And Then There Were Sheep

As the title suggests, we now have sheep! It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since we got them and I’ve probably experienced the hardest month of my smallholding journey so far, so it’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts and feel like I want to write them down!

This blog post aims to detail my sheep journey so far and a bit of an insight into how to try your hand at shepherd(ess)ing, from being a complete novice. As we did, always consult professionals, either experienced shepherds or reference books (Tim Tyne’s The Sheep Book for Smallholders and The Haynes Sheep Manual by Liz Shankland have been a great help). I would also recommend joining online forums and social media groups, in which you can chat to people in the same position as you (but remember many of these like myself are by no means experts!), but you will appreciate their support and kind words when it goes wrong and also encouragement when it goes well! There’s a lot to think about before getting sheep, so do your research!

Orphans

On 18th April after much deliberation and searching we bought four Devon Closewool orphan lambs from a local breeder. Two ewe lambs and two wethers (castrated males). The plan was to keep the females for breeding and raise the males for the freezer. When we first looked into getting orphan lambs, there were lots of people who advised against it. It is hard work, they don’t often make it, being weak from the start and you end up becoming too attached.

Despite all the warnings, there were people who said it was one of the most rewarding things they have done and having tame lambs, especially in a larger flock can prove useful. After weighing up the pros and cons, we went for 4 orphan lambs, thinking that if we did lose any to illness or disease, that we would have ‘spares’. Oh the irony!

One of the reasons we opted for the Devon Closewool, was that not only was it a breed native to the area we were living, but that it is also a rare breed. We currently have rare breed Large Black pigs and also a couple of Silver Bantam rare breed ducks, so it made sense to maintain the current theme of our livestock. They are reportedly great sheep for first-timers, hardy and docile, described as an ‘easy-care’ breed. Also, they are the cutest looking sheep we could find, if you were to imagine ‘Mary’s Little Lamb’ these would be it!

So with a dog crate in the back of the 4×4 I drove to the breeder’s farm to collect them. They were being raised inside a barn on an ‘ad lib’ feeding system, a bucket with multiple teats so they can feed as and when they want to, ‘little and often’ much like they would with their mum. They were all varying sizes, one fairly big boy and one considerably smaller girl, the other boy & girl were somewhere in the middle. They were all around 20 days old (give or take a few days either way). They were a bit mucky, particularly a couple of their back-ends, something which I questioned. I was told that because they were in a barn, they are prone to lay in theirs and each others poop, so it was nothing to worry about.

O

Once I got them home, I posted on social media my excitement of receiving new lambs and a few people commented on their mucky bottoms and that I should get it checked out. I cleaned the ones which seemed to have the worst bottoms with a Hibiscrub solution and monitored to see if they continued with scour. They didn’t, so at this point I was happy and considering they had never seen grass before, let alone eaten it, this was also going to have an effect on their digestive system, so something to keep an eye on for sure.

The smallest girl had a case of ‘orf’, a disease similar to that of the common cold sore, very contagious to the other lambs and humans. In order to treat it with antibacterial spray, we needed to get the vet out for a site visit. She was happy with their condition, prescribed Terramycin (wonderful stuff!) and suggested that we worm them and start them on the Heptavac P system (will discuss in detail further down).

4A

Feeding Time

The first few days of feeding took a bit of getting used to. We were in the process of moving house, so the lambs were placed in the portion of land behind our ‘soon to be’ back garden. We hadn’t quite finished the fencing yet, but we made an enclosure from several lambing panels which was more than sufficient, a temporary solution. Orphan lambs at 3 weeks of age need a milk formula (powdered milk mixed with water) at least 3 times a day (if not on an ad lib system). We bought a bottle rack feeder which you could fit four bottles in and a bag of Lamblac. They need about 2 pints a day, split into 3 feeds, so at 08:30, 14:30 & 20:30 I was prepping four bottles and driving them over to the field (about a 5 minute drive so not too far!). What I realised very quickly is when you are mixing up Lamblac there are some essential tools that you need:
– A mixing bucket, preferably with a pouring lip
– A whisk
– A measuring jug
– Weighing scales
– A bottle brush
– At least 1 extra set of bottles & teats!

GB

Mixing Lamblac with cold water has a tendency to get lumpy if you don’t mix it into a paste first. Gradually add the rest of the water into the paste solution, constantly stirring with the whisk. I know this sounds as if I’m teaching you to suck eggs, but it took me a while to get the perfect consistency so it helps to know you can’t just whack it all in and whisk it, it won’t work!

The other thing I hadn’t quite prepared for was the lambs to be fussy over teats. The teats that came with the bottle rack pack, did not seem to do the job and none of them were feeding properly for the first 24hrs. I went to Mole Valley and purchased some alternative more rounded teats and this seemed to do the trick! Turns out lambs can be as fussy as humans when it comes to bottle feeding!

E

The next thing you have to consider when feeding orphan lambs, is they tend to gorge on milk. They’re hungry little souls and when a large amount of milk is given to them, they just want to gulp it all down. This can cause lambs to ‘bloat’ and in severe cases can cause death. It is good practice to interrupt their drinking, I did it every 10-15 seconds. They don’t like it and will try and jump on another teat if available, but breaking up their intake of milk is similar to what they would take from mum anyway, so completely natural behaviour.

FJ

I gave milk to my lambs up until they were 8 weeks old. They were getting some creep feed as well, about 4 cups twice a day at this point. At 7 weeks I dropped their lunchtime feed and then the last couple of days, they just got an evening feed. Some people recommend stopping bottle feeding abruptly, but this method worked well for us. Ours are 10.5 weeks old now and mainly on grass, but with creep and a salt lick supplement. At 12 weeks I plan to stop their creep and keep them as purely grass fed lambs.

The salt lick is something that sheep need because as ruminants they lack salt in their natural diet and need this to thrive and have a healthy immune system. They can also have additional mineral licks, specific for the type of sheep you have (breeding ewes etc) so it’s good to research which ones would be best for you.

Sick Bay

Sheep are prone to picking up different types of diseases from the ground, so as a rule it’s a good idea to keep an eye on their worm count, use preventative treatment for flystrike and consider immunisations for clostridial diseases, such as the ‘Heptavac P’ programme. This is the one that we used and it seems to be the most widely used and effective.

Although we started off with four lambs, we currently only have two left. The first lamb we lost was the middle ewe lamb, who I noticed was acting strangely when I went to feed them their lunchtime bottle at around 5 weeks old. She didn’t come to drink her milk and was very restless. Lying down, standing up, standing hunched over and her stomach looked quite swollen. I immediately thought it could be bloat and phoned the vets. They recommended that I bring her in.

NL

They took her into the examination room and I waited in the car whilst they treated her. After about 10 minutes the vet came and got me and explained, although they too thought it initially could be bloat, it could be something else, something which this vet had only seen in cows. There were various options, including surgery, but at this point he wasn’t entirely confident that surgery was the best option, considering they weren’t sure what it was and whether surgery would actually rectify the situation. They had already given her some pain killers and then decided on giving her an intravenous injection to help ease the swelling in her abdomen. They shaved her neck and tried to find a vein on one side but couldn’t, so had to try the other side.  The whole time you could see that she was not doing well, but I just wanted the vets to help make her better.

ewe2ewe1

Lambs and sheep can both die from stressful situations and this situation was particularly stressful for all involved. As myself and the vet were discussing what was going to happen next, in terms of the next dose of injection, one of the veterinary trainees noticed the lambs tongue had gone blue. They rushed her off the table and into another room to give her oxygen, but by that point it was too late. I burst into tears like an absolute sap, surrounded by 2 vets, 2 vet nurses and 3 students. They were all very nice to me and offered me a cup of tea. I agreed to have an autopsy so that we could establish what she had died from. The vet reported back that it was clostridial disease, a common disease of many strains that can be picked up easily by lambs, particularly by orphans that had not been given any immunity from their mums’ colostrum.

Heartbreakingly, this lamb had been given the Heptavac P (an immunisation against clostridial diseases) initial injection by myself about 5 days previous, but they don’t actually get immunity until the second dose, which wasn’t due for another 3 weeks. I think they call that bad luck. So I lost my first lamb and it hit me quite hard. I kept thinking about all the things I had done, all the things I hadn’t, but you can’t beat yourself up about these things, you just have to learn something and move on.

R+P+38

Unfortunately my run of bad luck hadn’t ended and the biggest of the four lambs, affectionately referred to as ’38’ as that was the number he had spray-painted on his side, suddenly dropped dead overnight at 7 weeks old. We had started to wean him, only because he was the biggest and having spoken to the breeder, they had begun to wean their biggest lambs. They had suggested giving him a bottle with just water in, which seemed to keep him happy whilst his siblings still had milk.

Bucket

He had been experiencing a little bit of scour (diarrhoea) for about a week, which I was growing concerned about. Again, a call to the vets and they suggested that I take in a faecal sample to be analysed. There is a disease called coccidosis which is another deadly disease, but it is treatable. The vet analysed the sample and said although there was trace amounts in the egg count, around 15,000, the level of concern is usually when the count hits 100,000 or more, but in order to rule out this as a reason for the scour, she prescribed a course of treatment for ’38’ and also his siblings, just in case. This was an oral liquid treatment given on the Wednesday.

By Friday it seemed some of 38’s poops were starting to harden up, so I was hopeful that the treatment seemed to be working. All three lambs had their bedtime feed and the next morning I woke up to find 38 dead in the middle of the field. I was devastated, not another one! His eyes had already been pecked out by birds, so we had to move him to a place where he was safe from scavengers. We arranged with a local kennels for him to be disposed of legally, but this time decided against an autopsy. It was likely that the scour was an indication of something wrong, perhaps not what the vet initially thought, perhaps he had multiple things wrong with him, perhaps he died from the same clostridial disease his sibling had a few weeks earlier. Who knows. But as the old saying goes, where there’s livestock, there’s deadstock. Not very comforting, but a stark reality when farming or running a snallholding.

It took me a while to shake off the feeling of dread when going to check on the lambs, although it is still there a bit most mornings. I know raising orphan lambs is hard, everyone says it is, but I didn’t realise how hard. I think I have also been terribly unlucky and as a first timer and I have certainly experienced a very steep learning curve.

The Survivors

Me-R+PR+P1

The other two lambs, Peanut (ewe) and Rambo (wether) seem to be doing well, although hopefully that hasn’t jinxed it! I have trained them (sort of) to the bucket, which hopefully means that moving them about is much easier, in theory anyway!

ramboKPeanutMe+Peanut

They are both full of character and incredibly tame. They have zero fear of our dogs (not ideal) and just want to play with them like puppies would! They love cuddles and scratches, and enjoy giving you a good sniff and checking you over for anything tasty. Buttons and shoelaces are a favourite to nibble on, but obviously I don’t encourage that! It’s lovely having them so close to the house, but if they hear my voice in the garden, they do tend to ‘baaaa’ the place down!

IMG_0733.JPG

I genuinely didn’t think I would have so much affection for sheep as I do, so much so, we’re planning on getting some Exmoor Horns to add to our flock next week, so watch this space!

 

 

 

Advertisements

Book Review – Till The Cows Come Home by Lorna Sixsmith

Till the Cows Come Home blog tour banner

I have been very privileged to not only get a sneak peak of Lorna’s 4th book, Till The Cows Come Home, but also feel honoured to be asked to write a book review as part of Lorna’s blog tour.

The book is described as ‘Memories of an Irish farming childhood’ but the book is so much more than that. It transports you from modern day farming right the way back through the decades, even centuries. Lorna’s storytelling enables the reader to experience a multi-faceted world, like you are watching an episode of “Who do you think you are?”, discovering secrets from Lorna’s family history, and the history of the local area. Then you’re taken back to the present day, as if you’re immersed in an episode of ‘BBC Countryfile’ learning about real dairy farming and all the ups and downs that come with it.

Aside from technological advancement, the farming traditions haven’t changed much over the years and that is heart-warming to know. Lorna and her family have honoured certain customs and passed down priceless knowledge through the Sixsmith generations. The people whom she describes with fondness and nostalgia are all real people, but they could be characters in ‘The Hardy Boys’ and ‘The Famous Five’, books of Lorna’s childhood. You can picture them clearly and get a firm understanding of the way of life back then.

The camaraderie that is demonstrated from family members, fellow farmers, neighbours and the local community is reassuring and certainly reflected in what I have experienced since moving to the rural countryside. Everyone really does muck in and although Lorna had the same reservations that I did when I moved out to the sticks about being so isolated, I actually seem to interact with people and the local community more than I ever did in the city. There is a real sense of pulling together and learning from each others mistakes. Despite being accustomed to farming life, Lorna and Brian still made mistakes. Although you might think you know about animals, they will continue to surprise you and defy all the odds. Sometimes it’s not always a happy ending but you always learn something from the experience and it is a testament to Lorna and Brian that they continue to do so with such positive attitudes.

My favourite parts of the book are when the animal’s personalities come into play. As a smallholder myself, I understand the need not to ‘name all the cows’. Although my livestock numbers are much smaller than Lorna’s, I haven’t named all of my 23 chickens. I also never name the pigs for the freezer. The ones with personalities tend to stand out and I enjoyed where Lorna describes grumpy goats, stubborn heifers, fighting bulls and the very familiar ‘escape artists’ (there’s always one!). But my all time favourite character has to be Sam. Dogs really do become such a huge parts of our lives, whether they’re pets or working animals, but Sam in particular sounds like an absolute beaut of a dog.

Till the Cows Come Home Spread.indd

One of the reasons that I loved ‘Till The Cows Come Home’ so much is because I could draw a lot of parallels with my own life. Up until a year ago I lived in Southampton for 15 years, I would also enjoy long walks in the New Forest. I too miss the structured 9-5 days sometimes and the predictability of weekends off and holidays away, but I would not change a thing about my journey. Lorna returned to her roots, she grew up as a farmers daughter. I did not, although I grew up in Devon in a small village and now I’ve returned to Devon and it does feel like coming home. I think what Lorna and Brian have done is amazing and the legacy they have left for their children and the memories they have given them will be treasured forever. I love the feeling of contentment that you get as Lorna tells her story and the fact that it is now a book that she can share with the world is extra special.

Lorna-Colour (c) Damien Carroll low res

This book has a bit of everything for everyone. Whether you are a well established farmer, keen historian, a budding smallholder or just someone who enjoys people who take a bit of a risk to live their dreams, then this is the book for you.

Lastly I am so pleased that Lorna included the recipe for Biscuit Cake in the book, I am certainly going to try my hand at creating such a widely revered treat!

 

Springing forward

It has been another busy couple of months in Mid Devon, but today feels like the dark and cold of the seemingly endless winter, is slowly turning a corner. I did not wear my big coat out today, so spring must be here!

It has been a particularly wet and miserable winter. Everything is so much harder when it is just one big mud-rink of a sloppy mess. Even though on the cold days when the outside pipes are frozen, at least it means that the ground has momentarily hardened, making everything slightly less mucky, so you look forward to those days.

Usually the first signs of spring in the countryside are the daffodils sprouting up and the fields once again filled with sheep and new born lambs. Well the lambs came, as did the daffs, but the lambs were kept inside barns, whilst the daffodils wilted underneath the 4ft of snow we had. Then the snow melted, we were back to mud-fest and then the blooming snow returned again. It was hard-going!

Now even though I said I looked forward to the cold days (hard ground and maybe a bit of frost), snow days on the other hand are not something you look forward to when you have animals outside. You worry about their welfare, them getting enough food and water, and you worry about predators. The water which you re-fill, freezes instantly, so you have to continually top it up with warm water. Snow covers the grass and food containers, and the animals aren’t quite intelligent enough to know that their breakfast is hiding underneath all this weird cold white stuff. The chickens think anything over about 1 inch of snow is a completely impassable danger-zone, so rarely leave their coops. And then there’s the chore of actually getting water to the animals that aren’t in your back garden. The ones which are either an Antarctic trek away, or a very scary drive down roads which have definitely not seen a salt truck. Once you’re there, it’s up a very steep hill, no where near a working water source. It was a struggle to say the least, exhausting at times, but we got through it and have learnt some valuable lessons for next time!

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though, we actually made it away on an actual holiday! We went to visit my brother and his family in Palma, Mallorca. It was lovely! We had just gone from -5 degrees Celsius and 5ft snow drifts to a rather pleasant 19 degree sunshine, shorts and t-shirt weather! Between our parents and very helpful neighbours/work colleagues, the animals were well looked after and it all went off without a hitch. We count ourselves very lucky that we were able to leave the farm for a week and that we have some very generous family and friends.

Talking of the animals, the pigs are doing really well. They are full of personality and are growing excellently. They love a back scratch and will try and use you as an unwitting scratch post if you aren’t paying attention. Which is fine when you’re not ankle deep in mud and quite easily destabilised by a determined pig with an itch! Also if you bend down anywhere near them they think it’s an offer for a piggy back ride! Cue trotter mud prints on the back of your coat. Always an awkward explanation when someone points out you’ve got a muddy back!

The ducks and chickens are also doing well, despite the cold snap, we’ve been receiving at least 2-3 eggs a day, so I must be doing something right! We did have a chicken patient in the house for a few days, after a particularly nasty case of the ‘squits’. But after a few baths, and a few days inside, we think she had just been having a hard time laying an egg (potentially her first as she was last spring’s hatch), which did eventually pop out and after a few final checks, she was reunited with the flock.

Our Silver bantam female duck has been giving us the run-around in terms of teasing us with being broody and then completely changing her mind. She laid a clutch of 19 eggs in the hedge, then rejected them all when I transferred them to a safe nest box. Sadly when she rejected them, the crows took advantage of the situation and ate them all. Slightly disheartening to say the least! She currently has another load of eggs in the broody box, but on a daily basis changes her mind whether she’s going to sit on them or not. I’m not holding out much hope if I’m honest! So as a contingency plan, I’ve gathered some of the other ducks’ eggs and placed them in the incubator. Lets hope they don’t all turn out to be boys!

It’s been lovely seeing the lambs out in the fields this week, it’s really made me excited for getting our own. The sheep in the photos are of a tenant farmer who had some sheep lamb inside and also some which have been lambing out in the field, it is really wonderful to watch!

We ourselves are planning on taking on a couple of orphan lambs for fattening in April. I have contacted a breeder of some rare Devon Closewool Sheep, who is lambing at the beginning of next month and will hopefully have some orphans going spare. Luckily for us, he said he keeps the girls for breeding and we are more than welcome to the boys. The reason I’m pleased with this arrangement is that this reduces the likelihood of me getting attached, as another un-productive mouth to feed is not in our best interests financially! We agreed that we can take on ‘productive’ animals, so these first lot of lambs will be for the freezer, but there are future plans to have a small rare breeding flock. But baby-steps first!

Amongst all of this we will be moving house within the estate next month, as well as hosting an open day in the gardens for the National Garden Scheme. So the pressure is on from all sides in terms of trying to be as organised and efficient as possible! Unsurprisingly this means blog updates will again be few and far between, but I hope to keep the Instagram and Tweets going where I can!

Wishing you all a fabulous Easter break and think of me working 18 days straight, in one of my many sideline jobs as a housekeeper & private chef! Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll still get time to stuff my face with Easter eggs! #berudenotto

It’s good to talk

Tomorrow is 1st February and it marks the end of a very long, wet and muddy January, the beginning of longer days and (hopefully) warmer weather. It is also a day to raise awareness for mental health. Time to Change #timetotalk is aiming to promote taking the time to talk about mental health and help break the stigma.

ttt

I am lucky that I have never been diagnosed with mental health issues such as anxiety, stress and depression, but that does not mean that I have not suffered with symptoms that point towards these things. I know many friends and family that have, diagnosed or not, which is unsurprising when 1 in 4 of us experience a mental health condition. That’s a pretty high number right?

Farming is one of the industries where mental health is not talked about as freely, mainly because it is such an isolating environment. I read recently about a suicide of a young farmer, who was 24 years old. Farming has one of the highest suicide rates of any occupation, with one farmer a week taking their own lives, which is a shocking statistic, but very much a reality.

farming

Right before I moved to Devon to start my ‘farm life’, I lost a very close friend of mine to cancer. I’m not sure I properly grieved for her, because I had so many other things going on in my life at the time. Trying to pack up our flat by myself, trying to find a job, trying to sort out tenants for when I moved out, travelling every weekend back and forth to Devon to see my other half and for interviews which I was constantly being knocked back for.

In Southampton, I had an excellent support network of friends, colleagues and a brilliant, often busy social life. I knew that moving to rural Devon would be a massive change for me, but I didn’t realise how much. The job I have now does not involve an office full of people, it is just me and the family of 6 I work for (who are super lovely and nice, but it is not the same). When I am not at work, it is just myself (and the animals) during the day and I see my other half at night. Occasionally I bump into the other people that work on the estate (about 5 in total, one being my other half) and I take every opportunity to talk to them when I can. But it’s momentary and fleeting and I certainly wouldn’t start spilling my inner feelings to them stood in the rain in my wellies and waterproofs.

By no means am I alone, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get lonely. I didn’t realise how much I relied on my friends until I didn’t have them around me anymore. My other half has been brilliant and has noticed and picked up on changes in my behaviour and forced me to talk about it and confront these issues.

Those that know me, probably would describe me as quite a confident and outgoing person. But recently I’ve shyed away from many things that would involve taking a risk and possible failure. I’ve been very cautious and dare I say, clingy. On the outside it probably looks like the opposite, but social media, as we all know, can tell a different story to reality. Plus, it makes you feel good to share the successes in your life, why would you focus on the failures? No one wants to be ‘that’ person who moans about everything, when actually I’ve got everything I’ve ever wanted and live in virtual paradise right?

And I do. I try to remember that when I’m feeling these things, that aside from being a bit lonely and scared of the unknown, I am very lucky to live here and do what I do. And I am happy, happier than I’ve ever been. But at the same time, I have moments of lowness that I struggle to shake.

But I’m here to tell you that despite this, I’ve found a way to cope. I use social media in a very different way than I used to. I’ve joined many Facebook groups relating to ‘smallholdings’ or the various animals that I keep and recently gained a new-found love for Twitter, following many people in the same situation as me. I’ve actually made new friends, online and in person! One by joining a local charity fun run and one who I started chatting to on Twitter and realised we lived near each other, and we’ve since met up. It is such an invaluable form of communication, because when you’re having a bad day, it’s good to know someone else has been through it and come out the other side, even if they are managing a herd of Llamas in the Highlands of Scotland! I’ve been so pleasantly surprised about the friendliness of absolute strangers and their willingness to give limitless advice and guidance, which I have found so helpful and reassuring.

The friends that I left behind in Southampton have also been amazing. Even if they wouldn’t know the first thing about tagging a pigs ear or dealing with an egg bound chicken, they have all been so supportive of me, and many have made the effort to come out to visit. They still text and call and haven’t forgotten me, which I am eternally grateful for.

So today, I’d just like to help raise awareness with this piece by encouraging people to talk about their issues, or issues that they know other people are going through. Make time to talk, or even if they don’t want to right now, just make it known that if they do feel like talking, you’re there. Because I am, for anyone that needs it. It can be a lonely world out there, especially in the rural countryside, but you only have to ask for help and people will surprise you. #timetotalk

New Pigs and Old Enemies

A very belated Happy New Year to everyone. Christmas 2017 was hectic but good fun. It marked my first one as a Mid-Devon resident.

It also was the first time I cooked Christmas dinner for over 20 people in my new job. I think it was a success! I then had a week of organisation and tidying of my own house, as well as visiting friends and family around the country, before having the parentals over to stay for actual Christmas. Christmas Eve was slightly overshadowed by the glass of our wood burner cracking and falling out. Obviously being a Sunday and Christmas Eve, nowhere was open. So we persevered and heated the house with an open fire, not ideal considering the flue is the wrong shape, so most of the smoke did not escape up the chimney. Cue a collection of sore throats and stinging eyes, not the ideal way to spend the festive season. Despite that, we did have a lovely time, filled with lots of lovely food, good company and far too many presents.

The food was particularly a hit, mainly because of the pork, including sausages and bacon all from our very own rare breed Oxford Sandy and Black pigs. I know I am biased, but the flavour of our hand reared meat was second to none. Making your own ‘pigs in blankets’ for Christmas dinner was certainly an achievement, which we remain very proud of. Also, lots of people received bacon and sausages as Christmas presents from us, which although unusual, I think were received well.

One present that I received, I have to mention, mainly because it involves a future addition to the menagerie. The other half has agreed that at some point this year I can take on an orphan lamb (or two) for fattening. Eeek! It will involve bottle feeding 4 times a day in the beginning, but the cuteness will certainly take over the inconvenience. I’ve asked if it can move into the house temporarily, but this has been met with a firm ‘no’, so it will probably end up in a barn and then out to graze perhaps with our friendly neighbours’ pygmy goats. So watch this space!

The first week of 2018, unfortunately brought us some sadness. Our beloved rare breed Silver Bantam drake, whom we affectionately named ‘Yoda’ due to his beautiful green head, was taken by a fox. This happened in the middle of the day. We had him about 4 years, he was our only unrelated male and life-partner to Princess Layer, our white Silver Bantam female, so we were all devastated.

A few days later, 4 of our chickens also disappeared in the middle of the day. There were so many feathers left behind we were almost sure they’d also all been taken by the fox. I spent a good hour searching nearby fields and although I did find lots of chicken footprints in the mud, alas no chickens were to be found. One of the missing was my favourite cockerel Bow, a massive Cuckoo Maran, but his feathers were the most left behind. I feared the worst and assumed he died trying to protect his girls.

The next morning I was getting ready and I heard my bantam cockerel Rocky conducting his morning crow, and I thought to myself that I am going to miss him and Bow’s duet. Every morning they would have some sort of X-factor battle, trying to out-crow one another. Bow’s crow being much louder and erratic than Rocky’s, almost comical. As if by magic, I then heard Bow’s distinctive crow in the distance! I genuinely thought I was hearing things, but I threw on my coat and wellies and went off to follow his call.

I found him in a neighbouring farm’s barn, proudly stood on a stone wall, crowing in all his magnificent glory. By some miracle, despite losing an awful lot of feathers, he seemed unscathed and only had a couple of scratches on his comb. I think he was happy to see me and calmly let me scoop him up and I reunited him with the rest of the flock. About half and hour later, we then got a phone call from the person who owns the nearby barn, who said she had spotted another very cold looking chicken perched by her car this morning. I went to where she described and sure enough, there was one of our missing Gold Laced Orpingtons, shivering on the floor by the parked cars. Unfortunately she seemed a bit more shaken up than Bow and was not as pleased to see me. After about half an hour of trying to guide/chase her back to our garden, I resorted to using a fishing net to catch her. Whilst carrying her back, I distinctly heard another cluck from a nearby field. Sure enough, missing chicken number 3, one of our buff rock bantam girls, was also in the hedge of the nearby field. Another half an hour of crazy chicken catching, and I had recovered 3 out of the 4 missing chickens! I was so happy! They were clearly chased and dispersed by our familiar old enemy, and I imagine that the remaining missing Black Maran, was not quite fast enough to escape Fantastic Mr Fox.

The next few days we kept the entire flock (now reduced to 18) inside their enclosure, whilst we came up with a plan of action. We considered electric fencing, but it is expensive, not completely fox proof (nothing is!) and also would not only electrify the foxes, but also the chickens, ducks and our inquisitive dogs. Woody our lab cross is already petrified of the pig fence (after being shocked a couple of times) and won’t go anywhere near the woodland, I don’t want him scared of going into his own back garden. Luckily (or unluckily) a few nights later, Mr Fox did return, for the last time. Whether that fox was the fox that killed our chicken and duck, we won’t ever know, but what we do know is that there is more than one fox out there, but there is now one less. I appreciate that we are living in the foxes territory, I appreciate that they need to eat. But there are so many pheasants, rabbits and other rodents to feed them in their natural environment, they do not need to take our livestock. It is an emotive issue so I won’t say anymore on the subject.

Finishing on a lighter note, the New Year brought us new pigs. Three Large Black weaners. These rare breed native pigs are rarer than the Siberian Tiger, with less than 200 breeding sows in this country. They are often referred to as the Cornish Black, as the breed’s origins are from Devon and Cornwall. They are also referred to as the ‘elephant pig’ because new born piglets resemble tiny elephants because of their large ears and straight tails. Their hair is unusually fine, soft and silky in comparison to other breeds of pig.

We have wanted this breed ever since we decided we wanted to keep pigs, but we found it difficult to obtain the pigs locally. We still had to travel over an hour to get these ones, but I’m sure you’ll agree they’re absolutly worth it. We have had them about a week and they have settled in nicely and are getting used to the electric fence, but they are loving snuffling around in the undergrowth and are already fans of belly scratches. I have spent most of the last week in bed with the flu, so I am looking forward to getting better and spending a bit more time with my baby elephants…I mean pigs!

Three little pigs went to market

Today I took our second set of pigs to the abattoir. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I would write, but a lot has happened in the past year! 

Our first set of pigs went to the abattoir in May, but I couldn’t bring myself to go along as I imagined it would be far too emotional and traumatic for me. We never name our pigs and although I see them everyday, I tried to limit my time with them, so as to not get too attached. Despite this, these pigs still got a lot of attention, back and belly scratches, the odd bucket of apples, as well as a few pumpkins at Halloween. I loved those pigs.
 

This morning I got up early and it was pouring with rain. It was cold and dark and I felt apprehensive at best. I know the pigs have had a good life, better than most, but I just wanted to ensure they had a stress-free, humane and dignified death, as much as I possibly can. 

I had arranged to meet Steve, a long-standing member of the farm team on the estate, at the woodland just after 7am. He is experienced in all things farm related, including driving a trailer with live animals, so it made sense to ask him to help, rather than struggle by myself, plus having two people makes it a lot easier. It was lashing down with rain and still dark, so I headed up to the woodland in my waterproofs and my head torch. 

The pigs were already in the trailer, having happily been fed and slept in there voluntarily for the past few days. As soon as they saw me they got excited, mainly because they were expecting breakfast! Unfortunately I had to disappoint them, and instead I made a fuss of them in the trailer whilst Steve secured and locked them in. The back was filled with cosy straw and they have plenty of space to lounge around in there. They were most displeased when the bucket of food failed to make an appearance, so I quickly made my exit out of the side door, as being trapped in a trailer with 3 hungry pigs weighing approximately 85kg each is something you probably shouldn’t do for long!

All hitched up and secure we tried to drive away in the Landrover, but unfortunately due to an abundance of rain overnight, resulting in wet leaves and soggy ground, we weren’t going anywhere fast. The woodland that the pigs live in is on a slope, so every time we tried to move, we ended up sliding down, to the point where we got wedged against a tree.

Luckily, because it’s a farm we weren’t stuck for long, as Steve went to get the tractor to pull us out. With a bit of extra help from my other half, who drove the Landrover with the trailer attached, and Steve behind in the tractor making sure they all didn’t slide down the hill, the boys safely got the pigs out of the woodland and onto suitable ground. Not the best start to the day, but it could’ve been worse I suppose!


Before we set off, I checked on the pigs to make sure they were ok and not stressed out by their bumpy start. As I peered through the air vents they seemed pretty much unfazed by it all. They were snorting away, snuffling in the straw, no doubt checking that their bedding wasn’t hiding any stray food-pellets! So off we set, the journey took about an hour and all went smoothly, despite it being a very wet and windy morning.

As we drove into the farm where the abattoir is located, I was surprised to see a lovely detached house at the entrance and a couple more nice houses down the lane, one in fact right by the abattoir building itself. I assumed that the people who own and work at the abattoir live there, but it was odd to think that anyone would want to live that close to that sort of establishment. But at the same time, it was also quite comforting, as it made me think that it can’t be that bad an environment, if people are living on the doorstep.

We had to wait a few minutes in the yard, as there was already another person with their trailer backed up against the entrance, but soon enough we were reversing our trailer up to the doors. When I got out, I expected the place to smell of blood and meat (like a butchers sometimes does) but it didn’t, it was all quite normal and clean and the radio was playing in the background.


The main guy in charge came up and happily greeted us and helped encourage the girls out of their trailer. Noses to the ground, they were curious as to their new surroundings, but with some gentle coaxing, they made their way down to the holding pen without too much fuss. The guy even said that he much preferred pigs to sheep, which made me think we were his favourites so far that morning. After a quick exchange of paperwork, a brief chat about what cuts of meat we wanted back and some smalltalk with a couple of the other guys that worked there, we agreed that I would pick up all the meat at the same time in about a week. This is because bacon takes longer to process and cure, and is also the bit we missed out on last time (because those pigs were too small), so we wanted to make sure that bacon was on the list this time!

Mondays are a busy time for the abattoir as that is generally when people drop off their livestock. The last Monday in December is again probably busier than usual, with only a few weeks left before Christmas. The abattoir asks that you arrive before 09.30hrs, and even with our mishap we arrived a good 45 minutes before then. As we drove off, there was a queue of about 6 more vehicles all with trailers and livestock, so we certainly picked the right time to get there else we could’ve been waiting a while, so you definitely would want to get there early to avoid queues. 

And that was it. The process was fairly seamless and non-traumatic for both myself and the pigs. I had all the paperwork prepared beforehand, with everything now done online with the EAML2 system, which you use to notify the movement of your animals. I brought along a piece of paper with what cuts of meat I wanted, and the whole process probably took about 15 minutes, if that.

I tried not to think about the next stage too much, but I know from my research that it’s relatively quick and painless and just another part to the process of raising animals for food. 

I feel surprisingly ok. I don’t feel as bad as I did last time, although there is always a tinge of sadness, but I try not to dwell on that. I like to remember them in their woodland, never wanting for anything and being appreciated not only in life, but also in death. Feeding us and our family and friends, and feeling confident knowing exactly the process that’s been involved in their journey at every stage. Knowing where my food has come from, how it’s been treated, what it’s eaten, knowing it’s been happy and appreciating the sacrifice it’s given. Not a lot of people can say that and I’m proud of what we have achieved and hope we can continue to do the same in the future.