Have you got wood?

Wood is an important part of my life now, more than I ever thought it would be. My other half, as part of his job looks after a rare oak collection, so that’s pretty important, but also because it is our main, if only source of heat in the cottage. Oh and I also have a dog called Woody, but that’s a separate topic!

It seems daft but I don’t think I ever realised how much effort went into obtaining, chopping and seasoning wood in order to effectively run a log fire. So we took advice from a knowledgeable Norwegian, because well, they know their wood.

Wood burning stoves/log burners are very fashionable at the moment. Their popularity means that seasoned logs are pretty easy to get hold of, even if you haven’t got a local supplier, most people can just pop down to their local supermarket, hardware store or petrol station to stock up on a bag of logs for the fire. They don’t come cheap though. Mostly they’re used for ambiance in a room or to top up the heat on a cold winters night, but the majority of people still rely heavily on their super efficient and convenient central heating for warmth (and why not, you lucky buggers).

Here in rural Devon, in order to keep costs down and to assist us in becoming a step closer to being self sufficient, our aim is to use wood that has naturally been felled or cut down as part of the maintenance in the surrounding woodland and gardens. This means we get a lot of free wood, hooray! But the downside is that it doesn’t come nicely packaged in red netting, perfectly sized and ready for burning. When a tree is cut down, the moisture levels in the wood are usually too high to burn straight away, which is why it goes through the seasoning process of being stacked and left to dry. Usually this occurs over the spring and summer months. 

So when we moved into the cottage in the middle of winter, we did not have a stack of freshly seasoned logs to help keep us warm. However, we are now working on rectifying that situation by seasoning our own wood. There is plenty of it available where we live, but it’s about obtaining the right wood at the right time. Most arborists or the forestry commission will give you some good tips on where to source a regular supply of good wood from. Some will even deliver it. But we’re lucky and able to locate the wood ourselves, but transporting it back to the cottage can sometimes be a bit tricky. 

Most trees are pretty big, so unless you’ve managed to find a small one to carry yourself or have recruited the help of a friend, you’re probably going to need some machinery to lift it. My other half used the front loader on the tractor to get this lovely log specimen into the van.

Once you’ve got your wood, you need to chop it up into pieces that will fit into your fireplace/burner. Biggest isn’t always best here. Now if you’re feeling particularly fit you could use a hand-saw to portion up your wood. But seeing as this method takes a lot of time and energy and with us having to do this regularly, a chainsaw is the tool of choice. I am by no means skilled in this area (I’m accident prone at the best of times) so we thought it best for my other half to take charge of this bit. He has also just been on a chainsaw course, so I am confident in his ability to complete the task with minimal effort/injury. He also makes it look so easy. I’m glad he’s on my zombie apocalypse team!

Once you have a neat pile of logs, you then need to split them. Even if the length is the right size, you don’t want to try and set light to something that’s the width of a tree trunk or branch, you’d struggle for a start! Depending on the size of your wood, you can split it into thirds or quarters and this is the stuff that now begins to resemble the bags of wood neatly piled up at your local shops. Not as easy as you thought huh?

Then you need to stack your wood in a dry area, preferably out of the rain to get optimal dry logs for burning. Our pile is just getting started.

Oak, Ash and Beech are probably the top three best types of wood to burn if you’re looking at obtaining a supply yourself. But it’s worth investing in a moisture meter to test the percentage of water in your wood. Most of the time freshly cut wood will read off the scale, but optimal moisture levels are below about 20%.

You will also need to prepare some kindling to get your fire started, unless you’re happy to go out and buy fire-lighters. Always useful to have on standby, but an added expense and also we want to avoid using chemicals where we can. Splitting the wood into kindling is something that my other half is hopefully going to teach me to do effectively with a hatchet, without chopping any of my fingers off, so I will keep you posted on my progress! Once again, zombie apocalypse weapons are in abundance at our place now!

I hope that’s helped any budding wood enthusiasts, or anyone who fancies obtaining and looking after their very own wood. I’m glad this post is over now, because I can stop sniggering about typing the words ‘wood’ and ‘log’ like an immature teenage boy. Look, I tried giving up innuendos but it’s hard, so hard.

Three little pigs

Today I met three little pigs. My very own three little pigs. A lot of hard work and effort has brought us to today and it made me incredibly happy knowing that the long slog was worth it. They are awesome.

I sat with the pigs today and watched them snuffling about, looking for brambles, grubs and anything else they could try and have a nibble on (including my fingers and the dog treats in my pocket).

They seemed so happy and content, their little curly tails (or stumpy in one’s case) waggling away, little snorts of delight as they found a juicy grub or a particularly nutritious bramble. Investigating the ground, trees, dogs, humans and anything else that crossed their path. Inquisitive, cautious but also fearless! They really are a pleasure to be around.

Now I’ve spent time with them, as much as I’ve fallen a little bit in love with them, it also assures me that I know raising them for meat is the right thing for us. Knowing I’m going to be giving these pigs the best life. Whether that’s 10 weeks or 10 years, does it matter? As long as what life they do have is the best possible I can provide? As pigs, they don’t have any real concept of time. They don’t have a consciousness like ours. They don’t know they’re pigs. And they certainly don’t have a fear of death like most of us humans. Sure they’re intelligent and they grow attachments with each other and with people if given the opportunity, and they are great animals to be around, but to them, we’re just their food bringers and scratchers of ears/bellies. It goes no deeper than that.

Pigs mainly exist because of farming. Farming for the purposes of pork. The breed we’ve opted for is a breed native to Devon, which is currently endangered. We’re doing our bit to promote the British Lops, which to some seems counterproductive because we’re eating them. But what it does mean, is more breeders will breed them as their popularity grows and that people who buy the meat from intensively farmed cheaper breeds, are made aware of other options which have different flavours. And maybe more people like us, will attempt to raise their own, ensuring their livelihood and journey from field to fork is a completely transparent and humane process.

I’m not going to lie. It’s going to be tough when the time comes to say goodbye. But what I do know, is that between now and then, we’re gonna have a great time and I’m going to do my absolute best to make them the happiest pigs alive. 

And then there were pigs!

They’re here! The piggy wigs have arrived! Although I am yet to see them myself in person as I am in Southampton working, my partner has kept me updated all day! I will be travelling down at the weekend to see them though, so not long till I meet them.

My other half (with a bit of help) has worked tirelessly to get everything ready for today. Last week the pig ark was delivered and with the help of the tractor, it was transported up to the woodland. Some of the trees in the woodland are rare oaks, so the trunks of these had to be caged to protect them from any inquisitive snouts.

The ark we purchased is made out of recycled plastic and the colour means it blends in nicely with the surroundings.

So as not to overwhelm the pigs when they arrive, the enclosure was made smaller with metal fencing, with a wider exterior electric fence surrounding it, so when they’re let out fully into the woodland, they can’t escape too far! Although I have heard stories about how pigs are great escape artists, scaling fences and gates (would you believe it?!), so hopefully the electric fence will prevent any jail breaks!

We’ve decided to opt for a bite drinker (we’re still waiting on the parts to be delivered). This ensures the pigs have a constant supply of water straight from the mains, which they can’t tip over or get dirty. It’ll get fixed to the fence post and the pigs learn that when they bite down on the metal ‘teet’ water gets released. They’re pretty clever and work it out quite quickly. In the meantime though, they’ll just drink out of a trug which we’ll empty and refill daily.

We also needed somewhere dry to store their food, somewhere where other animals can’t get to it, particularly rats! Some of the food storage bins are ridiculously expensive, but a metal container was sitting unused around the farm, previously used to store lamb feed, which works as a great pig feed store. We’ve opted to feed them grower pellets from a local farm feed shop in Tiverton. They will be eating a combination of the dry pellets at around 17% protein and also whatever they uncover from the woodland. A natural mix of protein (from grubs) and greens (from brambles!)

Today my other half travelled to the breeders to pick up our 3 boar weaners in the trailer. The trailer was filled with lots of lovely straw to help them settle down and so they could have a little nap during the half an hour journey from Taunton to Chevithorne.

If you’re wondering what the orange marks behind their ears are, it’s a spray of iodine to disinfect the area where they were injected with worming medicine. That’s just to make sure they don’t pick up any nasties from the woodland whilst they’re with us.

Before they knew it, they’d arrived at the Rookery and were straight out and getting acquainted with their new surroundings, investigating where all the best grubs and brambles were. They didn’t seem fazed at all about the movement from one premises to another, which was great.

They located their food and drink troughs after a while and began eating, drinking and after all the excitement, settled down and had a nap.

I’m so pleased it all went smoothly and they seem to be a trio of very happy pigs. I certainly can’t wait to meet them. Watch this space for more pig updates!

Feathers, Fire and Water

We had a very eventful dog walk the other day. We have two dogs; one terrier cross and one lab cross cocker spaniel. Woody is the lab cross, he comes from a long line of working gun dogs. Since he was a pup he has had a fascination with birds, particularly the small ones whom he would chase round the park, whilst they teased him flying low and then swooping up at the last moment. When we got ducks and chickens, he was taught to ignore them and we’ve never had a problem (although I would never leave them both unattended together, far too much temptation!).

Since moving to the country, Woody is in his element. There are plenty of birds for him to flush out. His working dog traits have flourished and he is absolutely loving life. Being taken to work with my other half and running around like a loon all day, to the point we have had to feed him twice as much as he was burning off so much energy he was dropping weight. 

As well as chasing birds, he has found a dead deer, which he was proudly carrying around. This was long dead before he found it, but he certainly was happy with himself. Last week my other half watched Woody stalk and kill a squirrel. We were a bit surprised as he has always chased things, but never caught them. On woodland walks in Southampton he’s brought back various dead birds, but we always assumed that he found them dead and just brought them to us as a present.

Since the squirrel incident, there’s been another occasion where at night he has returned with a dead pheasant in his mouth. Again, we assumed it was already dead when he found it, even though my other half said it did feel warm, but where it was a cold night, perhaps it was warm from Woody carrying it round in his mouth? Or so we thought.

So when I took the dogs for a walk the other day,  I wasn’t overly surprised when Woody returned with a big dead pheasant in his mouth. This time I knew he had just caught and killed it. It was still warm and there was a little bit of blood dripping from its beak. This was a fresh kill. Although we had to praise him for bringing the bird back to us, it leaves us in a bit of a quandary.

It’s not ideal for a potential working gun dog to kill wild birds, he is supposed to flush them out so people with shotguns can make a clean kill without damaging too much of the birds’s meat. This bird did have a bit of damage to the breast meat, where Woody obviously got over excited killing it and carrying it around. Not wanting to waste the present that Woody had brought us, I decided to take it home and attempt to make use of it.

I’ve dealt with dead birds before, but I certainly have never tried to butcher one! But I felt this was the ideal opportunity to demonstrate my willingness to take this country life by the horns and throw myself in. So I did. And I completely surprised myself. I googled how to butcher a pheasant and was informed that the best way to do it is to skin the bird rather than plucking it. Firstly though, remove the wings, feet, head and innards and then after making a small incision, you are able to pull the skin off the bird in one go. Which is a lot easier than it sounds, you can pull it off like a little jacket. The only thing I lacked is a bit of brute strength and I probably could’ve done with a sharper knife, but I made do! I was very proud of myself. There was a bit of damage to some of the breast meat (that’s an excitable dog for you!) but I went about butchering the meat off the carcass in order to make a pie. 

This is the bit I found hard and I think in future I will probably try and google how to do that efficiently, as the only meat I’ve ever carved is cooked and from a chicken. Raw meat off the bone is very different, particularly when such a fresh catch! Nevertheless I removed the meat and ended up making a pheasant, chorizo and red wine pie which was bloody marvellous.

Apart from the adventures with the dogs, life on the farm has involved getting used to the slight differences between the city and country life. The cottage we are living in is very traditional. There’s no central heating, just very expensive economy seven heaters. We avoid them where possible as we are on an electricity meter which just eats up the ££’s! Our main source of heat is the wood burning stove which is in the lounge. This has meant that I have had to perfect my fire-making skills. For some, like my other half, this comes easily (he was a Boy Scout after all) but it took me a while to get there. 

Lighting the fire is sometimes tricky due to the type of wood you’re using (each bit has different moisture/burnability levels) and even if you’ve got the fire going, keeping it going is another thing. You have to keep your hand in. You can’t just be distracted without keeping an eye on it, else it will go out. And then the whole laborious process starts again. It is certainly something that will take me time to perfect, but I’m getting there! And it is just very different to switching the heating on and adjusting the temperature to whatever you like, but it does mean I appreciate the heat more! As do the dogs!

The other thing I appreciate is the water here. It is the absolute best. Crisp, clean and straight out of our own spring! We don’t have mains water, the estate has its own supply, which just adds to the rural and countryside feel of the place. There is one small downside though. We live opposite a dairy farm. That in itself is not a problem, I love waking up to the sound of the cows mooing and wandering past them on dog walks, as their inquisitive little faces poke through the open sided barn or self-made windows!

As with any dairy farm, they have to milk the cows, usually twice daily. When this happens, they use a large amount of water to flush through the system after the milking process has occurred. This quickly drains the store of water readily available, which in turn means the farm temporarily uses up all the water supply to the nearby houses, including ours. One of the farmers usually has to go over to the field where there is a switch to direct the water back, but essentially it means not having running water for around an hour whilst the milking process is taking place. Which in the grand scheme of things, is not the end of the world, but takes a bit of getting used to, timing showers and general use of water (including flushing the toilet) in the mornings and evenings. I’m slowly getting used to it though and now I know roughly what the times are, we can make sure we’re not caught short!

So that’s your weekly update. Oh and before I forget, T minus 5 days till the pigs arrive. Excited is an understatement!

A Lidl bit more Countryside

After 5 months of applying for jobs, attending interviews, second interviews and a whole load of ‘thanks but no thanks’ responses; I’ve finally got offered a job!
Although my other half has been living at the cottage for almost two months now, I have only been getting a taste of country life at the weekends. Now I have a job, this is going to be a more permanent thing! It’s been a tough few months, but we have come a long way with the cottage in that time and had our first guests come and stay with us for my birthday a few weeks ago.

My brother, his wife and their 10 month old spent a couple of nights with us. I absolutely loved sharing our indoor and outdoor space with them, I felt so proud of my other half and what we’ve achieved in a fairly short space of time. They seemed to enjoy themselves and may they be the first of many guests that come to stay in our humble abode.
On that theme, we will be picking up our new pig guests in just a couple of weeks! We went to visit our British Lop weaners over the weekend and oh how they’ve grown in 5 weeks!  (Pic below is 1 day old vs 5 weeks old)

Mummy pig is getting quite annoyed with these boisterous toddlers. They’re now so big they can’t all feed together properly from mum and are slowly being weaned off her milk and onto pellet feed. By all accounts she’s totally over motherhood now and I bet she can’t wait to get in her old pen with her sister and beau Sir Lancelot, away from the screeching weaners!

They are super cute and friendly though. They love having behind their ears scratched and they are so inquisitive! They will try and nibble your fingers and wellies though and their teeth are sharp enough to bite straight through!

I always remember that quote from the movie ‘Snatch’, where Bricktop talks about how a hungry pig can go through ‘bone like butter’. He’s talking about how to get rid of dead bodies mind you, and you need about 16 pigs for that…apparently. I’m only getting 3 so you needn’t worry just yet! But it just means I’ll have to be extra vigilant around the weaners, because even though they’re pink and cute, they could easily nip the tip of my finger off whilst I’m not looking! 

Whilst we were making a fuss of the piglets, the breeder asked if we wanted to choose which ones we wanted and if so, he could make a note of their ear tags and make sure we got the right ones. I thought I didn’t much care for choosing, bearing in mind they’ll only be with us for four months. That’s until I saw one of the piglets had its tail bitten off by one of its siblings, poor little mite! It also turned out that he kept coming back to me for more ear scratches and attempts at nibbling my fingers. So I think Stumpy might be one of the ones coming back with us! Which means I’ve already broken the first rule of raising pigs for meat; don’t name them! Ooops! 

As well as pig cuddles we have also been doing a lot of research this weekend on which is the best pig ark to get, different types of feeders, drinkers and getting advice on the best abattoir to take them when it’s their time. There are several options for each of these things, who knew it was so complicated?! One of the good things I’ve discovered though are that pigs are very clean animals in relation to waste, and will never soil in or near their houses. This is refreshing compared to what I’m used to with our ducks and chickens, who are absolute mess machines, constantly pooping anytime anywhere!

We will be keeping the pigs in a woodland, called The Rookery, which my other half has been working very hard at clearing, so they have enough space for their house, food, drinker and space to snuffle around. Below is before and after pics of the area they are due to live in. In some areas the brambles were really dense and high so we’ve (the royal we!) cleared about an acre or so to get them started.



Pigs are great at using their snouts to rip up brambles and roots, so we haven’t cleared the whole area as the pigs will hopefully continue to do that whilst they’re there. It keeps them entertained and saves an awful lot of back-breaking work for us; win-win! I think they will be very happy there.

So that’s my update, official move date is 4th March….and piggies in a couple of weeks! Let the countdown commence!