to put them with the Shropshire ram to give a larger lamb for meat and hopefully a beautiful thick curly fleece - I have seen some crosses elsewhere and they are stunning.
The last 3 Kerry Hills will be leaving us in the next month as well, sad to see them go, but a learning experience and the right decision to make as they just didn’t suit our ground. For the first time in several years we didn’t go to the annual Balwen sale in Builth Wells for a ram as we are keeping on one of our own ram lambs and have swapped another with a breeder nearby. I did go with a friend to the NSA Sheep Event at Malvern in August - really nice to go and meet up with so many people I knew and see all things sheepy (am I really that obsessed now?...) And the last bit of sheepy news: having supplied fleeces last year for the Russell Crowe film ‘Robin Hood’, this year we were asked for fleeces to dress the set of the new ‘Pirates of the Caribbean - 4’ film, how exciting!
In August, new arrival ‘Jack’ replaced the 3 sheep that had been keeping Sundance company. Jack is a cheeky miniature Shetland almost identical in markings to Sunny with a spotted rump and bay body. Completely superfluous but a great character and has relaxed Sunny no end, now I just need to be able to catch him for a brush up…
Having cut down on the numbers of pigs last winter, we are scaling up again. We have kept on 2 of Belinda’s gilts who are now only a couple of months from being bred for the first time. We wanted to support some of the rarer Large Black bloodlines so have recently bought 2 gilts from different breeders and a new young ‘Defender’ boar. There are only 4 or so registered Defender boars left in the country, and they are fairly old, so we felt it was important to find one to bring to the Southwest (and the fact that it is a type of Land Rover obviously appealed to Ian…) After a 4 week quarantine period indoors we moved them outside where one promptly barged through the electric fence and rooted around in the adjacent barley before being reunited with her well behaved mates! So we now have Princess, Skylark, Fashion, Majestic and Defender lines.
…as Meg had a surprise litter in late August. No sooner had we waved goodbye to Gem’s puppies from earlier in the year then Meg had a persistent collie suitor visiting from over 1 mile away during her season. Obviously he had his way behind the bike shed as it were and we now have 4 gorgeous and unusually marked puppies; 3 are a stunning blue and white and one a pinky-silver colour, most unexpected but we must start trying to find homes for them, well, at least 3 of them…
We set the last batch of eggs going in the incubator in mid September but many of the hens are still laying well. We have had to have a bit of a re-think on where we are going with the poultry following a comment about cockerel noise. To resolve the problem we decided to gradually move all the breeding birds from the main run into new moveable arks further from our boundary, then use the vacated permanent pens for rearing of young stock which hopefully won’t be so vocal. It has meant though that we’ve had to lose a few breeds that are just too big to confine in arks, so we no longer keep Buff Orpington’s or Croad Langshans …but to replace those, new breeds include: Silver Laced Wyandotte bantams, Chocolate Orpington bantams, and Silver Barnevelders. (Note, 2 out…3 in! - Ian.) I liked having the young birds on the lawn outside the bedroom as we could listen out for problems - like the night-time fox visitations we experienced earlier in the year.
Other chicken related news - I am planning on going to the National Poultry Exhibition in November for a look-see and am being encouraged by members of the Rare Poultry Society to show some birds, although I am not quite brave enough yet; I may well treat it as a reconnaissance trip for next year. Also, the nearby Devon Traditional Breeds Centre has just closed down and already we are seeing an increase in poultry enquiries. Oh, and I almost forgot, our Jungle Fowl group featured in a Radio 4 programme - ‘Questions, Questions’ - where a broadcaster came and spent a day here to interview us and record the celebratory clucking of a hen once she had laid an egg! All in order to answer the question “Why do chicken make a noise when they lay”. Other moments of celebrity include a number of photos of our birds published in ‘Country Smallholding’ magazine, paintings in Celia Lewis’s beautiful new book ‘Illustrated Guide to Chickens’ and an interview for an upcoming article about moving from town to country and smallholder training in the Saturday Telegraph - eek!
Before I go too much further, we must say a HUGE ‘thank you’ to Karen, Stephanie, Harriet, Jude, Paul, Emily & Jack (and I am sure others I am forgetting), all of whom have been a massive help to us on the farm with various tasks this year, we couldn’t have done without you. Stephanie, an agricultural student, came all the way from France for 3 weeks to practice her English and gain experience for her studies. We realise we have taken on rather a lot as we develop the business and what with our other commitments - Ian’s Audio business, my involvement with the Devon Association of Smallholders - there are some pinch points where the help of others has seen us through, so thank you all.
This last month has been a bit of a strain. Everything seems to have happened at once and gone wrong. Poor Ian flits from one Mr fix-it job to another. A weather window loomed so we prepared to harvest the barley only to find one of the most inaccessible bearings in the bowels of the combine had ceased; a weeks delay ensued while replacements were sought and installed. During the same time, we received planning permission to take down the old 1960’s cow kennels and replace them with a new livestock shed (the first ever ‘new’ building on the farm). We had 2 weeks to take down the old barn, dispose of the wood and tin, dig up the uneven concrete flooring and make the site ready for the contractor to come in and put up the new one… and the digger broke down in the middle of the yard blocking everything and driving Ian to the edge of sanity… tip toe… (for sale: one slightly hammer marked excavator!...) We also started painting the house in the last month too, a job we’ve been meaning to do for years - oh yes, and I forgot that we had a radiator burst upstairs in the main house that went undetected for a week or two, flooding a bedroom and spilling down through the ceiling to the living room below - any more catastrophes? And finally, to top it all, Ian was offered an expenses paid trip to Tanzania to teach locals how to maintain their tractors but had to turn it down owing to work commitments - but has passed it on to a like-minded tractor obsessed friend instead.
I haven’t written about our orchard for some time; In 2002/3 Ian and I replanted most of an old orchard near the house that had all but disappeared. The new trees are a mix of eaters, cookers and cider apples, cherry and plum, many of which had been there originally according to a local farmer who we consulted during planning the layout. The chicken run has now grown in and around the trees but this year has seen the most fantastic crop of apples, better than any previously. They have got to an age now where they have all born fruit, several for the first time this year. The range in size, colour and texture is fantastic. Now we just have to do something with them all.
Finally, the training courses are going very well in the completed training centre. We usually run 2-3 a month and they appear to be well received, having sent many budding new livestock keepers on their way into the world of keeping sheep, pigs, poultry and more. Upcoming in the next 2 months are courses in Pond Creation, Sheep Keeping, Poultry Dispatch, and Creating Living Willow structures - only a few places remain if interested.Plans & events for the next few months include introducing the 6 rams to their various groups of ladies, moving the breeding birds to their new pens, weaning the calves, and farrowing our new ‘Skylark’ gilt - oh, and trying to take a break and re-group during November, our only ‘downtime’... keeping up still?!
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