Double Trouble

This week I’ve had some time off work and it’s flown by. I had visions of me sat with a couple of good books, cups of tea and several packets of biscuits. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen.

Last weekend, we did a bit of local exploring. We went to Exebridge and a lovely pub called the Anchor Inn, right on the river. It was a lovely sunny day and a great spot to stop for some refreshments. Currently one of two new favourite places, The Fisherman’s Cot in Bickleigh is a close second.

We also drove up to Wimbleball Lake, an area within Exmoor National Park and part of the collection of South West Lakes. Not only is it a beautiful walk, there are several things to do such as fly fishing, sailing, windsurfing and other activities for the whole family. Definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Back at the cottage, there are always things to do. There are things to repair, things to build, things to clean, unpacking still to tackle and animals to look after. So instead of relaxing or doing any of those chores, I distracted myself with visitors. Much more fun.

I think I’ve mentioned we live opposite an organic dairy farm. It rotates its cows over several fields, and I was extremely pleased when the field next to my house was the field of choice this week. Cows are pretty inquisitive and mischievous. I may not have helped the situation by making friends with them over the fence. 

After that it wasn’t long before one hopped over to say hello. Well I can’t help being charismatic, to a cow at least. Since then the farmer has curbed their enthusiasm by putting up an electric wire fence. Party pooper.

We have actually discussed getting a house cow. Now this isn’t a cow that lives in the house (disappointing I know). Rather traditionally, they were kept in the yard and used as a source of milk for the family. There is a small breed of cow called a ‘Dexter’ (stock picture below of one next to a goat) which we’re considering. At the moment we couldn’t keep it in our current back garden (it might end up standing on a chicken) but there is room for negotiation with various bits of land nearby. We’ll keep you posted.

We recently seem to have adopted a local stray chicken. By all accounts she used to be part of her own flock, but one by one they were picked off by local predators. She’s the last one standing (we’ve named her Andi) and has decided she would much prefer to hang out with our ducks and chickens. She doesn’t stay all day, and sleeps elsewhere at night (despite us trying to persuade her otherwise), but we’re making slow progress. Hopefully she will eventually choose to be a permanent feature, but until then she’s welcome to use us as a bit of a chicken hotel. That’s her below arriving before I managed to let out our flock. Cheeky mare was waiting for breakfast.

Since being free range, our flock are loving life, some more than others. The ducks have been particularly troublesome in this area and our prize laying duck (Princess Leia) is the main problem. She has mothered two sets of ducklings over the last couple of years and she’s a great broody. However since gaining freedom, she likes to find awkward places to lay her eggs, despite us providing ample housing for her to do it safely.

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had to navigate an electric fence to shoo her out of neighbouring fields, thorny hedges or bunches of stinging nettles. As much as she thinks it is a good place to hide, it’s not. She is leaving herself (and her unborn children) open to attacks from foxes, badgers, birds of prey and even stoats. All of these could easily kill a flock of ducks and chickens, let alone one bird and a bunch of vulnerable ducklings. 
Unfortunately our garden is not entirely escape proof and we don’t have the time (or the money) to make it so at the moment. In the meantime, we have to try other methods to encourage her to lay in a cosy broody box, and keep her in an enclosure to make sure there’s no break-outs. Her partner in crime Yoda (her mating other half Silver Bantam drake) appears to be her enabler, so he’s been locked away with her too. I currently view them as a feathery version of Bonnie and Clyde. They’re trouble. But also cute. So they’re currently in duck jail together, till we can come up with a more permanent solution. As you can see they’re not particularly happy about it.

We also got our first double yolker today! Hooray! Unfortunately there is no picture as I was making poached eggs for one of our guests, but I can assure you it was impressive. It came from one of our newer additions (we think the Splash Maran) who lays lovely chocolate coloured eggs. I wish they were real chocolate, but a free range egg is probably a bit healthier, and actually pretty damn tasty.

Lastly, the chicks are doing well. At almost two weeks old their wings are pretty much feathered and it’s only a matter of time until the rest of their fluffy bodies follow suit. 

They’re growing at such a fast pace, their food constantly needs topping up and soon they will need a bigger place to live. I have a dog crate on standby and if the weather warms up and stays dry, they might even be able to brave the outside in a week or two. Which will coincide nicely with the birth of our next batch of chicks! We got some hatching eggs from a local breeder and currently have six eggs cooking in the incubator (one wasn’t fertile out of the seven we put in there). 

I’m much more confidant than last time and I learnt a lot, so can’t wait to see the new breeds we will hopefully hatch. Currently rooting for three Gold laced Orpingtons and a Black, Blue and Cuckoo Maran. Fingers crossed! #15daystogo


Highs and Lows of Hatching

As many of you have been following my journey, you will know that I had my first batch of chicken eggs due to hatch in the incubator at the weekend. Well they did and below details my experience as novice first time chicken breeder.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as anxious as I was during the 48 hours from first pip to last hatch. In fact, during the 21 day build up I was fairly twitchy, but every time I candled the eggs, I saw positive signs of life. And I wasn’t wrong. Each egg was fertile, each egg had a baby chick inside it. But not all of them made it.

Now I’ve researched this a lot. I’ve bought and read books, scanned forums and websites for information and spoken to friends who do this as a side-line business. I felt prepared. At least I thought I was. Until everything kicked off and I crumbled into an emotional and erratic mess. 

Day 21 ‘hatching day’ arrived and there was no movement with the eggs. On day 17, the eggs were merrily rocking away, the chicks getting themselves into the right position for hatching in a few days time. But now at the biggest stage of their unborn lives, they were all having a nap. Brilliant. 

Now I know from all my research that 21 days is a guide, just an estimate of what the average hatching time is for chicken eggs. So I should’ve remained calm and carried on with my life as normal. But I couldn’t. Firstly, I kept saying “Oh well they must be dead”. Clearly a coping mechanism so that if they were, I was somewhat prepared. Secondly, I could not tear my eyes away from the incubator for fear of missing the first ‘pip’. This is where the chick breaks through the external part of the shell in order to start the process of hatching. That first pip happened about 8.30pm on Easter Sunday. It was such a tiny crack but it was the start of things to come.

I had planned the next day to consist of solely watching the incubator, but fate had cleverly planned for two lots of visitors to come and see us that day, which was a very welcome distraction. My partner’s old work colleague and completely by coincidence, the breeder of our pigs, both came to visit. We had a lovely afternoon and Rob and his family left about 8pm, a full 24hrs after the first pip. By this point, a number of the other eggs had pipped, but there were no signs of ‘zipping’. Zipping is where the chick inside uses the first ‘pip’ as it’s starting point and then inside the egg, uses its wing and legs to propel itself round, breaking through enough of the shell to then push apart two sides using its body and leg strength, exiting the egg completely. This is understandly a very tiring process for the chick, so it takes a long time and can be 18-24hrs after the initial pip.

The egg that had first pipped, which I thought would be the first to hatch, wasn’t making any progress, but another had pipped and the zipping had started. I could not contain my excitement and was fixed to my chair watching it. Chris’s friend who had been meaning to drive back to Bristol hours before, ended up staying till about 10.30pm which is when the first egg hatched. 

It was such a moment of relief and excitement, all three of us eagerly watching it happen. I was lucky enough to be recording it on my phone at the time, and when I shared the video clip on social media (see my Facebook or Instagram pages for ‘And Then There Were Pigs’ to watch it) I did not expect it to be so popular! It received over 1,100 views and counting! I guess it’s not everyday you get to experience the live birth of something, so I suppose it is a pretty special moment.

When a chick is first born, it’s feathers are wet from being inside the egg. During the last stage of hatching, before they break through the egg, the chick absorbs the yolk and remaining blood vessels into their bodies through their belly button. The yolk contains crucial nutrients for its survival outside of the egg, and they normally don’t eat or drink for 24hrs after hatch, as the chick is gettting all it needs from the yolk. It is an incredible process but it is vital that you do not remove the chicks from the incubator at this stage, before their feathers ‘fluff up’. You should also not really lift the lid of the incubator until you are pretty sure all the eggs that will hatch have done so, because a drop in humidity could also prevent a hatching egg completing its full zip.

The incubator maintains the correct level of heat (about 37.5c) throughout the incubation process and the correct level of humidity, in order for the hatching to take place. The egg shell and internal membrane have to be moist enough, else the egg can’t break. Similarly, too much humidity can also prevent hatching from occurring, so it’s about getting the right balance and sometimes that is really difficult to judge. 

Shortly after the first chick hatched, a second one joined it. 

I stayed up for another few hours to see if any more would hatch, which it did in the early hours of the morning, but I was fast asleep by then. Unfortunately I had to go to work that morning at 7am and whilst at work, two more hatched taking us up to five chicks. 

At this point, out of the two remaining eggs, one was zipping and the other had still only pipped. We were not hopeful that the pipped one was going to make it, as it should’ve been further along than that, but one casualty was to be expected. To have all seven hatch successfully would’ve been unusual. So my other half went to work and when he came back, the other chicks in the incubator had rolled over the zipping egg, inhibiting the full hatch and the egg was no longer moving. When I came back from work we took the executive decision to move all the hatched chicks into the incubator, as it was unlikely the other two eggs were going to make it. When we checked the eggs, the chicks were dead.

It is really sad to lose two at such a late stage and it could’ve been a combination of things that prevented their full hatch but it’s best not to dwell on those things and just learn from the process.

Aside from that we now had five seemingly healthy little chicks! One of them was a little weaker than the others, but we thought that was because it was the last to hatch, the ‘runt’ if you will and hopefully a nice warm incubator with room to run about in with food and water should do the trick.

Chicks don’t do a lot in the first 24hrs apart from sleep really, so we left them to it and went to bed, keeping my fingers crossed that they would make it through the first most crucial time period outside of the egg. I woke up the next morning and one of the chicks, the weak one, didn’t look good. It was still alive, but wasn’t as active as the rest and its abdomen looked a little swollen compared to the others. There is no magical cure for these things, you just hope that given some time they’ll strengthen up. Within the hour it wasn’t moving and despite my other half performing some heroic CPR skills, it was time to say goodbye.

I cried a lot. And then had to go to work. But it was a welcome distraction. I try and remind myself there is nothing I could’ve done and nature is what it is. But you can’t help but feel partially responsible for its death, seeing as I was the person responsible for it having life in the first place.

Finishing on a happier note, we now have four little chicks who are eating, drinking and being hilarious. They are so inquisitive and active, it makes all the stress and heartache worth it. Today the are 5 days old and seem to be doing well.

Let’s hope they’re not all cockerels! 😂🙈

Wear Sunscreen!

If you’ve been in the U.K for the past few days, most of you have experienced a taste of global warming where during the first week of April, we had a mini heatwave.

Instead of the traditional ‘April showers’ we’re used to, all of a sudden, BBQ season was upon us and people flocked to parks and beaches to make the most of the sunshine.

It caught many of us by surprise, there were several posts about melted chocolate Easter eggs and sunburnt shoulders. None of us prepared for it, including me and the pigs.

When choosing pigs we went for a rare breed called a British Lop, a traditional pink pig. They currently live in a woodland and we timed it so that we’d have pink pigs in the winter/spring and black pigs in the summer. This is because pink pigs can get sunburnt and we wanted to avoid running the risk.

But the British weather, being wonderfully unpredictable, gave us a number of particularly hot days over the weekend. The trees in the woodland have not quite grown enough leaves for full shade and because the pigs are still quite young, their pink skin is still vulnerable to the sun’s rays. Additionally, they helpfully decided to bask in it rather than take shelter in their pig ark, so they all got sunburnt.

I was upset and chastised myself for not preparing enough. I should’ve slathered them in suncream, I should’ve followed them around with an umbrella, perhaps put sun hats on them. I should’ve dug them a wallow and they could’ve rolled around in cool mud to protect themselves. Should-er, would-er, could-er. 

These are all great ideas in hindsight (ok maybe not the hats) but being a first time pig keeper, you make mistakes. I thought the woodland and pig ark would’ve been sufficient shelter. But it wasn’t. Like us, their skin went bright pink (even pinker than usual) and looked sore. On the first day after excessive sun exposure, they were all rubbing themselves against the trees, clearly in discomfort. By the second day, their skin started to scab over a bit. Today though it looked like it was healing and they seemed pretty happy.

We attempted to build them a wallow today, to counter any future April sunshine, but instead of instinctively rolling around in the muddy puddle we’d created for them, they drank some of the water, blew bubbles in it with their snouts and then peed in it. Brilliant.

Just goes to show animals are a lot more resilient than we think they are and as much as they were silly enough to lay in the sun, rather than seek shade, you have to remember they are still essentially children at only 16 weeks old, and just don’t know any better. They haven’t got a mummy pig showing them what to do (and no I’m not about to show them) and even us seemingly intelligent beings tend to do exactly the same when given half the chance! 

We only have the pigs for another 3-4 weeks, till they go off to be prepped for our freezer, but we’ve certainly learnt a lot in the short time they’ve been here. As I’ve said before, it’ll be hard saying goodbye, but in the meantime, they’re being inundated with lots of fuss, belly and head scratches, in between trying to eat my wellies and bite my fingers off. Little scamps.

In other news, there are only 4 days left till the chickens are due to hatch in the incubator! I’m very excited but actually starting to feel the pressure of becoming a new parent now. I took the day off to sort out the brooder, so everything will be ready for their arrival. I guess in humans this is referred to as the ‘nesting period’?! Where you flap about the place worrying you’re not prepared enough and what the hell have you let yourself on for? Yep I’m at that stage.

I’ve prepared myself mentally for all of the eggs not hatching too. Even if they do all hatch, the chances are some of the babies might die. Unfortunately that is Mother Nature for you and these things happen. As the saying goes; where there’s livestock, there’s dead stock. But I am going to do everything in my power to keep them alive and deliver some yellow fluffy chicks on Easter Sunday, wish me luck!

Cheese and Quackers

This weekend, a friend of ours from London came to stay. It was nice for us to have some company again (we don’t get many visitors out in the sticks) and to be in a position to offer a little bit of a countryside retreat to one of our long standing friends/drinking companion’s.

We picked him up from the train station and on our way home, we had to pull over to rescue an escaped lamb. Without thinking, mid-conversation, my other half stopped the car, engine still running, got out, grabbed the lamb and dropped it on the other side of the gate, much to the relief of its bleating mother on the other side. It was a brilliant moment when he got back in the car and said “Now, where was I?” Perfectly normal thing to happen round here!

We got home and after a tour of the house and surroundings, we drank a bit (a lot) of wine and chatted till the early hours. So I wasn’t surprised when I woke up the next morning with a bit of a fuzzy head. I would’ve loved a lie in, but it’s not possible when you’ve got two dogs jumping on your head and a cockerel telling you it’s time to get up. Very loudly. So I reluctantly dragged myself out of bed, put my coat on over my pyjamas, pulled on my wellies and began the animals chores. 

We’ve recently put up a fence to keep the ducks and chickens enclosed, so they are able to safely free range without escaping our garden and getting into any mischief. We haven’t quite finished the chicken wire on the gate though, so there’s a wooden pallet there temporarily to prevent them getting out. In order to get in the garden, I have to move the pallet in order to open the gate, so I can easily carry through the replenished food and water containers.

The day before, we had bought three new chickens; A Devon Blue, a Splash Maran and a Chestnut Ranger. Three very good looking girls. When they arrived, our resident cockerel Rocky was so pleased, he was singing and dancing for them. Quite a sight to behold! I’d never seen him so excited. Within about ten minutes he’d already mated one. Chickens don’t really hang about, it is Spring after all and what better way to welcome his new arrivals than showing them a bit of ‘love’.

Anyhow, with my fuzzy head, I fed and watered the birds, but I was so distracted with our new additions and Rocky’s continued mating dance, that I didn’t notice the ducks sneak past me and out of the gate I’d accidentally left open. Whoops. Once I realised what had happened I began a frantic search up and down the lanes, in our next door neighbour’s garden (where they were the last time they’d escaped) and they were nowhere to be found. Shit. I’d only gone and lost the ducks.

So like any considerate girlfriend, I went and woke up my other half and demand he come and help me find them. Not the best way to wake someone up in case you’re wondering. Particularly when you’ve been drinking wine the night before. We also enlisted the help of my friend, who had heard the commotion and whether he liked it or not, I think felt obliged to help. So we all went off in different directions and despite having checked in our neighbour’s garden about three times beforehand, we eventually found them there. The relief I felt made me a little emotional and also a bit sick. Whether that was the worry of losing my ducks or the excessive wine from the night before, who knows (probably a combination of both), but I was glad it was over. As were my partner and friend, who were both now wondering what the hell just happened, 7am is way too early for duck drama.

After we’d recovered from the ducks’ escapades, we spent the day mooching about Tiverton and visited the Deli Shack at the Pannier Market. It sells lots of foodie treats, including artisan cheese and salami. We bought a heroic selection of both, whilst the knowledgeable owner, explained each cheese to us, giving us a sample of everything we wished to try. I was in heaven. 

I love cheese. Mainly to eat, but I also went on a cheese making course a few years ago, and I had lots of fun learning how to make it. In a half day course we covered how to make Halloumi, Mascarpone and Mozzarella. I would still love to learn more and have my heart set on buying a cheese press to try my hand at making cheddar and gouda. It’s on my very long list of ‘things to do’, like bake my own bread, make my own wine and grow my own veg. I’ll get round to it at some point.

Anyhow, the owner recommended we visit a local wine shop which had speciality wines that would compliment the cheeses we’d just bought. Seeing as the fresh air had cleared our hangovers, we thought it would be rude not to stock up on more wine for the coming evening. For dinner, we had an epic feast of cheese, salami and wine and in the process I learnt a lot more about the subject that I had previously. I also discovered my new favourite cheese is now Goddess No.5, a handmade cheese using milk from Guernsey cows. I encourage you to give it a go if you like your cheese, you won’t regret it.

It turned out to be a successful, educational, if eventful weekend. Our new chickens seem to be settling in and it’s been a good few hours since the last duck drama. May it long continue.

Lastly, a quick update on the incubation process of the chicken eggs I’m hatching. It’s been 7 days since they’ve been in the incubator and after 5 days I candled the eggs to check for fertility. You do this by shining a bright light at the egg in a dark room, and this enables the contents of the egg to become visible. If there’s nothing to see other than the yolk or a black or red spot/ring, then the egg is likely infertile or the embryo died, what is referred to as ‘early death’. I am happy to say that all 7 eggs had red blood vessels developing, meaning they are all fertile and actively growing! 

This is great news and means that 7 little lives are growing and developing everyday. The incubator I have is a Brinsea Mini Advanced, which tries to replicate as closely as possible the natural incubation process that a hen would carry out. Including automatically turning the eggs at regular intervals (to ensure the heat she provides is evenly spread around the whole egg) and even a cooling period once a day, where a hen would naturally get off the nest to eat and drink. All very clever! Can’t wait to see the finished result. Two weeks to go!