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

Waste not, want not 

It’s been a tough few months out here in rural Devon. Several things have happened that haven’t been the greatest. I haven’t wanted to write about it, but I think it’s important to share the failures as well as the successes, because that is life and my blog was always about sharing our journey, warts and all.

We’re currently on our second set of pigs that we’re raising for meat. The first trio of British Lops that we hand reared was a great achievement and certainly the meat that they produced was highly regarded and every time we ate some, we felt humbled. We slaughtered them at the end of May and by October, we had probably eaten about half of the meat we got back. 

Our 3 British Lops & a freezer worth of home grown, free range pork.

The meat was kept in a large chest freezer in a garage at the farmyard, our place of work. Work men had been coming and going for months due to building works. During the second week of October my aunt came to stay. I like to cook our rare breed pork for visitors, so as usual, I made a trip to the freezer to get out a nice bit of pork belly. I was devastated to discover that all the meat was defrosted and swimming in a bloody liquid. All of it was ruined. It had been a couple of weeks since I’d last been to the freezer and everything was fine then. The meat was room temperature when I found it, meaning it could’ve happened anywhere between 2 weeks and at least 5 days previous. 

It turned out somebody had physically unplugged the freezer. I asked around but everyone denied knowledge, not that finding out who it was would’ve helped. The meat was irreplaceable. I doubt whoever unplugged it realised what they’d done (the freezer is one end of a triple cluttered garage & extension lead goes to plug socket at other end), but somehow that makes it worse. If it had been a power-cut or faulty switch, I think I would’ve coped better than thinking it was pure ignorant negligence that meant I had to bag up and bin months of hard work. We put blood, sweat and tears into raising those pigs, they even made fame in a magazine! Yet here I was trying not to gag on the smell of rotten meat and trying not to cry at the same time. It’s safe to say we’ll be investing in some socket locks next time!

The sadness of the week continued when one of our ducks escaped (not unusual) but somehow managed to get out onto the road and got run over and killed by a tractor. We didn’t know at first, as she just didn’t come home for bedtime (this was unusual), so we spent nearly 2 hours trying to find her in the dark and rain. It was only the next morning when I walked the dogs down the road, did I come across part of her remains. She was this years duckling hatch, so only a few months old. Again, seemed such a waste. For days after, our breeding pair (her parents) and her brother Luke, went out into the field looking for her. Her brother seemed lost, as they were inseparable, and it was so sad to watch.

Luckily our loner duck Rae (last years hatch but likes to do her own thing) took him under her wing (pun intended) and began socialising with him, and now they are often seen together. This makes me happy as Luke was clearly unsettled by his sisters sudden departure, but sweet that he’s now found a new buddy in Rae to hang with.

Lastly, we had to kill three of our five cockerels. This in itself was inevitable, and something that we had planned to do. These three males were Bantam birds, part of the first incubator hatch I carried out earlier in the year. Four out of six eggs hatched, and three out of four chicks were cockerels. Unlucky for my first time! We already had an existing Bantam cockerel Rocky, plus later hatched a Cuckoo Maran cockerel in the following incubator hatch. My plan was always to raise them and then eat them. There was never going to be a lot of meat on them, as they’re not table birds, but they’d be ok in a stew or for soup. 

I’d previously butchered and cooked a pheasant, so I was confidant I could do these chickens. The plan was for my partner to humanely ‘despatch’ (kill) them in the morning and then I’d pluck, prepare and butcher them myself. I had instructions in book form and also access to several YouTube videos. What could go wrong?!

The first part went smoothly. We have a derelict outbuilding where we could kill them out of sight of the other birds. But plucking them would be an issue due to lack of room and the fact that once they’d been let out, our other birds would be straight over being all nosy and it could potentially distress them.

My partner had made a wooden frame a few months back to hang a heat lamp from, so I utilised this in our kitchen, to tie the birds to for plucking. I covered the kitchen floor in bin bags and got to work. It wasn’t too difficult once you got into the swing of it, but it took me a while to get confident. By the third bird it was quicker and seemed easier. 

Just to keep me on my toes, during plucking, I heard the postman pull up outside. To prevent him from thinking I’m some sort of weirdo with a kitchen set-up like something out of an episode of Dexter, I quickly rushed outside to intercept the mail before he got to the front door. On returning back to the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of my hair in the window, which was actually covered in feathers. Oops! Didn’t quite pull it off after all!

After plucking, comes the slightly gross bit of butchering & removing the birds innards. As I said before, I’d done it with a pheasant and it seemed pretty straight forward. Well, chickens are different and I struggled big time. Not with finding the idea of butchering difficult, but the physical removal of everything, without nicking any of the vital organs, I found near impossible. I tried for an hour. I called my partner and even he, who has gralloched many deer, also struggled and we ended up accidentally cutting the gall bladder, spoiling the bird.

So after four hours of hard work, I had to admit defeat and threw away the birds instead of putting them to good use. I felt deflated, disappointed and defeated. But saying that, at least a tried. I can put it down to a learning experience. I can’t be good at everything right?! But it has made me more determined to learn how to do it properly, so that I would feel more confident next time.

So that’s a summary of my last month or so, certainly more downs than I had hoped for, but it’s all part of the process I guess. We have a busy winter coming up, lots to harvest and produce to make, so plenty to keep me busy and out of trouble.

Smallholding life is amazing, but sometimes it’s tough. But I guess if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it right? Despite the testing month, I’m still confidant this is the life for me and I’m looking forward to the next lot of Pigs going to slaughter, so that my empty freezer can be filled for winter! 

New arrivals

We have new pigs! On Thursday, we went to pick up our new weaners; three Oxford Sandy and Black gilts (girls). It’s been a weird few weeks without pigs. Part of me has enjoyed the fact that there is one less set of animals to look after, and it’s given me an extra 20 minutes in bed every morning. I have missed them though.
Oxford Sandy and Blacks are another rare breed pig and we decided to go for three girls this time, to see if there was any difference in temperament. They were a bit wary of us to begin with, but that is natural and we are giant predators to them whilst they are so small. The more time we spend with them, the more they will feel relaxed around us. They are ridiculously cute. 

I had some friends up for the weekend and it was nice to have some female company and catch up with my besties. Where we live is quite rural and I haven’t had the time to make any friends locally. Although there are people at work I get on with, it’s not the same as having your best friends round for a cuppa/glass of wine. 

Although we have eaten some of our own sausages and pork chops from our British Lops, I hadn’t cooked anything fancy with the meat. So last night, whilst consuming copious amounts of prosecco, I cooked some pork belly for the girls. I used a recipe from the River Cottage Handbook No.14; Pigs and Pork by Gill Meller. Gill is a chef at River Cottage, but also writes and promotes rare breeds, buying high welfare pork and raising your own. It went down a treat.

I am currently reading the above book, which not only comtains recipes, it also talks about pork, the associated farming industry and hints and tips about pig keeping. At the beginning of the book there is a very stark description of a life of a pig in an intensive farming environment. When I read it, I cried. It just really struck a cord with me, having just experienced raising pigs in a smallholder environment and us ensuring the highest possible welfare. Not all pigs are afforded this luxury. The more I read about what happens in intensive farming, the more passionate I become about what I’m doing. Not only with my pigs, but plans for the future and becoming more self-sufficient. Below are a few quotes taken from the book, which contains detailed descriptions of what pigs go through during intensive farming, and I have only highlighted a small amount of the ‘discomfort and psychological stress’ these pigs experience. If you are interested, please give it a read, I would highly recommend expanding your knowledge of this if you are a meat eater.

“We kill around 10 million pigs a year in Britain, 70% of which have been intensively farmed. That’s bad enough, but only 30% of the pork we eat in this country actually comes from British pigs. The rest is imported – from countries where welfare standards, in many cases, are so low they would be illegal in Britain……a breeding sow within this system spends her life confined on concrete, pregnant and unable to move naturally….her piglets are forcibly removed before their immune systems have developed….a short but torturous life of frustration, antibiotics and aggression ensues. Intensive pig farming has been shown to affect our health….drug resistant bacteria & hyper-viral pathogens pass from pig farms directly to us via pollution of the water course the spreading of slurry on fields and the crops we eat, even through the air we breathe.”

This is pretty terrifying stuff. But Gill ensures the reader that if us as consumers reject low quality, budget meat and only choose high welfare pork and other meats, farmers will be forced to improve their farming methods. It has certainly made me think twice, and I now try my hardest to avoid supermarket meat. But if I genuinely can’t, I don’t begrudge paying that little bit extra and buying organic or free-range products. I can then sleep well at night, knowing I’ve contributed to making the world of food production a better place, not just meat, but all food produce. 

Sorry for the rant, but if this blog helps my friends, family and other followers think more about the food they eat, I feel I’ve achieved something. It is important to spread the word and talk about this, rather than trying not to think about where your meat comes from, and what sort of life it’s had. Part of my grand plan of becoming a smallholder is raising awareness. I think we all have a responsibility to do this. This blog helps, but it’s reach is limited. So, I have got in contact with an editor of a magazine called ‘Practical Pigs’ (it too also has a limited audience!) but it is one step closer to getting the message out there. I can’t say too much at this stage, but watch this space!

Anyway, enough about pigs. In other news, my Silver bantam duck hatched five healthy, fluffy yellow ducklings a couple of days ago. Like the pigs, they too are massive time-wasters. All weekend myself, my partner and friends have spent time ogling at how cute they are. They don’t stay small for long, so it is important to waste as much time as possible with them. It certainly has a de-stressing effect on me, so why the hell not. One of our other ducks, a Miniature Silver Appleyard, is also sitting on a nest of eggs, due in a couple of weeks, so I have that to look forward to as well.

Lastly, our foster chicken Andi, returned after an absence of about three weeks. I had resigned myself to the fact that she had been eaten by a fox. Not only because that is a high possibility in the countryside, but because I found a dead chicken outside of our local foxhole recently. I had to do a double take, as I had a sinking feeling that it was one of our chickens. It wasn’t, but it was obviously someone else’s chicken. We don’t have any nearby neighbours that keep chickens, the nearest would be over a mile away. Clearly not far for a hungry fox. Despite the fact there are an abundance of pheasants to satisfy their appetite, I guess the lure of chickens is far too much for them to resist.

I have very conflicting feelings about this issue. On the one hand, I do not want a fox to kill my beloved birds and would happily let my other half dispatch him if it came close to doing so. This is unlike me. If the fox crept in at night and stealthily took one chicken to share with its fox family for dinner, I could get over that. What I can’t accept, is the fact that they will kill every single one of my birds given half the chance and then only take one away with them. This upsets me. But I also accept that it is part of nature, and part of living in the countryside. Survival of the fittest at its best. We are living in the fox’s natural environment. Building houses, keeping fowl and unwittingly taunting the fox into being inquisitive enough to see what all that squawking and quacking is all about. It is instinctive behaviour, it is only doing what it was born to do. That doesn’t mean I must like or accept it. Hence the conflicting feelings of hate, but begrudging acceptance, that one day, a fox will inevitably kill one or all my flock. It is unfortunately a risk we take, despite the fact we do all we can to prevent it from happening with several safety measures in place. I’ve yet to see a fox out here, but my other half saw one in a field, in broad daylight. The time when my flock free ranges in our garden. As I said, it is an inevitable consequence of keeping chickens and ducks, but I hope for Mr Fox’s sake, he doesn’t try and do it when my other half is at home!

To end on a happy note, the hedgehogs that were washed up in the storm from my last blog post, did come back to visit us. I managed to capture one eating the dog food I left out. The video is on my Instagram page @andthentherewerepigs but here is a screen shot of the spikey little snuffler. Spring watch, eat your heart out.

Happy endings and new beginnings

So today was the last morning that I will get to feed our three British Lop pigs. Tomorrow they will be taken to the abbatoir at 21 weeks, and turned into food for our table. We had to re-tag them with our herd number and individual pig identification numbers in order to move them legally. This is sort of like ear-piercing back when I had mine done in the 90’s. Although on a much larger scale. You ever tried to pierce a pigs ear? Yeah, harder than it sounds! Distracting them with food is key and my other half and colleague did a grand job of it, despite Stumpy (our most boisterous pig) being a tad difficult to handle! I think the moral of that story is to ear tag your pigs as young as possible, where they are slightly easier to manage. Oh and don’t choose a pig because of it’s Stumpy tail, thinking it’s going to be the cute little runt…in our case it was the complete opposite!

In summary, our trio of pigs have been an absolute pleasure to raise and of course I am sad to see them go. I’m not completely heartless, I’ve loved those pigs and they certainly knew it. In fact they took advantage of that more often than not! Just so you know, when a 100kg pig jumps on your back when you bend down to scratch a belly of another, you know about it!

They have been fun, mischievous and they’ve taught me so much. Not just about pig-keeping, but about the whole process about raising animals to eat. I’d like to think I’ve given them a good life and in some ways a good death. Death is something that comes to every living thing and without getting too in depth about my experiences, I think what matters is making the most of the life you’ve been given. Being happy is key to that, because you never know what is round the corner. I think these guys have had a life a lot of pigs would dream of and every bacon sandwich I make from them, I will appreciate more than any meat I will ever purchase from the supermarket. To be grateful and humbled by the food you eat is not something that we tend to think about much as consumers, but this experience has certainly made me feel both.

With every ending there is a new beginning and this weekend we went to see the pigs that will be replacing our British Lops. We decided on a different rare breed called the Oxford Sandy and Black. It is a similar size and weight to the British Lop, still a lop eared breed, but their markings make them quite distinctive. The breeders were kind enough to let us visit and meet the piglet’s mother Florence and her eight piglets. She was a lovely pig and with this being her first litter, they said she has been an excellent mother. She was very calm and relaxed with us being there and even posed for a selfie with me, giving me a bit of a lick in the process!

We will be getting them in about three weeks and this time have opted for three gilts (pig speak for girls) instead of boars, to see if there is a difference in behaviour and to experience raising both genders. I can’t wait.

You may remember our first lot of chicks that hatched in the incubator. They are now outside and doing well. I am in the process of switching them from eating chick crumb, to grower pellets. We have been currently waiting on another batch of eggs in the incubator, which hatched a couple of days ago. Out of six eggs we had five hatch successfully and they seem to be doing well. They are a mix of Maran’s and Orpingtons, both quite large breeds of chicken. They all have slightly different markings to each other, which is great because at least this time we can tell them apart, as the last lot looked pretty identical! I am determined to handle these guys more and they seem slightly less terrified of me already.

When chickens are young they are still very vulnerable to their surroundings. Heat plays a huge part in this, too little or too much can cause problems. One chick in both batches of chicks I’ve hatched, has suffered from something called ‘pasting’. This is when their poop dries up before it’s passed properly and can clog up their cloaca (the opening in which they pass waste and also lay eggs, if they’re girls). Both of the chicks that experienced this were the youngest and last to hatch, so it could be a combination of being the ‘runt’ or that the dry heat from the heat lamp has affected them the most. Sometimes it’s caused by lack of drinking, despite having access to plenty of water, some chicks are a bit slower than most to learn they need to drink as well as eat! Pasting is very easy to manage if you are keeping a close eye on them, some warm water and cotton buds usually does the trick to clean them up. Last time it only lasted a couple of days before they started drinking properly and everything returned to normal. Other than that, they all seem to be happy little chicks!

The Devon County Show was this week and we decided to go and give it a visit. I have recently joined the Rare Breed Survival Trust, which does it’s bit to promote and advocate rare breeds. What with the rare breed British Lops, soon to be OSB’s and also our Silver Bantam ducks, it seemed logical to get involved with the society. I went to visit the RBST tent at the show, introduced myself and will be hopefully helping out on the stand at the Mid Devon Show in July, which is round the corner from where we live.

We had a great day, saw lots of animals I resisted the temptation to buy, and ate and bought lots of yummy local produce. It certainly has given me the prompt I needed to take my smallholding dreams and make them a reality. I have lots of ideas about breeding programmes and making produce to sell, but it’s mostly about having the time and the money to do it all. Slowly slowly catch a monkey as they say! There’s lots to learn and I have the time and space to do it, but it is a bit like this blog, the book I am writing and the gazillion and one other things I want to do. Less procrastination, more doing is my summertime plan!

But first, I need to get through the large amount of cheese we purchased!


How to make friends and influence…chickens

It’s been a busy few weeks since my last post, so I thought I would do a quick update. Work and home life are battling for my attention at the moment and it’s tough juggling both. It is tiring, but also rewarding too, so I can’t complain too much.

The chicks are now at 4 weeks old and almost fully feathered. I expected the weather to be a bit warmer than it has been, so the chicks have only been outside a handful of times when it is sunny, but they seem to enjoy it.

As much as I love the chicks, unfortunately they hate me. Well it’s not just me, it’s all human contact. Which is a shame considering that I am their adopted mother, but I have only got myself to blame. When they were first hatched I was terrified of accidently killing them. Ensuring that they were not too cold was paramount to this. I was worried that if I opened the lid of the broody box they were all going to die. Extreme I know and probably unjustified. This meant I didn’t really handle them much for the first few weeks, if not at all. When I did handle them, it was very briefly to change their bedding or for a quick photo opportunity. I have since realised I did not interact with them half as much as I should’ve in those first few days, in order for them not to be terrified of me.

I see them everyday, I talk to them, feed them and ensure they’re kept warm. But every time I go near their cage they squeal in terror and fly about the place, hitting the roof and going mental. Brilliant. This was not the crazy chicken lady relationship I thought that we would have. I had visions of them perched on my shoulder, eating out of my hand and giving me hugs like that YouTube video of the chicken hugging the small boy. I want that goddammit! So I’ve tried a new tactic. Mealworms. It’s like chocolate/crack to chickens. The first time I offered the chicks a meal worm, they just stared at it all huddled together, looking at it like it was laced with poison. My other half assured me that these things take time. But how long? Days, weeks, months?! I wanted instant results. Well I didn’t get them. But I am getting somewhere. They are now tentatively eating some of the mealworms I hold inside the cage. Some are more confident than others. It’s baby steps but I think in time they will come round to the fact that I am not that scary. Most of the time anyway. Let’s hope the new chicks waiting to hatch will like me more! Only 48 hours to go!

Duck jail update: After persevering with keeping Princess Leia in the enclosure with only one place to lay, we finally have a broody duck! Well, we had a broody duck before, but now we have a broody duck in a safe place that we can keep an eye on. She seems happy enough and in about 28 (ish) days, hopefully we’ll have a few ducklings. Unfortunately she has only nested about 5 eggs (on previous occasions she’s gathered up to 13 eggs before sitting!) so there is a chance she’ll hatch none. Which will be a real shame and I’m tempted to incubate some of her fellow duck’s eggs in the incubator so that if none of hers hatch, we have back-ups. I’ll keep you posted!

As for the pigs, it’s been such an awesome 3 months, I am obviously going to be sad to see these porkers go. They are always so pleased to see me, mostly because they see me as a food source (figuratively and literally) but they have brought joy to not only myself but to the local community that live in and around the estate too. In rural Devon you can’t keep much secret, not in a community as small as this. So we have had a lot of visitors to the pigs, who have heard about them and it’s lovely. I saw one of the local farmers and his son drive up on their quad bike this evening. I introduced myself and he said he takes his son (about 3 years old) to see the pigs everyday. So it’s nice to know they are getting something out of it too.

We have arranged for some replacement pigs, some Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, which will be ready end of May/beginning of June. These are also considered a rare breed. There will be about a week between the British Lops leaving and the OSB’s arriving. So we won’t be long without pigs.

These aren’t actually the piglets we’re getting, but an example of what ours will look like!

In other news, we will be going to the Devon County Show on Thursday which will hopefully be a lovely day out (keep your fingers crossed for the weather!). We were regulars are the Romsey Show every year without fail and I have actually offered to help out on the Rare Breed Survival Trust’s stand at the Mid Devon show in June, so looking forward to that too. It’s tough integrating yourself into the local community when we live in such an isolated area, but we’re getting there!

Let’s see if we can come home empty handed! #animaladdiction 

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