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!

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.

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

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!